I had a couple of conversations during UU Mass Action Network’s Lobby Day on the distinction between social justice and politics. Ministers were facing questions from the congregation in some instances about being “too political” either in sermons or involvement in things such as the lobby day.
Any person of faith, any faith, who is honest about living out their faith in the modern world must wrestle with the demands of speaking up for their beliefs in the public square. I am always a bit suspicious of people who argue that religion and politics don’t mix or shouldn’t mix. A person’s religious beliefs are intimately and intricately bound up with his or her moral and ethical values, and I certainly hope that no one leaves ethical and moral standards out of the equation when developing their political opinions.
The question then becomes which moral and ethical standards and values govern our politics? Which values and virtues take precedence when our values or virtues conflict? Do we give lip service to faith and values while making them subservient to lesser ideals of commerce, profit, personal power and status, and political expediency? Do we make the promotion of our theological agendas ends in themselves to the extent that we will achieve them through any means necessary, creating a lesser category of people along the way? A category of people not like us -those who do not believe like us, engage the spiritual and religious life as we do.
For over a generation, perhaps two, the language and specifics of faith have been ceded by those who values tolerance, diversity, peace, non-violence, inclusion, and dialog to those who are intolerant, hateful, exclusionary and would rather shout us down than engage in meaningful dialog. (I’ve written about this at length in my paper UU’s and The Fight for God Talk.)
Human rights, racisim, sexual orientation and gender identity, sexism, global warming and environmentalism, economic justice, fair trade, and voting rights are but some of the issues that are legitimate social justice concerns for Unitarian Universalists to engage as activists and as people of faith during Sunday morning worship – and for preachers to address from the pulpit.
Sermons should not be campaign stump speeches or political rally speeches and should not endorse candidates, but it is appropriate to explain how our Unitarian Universalist principles and purposes address legitimate social justice concerns. Leaving these issues alone is abandoning our legacy and our history as Unitarian Universalists – a history steeped in the great social justice movements of America (abolition, suffrage, labor, civil rights).
Our social justice stance should always be grounded in our history and in our spiritual practice. Our congregations are not, nor should they be seen as, the local liberal political hot spot. There needs to be care attention given to the reflection on our involvement in social justice so that it is faith based concern and not just another avenue for activism (however noble and necessary and welcome).
The worth and dignity of every person is a religious belief. It is as profound a bedrock tenet of faith as any religion can put forth: there is no such thing as a lesser person. We live in and are part of and interdependent web of existence. Again, a profound spiritual idea. Everyone has the right to take part in and have a say in the decisions that affect their lives. Once more, a deep religious principle. If we ground our concerns for social justice in our principles and include reflection tying together our action and our inspiration as part of our conscious process of engagement with the issues, we make our involvement faith-based and not just another social justice organization.
If all we do is social justice and all we preach is social justice (in addition to sounding like a one-note song, or a broken scratched CD – is the term “broken record” outdated?) our involvement will not be grounded. It will have no depth. When we reflect our reflection will be shallow because our resources will be few and our skills unpracticed. This is why we need prayer, meditation, education, familiarity with the practices and language of faith, especially regular community worship.
A faith community that grounds its social justice work in its spiritual life shouldn’t have (doesn’t mean it won’t have) as many questions to answer about the line between politics and social justice.