August 21, 2005 • Prairie UU Society • Madison, WI


Citizenship, Politics and Liberal Religion 

with Rev. Jody Whelden, Consulting Minister

            Today we reflect on being citizens, liberal religious folk and members of a political system.  Liberal religious people can be politically or fiscally conservative. Some of us identify more as global citizens than as US citizens, We will focus on how our liberal religious faith might inform how we interact with this complex set of identities -- both individually and as a community.


Chalice Lighting: 


“Each morning we must hold out the chalice of our being to receive,

 to carry and to give back.”  Dag Hammarskjold, First Secretary-General of the UN


Reading   “Faith in Politics”     Stephen Ruckman


Stephen Ruckman is Co-Chair of the Faith in Politics initiative of 2020 Democrats, and a joint degree candidate at Yale Law School and Yale Divinity School, where he is pursuing a J.D. and an M.A.R. in Ethics. 


“...... if, in a society in which faith is allowed a voice in politics, a leader chooses a course of action sympathetic to a religious cause, it need not imply that the choice was made on religious grounds, but simply that it took religious views – and no doubt many other views – into consideration.


            This is not theocratic, but democratic and progressive.  It allows religious voices to be included in the public sphere insofar as they enrich and advance representative policy, and does so without imposing religion on public officials.  No doubt this is the approach our Founders sought when they penned the First Amendment.  The first clause, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion," tells us that government should not allow religion to dominate. 


            The second clause, “..or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," tells us that it should not allow religion to be silenced either.  Yes, the institutions of church and state must be kept apart, but that does not preclude the church's vibrant participation in the discourse of the state.


            A progressive approach to faith in politics emerges from this understanding – an approach that sees faith not as a source of narrow dogma, but as one of many important contributors to the pluralistic, discursive fabric of representative democracy. ( Some ) conservatives' misuse of faith as a goad pushes them to advocate and implement unrepresentative policy choices.  Let us as progressive {religious people} not abandon expressions of faith, but treat them as a guide in politics – one of many, and one that enables more fully informed, and more fully representative, policymaking. “ 




             I fly an American Flag on my front porch.  I grew up a New Englander.  As anyone from New England will tell you, that part of the country is embued with early US History.  If you grew up in white, middle class America of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s it was very likely that you flew an American flag, or, at least, someone on your street did.  It was very common  Out East, and still is.  But, mostly,   I fly the flag as I believe my country is a seat of hope and possibility .


            I told a friend of mine recently, about my flag.  She told me she didn’t identify with the American flag anymore.  She saw it as a sign of all of the things she disagreed with that the government has done in our name.  My friend said that she felt the American flag represented the atrocities of slavery and the attempted genocide of the American Indian.  For her it stood more for nationalistic and self-centered approaches to the world.  She told me she had an earth flag with a photo as taken from one of the space ships, and that flag was what she identified with as a citizen.


             I said I understood.   I thought many people agreed with her.  And, honestly, I have considered not flying my flag, many times.  But, for me, the flag is my flag, not just the flag of the religious right, or groups with highly nationalistic interests.  I am determined not to abandon it, or let it be taken from me by those whose ideas about my country and democracy are different from mine.  I still believe that America was created to inspire and protect the human spirit, even with all the contradictions.  


            I think that this nation was conceived as a place of enlightenment for humanity.   Yes, there is a shadow side, but that is inevitable in the  world of the human race.   I have responsibility to work to nurture and protect the higher goals the flag stands for....and that includes embracing the flag working to solve the problems it represents,  as well as to live out the inspirational values it promises.  I find my identity as a liberal religious person helps me with these challenges.  I want to share some of that with you this morning.


            This morning I want to explore the idea that living in the political system of the United States and living in our religious free faith share one thread - both traditions were created to transform old paradigms of thought into new ones for the purpose of the freedom of humanity.  This thread of transformation is the key to successful, life giving change.  Because of this thread ----I believe our identities as liberal religious people and as members of a political system can work together.


            The dictionary defines transformation as “to change in composition or structure - a major change in nature or form.”  In other words.....transformation means deep, complex and enduring change.  We go through transformation as individuals, as families, as organizations, as countries and as a world. Trans-formation is as familiar to us as any aspect of living a human life.  However, it is rarely comfortable.  And, it is not always understood.  So, I want to tell some stories about transformation. All of these, I believe, will show that the core of true transformation is meaningful relationship.


            We will start with an illustration of personal transformation.  A man had established his home with his wife and two children, he had a stable job.  But, for several years he had been unhappy.  He went to a therapist to see what he might  do to let himself be more happy.  They talked and she asked him what he wanted in life. He said, “I have done all my goals. I have everything I want.”  And she said, “But you are not happy.  What could that mean?”  She asked him to examine that question for a week or two and come back.


            He returned four weeks later and said, “I couldn’t come back for a while because I was having to face something very painful.  I realize I have created the life my father wanted for me.  I didn’t have the life I wanted, at all.”


            And so, this man began the process of evaluating and transforming his life so that it met his needs and desires - not those of his father.  This was painful at times.  It meant a divorce and it meant his parents disapproval.  It meant seeing his children in pain.  It meant major changes in his a career choices - and the ups and downs of job searching.  But, the case study reports, he found himself a life which more suited his temperament and his needs, and finally found peace of mind.  He felt he was a better parent and better person because of his willingness to transform his life.  he created a more meaningful relationship with himself in order to have a meaningful relationship with his world.


            Organizations transform when they are willing to break old habits and move forward with a sense of optimism and purpose.  This case history is told by Peter Steinke, Minister and Congregational Consultant.  He will point out how a church had a shallow, meaningless relationship with a retired pastor that weakened them.




            Now, the congregation had hope for true transformational work. Now it was possible for that congregation to create a meaningful relationship with a new pastor.


            Another reason organizations transform is when the old paradigms are no longer meaningful.  We can go to  Unitarianism and Universalism for examples of this.


             Unitarian and Universalist forbearers in the U.S. developed their separate but parallel “heretical” transformations of faith in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. 


            In Universalism,  some ministers in the Baptist faith of New Hampshire and Vermont began to preach that God did not give salvation only to a few elect people, but that God granted salvation to all.  This was a radical statement and these pastors and their followers were driven out of their denomination. They formed the Universalist Denomination - whose main message was universal salvation.  This was as complete a transformation as one might want and still remain Christian.  Universalists founded their first church in Glouescter, Mass and called their first minister, John Murray in 1779.


            Concurrently,  several members of the Congregational Church in Massachusetts - the descendants of the Puritans -  were saying they felt the doctrine of God being 3 persons - or the TRINITY - was unfounded.  They also considered that the miracles and the divinity of Jesus should be questioned.  In its place they put the central principles of the Enlightenment Period - the use of reason.  These  Christian heretics of the standing order were forced to leave their denomination -  and form a new Christian denomination - the UNITARIANS - standing for one God - not God in 3 persons.  The American Unitarian Association was formed in 1825.


            This concept - transformation - is a key liberal religious response to life.  We accept that change is inevitable.   We maintain that transformation of the inner person and society is the road to creating more freedom, for more people, over time.   We transform ourselves , personally, in order to be stronger and more joyful human beings.  We confront ourselves socially and work on our issues of sexism, racism, elitism, heterosexism, classism and other oppressive attitudes and actions.  We change our organizations to better serve our own needs and the needs of the community we live in. 


            The great messages of the liberal religious tradition have stayed the same .. “Peace ...environmental balance...civil rights...the golden rule....serving the disenfranchised in society......personal citizenship....and..... valuing life.”  We  know change need not come in our messages, although we may need to add  more. The change will come in our willingness to be transformed by our own message...personally and organizationally.   Can we apply the principles of creating peace to our own lives?   Can we practice balance with ecology of earth?  Can we live by the Golden Rule with our neighbors and our enemies?    These are the challenges our UU hands us.


            Concurrently, because we are embedded in a political system and  politics and religion are talked about together these days,  we must think about how a liberal religious person will respond to politically development.  We begin by remembering that within liberal religion we are not all the same politically - among us are Republicans, Green Party folks, Democrats and other stripes of political persuasion.   We celebrate the difference and draw it out.  We can enjoy each other’s differences.   But,  we do it with kindness and curiosity, not criticalness and sarcasm.


            Our UU path can be the major support to us in this work.  To repeat Stephen Ruckman’s words, 


“A progressive approach to faith in politics emerges from the understanding that sees faith not as a source of narrow dogma, but as one of many important contributors to the pluralistic, discursive fabric of representative democracy. 


(Some) conservatives' misuse of faith as a goad pushes them to advocate and implement unrepresentative policy choices.  Let us as progressive (religious people) not abandon expressions of faith, but treat them as a guide in politics – one of many, and one that enables more fully informed, and more fully representative, policymaking.“ 


The American flag does helps me remember the values of representative democracy that Ruckman speaks for.   It helps me remember that I can have faith in fighting for freedom and justice.  It helps me remember not to be cynical or dismissive or sarcastic.  It reminds me that change is possible.


            But, after my conversation with my friend this year, and my time preparing these reflections, I have experienced a personal transformation.  I have changed - enduringly and complexly.And I now fly my new global flag next to my American flag .  I think together, these flags give me a much fuller expression of what is important to me.   I can imagine always flying the two flags, together, from now on.


            In conclusion, may our identities as religious people and as people, or citizens,  in our political system enhance each other.   These identities need not be in conflict.  We can remember the great tradition of liberal religion includes - no matter what our theological loyalties - are embracing each other, extending compassion and justice to all,  and being optimistic in the face of obstacles.  May we take heart and remember to be grateful that we are here in community, where we are surrounded by loving hearts and helping hands - doing as Dag Hammarskjold, receiving and giving back - again and again.


Blessed Be.  Amen.  Namaste.  Shalom.  Salaam.  Ho.