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President's Letter 6/2004


Dear American Unitarian:

During the next few months politics and war (what the Prussian General Clausewitz called the continuation of politics by other means) will dominate the news. It will be quite common to hear conservative preachers explain why faith demands support for a set of policies strikingly similar to those espoused by President Bush. It will be equally common for liberal clergy to explain why faith requires support for the policies enunciated by Democratic nominee John Kerry. Certainly many, if not most, Unitarian Universalist clergy will devote a number of sermons this Fall to exhorting their congregations to work for “social justice” and various progressive left-leaning causes.

A person’s religious faith can, and should, inform political judgments. Our American Unitarian faith does provide us with some guiding principles. Our politics should be based on mutual respect and tolerance because we should love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Our politics should be based on reason and a love of truth. Accordingly, we should not willingly blind ourselves to unpleasant truths and we should work hard to understand the facts about the world around us and the true impact that our political program may have. Our politics should be based on a love of freedom because freedom is a gift from God that is a defining characteristic of our humanity. Our politics should be based on a love of justice and righteousness, since it is our duty to do right and to lift up the world in which we live because that is a part of what it means to love God and to love our neighbor.

That said, it is clear that the American Unitarian faith does not lead to the conclusion that one should be a Democrat or a Republican. We can sincerely love God, our neighbors, truth, tolerance, freedom, and justice and be a Republican or be a Democrat. To assert otherwise in the context of contemporary American politics is to be seriously mistaken. That is one reason, out of many, why I believe that it is a mistake for the clergy to wade too far into the political fray. By speaking about politics from the pulpit or as representatives of a faith, they are implying that the faith they purport to represent requires a particular point of view. And if they are speaking only in their “personal capacity,” why do they hold themselves out on television or in the newspapers as ministers of a particular faith? In many cases, they are, in effect, saying that God requires membership in a particular political party. Unlike so many clergy, I am persuaded that God has not expressed a clear preference for the Democrats or for the Republicans. Moreover, once religious faith enters the political arena, compromise and mutual tolerance become much more difficult since most people are loathe to compromise if they feel it means failing to live up to God’s commandments or the foundational values of one’s religious faith. The carnage that religious differences have caused in the Middle East and Ireland is a testament to this danger.

There are other reasons. Ministers usually have a demonstrably limited understanding of politics and policy. They often know substantially less about the “real world” of politics, business, science and international affairs than those sitting in the pews. They studied theology, liturgy and pastoral care, after all, not economics, the political or military sciences, international affairs or natural science. Neither do they work in politics, business or government. In many cases, the reason a minister embraces political causes from the pulpit is that it is politics rather than religious faith that stirs the soul and engages the passion of the minister, the congregation or both. But a church should be about less temporal and deeper things; it should be about uplifting and permanent and spiritual things that unite us in a common bond and help us to encounter the divine. A minister and a congregation should be helping in that difficult work. For if they do not, no other institution in our society will. 

May the love of God be with you always.

Faith, Freedom, Reason.

David R. Burton  

© 2004 American Unitarian Conference