I can’t say that I remember when I began to notice them, you know, those ten commandment signs in front yards. Sometime in the last year or so maybe, but they are everywhere, at least here in the rural South. Staking out the moral high ground amidst the pansies or the rusting car parts.
Don’t know why they bother me so much, but they do, except that they symbolize the sort of in-your-face-ness about morality that does seem to be particularly American. A hyper-religious country by all modern standards.
I am very aware that I am not the only spiritual progressive, religious liberal who is perhaps overly bothered by those ubiquitous signs and the message behind them — that there is just one and crystal clear set of laws governing human behavior and interaction, and the failure to agree and obey them is the root of our obvious ruination. In fact, our denominational General Assembly in June swept past proposed study resolutions on a number of other possibilities — including worldwide violence against women — to select Moral Values in a Pluralistic Society as the most pressing and compelling area to work on for the next two years.
Once again, it was our Young Adult caucus that persuaded the gathered thousands that there is a clear and present danger to all of us from religious conservatives, whose moral certainty has emboldened them to press their agenda in virtually every element of our common life: the election of the current president, our legislative decisions, the selection of our judges, and our international affairs. Whether it be the disposition of an embryo or the fate of a vegetative woman, their scope and depth of influence has been impressive and troubling. As is stated in the background paper for studying moral values as an entire denominational body, their vision — that is, that of the religious conservatives — for the United States — indeed, the world — is one that results in oppression, discrimination, and domination.
This is not a new concern or a new call to action for Unitarian Universalists. Reverend William Sinkford, president of the UU association, voiced his views on moral values almost a year ago in November, saying that moral values are not just particular opinions on hot button topics in a divisive election year. Moral values grow out of our calling as religious people to work to create the Beloved Community… moral values instruct us to love our neighbors as ourselves and always ask the question, who is my neighbor? They are fundamentally inclusive rather than exclusive, and they call on generosity of spirit rather than mean-spiritedness.
Despite the self-assuredness of our rhetoric, I have felt for a long time that we are intimidated, perhaps just a little, by the force of the religiosity that seems to have such a firm grip on this country. Religiosity meaning excessively or affectively pious. That we have been more than a little persuaded that religious fundamentalists do own copyright on the word morality and in fact a number of other words, like family, like values, like right and wrong.
If so, then perhaps a just-released study published in the current edition of the online Journal of Religion and Society, as Kay Campbell, a reporter with Religion News Service, writes, the article is long, laced with academic terms, and written for sociologists, but the message is clear: more religion seems to mean more troubles, not less, around the world.
The study shows that from data gathered around the world over the past ten years, the United States — by far the most religious nation in the developed world as measured by church attendance, prayer, and belief in a creator-god — has some of the highest rates of murder, infant mortality, teen gonorrhea infection, and teen abortion in the developed world. Much higher, for example, than the secular Scandinavia.
These trends run counter to the conventional wisdom, as the study author says, that increased religious belief — in particular, a kind of moralizing personal piety — will translate into increased peace and tranquility and that a decreased belief in God and practice of religion will result in cultural chaos. In general, higher rates of belief in, and worship of, a creator (and I would add a judging creator) correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy and abortion in the prosperous democracies, concluded independent scholar Gregory S. Paul, who has made it clear he is not a radical saying this but a paleontologist pursuing academic work in the sociology of religion.
The most theistic prosperous democracy, he concludes, is almost the most dysfunctional of the developing democracies, sometimes spectacularly so.
Academic research and these kinds of breathtakingly clear conclusions are one thing — belief on the ground is another. I couldn’t have been more clearly reminded of this than during the early days of Hurricane Katrina, when the conservative religious pundits went into overdrive spinning the disaster as a message from God about the state of morality in that region: that Katrina was forming in the shape of a fetus, punishing us for all the murdered unborn resulting from legal abortion, or that the devastation was in proportion to the high number of homosexuals in New Orleans.
I work some of the time with homeless women and their children in an emergency shelter, and one night while a small group of them were curled up watching what I thought was a particularly violent John Travolta movie set in and around Las Vegas, they got to talking about how the reason that Katrina had aimed herself at Louisiana was because of all the voodoo and bad religion those folks had been practicing — sisters like themselves with their own little ones. Shoulda been right with the Father, one of them kept saying.
Academic data and chilling anecdotes aside, we religious liberals, we spiritual progressives, good people like yourselves, seem to be needing not just to point out the moral inconsistencies on the conservative side — like, for me, the number of daughters of preachers who were preaching against abortion and picketing the Planned Parenthood clinic I used to work for who went in to get their first, second, or third procedure — but to discern and shore up our own moral codes. Thus the question you presented me — what does it mean to be moral and UU?
A moment of amusement:
A good colleague of mine emailed this just last night to all those of us, most of us, who were not yet finished with our sermon writing for today. A minister’s young son sat on the floor of his mother’s office watching her write a sermon. How do you know what to say? The boy asked. Why, God tells me, his mother replied.
Well, then, why do you keep crossing things out?
Well this mother and minister doesn’t pretend to get divine instruction — at least most of the time — but I do count on my three children to help me with my sermons. They all grew up in UU religious education, and while none of them are members now of a UU congregation, they are used to being queried on what they believe and how what they believe was impacted by the moral and spiritual training and practices they learned on Sunday mornings and in our second-generation Unitarian home.
My youngest son was the first to respond to my e-mailed request for assistance on this sermon. Could you do me a HUGE favor, I had implored. I am preaching this week on being UU, being moral, and I wanted to know what you think being moral is. Even one of your pithier sentences would do. To be moral, he wrote back (I picture him sitting with his laptop at the edge of the pier near his beach apartment in North Carolina where he is in college) is to think and act in a way suitable to one’s conscience, unless you are a dog, then you have to act in a way suitable to your master’s conscience, unless he doesn’t have one, then you are damned to dog hell, and personally I wouldn’t want to go there again. Clever, but vague and a bit mouthy.
My middle child, my daughter, who is 12 years older and working as an environmental planner, summed her moral views up this way:
- To respect a difference of opinion and to always question.
- To respect people and embrace diversity.
- To be kind, not out of fear of going to hell, but for the good of humanity.
And my eldest, a doctoral student, wrote a longer and more discursive response, which might be consolidated thus: a high tolerance for diversity, concerns for issues of equality and justice, a drive for social change, a belief in morality grounded in reason and not just in text — and he noted, my mother taught me to embrace and confront those who might not necessarily share these values — to keep my own convictions but to engage in tolerance and openness.
Do you see some themes developing?
These are from my grown children, yes, but they are also perhaps indicative of what happens when we grow moral Unitarian Universalists through the stories they hear and the conversations they have within our walls and at their own dining room tables. These are not “perfect” people who had unblemished childhoods. They snuck beers, they probably tried a few illegal things that I don’t want to know about. They struggled to handle their own money, they had failed relationships, they experienced frustration, disappointments, even despair. But they did not get pregnant or anyone else pregnant, as my dad, their grandfather, always points out. They care about what’s happening in the world, they march and protest, they work on political campaigns, they vote. And they come home for holidays.
Not content to just query my own family regarding their values, their moral compasses, I unashamedly used the small spirituality or covenant group I have been a part of for the past nine years to ask the question: what are your ten commandments? All but one of us identifies as a UU, of varying theological leanings from Buddhist to Theist to Humanist.
Their lists, which ranged from only one commandment (affirm that we are part of an interdependent web of all existence) to the more conventional ten (including never litter) were really quite moving. One person’s first moral law was to remember and honor your ancestors, and then to cherish your children. Another’s was to love his body. The flesh is my only vehicle for living, he wrote. When it is worn out, I can’t trade it in. Take care of it so it will serve me long and well. I must love my wife and family, he believes, for she is my partner for life and they are a microcosm of the extended family of humankind.
Another of us said that she will not compare herself with others and be happy with her own achievements. Another said that she was compelled to be thankful.
The individual lists were fascinating and persuasive, but our task, I suggested, as a focus group of religious liberals, was to see whether in the course of an hour in a corner café, whether we could meld and cull our lists into one, our very own UU ten commandments. OK, not commandments, but affirmations. It was a fascinating process — I heartily recommend it — of listening to all of those individual do/bes and then seeking consensus. Granted, this is a group that has already shared everything from our definitions of God to what we think that death brings, but I was impressed, as I always am, with the cordiality and respect with which we did our corporate ethical business. Here is the list we came up with in an afternoon’s sitting, not in an academy or a seminary or even in a sanctuary, but in a crowded public space:
- Treat others as you would like to be treated.
- See yourself as part of an interdependent web of all existence, treading on the earth as softly as possible.
- Love learning.
- Be of service.
- Share your gifts and talents, and help other souls prosper.
- Live life with joy.
- Commune daily with and appreciate the order and beauty of the world.
- Respect other’s paths.
- Embrace diversity.
- Is an asterisk holding a place for that which is situational, that which reminds us to hold loosely onto all that we think we know or believe, to not be so attached that we can’t see the uniqueness, the complexity of all of life.
Our denominational commission on appraisal, the group that engages in self-reflection and evaluation, has recently released its latest report on engaging our theological diversity, and in it has done some work on what our core values are as a faith movement. There is so much richness in this but again, to synthesize the many findings, undeniably values are at the heart of our faith. Based on surveys and other studies, here is what they tell us:
Our pantheon or paradigm of values include self-respect, wisdom, inner harmony, mature love, a world of beauty, and an exciting life. These are our end or terminal values. Our instrumental values — are to be loving, independent, intellectual, imaginative, and logical, which show an orientation towards competence rather than morality expressed as obedience or self-control, and stress personal realization, individual self-fulfillment, and self actualization.
When asked what their core of faith statements are, Unitarian Universalists frequently use the words that express caring and connection between people. A solid 41 to 50 percent of lay respondents and 55 percent of ministers included in their personal core definitions one or more of the words: love, compassion, connection, or community. Taken together as variations of the same basic concept, this is by far the strongest value expressed.
Another strongly held value is service or a commitment to justice. To make the world a better place. Among the respondents, 16 to 24 percent of lay respondents and 23 percent of clergy were concerned with this as a moral value.
Diversity, or embracing otherness, was listed as a strong value, especially as it pertains to congregations.
Seeking or being or a quest is another high value.
Truth, understanding, and curiosity.
Freedom, as it pertains to congregational life.
Beauty and the natural world — 30 percent of us hold this as a terminal value, a much higher value than pleasure and a comfortable life.
Harmony with the Divine — about 30 percent of ministers, and from 26 to 33 percent of lay members, used language referring to God, the holy or the transcendent.
As the commission report describes us: caring congregants valuing love and community; curious folk seeking growth, learning, and transformation; committed disciples of advancing truth who cherish wisdom, intellect, and logic; concerned individuals balancing freedom and choice with service to others; creative appreciators of the world of beauty and inner harmony; compassionate companions who honor and accept one another and respect ourselves; and open-minded people learning from dialogue in diversity — we Unitarian Universalists aspire to be all these and more.
I grew up with this doxology, as did my children, which sums up and affirms our core values as well as anything I might say about being moral, being UU:
From all who dwell below the skies,
Let faith and hope with love arise.
Let beauty, truth, and good be sung
In every land, by every tongue.