Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Considering Fundamentalism and Political Correctness as a Unitarian Universalist by Reverend Tom Capo

A Fundamentalist as defined by the Urban Dictionary is: “A person who takes their religion so literally and to such extremes that they contradict the very basis of their faith. They typically believe in a literal, verbatim interpretation of their scripture.”
British Sociologist Anthony Gibbens writes: “Fundamentalism … is a tradition defended in the traditional way - by reference to ritual truth - in a globalizing world that asks for reasons. Fundamentalism, therefore, has nothing to do with the context of beliefs, religious or otherwise. What matters is how the truth of beliefs is defended or asserted…Whatever form it takes - religious, ethnic, nationalist, or directly political, I think it right to regard fundamentalism as problematic. It [can be] edged with the possibility of violence, and it is the enemy of cosmopolitan dialogue.  Yet fundamentalism isn't just the antithesis of globalizing modernity, but poses questions to it. The most basic one is this: can we live in a world where nothing is sacred? I have to say, in conclusion, that I don't think we can.”
Political Correctness
            Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary gives this as the simple definition of “Politically Correct”: “agreeing with the idea that people should be careful to not use language or behave in a way that could offend a particular group of people”.

            The second is the Urban Dictionary: Political Correctness is “The [ideology] of … left wing liberals who want society to be nothing but accepting of all … freaks everywhere. The main basis is not to offend anyone with one little incorrect word.”
The following excerpt is from Business Insider, July19, 2017, by Matthew Jones, titled “Millienials want everyone to know these 5 things about political correctness”:   “Political correctness is not about censorship, it's about showing respect…  The purpose of political correctness is to treat all people with the love and respect they deserve.”

Sermon by Reverend Tom Capo
             When Bill and I met about this service, he gave me the February 27, 2017 National Law Journal; he had circled the following paragraph in the article (“Meet Yale Law’s Female Dean, Heather Gerken”):
“[A reporter asks Heather Gerken, the first female Yale Law School Dean]: Are you talking about the political discourse surrounding Trump?  The “Trump Effect” if you will?
Heather Gerken [answers]: I don’t think it is just the Trump Effect.  I don’t mean just that lawyers on both side of the aisle believe in constitutional rights and due process.  I think this is a moment in politics when people have lost the ability to do battle and respect the other side.  One of the things that make lawyers part of an honorable profession is the fact that we’re able to go to war, then go out for drinks afterward.  Part of that is the training that we provide our students.  We teach people not just to recognize the flaws in their own arguments, but to recognize the strengths in the arguments on the other side.  That’s something that’s missing from current political discourse.  It has nothing to do with one administration or another.”
            A concern of Bill’s was that we here at DuPage Unitarian Universalist Church (DUUC), and perhaps most Unitarian Universalists, are not particularly accepting of people who don’t hold liberal political beliefs.   As Bill says, “There never seems to be any recognition of the possibility that [‘valid’] viewpoints other than those of … liberal democrats...”might exist within our congregations.  And I think he makes a valid point.  The sign in Kreves hall says all are welcome: lesbian, gay,
bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, ally, black, white, Hispanic, Latino/a, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Interfatih, Pagan, Elder, Adult, Young Adult, Teen Child, Infant, Native Born, Immigrant, First Nations, Humanist, Atheist, Agnostic, Theist, Conservative, Liberal, Single, Partnered, Special Needs, Visitor, You.  I do see the word conservative.  What does that mean, political, social, theological conservative? For a moment, add the word “fundamentalist” to that list.  Does that seem to fit for you?  You might think, “They have their own places to go for community and worship. We don’t.” or “They wouldn’t feel comfortable here, anyway.”
Our denomination prides itself on being able to engage in rigorous discussions with people whose ideas are very different from our own, recognizing the strengths in their arguments as well as the flaws in our own, and afterwards go out into coffee hour, being in respectful, compassionate, caring relationships with one another.  Is this vision of ourselves truly our reality?
            Back in 1979, I drove up to my first Unitarian Universalist church.  As I entered, I was ushered into the sanctuary for a pre-service adult forum.  As I sat down, the speakers were introduced, one was from Planned Parenthood and was from a local fundamentalist Christian Church.  The topic was abortion rights.  The discussion was articulate, passionate at times, but also respectful and civil.  After the presentation there was a time for questions for both speakers, obviously since UUs were asking the questions, some questions were quite penetrating and insightful, for both speakers.  And after the forum, we all gathered, including the speakers, around the coffee pot while the ushers prepared for the service.  This experience was not atypical of what I experienced at that church.  I often went to small adult discussion groups about controversial topics and heard people talk eloquently and passionately on both sides of all kinds of issues.  I remember going to a party with church members for the first time, and alcohol was being served.  I turned to Martha and said, “I can’t drink tonight because if I do then I won’t be able to hold up my side of the conversation with these Unitarian Universalists.”        
As many of you know DuPage Unitarian Universalist Church’s Social Justice Committee works with PTMAN, the Proviso Township Ministerial Alliance Network, a group of African American evangelical, often theologically fundamentalist, churches.  We have heard many speakers at our monthly breakfast meetings with PTMAN, some who were quite inspirational, almost all who emphasized their belief in Christ as their Lord and Savior.  One breakfast meeting this spring we were all taken aback though—pushed way past our comfort zones—when a speaker vigorously proclaimed that sex should only be between a man and a woman, and that a woman must fulfill her husband’s sexual needs.  And many of those present, not us, clapped.  You can imagine the lively conversation on the drive home from that breakfast meeting. On the hand I was thinking of our third principle—acceptance of one another—while on the other hand I was thinking our group of liberal white folks being in a partnership role, not a leadership role in PTMAN. And on my third hand, anyway, I was thinking: we were accomplishing so much with PTMAN.  I asked myself: “was the work we were accomplishing worth having to hear this kind of message and the support this message received?”   I went to Bishop Saffo, the leader of PTMAN.  We had a long talk about how members of our church felt about these sexuality issues and we came away from the conversation with greater understanding on both of our parts about our own personal beliefs, his church’s beliefs, my Unitarian Universalist values, why our personal beliefs and values are important to us, and how we can continue to work together, as friends.  And the Social Justice Committee and PTMAN continue to work together.
            And yet I still understand where Bill is coming from.  How many of you read the article by our community minister Reverend Myriam Renaud in the June/July newsletter?  Here is an excerpt: “Unitarian Universalist congregations are often quite explicit about […their …] values; they also send implicit and informal signals to inform members and visitors about the Democratic-values culture to which all are expected to conform. Does the insistence on shared values make open dialogue between progressive and conservative members about issues like abortion, gun control, health care, etc. difficult? You bet. And, does it silence those who are committed to Unitarian Universalism’s Seven Principles, but who interpret them in different ways than those of the dominant culture? Yes, it does.
Values are important, of course, but they tend to be emotion-based. In contrast, the Seven Principles which bind Unitarian Universalists together are reason-based, and leave ample room for a variety of values. The “values test” or the view that, to be welcome in our congregations, one must subscribe to progressive values may be getting in the way of a more fundamental commitment to the inherent worth and dignity of others—regardless of their values. Instead, we (yes, all of us!) can find, in our shared Principles, common ground for conversations across progressive-conservative value-lines.”
If you were to take a few minutes to come up with your own values test for DUUC members, what would be included?  I think that’s an exercise worth doing if only to learn something more about yourself.  When I first came here, someone asked whether we should tell people who came through the doors of the church that we had humanist values.  I answered something like “No, I don’t think we should.”  Why?  A couple  reasons: one, I don’t know how folks walking through the door for the first time on a Sunday morning define “humanist” for themselves and they don’t know how we live out these values as Unitarian Universalists.   Two: I don’t know if I think it is particularly welcoming to start out by saying you need to be a humanist, or for that matter hold any particular belief system, to come here.  What I do think is important is to ask a first time visitor about themselves.  A relationship is between people, not belief systems. 
I would say the same about telling people who enter that they have to have liberal political values.  There is no political litmus test for Unitarian Universalism; although I do tell newcomers that it is difficult to be a Unitarian Universalist because we ask each person who joins us to search within for truth and meaning, to live their values and beliefs in the world and share with us how that works for them; I also say to them that they are asked by our faith to treat all others with respect and dignity and to try to make the world a better place for all. I ask them about where they are on their faith journey and to be willing to share that journey with others here.  And I discourage them from talking about what they don’t believe in.  Do I ask if they support open carry gun laws?  Do I ask if they voted for President Trump?  Do I ask if they believe in Christ as their Lord and Savior?  No, I do not.  I treat each and every person as someone who is here to search, to love, to be part of this community, and to work with us to make the world a better place. 
I believe that we here at DUUC embrace being respectful, civil, kind, understanding, compassionate, and different from one another.  That is the basis of this faith.  If we look in our heart of hearts we know that people who hold fundamentalist or conservative beliefs are not bad or stupid.   They are trying to find a way to cope with an ever changing world.  Belief in a god/goddess/or the supernatural is not outdated or invalidated by science and rationalism.  Fundamentalism is not a bad word.   It is a descriptor of a belief system.  A belief system, like any other belief system, has both strengths and weaknesses.  The Unitarian Universalist Principles and Sources is a belief system, while it is more descriptive than prescriptive.  As such it, too, has strengths and weaknesses.  I glad to see none of you have booed me for saying that and lighting has not struck me down. 
When I went to a conservative seminary as openly Unitarian Universalist, I had conversations with fundamentalist Christians, engaging conversations, in which we both learned something about each another and developed respect for one another, and sometimes even friendship.  They learned from me about the historical basis of Unitarian Universalism.  Unitarianism, the belief that Jesus was a prophet or very human model for how to live in the world, not a divine being; and Universalism, a belief in a loving god who would not damn anyone to hell.  These ideas had a very profound effect on some of my classmates.  I learned from them how a creedal, dogmatic, even a fundamentalist belief system can be experienced as helpful to them in coping with life.  I remember more than one of them telling me of personal experiences when they felt paralyzed by suffering or oppression or racism.   They described feeling like they were standing before a chasm, and nothing they could do would get them across.   For them, devotion to a personal incarnation of god enabled them to take a step, a leap if you will.  They could go forward secure in the faith that their god will never let them fall but will carry them safely to the other side.  While I have not had that experience and do not have a belief in a personal god, I was able to gain a greater understanding of the strength of their faith and how it helped them in their lives.
And there are strengths and weakness in political ideologies.  This is true for Democrats and
Republicans, and for liberals and conservatives.  We just each see the world through different moral lenses.  Recently I read Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.  After reading a great deal of research and doing his own research of thousands of people across this nation, he found that liberals and conservatives emphasize different moral foundations, and thus tend to view the world through different moral matrices.  Please note the chart to my right.  Notice everyone shares the same five moral foundations.  The weight they give to each of the foundations is different.  Conservatives tend to equally prioritize these five moral foundations, care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation.   And thus conservative are more willing to, at times, reduce the priority of one moral foundation because of the perceived importance of another, say reducing loyalty for the benefit of fairness, or vice versa.  Liberals tend to prioritize the moral foundations of care/harm which includes such priorities as kindness, gentleness, and nurturance, and of fairness/cheating which includes such priorities as justice, and personal rights.  I want to emphasize that understanding these differences, particularly the strengths and weakness of these differences, is important for all us to be able to be able to work together and get along.  And that there is benefit to all churches, including ours, to have members who have varying moral foundations.  Haidt writes: “We are deeply intuitive creatures whose gut feelings drive our strategic reasoning.  This makes it difficult –but not impossible—to connect with those who live in different matrices, which are often built on different configurations of the available moral foundations.  So next time you find yourself seated beside someone from another matrix…Don’t bring up morality until you’ve found a few points of commonality or in some way established a bit of trust.  And when you bring up issues of morality, try to start with some praise, or with a since expression of interest.  We’re all stuck here for a while, so let’s try to work it out.”
In this time of Trump, it seems harder for us to understand and accept differences.   I know it is harder today to engage with people whose ideologies and moral foundations are different from our own, because the stakes seem too high.  But I believe our Principles call us to civility, respect, kindness, compassion—affirming and promoting the inherent worth and dignity of every person, justice, equity and compassion in human relations, and acceptance of one another. 
            I know this congregation is capable of being a neutral, no not just neutral, a safe space for people who share disparate ideas, beliefs, and politics.  I have seen it happen.  I have seen pagans and humanists talk to each other about their beliefs.  I have heard a member discuss his belief in Jesus, and not one person at the table of 15 or so members of this church even blinked.  I have seen atheists at the Winter Solstice Service.  And I know theists attend Science Sunday presentations.  
             This church has been and will continue to be a garden of paradoxes and differences, of varying ideologies and tensions, of conflict and civility, of righteousness and compassion.  How we nurture this, and I mean intentionally, nurture this is important.  Let me reflect back on what the excerpt from an article about Millenials said: “Political correctness is not about censorship, it's about showing respect.  Censorship is a coercive attempt to hide something from people. Asking people to use more inclusive language is not silencing their voice, it's inviting them to use language in a way that promotes productive conversation.  The purpose of political correctness is to treat all people with the love and respect they deserve. This means calling people by the pronouns they use, and avoiding words and phrases that stereotype and demonize entire groups of people. You can still possess whatever ideology you follow and you can still share your opinion, you're just being asked to do so in a way that is not hurtful to others.”   I want to reflect on two things from this passage.  I believe all of you would agree that we, as Unitarian Universalist, are not about censorship, no-one should be afraid to say who they are, what they believe, where they work, or who they voted for.  And we, as human beings, will never be perfect in treating all people with the love and respect they deserve, but when we cross the line, when we use sarcasm when speaking about fundamentalists or anyone or anything, when we react in mean-spirited anger about all the political correctness or any other issue, we must stop.  Take a deep breath.  Forgive ourselves, admit to the person we have hurt that we have reacted in a destructive, non-civil, non-respectful, non-loving way, and re-engage with our best selves, showing that we can be trusted, we are safe to be around and we can be a friend.  And regardless of how the other person responds, you will know in your heart that you have taken the right path, the path that we all aspire to, the path of living our Principles, values, and beliefs.  I know this church community.  I believe that when a line is crossed, that we all have the capacity to acknowledge it, forgive one another, and begin again in love, living our UU Principles and Values. We will not be perfect with this.  But in the end, I have seen you do it and know I will continue to see us all rise up to be our best selves when we slip.   As we continue to practice this with one another, those who join us will know this about us.  And we carry this forth into the world, making the world a better place.   
Anyone who enters these doors--whether it’s for the first time or the 1,000st time--everyone is here to hear the saving message that they are loved, just as they are, and that we will be with them, fundamentalist or liberal, politically correct or making mistakes, because each person here needs a safe place to search for meaning, purpose, and truth.  A place that accepts them for who they are, and a people who will encourage them on their own personal journey, no matter where that journey may take you.  This is who we are as Unitarian Universalists.  


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