The Fifth Principle:
The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large” Shirley Rickett, October 26, 2014
When I first volunteered to take on this principle, I thought, there’s a mouthful. What I found, however, was a whole meal. Looking at the progression of the principles in the order chosen by UUA, I could see a movement from the particular to the general. That’s fine, I thought. We begin in our consideration of what’s important to all UUs with the individual. What could be more poignant, more true to belief in human rights, than the inherent worth and dignity of every person?
The second principle considers “the other,” and the third, not only regards our fellow beings, but includes acceptance of them and even encouragement for spiritual growth no matter the direction that may take. In my approach to principle five, I’m going to weave the two parts: the individual’s right of conscience and how that may extend to groups, and then the concept of a democratic process from the particular, UUA and UU congregations, to the general, our “society at large” as Americans, as a country.
The right of conscience in the fifth principle is a recognition that a person does not have a conscience in isolation from others unless one is a hermit, a monk, or nun in an order that forbids verbal communication between members. Even then, a conscience doesn’t work in isolation unless that person is the only person on earth.
The right of conscience I take to mean, individuals. What is a conscience? The Sixth Edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary states the word is Old French from the Latin and means privy to knowledge, or to know. The first definition stated by the O.E.D.: “One’s inmost thoughts, one’s mind or heart,” in other words, to be awake, mindful of oneself, self-
knowledge. A look at further O.E.D. definitions takes us from the individual to groups. The sixth O.E.D. definition refers to the practice of, or conformity to, what is considered right. I take that to mean conformity or “rightness” determined by the larger group of society.
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The recent Supreme Court decision on Hobby Lobby business owners and the dictates of their religious faith is an example of the Court’s bending toward the nebulous idea of what people believe, or say they believe. From my reading, I understand that legality enters into the issue not with what a person or group say they believe, but when an action emanates from that belief. When a conscientious objector refuses to go to war and kill people, that person states the reason as ‘against my conscience or my religious beliefs.’ Yet people who take that step are often regarded as cowards because that behavior deviates from the norm.
The actor Lew Ayres was a conscientious objector during W.W. II. He scrubbed latrines and did similar chores. Years later he was admired for following his conscience. Yet SCOTUS found for Hobby Lobby not on First Amendment grounds but within the context of a law passed by Congress—the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. How does a business that purports to serve the public selling products subordinate the diverse religious beliefs of its employees? Employer religious beliefs trump employee’s religious beliefs, and the action emanating from one group’s religious belief deprives another group (women) of insurance coverage, which is classified as preventive healthcare in the Affordable Care Act, a law of the land.
“The Court’s four Liberals [just] called it a decision of ‘startling breadth’ and said that it allows companies to ‘opt out of any law (saving only tax laws) they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs.” Furthermore, “The majority decision could open the door to other closely held corporations seeking to withhold coverage for other medical procedures at odds with firm religious beliefs—a decision that could reverberate far past the Affordable Care Act to other laws and issues.” (Politico, “SCOTUS sides with Hobby Lobby on birth control”)
Justice Ginsburg noted in her dissent that the Court’s term, closely held, is not synonymous with small. But maybe the term was meant also to indicate something warm and fuzzy like family business. Justice Alito did not provide reasoning why only closely held corporations would be afforded religious rights under RFRA. It would seem the door would be open to any corporation to use the same mechanism for denying coverage to women. (People for the American Way.org, July 7, 2014) The decision was in July, and to date, more than 80 companies have petitioned the courts for permission to use the owner’s religious beliefs to discriminate against women. (Credo Action, online)
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Martin Buber’s well –known premise and argument of the I-thou relationship of human beings holds that we have two distinct ways of engaging the world. In the first way, the I-it experience, the other is perceived as an object. Men and women collect data, analyze it, classify it, and theorize about it. “The object of experience (the it) is viewed as a thing to be utilized, a thing to be known or put to some purpose.” Buber maintains that modern society is entirely based on the I-it model. Politics, economics, public institutions “are fundamentally grounded in the fact that we view every other human being as an it, rather than a you.” (Spark Notes—online) It is the second way, the I-you encounter that makes us truly human he says. In the second mode, we enter into a relationship wherein both the I and you are transformed. (ibid)
Buber’s book, Ich und Du, was published in 1923 and translated to English in 1937. His words appear prophetic for the 21st c. when one considers the isolation of modern people who sit behind computers (including me) or I-pads or glued to I-phones instead of the encounter with the You. Of course Skype and Facetime give some body language and social cues. But as for a transformation of the I and You, which Buber believes ultimately ends in love, that remains to be seen. I wonder what he would have thought of the idea of corporations as people.
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Without some consensus between what is right and what is wrong for groups or the public good, we would have no laws, no stoplights, no prisons, no churches, no wars, and so on.
Order and safety for the public good makes sense. Problems arise when morality enters the picture. A collective conscience, if there is such a thing, often collides with an individual conscience and religious beliefs.
I believe the first principle and the fifth—the inherent worth and dignity of each of us and the right of conscience—are the simple glue that holds our congregations together. It is an I/you mode of relating. An I-it model prevails in civilian militias, White Supremacist, and other hate-based groups. Yet what happens when a groups’ beliefs are challenged or an individual’s right of conscience is ignored or taken away, or seems to disappear? Whistleblowers appear to me to have acted on their conscience. Julian Assange and Edward Snowden both maintain their actions had to do with conscience, and with exposing some very questionable actions by our own government. In spite of the debate and government response to Assange and Snowden’s actions, I find it difficult to imagine their motives were not related to conscience when I consider the consequences, which they well anticipated, and the change in their lives as a result of their actions.
The rights of conscience seems to go hand in hand with religious groups. A Reverend Dean Kelley worked in several volumes he called The Law of Church and State in America until eight days before his death. His publisher pared it down to five volumes and his daughter followed his wishes to make it accessible online. (1997) He gives examples of “exercises of conscience at variance with customary or legal norms,” and they include “objection to military service, to saluting the flag, to jury duty, to Social Security, to union membership, to vaccination or blood transfusion” and “legal restrictions on practices deemed essential to the faith, such as polygamy, Sabbath observance, snake-handling, faith-healing, the use of ‘controlled substances’ and the sheltering of persons deemed to be violators of law such as runaway slaves or ‘illegal’ aliens.” It’s complicated.
Sometimes ambiguity appears in what is considered “right.” In surveying the literature on the subject, I found the Texas Bill of Rights. Section 4 regards “Religious Tests.” It states: “No religious tests shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State; nor shall anyone be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being.” Apparently, one’s individual conscience or religious belief had best be held close to the heart if one intends to seek office in Texas. And note, the only pronoun used is the male one.
I want to turn to the second half of Principle 5, “ … the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” It appears that the democratic process is well used on the UUA level. On the level of society and country as a whole, democracy is said to be in great danger.
In 2008 The Fifth Principle Task Force was created by the UUA Board of Trustees. In 2009 they submitted a 13-page report to that Board concerning the annual General Assembly. The report found the GA dramatically broken in four ways. This is the preface or rationale of the report:
Our vision is radically democratic suggesting a ground up
and grounded participation, congregation to neighbors to
district or regional representatives to Board of Trustees
to President to paid staff united in policies, strategies,
budgeting, analyses, accountabilities, and together producing
an energy of evangelical proportion that can propel UU
into the future of growth we really yearn for.
Briefly, here are the four ways of “brokenness” found by the Task Force:
We are not really democratic. Without subsidization, the GA
is economically discriminatory, and therefore generationally
discriminatory; as long as the GA continues to be an annual
event, the cost is a heavy burden to the association and the
member congregations; the GA process is not in alignment
with the Board’s embrace of policy governance.
Big changes suggested in the report will take years to implement, such as bylaw changes and the biggest change, moving from an annual General Assembly to a biannual one. Commitments to
convention centers must be made years ahead so that change is still in the making. For more details, go to the UUA website and the fall, 2014 issue of UU World. If you google the seven principles at UUA you will find a succinct, brief summary of why we affirm the seven principles.
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The Reverand Parisa Parsa from First Parish in Milton MA reflects on the 5th principle and ties the two parts together nicely: “In our religious lives, the democratic process requires trust in the development of each individual conscience—a belief that such development is possible for each of us, as well as a commitment to cultivate our own conscience. We could call it a commitment to the value of each person. In the words of Theodore Parker, ‘Democracy means not, I am as good as you are, but you are as good as I am.’ My connection with the sacred is only as precious as my willingness to acknowledge the same connection in others.” Sounds like an I/you connection to me.
As for the right to the democratic process in society at large, most of us are aware of how our civil rights seem constantly tested or removed. The recent Hobby Lobby decision is only one example of how this Supreme Court leans to the far political Right.
A Princeton study from Talking Points Memo (online) displays a piece titled, “The US No Longer an Actual Democracy.” In the essay researchers argue that over the past few decades America’s political system has slowly transformed from a democracy into an oligarchy where wealthy elites wield the most power.
I believe that if we, as UUs, who cherish and guard our right of conscience, who believe in inclusion and the democratic process, want to survive in this world, that perhaps we should bite off some of that evangelical proportion mentioned by the 5th Principle Task Force, and make it known what we stand for to others. For some time now, many of us played caution when it comes to perhaps saying too much about our UU faith to others. Let’s not scare people away we would say.
The poet James Wright used a line from one of his poems as the title for one of his books. So I will go out on a limb and use that metaphor to preface what I believe: So much is at stake in our world. UUs have so much to offer, and if our democracy is to be salvaged, people need to know, from us, that it works, that standing up for one’s conscience, and acting on that belief, not at the expense of others, and sometimes against what is customary or even legal, is a heroic thing. And the branch will not break.
Read the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Read the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights
The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, sixth edition, vol. 1, Oxford University Press, 2007
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations Department of Public Education, February, 1986.
Politico, “SCOTUS sides with Hobby Lobby on birth control,” (online)
People for the American Way.org., July 7, 2014
Credo Action (online)
The Law of Church and State in America, Reverand Dean Kelley, A. “The Rights of Conscience,” Spring 1997 (online)
“The Fifth Principle Task force Report,” UUA.org (online)
“The US No Longer an Actual Democracy, Talking Points Memo, (online)
The Branch Will Not Break, James Wright. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1963