Right-Wing Influence on the Unitarian Universalist Liberal-Left Disagreement (Part I)

One of the overarching points to this summer’s “A Unitarian Universalist Pipeline to the Right” series is that right-wing language, tropes, and influence-peddling tend to make their ways into progressive circles. Part of this is due to my looking at Unitarian Universalist communities online, rather than in-person within parishes, where this infiltration of right-wing language is easiest. Another is that large money interests have created a spectrum of media outlets, think tanks, and front groups to inject topics (and in particular, a certain framing of a topic) into the mainstream. When things are “the mainstream”, they are picked up by establishment conservative and liberal voices. I’m not going to talk about that particular battle, because when talking about Unitarian Universalism, we’re not usually talking about old-style establishment conservatives, at least not in 2019. Instead, I’m going to visit a very old and vibrant disagreement within UU circles between “liberals” and “leftists”.

Now what is meant by “liberals” and “leftists” is difficult to nail down. Making my point for me, right-wing figures in Fox News were painting President Barack Obama, who represented a form of business-friendly, socially liberal centrism, as a socialist before he was even elected. Liberalism is maybe the most malleable word in the English political lexicon. Its meaning depends on whether it’s being used academically or politically, as a term for past or present people and movements, and whether it’s referring to American or European ideologies.

Here are some principles I’ll lay out, that are not definitive but I find to be helpful in a discussion like this:

Liberals and leftists are, historically and presently, distinct. The flourishing moment of modern liberalism were the 1848 Revolutions that took place all over Europe. Liberalism, mixed with a rising nationalism in many groups that were either fragmented across political states (like Italians), or one of many groups in large empires (like Hungarians in Austria), led to a series of revolutions characterized by an end of absolute monarchy and the promulgation of written constitutions with certain enshrined freedoms like the right to publish, worship, and petition.

1848 also saw the rise of a politically-distinct set of loosely-knit together ideologies: radicals, socialists, and anarchists. While 1848 was the year that the “Communist Manifesto” was published, mature Marxism was still years away. As Mike Duncan explains in his podcast Revolutions (season 7 deals with the many, many different uprisings in Europe), while liberals focused narrowly on “the political question” like constitutional liberties and free trade, leftists were interested in “the social question”, like wealth and social inequality, the existence and state protection of private property, and a political system that generally ignored anyone who wasn’t a man of a certain social class.

The failure of 1848 to lead to long-lasting change was in significant part due to disagreements between liberals and leftists on the scope of change and the tactics used to obtain it.

Liberals and leftists, oftentimes, have a rich exchange. There is overlap in the books, film, and other culture that liberals and leftists consume. Over the course of one’s lifetime, liberal individuals may migrate to more radical political positions, or may become more moderate and incrementalist in their politics.

Unitarian Universalism has considerable amounts of liberals and leftists today. Differences abound in how religious source material is interpreted (was Jesus a socialist? ; as Paul Rasor advocates in Faith Without Certainty, should UUs embrace liberation theology?), how commonly-held ideas like the Seven Principles are viewed (is Principle Five about a narrow or a holistic view of democracy?).

This spectrum of opinion is held together by religious liberalism, which is distinct, though often conflated, with political liberalism. I’ve been in multiple groups of UUs where a discussion on religious liberalism (or general non-creedal religious thinking) gets merged into political liberalism. “We as liberals” gets said a fair amount, but as someone who doesn’t identify as politically liberal, that term only carries meaning in certain context. The search for truth and meaning leads people to different views on how religion informs politics, and vice-versa.

Liberals and leftists have long-standing disagreements. These include where UUs should stand on the spectrum between incremental reform and revolutionary change. Some of this is informed by the waves of civil rights movements in the 20th and 21st centuries, which have had different goals and influences. If, how, and when to be confrontational with political conservatives and the alt-right is a current issue of debate, as Unitarian Universalism attempts to navigate a Trump presidency and the more open embracing of white supremacy.

That is it for Part I. In Part II, I will discuss how right-wing efforts attempt to take these disagreements and exacerbate them in ways that prevent constructive dialogue, and inject right-wing definitions and conceptions into the liberal-left debate.

Thomas Paine: an always-relevant radical

The birthday of Thomas Paine just happened, January 29th on the Julian calendar. But since he doesn’t turn 279 years old until February 9th on our Gregorian calendar, there is still time to pen a retrospective!

As a political figure, most Americans learned in middle school US History that he wrote something called Common Sense, and it was a big deal when everything was starting to pop off in the Thirteen Colonies. The trajectory of his life after 1776 showed how different his political philosophy was with the bulk of Founding Fathers. A feature in Jacobin written last year emphasized that until his relatively recent rehabilitation, Paine was the icon of rogues and radicals only. If the establishment hated you because you wanted to abolish slavery or have a trade union or whatever, you probably looked to Paine as a source of wisdom.

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Paine, before injustice gave him grey hair. Portrait by Matthew Pratt

What stands out with Paine, and makes him a superior model compared to fatally compromised thinkers like Jefferson, Adams, and Madison, is his consistent denunciation of all systems of exploitation. His argument in Common Sense was for independence, yes, but it was more importantly an argument aimed directly at the monarchy and aristocracy. Many Founders fought a war against a monarchical colonial power, but they weren’t necessarily republican in their thinking. The Declaration of Independence is an indictment of a particular king; Common Sense is an indictment of the whole idea of kings. Indeed, there was much ambiguity about the new American executive initially, with many wanting Washington to become king, or at least king-like. Gordon Wood talks about this aspect of the early republic, additionally his chapter “A Monarchical Republic” in Empire of Liberty is a summation of how conservative many Founders and Framers were about the break from hereditary rule.

So even in this first step, Paine was outpacing most of the other Founders. After colonial rule, he took on a whole spectrum of society. He went after the institutional church in The Age of Reason. He defended the democratic revolution in France, almost ending up a casualty in the purge-y portion. Agrarian Justice is the most substantial critique of private property and institutional privilege of its generation. He was one of the early abolitionists. And he stood against the majority of the National Convention that wanted the King executed- because he saw the death penalty as another archaic injustice not suited for a democratic age.

Indeed, Paine’s consistency is refreshing. Not only compared to Jefferson’s incoherent views on freedom and slavery in his own time, but today. Many people call themselves lovers of liberty, but only advocate for a part of Paine’s philosophy. Conservative Americans love the talk of liberty above tyranny in Common Sense, the irreligious enjoy the broadsides against Christianity in The Age of Reason. And it’s easy for liberals to like Paine’s argument for a welfare state in Agrarian Justice. Of course, this was the case in his own time- he was loved and reviled by the same people at different times. Even today, with many progressive developments, Paine remains radical. Where other Founders have calcified into marble, his fight is not yet finished.

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Paine seemingly never wrote anything that didn’t make at least some powerful people mad.

The living character of his writing made him one of the few figures that benefitted from 1960s-era historical revisionism. In my generation, the pedagogy of the Founding has been complicated- how can the Virginia planters that dominated politics be lauded, when their leisure was the result of human bondage? Even now, the critique is hesitant and usually after-the-fact. Paine is in full color, waiting to be embraced.

So I believe that the question of Paine’s place in the traditional Founders isn’t worth debating. He fits in with the Founding Fathers that represent the rest of the spectrum of the American people. Harriet Tubman. Sojourner Truth. Frederick Douglass. Lucretia Mott and William Ll0yd Garrison. And even John Brown, who despite his troubling nature still was willing to die to make “all men are created equal” something other than a statement of hypocrisy. Their revolution was about more than white men and their property rights. I suggest a promotion to hang out with a much more fitting pantheon.