Unitarian Universalism has an issue: radical goals and non-radical tactics

I finally wrote a full post on this tension I’ve had since September 2014 when I gave a guest sermon. This is based on “Not my father’s religion”, published in 2007. The contradictions in what UUs promise to do in the world and the distance they’re willing to do the radical things required is difficult. As an impatient young UU this bothers me- lots of people who were 60s radicals but have now settled down and ditched the needed politics.

Here it goes.

May 28, 2015

“Nothing in the middle of the road but yellow lines (and dead armadillos)”

This is not a lovely, soft sermon like many here. They are beautiful, but certain issues require a hardened tone. Do know that this is in the vein of Frederick Douglass, the greatest black orator in American history, when he told a group of Unitarian abolitionists, the UUs of their day, that he loved them all but would give them Hell for these twenty minutes.

The issue starts as the central point of “Not my father’s religion” by Reverend Doug Muder, from UU World. In it, he explains why his working-class factory worker father goes to a conservative Lutheran church, and not the one he preaches at. The article, which a masterwork of cutting through assumptions and stereotypes, comes to the conclusion that UUs have very few working-class members, and their beliefs contribute to that.

From an upper middle-class professional core, members don’t see the insecurity and danger in the world that regular laborers do, and often spend more time talking about the homeless than the near-homeless. There is always a danger of hidden elitism- when we use the term “flipping burgers” we often devalue that working at a Wendy’s is hard, unrewarding toil.

This taps into what I’d like to talk about, something that guided a 2014 guest sermon I gave called “And Society at Large”, which was about that Principle Five of the Seven Principles we cherish calls for democracy in all of society, including economic democracy. For the purposes of the sermon and the fact that “economic democracy” is a wide-ranging term, I didn’t use words like “socialism”. But the message that many got was clear- the church needs to live up to its radical talk. This is a church that, bluntly, is the radical children of the 1960s teaching a much more watered-down set of values to their own kids.

One person who sat up after the speech to make an announcement irritated me. Two things were annoying- first, she was making a regular political announcement (though I know the contradiction given my sermon) in the church sanctuary that is normally done outside. And secondly, she credited me as the inspiration to talk about how she needs everyone to go to the Democratic Party offices to work on the elections.

The biggest blow was not that I think the Democratic Party is a dead-end for the radical and religious, though I do. It’s that she took my leftist message and turned it into the kind of milquetoast liberalism that gives the Party its nickname- the graveyard of social movements. It’s the repeated appropriation- of gay liberation, of black resistance, of the mass left-wing movements that defined the twentieth century in many places, including the United States. These groups become cogs in a party machine and lose their independence. The black American experience we are seeing with police violence is clear- some leaders have long since joined the party apparatus, and thus their criticisms have evident limits. The young insurgents that I admire so much have sometimes booed Al Sharpton off the stage, because they’re too smart to be sold on a plan that doesn’t work. Smaller groups cannot influence large machines in the way that big money and white voter issues do.

The organization I am a part of rejects the two parties and sees that the only way to gain economic democracy, egalitarian society, and all these things that by the Seven Principles we are morally obliged to strive for- is to build a working class alternative that lacks the compromises that define the two big parties. And I felt our 2013 campaign in Seattle was an example of what many UUs may one day see as necessary- a challenge to liberal Democratic politics that are too tied to businesses and interest groups to achieve change.

Running under the then-insane demand of a $15 an hour minimum wage, our candidate Kshama Sawant- an immigrant woman of color, organizer, and professor- beat him out by the slimmest of margins, winning almost 94,000 votes.

And what happens with that radical alternative. The $15 an hour wage became a reality in Seattle, and now spread to San Francisco and Los Angeles, coming soon in Chicago and Minneapolis, New York and Berkeley. A ordinance was passed to stop landlords from raising rents by more than 400% (!) to keep gentrification at bay. Homeless encampments are allowed to stay rather than broken up by police every week or so. And the new budget is the most progressive in the country, including record funding for homeless LGBT youth and looking to invest in mass transit. Currently the struggle in Seattle is over a large oil rig headed to drill in the Arctic- given the chance by the Obama administration- where hundreds of indigenous people and environmentalists block the way out with their kayaks and banners.

Idle No More indigenous activists in Canada block a highway.
Idle No More indigenous activists in Canada block a highway.

In essence, the UUs need to change their principles or change their tactics. Many UUs will support the Democratic candidate, and I understand that. But without our own political power we will never win the victories that match our moral expectations. Indeed, when Democratic clubs all over Seattle held their 2015 endorsement meetings, they all came back with an endorsement in our district of “none of the above”- since our non-Democratic candidate cannot be directly endorsed. There is a split available more than ever in recent time between the establishment and the activists.

Unitarian Universalism would benefit from class diversity, just like it would from racial diversity, and more immigrants, and other things we discuss all the time. But class diversity is not going to be gained by tabling outside union halls and pawn shops. Our ideas are great but their expression is biased in favor of the well-educated, and those in communities that are not in crisis. I don’t see how a black janitor in a community where young men are being shot in the back will find our progressive ideals right for him, because they’re never communicated in the way he might see things.

Standoff between protesters and armed police in Ferguson, Missouri. 2014.
Standoff between protesters and armed police in Ferguson, Missouri. 2014.

As the new generation, I understand that I will be on the radical fringe until I settle down, have kids, and pay dumb taxes. But since what the UU needs are people who might see my worldview as better aligned with theirs, I can’t just be flatly ignored.

We can do this. Let’s be the radical kooks that our ancestors were when they said that slavery was an abomination and rose up as whole towns to chase slave catchers out of the North. They were one moderate reformers, but they saw the Light that radical solutions were needed to serious problems. Abolition stopped being symbolic the moment it became extralegal.

Be flexible: The long march to environmental justice

At the San Diego People's Climate march.  Photo by Andrew Mackay
At the San Diego People’s Climate march.
Photo by Andrew Mackay

There is tension in the movement attempting to prevent or mitigate the effects of climate change.

There is always tension in any coalition of people. Historically, the center-left and left have been prone to splits and animosity – even if they all agree on the major issues of the day. Climate change is no different. In New York City, a vast collection of groups and the unaffiliated came out and broke all the expectations of attendance, ending up in the vicinity of 400,000 people.

The march I went to in San Diego had both those that oppose current environmental policy in a general, non-specific way, and those with narrow issues of focus. There are the cyclists, those that oppose factory farms (or meat altogether). People advocate for solar energy, or curbing population growth. Some want to work through existing institutions (in this case, the San Diego City Council and eventually state and federal authorities), some want to create new ones. For some the solutions are simple, for others they are brutally difficult. As with any march, the question after all the inspirational rhetoric and empowering community is: what now?

A poster on the march Facebook page was fed up with the whole People’s Climate movement. Certainly there are glaring flaws in the event: corporate sponsors that are not only unpopular but environmentally damaging. A regimented march structure that kept radicals from the parts that were going to get media coverage. And the main point that popular protest has not accomplished anything beyond symbolic progress with the U.N and major polluting nation-states.

Such is the eternal split. Working within the system versus working outside of the system. Even now, 5 1/2 years in, I hear people say when a new crisis comes up, “this will really get President Obama mad, and implementing real change.” Hundreds of people in SD, and thousands in the many other marches in solidarity with NYC signed pledges and petitions. Symbolic acts like petitions and marches often yield symbolic reaction from politicians. Groups are welcomed, in this area into the Democratic machine. Their anger is used to further the institution, and the power of mass social movement is lost. Gaining currency is the phrase “graveyard of social movements” going back to the Civil Rights Movement and before that with Protestant reform efforts that used women’s issues as a springboard. Both modern parties do it, because motivated people win elections.

Socialist Alternative talking with the community. Photo by Andrew Mackay
Socialist Alternative talking with the community.
Photo by Andrew Mackay

In the end, I participated with Socialist Alternative- we sold papers and booklets about the environment, and how a new economic system could stop the exploitation of the Earth and its inhabitants. People were receptive, and eager to engage in conversation. Even if I had no group affiliation, I still would have gone as a show of solidarity. Flexibility of tactics helps keep groups united and working in the right direction. Even if a protest is not organized exactly as I would have liked, it shouldn’t prevent participation.

These marches are a starting point, or a recharge to get people moving to the next step. Despite its flaws, I will one day have to justify to the next generation my actions. That is not only my carbon footprint, but also my moral philosophy, and affirmation that their lives and happiness are essential to my being. Few here think one march will create real progress, but it’s important to show up. All justice in the world was gained by those that showed up and used their will and tenacity.