Except for All the Others

UUCSR Newsletter Article, June 2016

Several years ago I was serving as the co-chair of a congregational vision and strategic planning process in Baltimore.  As we left our fifth or sixth meeting of a single week, without any progress or end in sight, the other chair (the Vice President of the congregation), leaned over to me and whispered: “I think I understand now how dictatorships get started.”

One of the principles of Unitarian Universalism is a commitment to the democratic process, “within our congregations and the society at large.”  June is the season of congregational meetings, and between congregational democracy and a fraught election year in the society at large the commitment to the democratic process can feel strained, at times.

Our movement’s commitment to the democratic process far predates the publication of the 7 Principles in 1985.  Unitarian and Universalist theology evolved in parallel with American democracy.  Universalist optimism about human nature and the Unitarian emphasis on rational inquiry and debate are intertwined with early American ideas about developing a republic as a form of government new in the world.  And just as our society at large has struggled to expand who is allowed to participate in the democratic process, Unitarian Universalism has continually asked and questioned how wide the circle can be drawn, how we can invite all people into the process.

It is easy to get caught up in the view of democracy as a kind of national civic sport, with daily updates on candidates and the horserace for the White House.  I am certainly guilty of looking up the latest poll numbers in swing states just before I check how the Orioles are doing in the AL East (very well this year).  But democracy is more than what we see on CNN.

We are committed to the democratic process because we value that a group of individuals, with their own motivations and a commitment to the collective good, can come together and make decisions; that there is more wisdom in all of us than in any one of us.  Town boards, zoning hearings, congregational meetings: far from being secondary to the democratic process we see in the news, these are the places where the democratic process is most vibrant and visible.

Maybe Winston Churchill was right when he wrote that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried,” but to me it is a beautiful process.  Even in the fifth committee meeting in a week, there is something wonderful about the optimism and trust it calls us to have in each other.  May that call continue.