Saturday, July 28, 2012



            You will probably never see an American flag displayed in a UU church, although you will see one in most other churches. Does that mean UUs aren’t patriotic? 

            As we prepare ourselves for the unfettered and largely unexamined display of patriotism known as “Fourth of July” , it make be good to arm ourselves with some wisdom. 

            Writing in 1932, Reinhold Niebuhr said, in Moral Man and Immoral Society:
“There is an ethical paradox in patriotism which defies all but the most astute … analysis. Patriotism transmutes individual unselfishness into national egoism. Loyalty to the nation…. becomes the vehicle of all the altruistic impulses and expresses itself with such fervor that the critical attitude of the individual toward the nation is completely destroyed…. Thus the unselfishness of individuals makes for the selfishness of nations…. What lies beyond the nation, the community of mankind, is too vague to inspire devotion.” (91)

Let’s unpack this.

First, “the critical attitude of the individual toward the nation” is essential. Why?
The very document we celebrate says so! From Howard Zinn:
The American Declaration of Independence… clearly understood (the) difference between government and citizen. It says that the purpose of government is to secure certain rights for its citizens – life, liberty, equality, and the pursuit of happiness. But governments may not fulfill these purposes and so, “whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government.” (12)

Zinn writes: In the United States today, The Declaration of Independence hangs on classroom walls but foreign policy follows Machiavelli.

What he means by that is that what is often used as a justification for actions that interfere with life, liberty and happiness, i.e. war, the prison industrial complex, all of the machinations of corporate greed, forced deportations of undocumented immigrants, etc, is a call for realism and against idealism. In fact liberals and progressives who do try to live out the true patriotism of protest and questioning the government are called “idealistic” more than anything else.

But, writes Zinn prophetically: Realism is seductive because once you have accepted the reasonable notion that you should base your actions on reality, you are too often led to accept, without much questioning, someone else’s version of what that reality is. It is a crucial act of independent thinking to be skeptical of someone else’s description of reality. (11)

Enter liberal religion, specifically Unitarian Universalism. In our American iteration, we were born from the sentiments of those who, like William Ellery Channing, understood that idealism blended with reason was the basis for a new religious impulse: “I have felt.. that a new reverence for (man) was essential to the cause of social reform. There can be no true peace.. any farther than men come to understand their affinity with and relation to God and the infinite purposes for which he gave them life… none of us can conceive the new courtesy and sweetness, the mutual kindness, deference and sympathy, the life and efforts for social melioration which are to spring up as man shall penetrate beneath the body to the spirit and shall learn what the lowest man is.”  For Channing, this was not just talk, as he gave up the most prestigious pulpit in Boston to support the cause of abolitionism.

But Unitarianism, blended now with Universalism, which should enhance its spiritual basis even further, has in many cases thrown the “spirit” part out (the baby with bathwater), allowed realism and “reason” to bully and squeeze out all notions of depth and breadth and spirit and soul and heart, so that, in way too many of our groups and gatherings there is a deadness. We can’t pray. We can’t say certain things. We have to be politically correct. We have lost our sense of humor and our sense of perspective. But perhaps worst of all, we have lost our core, what Niebuhr calls the altruistic impulse or individual unselfishness. Not entirely,but to a frightening degree.

Niebuhr writes in his other theological masterwork, Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: “ ‘Tolerance is the virtue of a people who do not believe anything’” (130).
He was quoting Gilbert Chesterton, but his point is that what he called modern secularism is dangerous because it provides no religious impulse for humility and no defense against fanaticisms. Tolerance for all forms of “religion” without question is what he calls a bourgeois indifference which will lead to nihilism. I fear for Unitarian Universalism, not our historic faith but its manifestation in the culture, on these grounds. The grounds of creeping moral relativism.

Niebuhr wrote in the same book,
The preservation of a democratic society requires the wisdom of the serpent and the harmlessness of the dove. The children of light must be armed with the wisdom of the children of darkness but remain free from their malice. They must know the power of self-interest in human society without giving it moral justification. They must have this wisdom in order that they may beguile, deflect, harness, and restrain self-interest, individual and collective, for the sake of community. 

This is an astounding quote which lends itself to volumes of interpretation. Suffice it to say that we, the liberals, are in Niebuhr’s view, the Children of “Light.” It is both our indifference and our neglect that endanger the future as much as do the self-will and ill-will of the Children of “Darkness.” 

Zinn mentions one of our own, Henry David Thoreau, who has been a beacon to so many of us, and who was for Zinn an exemplar when he was arrested for civil disobedience. In talking about patriotism, Zinn reminds readers that we must never confuse our obligation to fellow humans, which is real (Channing), with any presumed obligation to a government, which is artificial. 

“If patriotism were defined not as blind obedience to government, not as submissive worship to flags and anthems, but rather as love of one’s country, one’s fellow citizens  (all over the world), as loyalty to the principles of justice and democracy, then patriotism would require us to disobey our government when it violated these principles.” ( Zinn, 119)