In Unitarian-Universalism, we gather ourselves and our faith around seven Principles. Our Principles are not religious dogma in content. They are ethical principles in that they embody rather explicitly the things we value. They allow us to bring stories and content both religious and otherwise to them to help us reflect on how to live their wisdom. As such, they are or can be points of return for us. I think of points of return as those places, ideas, people and memories to which we return to find our center, to find our moorings, to find the clarity we need in order to make decisions, to move forward, to create.
5th Principle: The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.
Of all of our principles, this one–the right to use one’s own conscience and to make use of the democratic process–may go the heart of the problem of being American than any other. Of course, all seven principles arise out of our deep and wide tradition of progressive religion, but this one speaks to what I consider a particularly difficult American situation: the tension between the freedom of the individual and the obligation that we all have to create a just society. The power to engage my own conscience implies the power and freedom of me as individual. Yet, the very word con-science implies a kind of knowing that we have together as human beings. It is mine, and yet it is born of us all. The democratic process implies a communal way of making choices, of establishing law and order, of providing for equality in society, and yet too often the democratic process is reduced to two sides pitted against each other with a “winner” emerging with only 51% of the vote. Too often, as our current presidential election process demonstrates, we end up more wounded and estranged from each other because of the democratic process as we practice it than united because of it.
Despite the way that this principle sounds, the use of conscience is never just an act of the individual though it certain aims to protect any individual’s conscience and exercise of it. This principle endorses the democratic process but not the binary thinking that often arises from it. If we probe these ideas, I think what we emerge with is this: the call to community, a community where the individual is honored and valued and where it is clear that community only ever happens when individuals choose intimacy and compassion for on another. From our corners of isolation, this principle calls us to return again the communities that make us whole. None of us is ever completely whole when we are just alone.