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Does Liberal Religion Imply Liberal Politics?

by Alan Cousin

From observing the Unitarian-Universalist Association and many mainline Protestant churches, you would naturally gather that liberal politics follow from liberal religion. These churches are involved in a host of social-action causes, many of which involve changes to fundamental social mores or redistribution of resources within the economy. But do liberal politics necessarily follow from liberal religion?

The answer is an unqualified "maybe." It depends on several factors. First of all, what do we mean by "liberal religion" and what do we mean by "liberal politics"?

Taking the latter first, let us bear in mind that the political use of the word "liberal" is actually very misleading. In Europe it means someone who supports individual choice and initiative, as opposed to someone who supports a large and powerful government regulating a wide variety of activities. It meant the same thing in the United States throughout the late 18th and 19th centuries.

Only since the 20th century, and only in America, has the word "liberal" come to mean support for powerful government. Even today, many American libertarians and limited government conservatives refer to themselves as "classical liberals."

What, then, do we mean by "liberal religion"? Here, too, the meaning has undergone a change. In religion, as in politics, we can draw a distinction between "classical" and "modern" liberals. In William Ellery Channing's time it meant a rejection of creeds (authoritarianism) in favor of individual inquiry and interpretation. Today, as practiced by the UUA, it seems to mean rejection of all traditional religious values. But it is no longer anti authoritarian. On the contrary, a person who defies UU orthodoxy by openly confessing belief in God can find himself very unwelcome in a UUA church.

What is the connection between liberal religion and liberal politics? Is there a necessary connection? In the emotional world of everyday life, probably not. People have a wonderful way of compartmentalizing their beliefs, not troubling with logical consistency. But what about those of us who do value consistency?

Within each distinct meaning of "liberal," it seems as if liberal religion does imply liberal politics. If we hold a belief in individual initiative and individual choice as opposed to authority, that will probably tend to cross the lines between religion and politics. There's a good chance that if we support individual autonomy in religion, we will support it in politics.

However, an adherent of classical liberal religion might very well, in all good conscience, adopt beliefs that would normally be called conservative. For example, if he chose to believe that life begins at conception, he would probably oppose abortion, based on the desire to protect the life of the unborn, whom he would consider just as much an individual as the rest of us.

He might oppose the use of tax money to fund offensive works of art, on the basis that people should not have their money taken from them to pay for things of which they disapprove. He might favor a war, such as the United States just fought in Iraq, for the purpose of ending tyranny and fostering democracy.

If, on the other hand, one holds to the right of a government to regulate a great many aspects of our lives, then that, too, will probably cross the lines between religion and politics. Moreover, if modern liberal religion, unlike the classical kind, isn't about God, or isn't about the life of the spirit, then it must take up secular causes in order not to extinguish itself. It must become, in fact, a philosophy of social change rather than a religion.

2003 American Unitarian Conference