Growing up attending a Unitarian Universalist Sunday school I did learn something about the history of Unitarian Universalism and something about the various religions of the world. Two weeks ago, in my sermon on suffering, I told the story of the Buddha’s adolescence and early childhood. The story of the Buddha was something I first learned in elementary school.
But, more important than any story, I also learned a particular approach to religion. I grew up learning that it was okay to ask questions about religion, that I could author my own religious understandings, that the differences between the beliefs and practices of different religions were not threatening, and that differences were worthy of respect. This education was priceless.
Another priceless learning happened in the areas of morality, values, and character. Religion, we learned, didn’t just have to do with what you thought about God or the afterlife. It had something to do with the type of person you were and how you lived your life. So, I learned something about religious stories and traditions. I learned something about how to approach thinking about religion. And, I learned something about what it means to be a good person.
But, that is not all that I learned. Some time ago I found myself asking myself, “How is it that you know what you know about civic participation?” I can tell you what grade I was in when I learned my multiplication tables. And, I can tell you what year in Sunday school we learned about the five pillars of Islam. But, when and where and from whom did I learn about the importance of civic engagement? One textbook defines civic participation in this way,
Civic engagement means working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes.I didn’t learn everything I know about civics at a Unitarian Universalist church, but some portion of what I learned came from serving on committees, working with boards, volunteering, and realizing what it meant to practice care for an institution, a community, and the larger world.
A morally and civically responsible individual recognizes himself or herself as a member of a larger social fabric and therefore considers social problems to be at least partly his or her own; such an individual is willing to see the moral and civic dimensions of issues, to make and justify informed moral and civic judgments, and to take action when appropriate.
It may interest you to know that the earliest Unitarian churches in America did not refer to their buildings as churches – or congregations or fellowships or societies – but as meetinghouses. The buildings were used for religious services on Sundays and for town meetings when the need for a town meeting arose. (The construction was also paid for with tax dollars, but that is another matter altogether.) What is interesting is that the business of the town and the business of the church were conducted in virtually the same fashion. Our annual congregational meetings look a whole lot like New England town meetings.
Our guest speaker on October 30 (Rev. Bobbie Groth) shared the fascinating history of the earliest Unitarians in Kansas. These activists literally risked life and limb to keep Kansas a free state. That was certainly one kind of civic engagement. You find stories that are equally amazing though far less dramatic in many other cities. In places like St. Louis, St. Paul, and Portland, Oregon, Unitarians played a leading role in establishing all of the important civic organizations, everything from the public school systems, universities, and libraries, to parks and museums, to various organizations that provided public services related to health and well-being.
This legacy of building social capital is not just something that our religious forebears did in the nineteenth century. My mentor, John Buehrens, recounts a visit he made as president of our movement to a Unitarian Universalist church in a mid-sized city. He met with a group of women from the church who told him that had been the largest city in the United States without a Planned Parenthood – well, at least until they started one!
Now, Unitarianism may be better known today if those people in St. Louis, St. Paul, Portland, and Lawrence, Kansas, had named all of their institutions after their faith. Alas, they also had humility. But, the important thing to note is that the building of these secular social institutions was the expression of a theological idea and a spiritual value. They believed that the arts and public education and public parks and social services that provide for the common good ought to be funded and protected. This is a sentiment that is much in need right now.
I want to talk about two books that offer troubling observations about the current state of civic engagement in our society. A decade ago Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. His study documented the decline of membership and participation in civic organizations. In an appendix he lists forty civic and professional organizations, everything from 4H to the Knights of Columbus to Parent Teacher Associations to the American Medical Association. All of these organizations were formed in the early decades of the twentieth century. All of them saw membership spikes in the 1950s and 60s. And, all of them have seen significant decreases in membership over the last three decades. Today parents are less than half as likely to participate in a Parent Teacher Association as they were forty years ago. Today professionals are much less likely to belong to professional associations in their field than they were in the 1960s.
On to book number two. Just a few weeks ago, a team of social scientists led by Christian Schmidt of Notre Dame University, released a book entitled Lost in Transition, a study of the lives and struggles of young adults aged 18-23. The researchers write,
Democracy requires the active political participation of its people. A thriving republic depends upon its citizens becoming civically informed and active in order to exercise the informed public stewardship needed to sustain communities of responsibility and freedom… Any thriving human life, by most accounts, requires some participation in civic life, extending oneself beyond one’s private world to participate in broader communities and public institutions. By doing so, people have the chance to learn more about the larger world, connect relationally with different kinds of people, consider how to build shared lives together that benefit all, and personally contribute to the well-being of others.The researchers continue, writing,
Most [young people] are either alienated from or despairing of public life in various ways, or maintain only tenuous connections to actual civic or political involvements.And, if observations like these are true, it is mostly a case of the acorn not falling all that far from the tree. Putnam shows how rates of civic participation have been decreasing steadily for decades and decades. In searching for information and statistics on voting, the best sources I could find show that rates of voter participation have been slowly decreasing over the past forty years and were already decreasing even before today’s young people were born.
During midterm elections, less than one out of five of eligible voters votes in the primary. Twice that number, just over forty percent of eligible voters, votes in the midterm general elections. Or, put another way, eighty percent of those eligible to vote fail to vote in primaries. Sixty percent of those eligible to vote fail to vote in midterm elections. And, at least forty percent of those eligible to vote fail to vote in presidential elections.
Consider these extremely disparate images. Last week in our worship service we heard about families from Massachusetts who chose to move into a virtual warzone over 1,000 miles away in order to advocate for their deeply held abolitionist beliefs. This week we hear about people who cannot be bothered to vote. A century ago they created school systems from scratch in frontier cities; today they are less likely than ever to belong to a Parent Teacher Association.
On the subject of civic and political disengagement, the authors of Lost in Transition make this telling observation. They write,
We… find a statistically significant correlation among the [young people] we interviewed between enthusiasm for mass consumerism and lack of interest in political participation. The more [they] are into consumerism, the less they are into politics and civic engagement…I want to ask us to hold onto the phrase, “a rich network of various sorts of communities and social institutions.” Wendell Berry, the great American writer and environmental activist, once wrote, “There is, in practice, no such thing as autonomy. Practically, there is only a distinction between responsible and irresponsible dependence.”
More profoundly at issue are their very visions of what a human self and society are and ought to look like. The ideology and practice of mass consumerism reshapes people – their fundamental visions of who and what they are – not into active citizens but acquisitive consumers. Society itself is transformed not into a rich network of various sorts of communities and social institutions that together comprise a civil society and promotes human flourishing, but rather a national mega-supermarket of endless products and services.
What disappears with the cultural takeover of mass consumerism are shared social identities, organic communities of solidarity, the civic virtues of duty and responsibility, and the learned processes of public deliberation, consensus building, and conflict resolution. What takes their place instead are individual-preference formation, acquisitive materialism, entertainment, and the sating of desires.
On the back cover of your order service you’ll find what you find every week, the seven principles of the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association. These principles hold in dynamic tension our own individual freedoms and our larger responsibilities toward one another, our society, and our world.
The seventh principle, “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part,” usually evokes images of nature. If I ask you to imagine an interdependent web you might think of ecosystems, food chains, the carbon cycle, the water cycle, the cycles of seasons, and so on. I think these environmental understandings are a part, an important part, of the seventh principle, but that the seventh principle also speaks to the interdependence of human beings in human society. It speaks to systems of health care, social services, government, and education. It speaks to financial systems and markets. Indeed, what Wendell Berry says is true, “There is, in practice, no such thing as autonomy. Practically, there is only a distinction between responsible and irresponsible dependence.”
In the architecture of the New England meetinghouse there was little difference between civic engagement and faith. On the Kansas frontier there was little difference between civic engagement and faith. In the building of cities there was little difference between civic engagement and faith. May you go forth aware that civic engagement is an expression of spirituality, that autonomy is a myth, and that we are called to practice “responsible dependence” within the interdependent web.