The Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Association

We Can't Just Hope:
Commitment to Democracy Spurs Some UUs to Seek Elected Office
By Hans P. Johnson

July/August 1999

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“Because of my last name, people know I’m Jewish,”  says New Hampshire state Sen. Burt Cohen. “What they don’t know is I’m also a UU.” 

Community service has long been a hallmark of both the Unitarian and Universalist movements. But with his dual religious identity, Cohen, a member of the UU Church of Portsmouth, stands out from the white Anglo-Saxon bluebloods who were the earliest UUs in public office.

“For many generations, public service was identified with social status,” says UUA President the Rev. John Buehrens. “Well, guess what! We were the elite. And we were disproportionately represented in public office in the Northeast throughout the 1800s.” From one Unitarian family alone came two presidents: John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams, both of Massachusetts. Thomas Jefferson had strong Unitarian sympathies. Unitarian Horace Mann, the crusader for public education who went on to found Antioch University in Ohio, began his career as a Massachusetts legislator. And Millard Fillmore, who spent his presidency looking for a middle ground on slavery, belonged to the First Unitarian Church in Buffalo, New York.

Universalists, says Buehrens, were generally less privileged than Unitarians, and less involved in politics. Fewer Universalists have held elected office, notwithstanding the legendary Washburns—a family of Maine Universalists, headed by a bankrupt storekeeper that saw four of seven sons serve in Congress, with two also serving as governors during the late 1800s. 

Despite their political prominence in the 18th and 19th centuries, Unitarians and Universalists began to fade from the nation’s political stage around the time that President William Howard Taft, a Cincinnati Unitarian, left the Oval Office in 1913. Some politicians even began to shy away from the Unitarian or Universalist label, fearing that it placed them outside the religious mainstream and would arouse popular fear. 

Adlai Stevenson, the Illinois governor and two-time Democratic presidential candidate in the 1950s, identified publicly as a Presbyterian though he was, according to UU historian Laurence Staples, born a Unitarian and attended All Souls Church, Unitarian occasionally when in Washington. Being a UU was controversial, Buehrens says, partly because for centuries some leaders of larger religious traditions said UUs were heretics. But another, perhaps more decisive reason, was the advent of the Cold War.

Several UUs, like others who criticized the militarism and red-baiting that followed World War II, found themselves investigated by government security officials and subject to smears in the press. Stevenson himself saw J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI try to sink one of his presidential bids with rumors of his homosexuality. Other UUs—including the Rev. A. Powell Davies, Stevenson’s minister at All Souls—won the scorn of the security establishment for criticizing the anti-Communist and anti-homosexual campaigns of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Personal and political attacks against religious liberals weren’t the only drags on UU office-holding in the postwar years. Many UUs fell away from the denomination during the 1970s, after the Unitarian and the Universalist movements merged and disagreements about the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War split many congregations. Pete Stark, an opponent of the war who is now a congressman from California, became a UU at this time. He credits his service on the board of Starr King School for the Ministry with giving him an apprenticeship in political power before his election to the House in 1972.

In the generation since the ‘60s, Buehrens says, more political issues have united UUs than divided them, including church-state separation and civil rights for bisexual, gay, lesbian, and transgendered people. UUs in politics also seem to have turned a corner on the issue of religious identity. Most UUs in elected office today—there are dozens— approach the role of religious minority not with trepidation but with determination to speak up for an often forgotten perspective and to defend religious pluralism.

Not Swayed by Shepard
Still, says Buehrens, “We’re not monolithic. After all, we’re a religious community, not a political bloc.” By no means does New Hampshire’s liberal Cohen, who in 1995 walked out of the state senate chamber to protest a speech by the Christian Coalition’s executive director  at the time, Ralph Reed, set the pattern for all UU officeholders. Whether serving in city, county, or state government, elected UUs tend to defy the stereotype of lockstep progressives who champion civil liberties and reflexively embrace the downtrodden. Take Charles Scott of Casper, Wyoming, a cattle rancher who has served in the state legislature for more than 20 years, the last 17 as state senator. A third-generation UU, Scott came west from Massachusetts at age three with his father, who helped found one of the three congregations now active in the state. 

As recent legislative accomplishments, Scott, a Republican, cites his authorship of the state’s welfare reform law, which won him criticism from a local Catholic bishop who called its cutoff of benefits after five years unduly harsh. Amid unsuccessful calls for expanded state hate crimes protections after the murder of gay Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard, Scott says he opposed explicit protections based on sexual orientation.

“I thought we should avoid a laundry list of categories,” Scott explains, referring to the series of protected status designations often found in antibias laws. “I didn’t think it was proper that a country that says all people are created equal would create special protections.”

He acknowledges that his stance on the hate crimes bill has proven unpopular with UUs. “Yeah,” he says, “I’ve been lobbied by church members, particularly down in Cheyenne”—where he attends services on Sunday mornings when legislative business keeps him in the capital city. “There are a lot of lawyers in that group, and they let me know what they thought about the hate crimes bill. But I disagree with them on a lot of other issues, too.” 

Asked whether his identity as a religious minority has ever affected his legislative work, Scott cites a recent measure he sponsored to make it clear that non-Christians could perform legal marriages in the state. “This session, I did a bill for the Jewish community,” he says, explaining that it overrode sections of state code that could be interpreted as limiting the right to preside at weddings to Christian ministers.

On its way through the senate, the bill raised the hackles of one of Scott’s colleagues, who charged that “it might allow in some kind of cult.” But because of his stature, Scott could “waive this objection aside,” he says, and the bill sailed through.

In the Beginning, Women
Few religious traditions have so benefited from the work of women—as lay leaders, ordained ministers, and framers of its core theology—as Unitarian Universalism. Fittingly, UU women have also played a major role in faith-based political activity. The hundred-year political struggle for women’s suffrage is virtually inextricable from Unitarian and Universalist history. 

Margaret Fuller, the early feminist and journalist from Massachusetts, and Susan B. Anthony, from New York, who plotted suffrage movement strategy in the half-century after the landmark convention at Seneca Falls, New York, were both Unitarians. Olympia Brown, the Universalist who in 1863 became the first woman to be officially ordained in the US later worked for suffrage all over the Midwest. 

“I see myself in a proud tradition of women who have pushed the limits and sought a role in government in our own right,” says Mayor Helen Berg of Corvallis, Oregon, a UU now in her second term. “We shouldn’t have to feel that we have something to prove, but the fact is that we do,” she says. Berg entered local politics in 1990, shortly after the death of her husband, Alan, who had served two terms as mayor in the early 1980s. In describing her own political initiation, she sounds both frank and self-effacing.

“I started going to council meetings in 1990 because they were updating the comprehensive [urban] plan on which my husband had worked so hard while he was mayor,” she recalls. “I would sit there at meetings with my hands tightly clasped, hoping they would vote the right way. And do you know, they just didn’t. Finally I said, ‘I’m either going to get an ulcer or get a seat on the council.’”

Berg, 67, resists being held up as an exemplary UU, faulting herself on everything from irregular church attendance to lack of grounding in the basics of the faith. But she speaks of a congruence between her environmentalism and the UU seventh principle. “We have a responsibility to be stewards and a conviction that we can’t just hope,” she says. “Instead, we have an obligation to do what we can to work within our common systems, be they the natural world or the world of politics.” 

As a city councilor and mayor, Berg has worked to carry out her husband’s plan, with its provisions for preventing urban sprawl and protecting her city’s green space.

Berg also joins many other UU officeholders in proudly opposing the religious right. In 1991, her first year on council, she sponsored an ordinance adding sexual orientation to the city’s human rights code. Later she defended it against two statewide repeal attempts sponsored by the religious right Oregon Citizens Alliance.

And, like most other UUs in politics, Berg hews to a separationist course on church-state relations. “I don’t attend prayer breakfasts of any sort,” she says. “And I don’t allow things to be hung in City Hall that I think are inappropriate”—symbols like cr?ches, crosses, and menorahs. “Every year,” she adds, “a local club puts on a procession the Friday after Thanksgiving. When I welcome people to that event, I don’t call it a Christmas parade.”

Of her fellow worshipers at the UU Fellowship of Corvallis, Berg says, “They inspire me. There are so many engaged, civic-minded people there, as many per square foot as any other place I can imagine. I guess I do get lobbied at church,” she says, “but no more than in the grocery store.”

Speaking Her Mind
Like Berg, Mary Patterson, a first-term Democrat in the South Dakota legislature, first won elected office late in life. Her path, at 72, resembles that of many women in politics, beginning after her two children left home and after she retired from a job as a speech therapist. As with other elected women, her career in public office also followed years of lower-profile service—in Patterson’s case, on the board of her UU congregation, All Souls Church, in Sioux Falls. “We probably have 50 members on a clear day, with the wind blowing behind us,” says Patterson.
 Patterson, like Berg, sees herself as something of a torch-bearer for women. Though, asked if she’s shaking up the old boys’ network there, Paterson quips, “I’d have to plant a bomb to do that.” 

Still, she’s found ways to apply her UU faith to policy-making. In its attempt to lure out-of-state corporations, she says, South Dakota has freely doled out tax breaks and other incentives that undercut state government’s revenue base, crimping vital services. To counter this, Patterson proposed a set of four conditions companies must meet before they can qualify for any state benefits. Inspired by principles put forth by the UUA affiliate group UUs for a Just Economic Community, Patterson’s conditions require, among other things, that companies pay workers a living wage and provide workers with safe, affordable child care. Patterson predicts the motion will go nowhere in her state’s conservative legislature. 

She has higher hopes for her ideas on the best use for the money coming to the state next year from a settlement in the multistate tobacco lawsuit. “Around here, we just tax poor people until they can’t even squeak anymore,” Patterson says. Having sponsored a successful resolution urging the federal government not to recoup proceeds from the settlement, she aims to use her state’s share to establish a foundation that would fund human services in the state.

On the question of keeping religion and politics separate, Patterson tries to apply the same standard to her own electoral politicking that she would to opponents’. “Our congregation is very liberal,” she says, “and a lot of people encouraged me to run again [after a narrow defeat when she first ran for the office in 1996]. But I didn’t want people to feel at all like they owed any help to me just because of the church.”

Looking Back—and Ahead
For two UU women now ending careers in elected office, UU churches have played a less prominent role. Hilda Mason, who served 21 years on the Washington, DC, city council before losing a 1998 reelection bid, says she doesn’t recall any instances in which All Souls Church, Unitarian, served her as a political staging ground. Nor does Fran Davin, a former commissioner in Hillsborough County, Florida, and a member of the UU Church of Tampa. Unlike most UUs in politics today, Davin says she never listed her UU affiliation on her candidate literature, though not for the reason Adlai Stevenson and others ran from their religious faith.

“Maybe it’s a backlash to being in the South, where I’ve always found it abhorrent the way people so often push their religion as a credential,” says Davin, a Democrat who served on the county commission in the late 1970s and recently finished a brief stint on the Tampa city council, where she was appointed to fill out somebody else’s unfinished term. (She jokingly calls herself the “extinguished city councilwoman.”)

As with many other UUs in politics, Davin shares a visceral opposition to the religious right. As a feminist and supporter of abortion rights and protections against discrimination for gays, she lost a 1992 state senate bid to antigay activist David Caton. But she hasn’t given up on politics and, at 65, now mentors other local women and emerging candidates in their campaigns.

Unlike Davin, a liberal defeated by a religious right candidate, UU Jackie Biskupski won a surprising victory in her conservative state of Utah, even though her antigay opponent tried to rally voters against her because she’s an open lesbian. The 33-year-old UU and auto insurance adjuster won election in 1998 representing a diverse urban neighborhood of Salt Lake City in the Utah statehouse. In the process, Biskupski, a Democrat, became the first openly gay or lesbian person to serve in the legislature of the Mormon-dominated state.

“I try to approach all issues based on what serves humanity,” Biskupski says. “My church [First Unitarian] certainly reinforces that belief. And I take that sense with me when I go to the capital.

“Whatever diversity exists in this state is present in my district, be it based on religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. I spent the whole campaign letting people know I share their values,” says Biskupski, who campaigned door to door to win election.

No Better, Just Rambunctious
In resisting smugness about her new leadership role, Biskupski is doing one important thing right, says the Rev. Forrest Church, son of the late Idaho Senator Frank Church and chair of New York City’s mayor’s council on the environment, as well as minister of the city’s All Souls Church. 

“One has to be very careful about presuming superiority because of religious difference,” says Church. “[It] can make anyone lazy, and UUs certainly aren’t immune.”

The best preventative of arrogance by UU politicians, says Cohen, the New Hampshire senator, is the vigilance of ministers and fellow congregants. He credits his longtime minister, the late Rev. Robert Karnan, with warm friendship and astute counsel during his early years in the state senate.

The advice has served him well. Portsmouth-area voters have stuck with him through five campaigns, the last against a well-funded Republican challenger from a family with a long political pedigree. At 48, Cohen is widely seen as a possible contender for either the area’s House seat in 2000 or the US Senate seat now held by Republican Bob Smith, who faces reelection in 2002. Cohen himself says only that he’s busy raising his two-year-old daughter.

While he considers his next move, he extends an invitation: “We need more UUs in politics and in public office,” Cohen says. “People who are eager to face problems head-on and not cave in, people who call upon an inclusive language of values.” 

Still, while morality is a big part of religion, successful politicians shun absolutism. As Cohen puts it, “One of the difficulties in being a liberal is that people expect purity. And that’s not always possible in politics. Not on principles but on the policy you just have to bend sometimes, because that’s what democracy means.”

Cohen recently cast a vote he deemed unpalatable: to expand gambling—which he considers to be essentially a tax on the poor—to meet a shortfall in the state’s education budget. Though the gambling proposal ultimately failed, Cohen still ruminates over his vote. “If you held out on everything dear to you,” he says, “you really wouldn’t get anything done. And you wouldn’t be serving your constituents at all in the end.”

Hans P. Johnson is assistant editor of Academe, the publication of the American Association of University Professors. He is a member of All Souls Church, Unitarian, in Washington, DC.

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