The Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Association

Reflections from the President of the UUA

July/August 1999

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The theme of this issue is democracy.

Unlike, say, consumerism, democracy requires trust and other personal and interpersonal qualities. In other words, it requires virtues.

I first began to contemplate this topic when I was pondering whether to run for president. A trip to Israel and the Occupied Territories was followed by a month of traveling on my own through Greece. While I didn't find an oracular answer at Delphi or a revelation on Patmos, in an Athens bookstore I did find a book by Cynthia Farrar called Origins of Democratic Thinking, which illuminated the democratic virtues” for me. According to Farrar, there are four of them: realism, moderation, justice, and courage.

Realism. The most basic virtue, according to the ancients, is a full awareness of the present and a full understanding of history. Tradition calls this quality prudence but not in the sense of “excessive caution. Here prudence means the ability to understand both what is and what has been as a precondition to seeing what yet might be. Democracies especially need this quality, for as George Santayana famously put it, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

In a democracy where the people lack realism, they can easily overestimate their powers. If the people don’t know history and thus don’t accept their limitations, even persuasive leaders sometimes cannot dissuade democratic assemblies from self-destructive actions.

In ancient Athens, for example, Pericles tried to persuade the Assembly not to launch an invasion of Sicily. He failed. The invasion ended poorly, discrediting the democratic experiment itself and leading to its replacement by an oligarchy. When the people lack realism, history shows that such are the results.

Moderation. Tradition calls this virtue temperance, but we’re not talking about what you drink or eat here, friends. This kind of temperance is not about what goes into people’s mouths but what kind of words come out of them, and its absence is a matter not of substance abuse but rhetorical abuse.

Democracies give everyone the right to speak and deliberate the common good, but that’s useless without a broadly shared concern for the quality of discourse in public forums and for standards of civility and respect in dealing with one another. 

It’s no accident that we call the person who presides over our General Assembly the moderator. Denny Davidoff is brilliant at the job. She knows that in a religious community, leaders have only three legitimate tools: truth, humor, and silence—and that moderation involves knowing which to use when. 

Fairness. The ancients called this virtue justice. Theologian Reinhold Neibuhr observed that the human “capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

Of course, finding injustice or unfairness is easy. American culture has raised blaming almost to an art form. Cultivating basic fairness as a democratic virtue would mean focusing instead on our own attitudes and behavior.

Perhaps we need a comprehensive “theory of justice,” as philosophers like John Rawls suggest. Yet I’m more interested in fairness as a quality of character, without which no theoretical approach to justice can ever be put into widespread practice.

America’s struggle to restore goodwill calls us to a renewed understanding of the reciprocity between “the one and the many.” That is, we need to see ourselves as more than just atomistic individuals. Democracy requires us to see the social reality we share as shaping all of us, and vice versa. Fairness requires it, because only a sense of social reciprocity can help us revive the virtues most necessary to maintain and strengthen democracy.

Courage. This is sometimes called the ladder on which all the other virtues rise. Yet the southern writer Lillian Smith, deeply involved in the struggle against racism, saw courage as “a word for others to use about us, not something we can seek for ourselves.” As Atticus Finch says to his daughter in Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.”

Far more could be said about the democratic virtues. Each merits an essay, a book of its own. For now, let’s just ponder them as key qualities necessary to sustain and develop true democracy: realism, moderation, fairness, and courage. And if they are lacking, let us first be concerned about that lack not in others but in ourselves. 

Yours in faith, hope, and love,
John Buehrens
President, Unitarian Universalist Association

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