our calling

From the President
 Contents: UU World January/February 2003
January/February 2003

In an age of terror, a new call for civic courage

I was privileged, in mid-October, to be part of an extraordinary gathering at the Arlington Street Church in Boston celebrating the rich history of Unitarian Universalist leadership in protecting civil liberties. Gobin Stair, retired director of the UUA's Beacon Press publishing house, and the Rev. Robert N. West, former UUA president, recalled the Nixon administration's campaign of threats and harassment aimed at blocking Beacon from publishing the Pentagon Papers, the government's secret review of the Vietnam war. We heard from Ellery Schempp (see "A Victory for the Heretics"), whose refusal to recite the Lord's Prayer in school one morning led to the 1963 Supreme Court decision that abolished mandatory school prayer. We heard from the Rev. Jack Mendelsohn, the minister who served Arlington Street throughout the tumultuous 1960s. "Not every member of this congregation agreed that it was a bad idea for us to be waging war in Vietnam," he remembered. "But the congregation was fully supportive of making this . . . a center where the civil liberty of objection, of protest against what we were doing in Vietnam, was to be heard."

New Threats to Civil Liberties

Living by Our Faith
by Tom Stites
Fear of Freedom
by Wendy Kaminer
A Victory for the Heretics
by Kimberly French
What You Can Do
by Jane Greer

See also

And we heard from Daniel Ellsberg, who as a government analyst in 1971 leaked the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg was in Boston the evening of our celebration for a reading from his new book, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, so he arrived at the end of our program. He was suffering from laryngitis, but he told about two hundred fifty people in the Arlington Street pews, "I would have gotten out of a sickbed to come here to be with you. Beacon Press and the Unitarian church have shown the civic courage we need, our country needs, to survive."

In this age of terror and war we are again called to civic courage, again called to assure "the civil liberty of objection." We are called by our consciences — and by a vote of the delegates to last June's General Assembly in Québec City that designates civil liberties as our new Study/Action Issue. Our Arlington Street program was one response to this call; ways your congregation can join the study/action process are listed on page 27 of this issue.

Unitarian Universalists have always stepped forward to defend civil liberties in times of challenge: In addition to our speakers, think of the Rev. John Haynes Holmes, the Unitarian minister who helped to found both the NAACP and the ACLU early in the twentieth century; think of the Unitarians and Universalists who stood up for those whose civil liberties were violated during the McCarthy era.

Now it is our turn. We find ourselves living in an era when our attorney general makes statements that dissenters give "ammunition to America's enemies" and "only aid terrorists." But I disagree: If we love our country, we are being patriotic to ask honest questions about whether our government's actions, such as the USA Patriot Act, make us more secure or merely less free. The civil libertarian and eloquent Beacon author Wendy Kaminer addresses this increasingly urgent topic in this issue's cover story, starting on page 21.

I urge you to get involved. Make your congregations centers where "the civil liberty of objection" can be exercised in the safety of religious community. It's easy to assume that the first step is action, but we will act more wisely if our first step is reflection. Let us continue to affirm, in the words of a 1951 joint resolution on civil liberties by the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America (ten years before they consolidated to form the UUA), our "loyalty to the freedom of the mind to believe and of the tongue to speak what the mind believes," and that "national security is guarded more through freedom and constructive criticism than it ever could be through the silence of conformity and fear."

In faith,
President, Unitarian Universalist Association

 Contents: UU World January/February 2003
UU World XVII:1 (January/February 2003): 5

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