Wielding Our Power

 Contents: UU World Back Issue

Our Power Problem

By Christopher L. Walton

/Rob Eller-Isaccs

/Michelle Bates Deakin

Unitarian Universalists tend to be anxious about power, anxious not only about being subject to it but also about wielding it. We're better known for questioning authority than for having authority. While we want to advance our values in the world, we often find our values losing ground.

In the aftermath of the November elections many Unitarian Universalists expressed dismay about the apparent influence of theologically and politically conservative Christians. Those who expected the presidential election to be a referendum on the war in Iraq found exit polls suggesting, to their surprise, that as much as 22 percent of the electorate on November 2 saw "moral values" as the most important election issue. The Washington Post reported that evangelical activists and ministers in Ohio, Michigan, and Florida took credit for the president's reelection. Voters in eleven states approved constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage. Does President Bush owe his reelection to the Christian right? As his second term begins, does the political power of the Christian right threaten the values and principles of a minority faith like ours? What are Unitarian Universalists to do?

Focusing on the religious right's self-aggrandizing claims to power may distract us from the most important lesson not just of the last election but of the last thirty years: Nothing beats the power of organization.

The Christian right hasn't grown significantly in recent years. Between 11 and 20 percent of voters identify with the Christian right, and another 12 percent of voters are conservative Catholics, conservative mainline Protestants, and Mormons who share similar values. Nor did the Christian right or frequent churchgoers vote at higher rates than other groups. (Less frequent churchgoers, however, did turn out in higher numbers in 2004.) But the Christian right did play a decisive role in organizing anti-gay-marriage movements. It remains unclear whether these movements also proved decisive in President Bush's reelection, but the Christian right is clearly invested in making it seem that they did.

The Christian Right's highly organized political efforts in support of its principles made a difference out of proportion to its numbers. There is a second lesson here for Unitarian Universalists who feel outnumbered and who fear our own principles are in danger: Even a minority can be powerful. But we need to claim our power.

The Rev. William G. Sinkford, UUA president, said in an interview just after the election that Unitarian Universalists made a difference in the election, even though concerted efforts by UU churches and individuals in support of marriage equality did not defeat the amendments. "I believe the Unitarian Universalist witness for marriage equality has had and will continue to have a positive impact on this issue," he said. "Our focus on the loving couples made it harder for our fellow citizens to see this as an abstract issue about 'values.' And our presence as a religious voice made it harder for our fellow citizens to listen only to the voices from the fundamentalist religious right."

Unitarian Universalists have our work cut out for us, though. "There is a reason the voice of the fundamentalist religious right seems so often to be the only religious voice in the public square," Sinkford said. "We religious liberals have allowed it. Until very recently, our silence has been deafening. We have allowed them to make exclusive use of religious language, we have watched while they organized and fundraised, we have witnessed their increasing influence. If we do not raise our voice, we have no one to blame but ourselves if decisions taken in the public square are informed only by the voice of those with whom we most strongly disagree."

(In addition to the work many congregations did in promoting marriage equality, UU voter registration efforts added at least 45,000 new voters to the rolls.)

Organized power takes time to build, of course. Three decades ago the American conservative movement learned the importance of developing institutions that, over time, could sway public opinion and build a coordinated grass-roots base for its causes. The Bush administration seems to have inspired similar efforts by liberal activists, who are now building networks of think tanks, media outlets, and organizations to cultivate liberal power. There are lessons in each of these developments for Unitarian Universalists.

President Sinkford believes UUs have a distinctive mission. "Our power is, and will be, to frame [voter registration] and other issues as religious issues, and to prevent the fundamentalist religious right from claiming sole occupancy of the moral high ground." He said that he urges congregations to link their advocacy work to their congregational life, as so many have done in affirming same-sex couples and marriage equality: "Our voice is far more effective because it reflects real experience rather than simply an opinion. I encourage our congregations to pay attention first to grounding the work of justice in congregational life. Our goal is to help the universe bend toward justice. We will be more effective if our congregations are already walking that path."

In doing this work, Unitarian Universalists generate power. Recognizing our power and using it to promote our values in the world fulfills one of the Sources of our living tradition: It empowers us to "confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love."

On the following pages are two articles that explore power: First, a dispatch from a dinner table where powerful UUs overcame their anxiety about discussing power in their community. And second, a profile of Joseph Nye, a Harvard professor and former U.S. assistant secretary of defense whose provocative theory about how power works on a global level has drawn international attention.

 Contents: UU World Back Issue
UU World : PAGE 22-23

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