Conscience and Democracy

a sermon by the Reverend Paul Oakley
11:00 AM, Sunday, November 12, 2017



Remember? back in September when I preached on the Seventh Principle that Unitarian Universalist congregations covenant to affirm and promote and sang this little song on the Seven Principles by my first internship mentor’s internship mentor the Rev. Tony Larson[1]?


Oh I believe in every person’s
worth and dignity
In justice and compassion
I believe in equity
Acceptance of each other
Encouragement to grow
A free and open search for truth
To find the way to go

Affirm the right of conscience
and affirm democracy
The goal of world community
With peace and liberty
Respect the web of nature
Of which we are a part
These are UU Principles
I hold close to my heart


“Affirm the right of conscience, and affirm democracy…” In the language used for children in our denomination’s Tapestry of Faith curricula, “We believe that all persons should have a vote about the things that concern them.”[2] Or in the language used in the Bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the fifth of our principles is worded as, “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.”[3] No matter how you word it, it feels like self-evident truth to most of us, doesn’t it?


We live in a country where, if we choose to exercise the right, every adult citizen can vote to select our leaders at every level of government. Yes, more precisely, those of us with privilege have that right. We belong to any number of organizations where we vote. We are part of a congregation here, where each June we vote on who our Board members, trustees, and delegates to the General Assembly of our denomination will be. Each June we vote on a budget under which this congregation will operate for the coming year. Some years there are revisions of the bylaws that govern us that come to a vote at the annual meeting. When I came to this Fellowship as a ministerial candidate back in April/May 2015, you voted whether to call me as your minister. And each year at General Assembly, the delegates of this congregation join with the delegates from all the congregations of our denomination to vote in various ways on the direction we will take together and the commitments we make together.


How many of you can remember the first time you voted on something? How old were you? In Grade School? High School? Did your family have votes about what to eat or where to vacation? Did the issues being voted on seem important? In what year did you vote in a presidential election for the first time? Was this an important experience, and important duty to you?


When the Unitarians and Universalists came together in the new, shared association in 1961, the third of the original six principles read, “To affirm, defend and promote the supreme worth of every human personality, the dignity of man, and the use of the democratic method in human relationships.”[4] The supreme worth of every person was long established wording. Many would have known it from John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s Credo from 1941.[5] But the phrase was used by the Universalists in the 1930s and has deep roots in the Protestant Reformation.[6]&[7] The phrase “the dignity of man” was even older, going back to The Oration on the Dignity of Man, composed in 1486 by Pico della Mirandola, a key document of the Renaissance that stressed human potential. In 1961, the American ideal of using “the democratic method in human relationships” was linked to these Protestant and Humanist concepts that stood right at the heart of two movements that reshaped Western society and culture. In the stream of Locke and the Framers of our Republic, this was a natural grouping, a framing of the Western Protestant civilization which dominated America.


But by 1984, when the current version of our association’s principles, now seven in number, were approved by delegates from the congregations, supreme worth and dignity were rephrased and refocused in the new First Principle, “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” while the democratic process, augmented by the right of conscience, became a separate Fifth Principle. Between 1961 and 1984 other momentous changes were happening in American society, changes perhaps as enormous in scale as the Reformation and the Renaissance were in their time. In 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr., called people to Selma to march to Montgomery, and Unitarian Universalists joined the march and deepened their commitments to racial equity. Our very own Rev. James Reeb and Unitarian Universalist layperson Viola Liuzzo became martyrs to the cause in Selma, two of the four martyred in that action.[8] Through the Selma experience, social justice and racial equity became causes that fused into the UU self-understanding. The right to vote was what was at stake, what was sought in Alabama. The power of the Civil Rights Movement brought the Civil Rights Act of 1965, the same year our two martyrs for justice lost their lives in Selma. Then as the Vietnam War heated up, Unitarian Universalist activists joined in the protests, and 18-year-olds were granted the right to vote, the pressure for which was built on the argument of its being unjust to draft people to fight the nation’s war who were too young to vote in the elections that put in power the politicians who sent them to war. The war protests were also about demanding that the people be heard about whether to continue the war at all. These large Unitarian Universalist social actions of the 1960s were about the democratic process. The democratic process, which was always there in the first set of principles, is, in the current principles, given an upgrade in status. No longer is democracy linked in our principles to theories about humanity and the individual human’s worthiness. Indeed, human worthiness is a quality of our existence that we affirm and promote in its own right rather than only as an adjunct to the ways we organize ourselves and make decisions. The democratic process is, instead, now linked with the right of conscience. The right to decide in religion is linked with the right to decide in organizational, legislative, and governance matters.


Though the right of conscience is not explicitly part of the earlier version of the principles, the concept was fresh. In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from 1948, the 18th Article reads: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” In the wake of World War II and the experience of the evils of Nazism and Fascism, the world was ready at least to give lip service to the idea of the right of conscience, the fight for the soul of every person to be free to a fuller extent.


The right of conscience was an expression that Thomas Jefferson got from John Locke, who got it and adapted it from Martin Luther, the key figure in the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther coined the phrase “freedom of conscience” at the Diet of Worms in 1521 to justify his refusal to recant his accusations against the Catholic Church.[9] The individual human mind or heart, led by God, was an essential part of the project of the Reformation. What I trust you’re hearing in these densely woven bits of history is just how deeply rooted our principles are in general and our Fifth Principle, in particular. The Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Protestant Reformation, the formation of the American Republic, the struggle against world fascism, the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War Protests and so much more are the strands that are so densly woven in our principles. “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large” feels like a self-evident truth because it shares the soul of our national culture and runs deep into its philosophical, artistic, and religious origins.


If our principles are so closely linked to the historical development of our national culture, what might this say for the universality of our religion that we sometimes claim? If you think about it, democracy and the free expression arising from a free conscience do not comprise the larger portion of human history. Much of religion in the world is, even now, structured hierarchically or with splashes of equity in a sea of hierarchy and control, as if seeking to protect truths too fragile to live free in the world. And there is where the difference is possible in a faith that sees itself as living tradition – not only in the good it instills but in its essentially evolutionary nature. Unitarian Universalism proudly evolves toward expanding consciousness, expanding knowledge, expanding truth, expanding circles of acceptance and celebration.


Remember I said a few minutes ago that “We live in a country where, if we choose to exercise the right, every adult citizen can vote to select our leaders at every level of government. Yes, more precisely, those of us with privilege have that right.” There, of course, has never been equality of the vote in America. It started out as a privilege for white property-owning males. And it went through difficult and sometimes violent periods of expansion through the deep, committed engagement of activists. And every expansion of voting rights has been fought through trickery and violence by those holding what can only be seen as an anti-evolutionary faith. Over the course of the past several years, many US states have passed voter suppression acts and practices, using such methods as: impediments to voter registration; photo ID laws; purging of voter rolls; limitations on early voting; felon disenfranchisement; transgender disenfranchisement; disinformation about voting procedures; inequality in election day resources; closure of DMV offices; caging lists used by political parties to actively try to disenfranchise registered voters; gerrymandering; new Jim Crow laws; and placing sensitive initiatives on the ballot in off-year elections, when turnout is lower. There has always been trickery at play in politics, but the mechanisms for keeping legitimate voters from voting work to take the vote away from some of the same people that the faithful efforts of activists have worked to enfranchise.


Here in Virginia there is a photo-ID law that has been gently expanded to include as acceptable photo IDs from private schools. Different house and senate versions of a bill that would improve voting access for certain persons with criminal convictions passed, but neither was enacted. And a bill to allow absentee voting (HB 1912) passed both house and senate. Advocacy groups are fighting gerrymandering in the Commonwealth, but the work is not finished. The news is not perfect here, and there remains work to be done, but we have seen some improvements that lessen the impact of some of the voter suppression. And there are efforts at expanding voting that can use your support as well.


Our Fifth Principle calls on us to build a society with expanding access to voting and expanding respect for the right of conscience, even for those we most disagree with. Historically expanding the vote to people without property, to women, to people of color was enough only for its moment of achievement. Dayeinu, lo dayeinu, to play on the words from Passover, the festival of freedom. The work of expanding democracy through the vote continues.  “We covenant to affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” In society at large. The reform of our voting system to include all adult citizens in our formal decision-making process is not just a good idea, a just idea, a compassionate idea, it is a mandate of our faith, voted into place by the delegates representing the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association.


The Universe is expanding. Humanity is expanding. Love and justice can expand too, but not without our commitment and effort. It is our Living Tradition, requiring us to grow.


Amen and Blessed Be.



[1] “UU Principles Song” by the Rev. Tony Larson, who has been the minister of Olympia Brown Unitarian Universalist Church in Racine, Wisconsin, for the past 42 years.





[6] Universalism in America: A Documentary History of a Liberal Faith, edited by Ernest Cassara, revised edition 1997, p 256.

[7] Chapter 2 of The Decline of Liberalism as an Ideology, by John H. Hallowell (Routledge, 1946)




© 2017 by Rev. Paul Oakley