I came into my first ministry just months after a knock-down, drag-out fight had threatened to split the Universalist Unitarian Church of Joliet, the 126-year-old congregation I was serving. The conflict was heated, and the battle lines were starkly drawn between those who advocated for inviting the Spirit of Life into the sanctuary by painting the walls a warm lilac, and those who insisted that a bold aubergine was the only path toward spiritual wholeness.
It turns out we have what the kids these days call “Big Feelz” about our spiritual homes. So you can imagine that when the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America began the process of merger, there was massive negotiation to determine what kind of Church the two bodies would create together. There were enough similarities between the theologies and practices of each tradition that it made sense to join forces. But there were also significant differences in their governance structures, their cultures, and their histories, and there were myriad challenges to articulating a shared theology and a shared governance structure for an entirely new denomination.
At the first General Assembly in 1961, the Commission on Merger presented a set of bylaws for the newly-formed Unitarian Universalist Association (a name that still doesn’t sit right with some of the Universalists among us, I must note). Among other things, the bylaws enumerated the UUA’s “corporate purposes,” most of which will likely ring a bell if you’re familiar with our contemporary 7 Principles. They included things like “To strengthen one another in a free and disciplined search for truth as the foundation of our religious fellowship” and “To implement our vision of one world by striving for a world community founded on ideals of brotherhood, justice, and peace.”
Nestled between the other five statements of purpose, however, was #3: “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.”
Now, to quote a Sesame Street song from my childhood, “One of these things is not like the others.” Out of the six purposes affirmed in those 1961 bylaws, this is the only one that leads with a religious belief — “the supreme worth of every human personality, [and] the dignity of man.” These are significant word choices, drawing from long legacies among both the Universalists and the Unitarians, expressing one of the fundamental theological tenets that separated “liberal religion” from other forms of Christianity rooted in a fundamental belief in human depravity and sin.
This theological anthropology (thank you to my Meadville Lombard education for that million-dollar seminary concept), this bold declaration that humans are endowed not with inherent sinfulness, but with inherent worth and dignity, was considered heresy by the mainline Church for hundreds of years. And from this grand, lofty, sweeping theological assertion, the writers of those bylaws immediately veer into a commitment to a particular form of governance.
Why? Listen to it again: “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.” It’s an if-then statement: if we believe that humans are endowed with inalienable worth and dignity, then we must create institutions and societies in which every person is equally empowered to determine, as a part of the collective, what is best for the people. If the people are born with the twin blessings of agency and conscience, then they must be trusted to govern themselves. If our theological anthropology is one of belovedness and potential, then our polity — how we choose to govern ourselves — must be democratic.
Neither the Universalists nor the Unitarians had historically mentioned democracy in their covenants and statements of belief. But the leaders who wordsmithed the purposes of the UUA were undeniably people of their time. Remember that this group arrived at the table in 1960, having witnessed within the past two decades the global rise of fascism and authoritarianism, and a world war that revealed the depths of the human potential for destruction and evil through the Holocaust and the unleashing of the atom bomb. The post-war period ushered in the hysteria of the Red Scare and McCarthyism, alongside the simultaneous rise of the Civil Rights movement. Is it any wonder, then, that the original purposes of the nascent Unitarian Universalist Association boldly asserted theological anthropology of inherent worth and dignity intertwined with a commitment to the practice of democracy as the truest way to honor that understanding of human nature?
In the US, democracy is a concept so deeply embedded in the national mythology that it is cited as the inspiration and the justification for social movements and legislative acts originating from every point along the political spectrum. The Revolutionary War and the Three-Fifths Compromise; the internment of Japanese Americans and the Voting Rights Act; the Black Panther Party and the Oath Keepers — all claimed to be fueled by a commitment to protecting or expanding democracy. It is such an often-exploited, emotionally laden term that it seems sometimes to have lost all meaning.
But at its root, democracy is an ancient and simple concept. From the Greek demos (the people) and kratia (power or rule), it simply means a system of government by which the people rule themselves.
Perhaps the most famous definition of democracy is one usually attributed to Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address, which ends: “that a government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” It is less well-known that these timeless words were appropriated from a speech made 13 years earlier by the controversial Boston abolitionist, transcendentalist, and Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker, speaking at the New England Anti-Slavery Society convention of 1850. That evening, in front of a multiracial crowd of both seasoned and burgeoning abolitionists, Parker declared that there was an irreconcilable conflict between America’s current embrace of the brutal system of chattel slavery and the nation’s lofty aspirations toward freedom. He said:
There is what I call the American idea. I so name it, because it seems to me to lie at the basis of all our truly original, distinctive, and American institutions. It is itself a complex idea, composed of three subordinate and more simple ideas, namely: The idea that all men have unalienable rights; that in respect thereof, all men are created equal; and that government is to be established and sustained for the purpose of giving every man an opportunity for the enjoyment and development of all these unalienable rights. This idea demands, as the proximate organization thereof, a democracy, that is, a government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people.
Parker’s original includes one key word, repeated three times, that Lincoln omitted: ALL. And it seems that that omission is the story of this nation itself: a country that aspires in theory to liberty and justice for each and every one of its people, but whose leaders in practice have consistently failed to create the conditions of possibility for such a reality. For those among us who are poor or undocumented or Black or Indigenous or people of color or trans or queer or female or disabled or… or… or… in the words of Langston Hughes, “America never was America to me.”
But for Theodore Parker, and for so many political philosophers and theologians before and since, even though our society has yet to fully realize its promise, democracy remains our best hope for a truly equitable society with liberty and justice for all.
Why? Again, because of our theological anthropology. While our Universalist and Unitarian traditions rejected the notion of original sin and depravity, we also acknowledge that our inborn belovedness does not prevent humans from experiencing — and in turn committing — evil. None of us is irredeemable, but neither is any of us without imperfection. So, then, no individual can be the singular savior of the people — be it a messiah or a monarch. Structures that concentrate power in the hands of the few will always privilege their interests over those of the many.
But our collective theological anthropology is more optimistic. Because we are individually born from that deep Love from which we can never be separated, we believe the people as a whole retain a connection to and a will toward that source of goodness and creativity from which we can never be severed. And the more of all the people who are allowed a voice in what is done to all the people, the more likely that we will err on the side of mutual care, support, and collective well-being for all the people.
This is the hope of democracy. Yet throughout history, societies and organizations have fallen short of fully realizing their democratic aspirations through idolatry of the structures created to live them out. In this late-stage capitalist, neo-liberal America, we see this tendency every day, from the disingenuous machinations of those who would use “state’s rights” to justify disenfranchising entire communities and criminalizing healthcare for certain kinds of bodies, to the white nationalist and Christian supremacist ideologies that fueled the January 6 insurrection seeking to “Make America Great Again.” When we give our deepest loyalty to the thing we’ve built (the nation, the government, the church) rather than to the principles that led us to build it in the first place, we undercut the potential of democracy to create the conditions of possibility for collective liberation.
This, beloveds, is why I want to suggest that the task of resuscitating, of re-imagining, of reincarnating democracy is fundamentally a religious one, and perhaps the most urgent of our time. Like so many of our ancestors, we are living through an apocalypse; this one defined by climate catastrophe, unprecedented economic inequality, and ideological warfare. And as religious leaders and spiritual communities, these times call us to the work of religare — of re-binding — our uncompromising belief in the inherent worth and dignity of all the people with our unflagging commitment to building a society in which the potential in each of us is realizable by all of us.
I want to be clear that I’m very much a cynic about the actual forms democracy has taken thus far in human history. Far from an institutionalist, if I were on a dating app I might list my hobbies as trying to abolish the prison-industrial complex, dismantle white supremacy, and overturn the cis-hetero-capitalist kyriarchy (well, that and obsessively re-watching The Golden Girls on Hulu). The truth is, when it comes to both the state and the church, I am heartbroken that we profess liberatory aspirations while practicing a neo-liberal worship of the status quo. Because both the United States and Unitarian Universalism are structures that aspire to embody particular sets of values, I am deeply ambivalent about whether their current incarnations are even worth trying to redeem and repair.
Fortunately, the promise of democracy within our faith and in our world lies in a belief not that institutions are infallible, but that the people together will gravitate toward the common good, and collectively be better than the sum of our individual parts. In my paid work, I serve as the Organizing Strategy Director for our modern-day Unitarian Universalist Association, where I lead the team that holds all the outward-facing justice work of the UUA under the banner of Side With Love and its related campaigns. Alongside the visionary Organizing Strategy Team with whom I serve, I am reminded again and again that democracy is so much more than a political ideology or a system of governance. As a religious practice, the embodiment of democracy is a constant praxis of enlarging the “we,” and collaboratively building a reality in which power is shared, self-determination is unfettered, and reverence for life — both individual and collective — is fundamental.
My work reminds me every day that in practice, democracy looks like opening the doors of the congregation to offer safe haven to a family of undocumented immigrants or a crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters fleeing the violence of the police state. Democracy looks like multifaith coalitions plotting to create networks of hospitality and resources to ensure that everyone can access abortion care and gender-affirming medical treatment when the government criminalizes bodily autonomy and self-determination. Democracy looks like providing supplies and cooking meals and doing jail support and risking arrest alongside Water Protectors when judges and elected officials privilege the interests of multi-billion-dollar industries over the survival of future generations.
Over and over again, I am saved by watching both Unitarian Universalists and our broader movements for justice continue to show up, over and over again, to create the conditions of possibility for all of us to thrive. And from watching this work, learning from it, I can distill three basic imperatives for practicing democracy as a collective spiritual discipline and a religious act:
Graduates, future colleagues, you are not coming into ministry at an easy time in human history. The urgency is overwhelming, the heartbreak is unrelenting, and the stakes are unfathomably high. But then again, those are all the reasons you applied to seminary in the first place, weren’t they? Because you believed, like our ancestors before us, even in the face of all the brokenness, that the biggest possible “we” — the Beloved Community of all the people, by all the people, and for all the people — was an aspiration worthy of all of our fiercest commitment and our deepest loyalty.
So I leave you today with a blessing that I wrote on the eve of the 2016 elections, at a moment that is unfortunately not so different than the one we are all still in today:
You are loved beyond belief. You are enough, you are precious, your work and your life matter, and you are not alone. You are part of a "we," a great cloud of witnesses living and dead who have insisted that this beautiful, broken world of ours is a blessing worthy of both deep gratitude and fierce protection. Our ancestors and our descendants are beckoning us, compelling us onward toward greater connection, greater compassion, greater commitment to one another and to the earth. Together, we are resilient and resourceful enough to say "yes" to that call, to make it our life's work in a thousand different ways, knowing that we can do no other than bind ourselves more tightly together, and throw ourselves into the holy work of showing up, again and again, to be part of building that world of which we dream but which we have not yet seen.
May it be so. Blessed be, Ashé, and Amen.
[Watch Commencement 2022 below. The Commencement Sermon begins at 16:30.]
Rev. Ashley Horan is the Organizing Strategy Director of the UUA, where she works with a team of faithful organizers and movement builders to shape the justice work of Unitarian Universalism to be spiritually grounded and politically effective. Prior to this role, Ashley served for five years as the Executive Director of MUUSJA (the Minnesota UU Social Justice Alliance), and for seven years as core staff with the Beloved Conversations program. She lives in Minneapolis with her partner, Rev. Karen Hutt, MDiv '03, and their children.