Happy Monday, Friends! This week I continue my series of drawing inspiration for the Unitarian Universalist Seven Principles, particularly the fifth principle: “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” Since at least the 2020 election and the January 6, 2021, insurrection in Washington, DC, we have been bombarded by questions regarding the state of American* democracy and how we might rescue that democracy. Though I typically enjoy discussing political theory and philosophy, I confess that I’m exhausted of the constant tug-o-war between factions arguing about how democracy has been eroded and what we must do to save it.
The right of conscience, though, is often forgotten or dismissed in contemporary American discourse. Americans, particularly white Americans, like boxes. I learned that from a former student from Colombia. One day during a conversation on race, I asked her how she would identify her racial identity when she was home. Her answer was convicting: “I say I’m Colombian, Ben. You Americans like boxes.” Yes, indeed, my mind wanted to put her identity—and my own for that matter—into a series of boxes. Those boxes are powerful in the United States. While white Americans like to dismiss diversity efforts by saying that “we’re all Americans,” that statement often leads to questions of who is a “real” American and what criteria need to be applied for one to be placed in the “American” box.
Contemporary American politics nearly requires people to pass tests to be filtered into certain groups and boxes. The history of racial oppression in the United States includes the theory that even “one drop” of African American blood meant that one could not be considered white. The size of one’s head and the length of one’s nose were used by the debunked “science” of eugenics to classify people into different racial and ethnic groups. These examples may sound archaic, but they continue to be lived realities for marginalized groups. A marginalized person’s relative distance—literally or figuratively—to one or more of their marginalized communities is used as a litmus test for judging their membership in the dominant culture and its privileges. If you think I’m being dramatic or overreaching, check out a recent New York Times article from August 18, 2022.
When a person transgresses these tightly controlled boxes, they are immediately regarded as an outsider. US Congresswoman Liz Cheney, a Republican, has captured headlines for defying many members of her party by roundly rejecting former President Trump’s claims that the 2020 election was stolen by Democrats. The Wyoming Republican Party went as far as to expel Congresswoman Cheney from their organization. Individual groups also label either former members or their perceived enemies with various terms. “Sinner” and “heretic” are but two such terms that some Christian groups continue to use to label their detractors.
The freedom of one’s conscience should neither be taken for granted nor left unquestioned. We need to look to our conscience as a guide rooted in our fundamental beliefs and our essential character. We, too, should respect the deeply held beliefs of others as expressed through their acts of conscience. However, the notion that any person will reach a point where their conscience is fully and forever formed is a convenient fallacy. A fully formed conscience is one that is living and frequently questioned.
What is the state of your conscience? Do you question the consciences of other people? Do you seriously consider how others question your conscience?
Let us pray: God, strengthen our consciences and their responses to questions. Challenge us to look often at what we consider right and good. Bring others to us who will question our assumptions and our deeply held convictions. We ask this through your Son, who was questioned and responded for us. Amen.
Blessings on your week, my friends! Please let me know if there is anything I can do for you.
*I recognize that the adjective “American” can rightly refer to anyone from North, Central, and South America. I’m choosing to use “American” here as shorthand to refer to people from the territory currently claimed by the United States of America. I apologize to anyone who is triggered by this inherently colonial appellation.