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Thursday, December 26, 2002

Is there political diversity among UUs?

A Beliefnet participant asked, "Could a Republican become a U.U.?" and observed:

Practically I'm seeing the answer is no. From what I read on these boards and elsewhere, U.U. appears to be more an arm of the Democratic (or perhaps Green) party than anything else.

Are there Republican UUs? Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) is a Unitarian, but doesn't make a big fuss about it. She is from the moderate wing of the Republican Party.

The complaint, though, that Unitarian Universalism is little more than thinly-disguised left-liberal politics sometimes hits pretty close to the mark, especially in many smaller congregations. The danger is not that UUs derive their political values from their religious commitments, but that they sometimes dress up their political values in religious clothing. (Like ministers who never wear robes, stoles, or clerical collars — except at political protests.) This is called ideology; it's a way of claiming extra legitimacy for a political opinion by treating it as divinely (or at least religiously) mandated. It is unreflective, self-righteous, and creates a potent kind of social coercion that can push away good people who don't demonstrate dogmatic fidelity to the political creed.

If Unitarian Universalism is seen to be "the Democratic Party at prayer," the risk is that we will drive away the very people who really are asking fundamental questions — about religion and about politics — and who would therefore be most interested in an open-minded religious community. If we don't ask people to have their religious opinions all worked out before joining us, what makes it legitimate to expect that someone have all their political opinions worked out before joining us?

The other danger of a political ideology that pretends to be religiously motivated is that it demonizes its political opponents. One test of a religious movement engaged in politics is whether it dares to criticize its own party. It's an easy kind of religion that finds evil only in its opponents; a much better religion helps us see where we ourselves fall short.

I don't think religion and politics should be held absolutely apart. I just think we should be careful not to make our politics into a new kind of orthodoxy.

(Originally posted to Beliefnet; see message 79.)

Posted by Philocrites, December 26, 2002, at 08:14 PM | 0 comments

Foreign policy for liberals.

Run — do not walk — to your local newsstand or bookstore. Buy the January 2003 issue of Mother Jones and read George Packer's essay. (It's not currently available on-line.) This is the manifesto for a viable and genuinely liberal foreign policy. These are the positions that religious liberals — especially Unitarian Universalists — should be clamoring for.

George Packer, the author of the extraordinary memoir Blood of the Liberals, writes that America used to have a liberal foreign policy — fifty years ago. "From Woodrow Wilson's vision of freedom under international law to FDR's struggle against totalitarianism, the liberal tradition in foreign affairs inspired people around the world," he writes. Why? Democracy "wasn't merely a political system, but a spirit, a worldview — an affirmation of individual liberty and human solidarity."

Since the Vietnam war, when liberals developed an almost unshakeable anxiety about military power, the Democrats have offered "no alternate vision of what purpose America's enormous power in the world should serve." (The Washington Monthly also offers some background on why the Democrats can't think straight about national security.) It's time for liberals to face facts. "America will go on being the superpower, and radical Islamists will go on trying to kill Americans and reestablish the seventh-century caliphate, whether George W. Bush is president or not. Liberals need to begin asking themselves hard questions about how they would handle this threat if they were in power."

Packer's proposal emphasizes democracy and human rights, international cooperation, and economic fairness — themes foreign to the Bush administration, "the wrong people doing the right things for the wrong reasons."

Unless we help democracy flourish in places where it is currently weak or nonexistent, no amount of "homeland security" will make us safe. So Packer urges liberals to champion democracy at home and abroad:

A truly liberal foreign policy starts with the idea that the things American liberals want for themselves and their own country — liberty and equality ensured by collective action, through government and civil society — should be America's goal for the rest of the world as well. This is hard-boiled self-interest as well as idealism: American security in the age of globalization depends more and more on expanding political freedom and a minimally dignified life elsewhere, as opposed to protecting what we have behind increasingly impenetrable borders.

A liberal foreign policy would require more commitments than Bill Clinton dared to make, and different commitments from the ones George W. Bush wants to make. It would require nation building on a far greater scale than we've seen — not just peacekeeping in Afghanistan, but economic development in Uganda and support for democratic forces in Iran. . .

But liberals should be under no illusions that a fairer international economic system would solve the problem of Islamist extremism by "draining the swamp" or eliminating "root causes." Al Qaeda and similar groups are implacable enemies of democracy and the only answer to them is force. Multilateral action with other democracies should be at the core of a liberal foreign policy, for practical as well as principled reasons.

Liberalism has been weakened not by some vast right-wing conspiracy, but by a loss of confidence in liberal ideas. "Relativism, and a fear of imperialism, and perhaps too much comfort and security, have sapped all the juice out of the civic religion," Packer writes. But the key doctrine of our civic religion needs strong support now: We must find ways to make the world safe for democracy, or what are we fighting for?

Packer is also the author of a must-read series of interviews with liberal intellectuals who have serious doubts about Bush's plans for Iraq, but who also have kept their distance from the left's nascent antiwar movement. He is one of our most honest and indispensable liberal thinkers.

Posted by Philocrites, December 26, 2002, at 07:00 PM | 0 comments

Saturday, December 14, 2002

Who is for human rights?

Bill Keller writes that opponents as well as proponents of a U.S.-led war with Iraq are displaying selective enthusiasm for human rights. Hawks highlight Saddam Hussein's barbarity, but the U.S. government continues to turn a blind eye to gross human rights violations in many countries, creating a credibility gap about American motives. Meanwhile, antiwar activists downplay Hussein's cruelty lest they seem to endorse intervention. For them, opposing war means turning a blind eye to tyranny in Iraq.

Keller asks: "Why, aside from their roots in the Vietnam antiwar movement, are human rights activists not more open to the idea that America can use its unmatched muscle for good?" Great question. Keller's answer? "In large part because Republican administrations — in truth, Democratic ones as well — have paid human rights little more than lip service, and little even of that." ("The selective conscience," New York Times 12.14.02, reg req'd)

Where should liberals come down in current debate? For human rights, surely — which means dismissing the outrageous moral relativism of the antiwar left on the one hand and the unilateralist nationalism of the go-it-alone right on the other. But what does an assertively pro-human rights position look like in the debate about Iraq? George Packer talks to leading liberal intellectuals, who distrust Bush but accept the moral case for intervention against genocidal tyrants, to find out. ("The liberal quandary over Iraq," New York Times Magazine 12.8.02, reg req'd)

Meanwhile, liberals must come to terms with the changing nature of war. Niall Ferguson spells it out in "War Names," and highlights the implications that will most unnerve liberals:

Long before Clausewitz, the Roman writer Vegetius put it neatly: Qui desiderat pacem, praeparet bellum. If you want peace, prepare for war. The converse of this might seem even more paradoxical, not to say Orwellian: if you want war, then prepare for peace. In other words, the surest way to make war more frequent would be for the United States to follow the European example and disarm, or simply heed the old isolationist call to bring "our boys" back home. For the enemies of the United States know only too well that the Achilles' heel of American foreign policy is the habitual reluctance of the electorate to risk the lives of American servicemen in far-flung conflicts. ("War names," New York Times Magazine 12.15.02, reg req'd)

Tyranny cannot effectively be challenged, nor can democracy be extended in the world, without American leadership. And America cannot lead without liberals who make human rights, democracy, and responsible international cooperation a political priority. Why aren't these Democratic priorities?

Posted by Philocrites, December 14, 2002, at 08:00 PM | 0 comments

Sunday, December 8, 2002

Liberalism's Iraq dilemma.

George Packer, author of the most compelling book I've read recently on American political history, Blood of the Liberals, knows what it means to be a committed but self-questioning liberal. In this week's New York Times Magazine, he asks many of the most influential liberal intellectuals why they are not visible in the emerging antiwar movement. Their answers are provocative and deserve serious consideration.

The brutal civil wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s led many liberals to revise their ideas about when the use of American military power was legitimate. Humanitarian intervention, many of them came to argue, was sometimes a higher value than respecting state sovereignty: It was more important, they said, to stop the "ethnic cleansing" promoted by Slobodan Milosevic than to keep out of Bosnia's "internal affairs."

"But on the eve of what looks like the next American war, the Bosnia consensus has fallen apart," Packer writes. "The argument that has broken out among these liberal hawks over Iraq is as fierce in its way as anything since Vietnam. This time the argument is taking place not just between people but within them, where the dilemmas and conflicts are all the more tormenting." In interviews with Michael Ignatieff, Michael Walzer, Christopher Hitchens, David Rieff, Leon Wieseltier, Paul Berman, and Kanan Makiya, he explores the reasons that many liberals who don't agree with Bush also don't automatically oppose war with Iraq. A must-read. ("The liberal quandary over Iraq," New York Times Magazine 12.8.02: 104-107, 156.)

Posted by Philocrites, December 8, 2002, at 07:56 PM | 0 comments

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