The last two years of American politics—the 2016 campaign, the election, and the new administration taking power—have challenged many of my most cherished beliefs and attitudes: my faith in democracy and the wisdom of the people, my bias towards optimism, and what I now see as my complacency about the stability of the American republic.
This period has challenged, perhaps above all, a key part of my religious identity: how I practice the Unitarian Universalist First Principle.
Like all of the UU Principles, the first one—the inherent worth and dignity of every person—is a lot easier to believe than to practice. As an abstraction, it is hard to deny. But seriously attempting to respect something worthy and dignified in each person you happen across—the boss who just fired you, the teacher who is unfair to your child—that’s much harder. It’s particularly difficult in the us-against-them world of politics. And as our political conversation becomes ever more negative and partisan, it gets harder and harder.
For the last several political cycles, I have lived in New Hampshire, where my support in the nation’s earliest presidential primary is courted to an almost ridiculous extent. Politicians invariably claim that every vote is important, but in New Hampshire they actually believe it. Simply by showing up and raising my hand, I’ve gotten some of the most powerful people in the country to answer my questions.
I recognize this as a privilege, and I try to wield all my privileges responsibly. So I have gone out of my way to listen to candidates I don’t expect to agree with. One of my First-Principle practices has been to try to grasp why every candidate is attractive to some reasonable person, and to find something admirable even in politicians who oppose much of what I support. In John McCain’s two campaigns, for example, I came to admire his mastery of the town hall meeting format, and his tirelessness in answering the questions he was asked rather than lapsing into prepared talking points. I respected Mitt Romney’s ability as a practical problem solver, as evidenced by the healthcare plan he got an opposition-controlled legislature to pass when he was governor of Massachusetts.
In 2016, Donald Trump defeated my efforts. Perhaps, like much of the country, I had grown more rigidly partisan in the previous four years, or perhaps there was something unique in this particular cycle, but I was never able to either admire the candidate or empathize with his most enthusiastic supporters. My explanations of his victories were invariably reductive: his voters were misinformed or bigoted or delusional. I could look down on them, but whenever I tried to look through their eyes, I could only go so far before I failed.
And even though I believe that presidents deserve more benefit of the doubt than candidates, I am still failing to find something I can admire in the new administration or the movement that supports it.
But admiration, I reassure myself, is more than the First Principle really requires of us. So is compromise. If someone already has unjust privileges, we need not offer him more, even if our offer is only a fraction of what he demands. So, I am coming to believe, is nonviolence. I recently watched a UU father and son argue on Facebook about anti-fascist violence, and was surprised how evenly matched I judged the argument to be.
I have become nostalgic for the First-Principle arguments I used to lead or participate in. “Did Hitler have worth and dignity?” someone was bound to ask. And then we would have a safely theoretical discussion of evil long dead. “Yes,” I would ultimately answer, and feel quite proud of my intellectual courage.
But in this era the Nazis are not theoretical, if they ever really were. They march through American streets with weapons. Our highest officials denounce them in one sentence and then echo their rhetoric in the next. In Charlottesville, they attacked counterprotesters, one of whom died. Cornel West, among others who protested nonviolently, says that anti-fascists who came prepared for violence “saved our lives.”
If I had been there, would I have seen worth and dignity in the white supremacist who was swinging a torch at my head? How, if at all, would that vision have altered my response?
As events chip away at my First-Principle practices, I have to wonder: Is my faith just losing the fat built up by decades of comfortable living? Or is this a steady erosion that will ultimately leave me with no real principle at all?
For now, I choose to believe I will eventually reach a solid core, a fighting trim, if I follow the metaphor.
As a Universalist, I still nurture the hope that no one is beyond redemption, no matter how unlikely and miraculous that event might seem in some cases. To the extent we can do so without endangering the innocent, we should always leave room for redemption. To pursue it, we should even be willing to risk some of our own safety. But I lack any clear rules defining exactly how much I should risk myself, which I fear leaves me open to further erosion.
When evildoers have been subdued and no longer pose a threat, I hope that I will take no joy in their suffering. I believe in self-defense and in the value of punishment as a deterrent, but these are necessary evils. Suffering, I still believe, is never good in itself, no matter what the sufferer has done in the past.
So I still have First-Principle beliefs, but they seem far less magnanimous and courageous than the ones I am used to. I’m not certain they would come into play at all, once I saw the torch start swinging towards my head.