Inequality has reached such toxic levels that it corrupts our relationships and threatens our democracy.
The Seven Principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association speak of human dignity, freedom, compassion, justice, equity, democratic process, and peace. All of these cherished religious values are threatened by the stunning levels of inequality we are witnessing. Inequality is at a historic high in America—and inequality is higher here than in any other developed nation.
We typically think of inequality as primarily an economic issue with political implications. This is a grave error. Voter suppression, mass incarceration, high unemployment, and cuts to unemployment benefits and food assistance are not the inevitable results of natural processes. We are enduring dehumanizing inequality because we have chosen it and created it. When we prevent people from contributing their labor, when millions of people are afraid and insecure, we deny them their full humanity. We communicate the implicit message that they do not matter; we in effect deny their inherent worth and dignity.
This is what happens when idolatry becomes economic policy. We have made idols of extreme wealth and obscene consumption. We have, as a nation, been indifferent to the human consequences. Inequality causes real human pain. We see it in the faces of the unemployed who feel ashamed and useless, in the faces of people afraid to seek the medical care they need, in the faces of children being poorly educated.
Our economic system is a choice. Because how we structure our economic lives involves everyone, it is a moral choice. We must, as religious people, ask ourselves what moral and religious values should guide our choices.
I am delighted that major public figures like Pope Francis and President Obama are pointing to inequality as a defining issue of our time. This focus on inequality is long overdue.
What would an economy and society founded on our religious ideals look like? First, it would have far, far less inequality. I do not believe in some romantic notion of complete equality. (I even believe that some economic inequality is a good thing. Incentives and rewards have their place.)
Second, we would have very different measures of success. What good does it do if we have rapid economic growth if that growth goes to a tiny portion of the population and is purchased at the expense of environmental degradation and mistreatment of workers? Why not measure progress by its benefits to ordinary people?
Building upon this, I believe people need to contribute in order to have dignity. I believe it is more moral to expand employment than to create growth.
Following that, I would be happy to trade growth for sustainability. In the society ruled by compassion and by responsibility to the interconnected web of existence, we would never allow damage to the environment in order to produce growth. Indeed, our entire obsession with growth strikes me as a kind of idolatry that ends up involving human sacrifice.
We UUs have a long tradition of taking our deepest religious values out into the arena of public witness. Recently we have stood on the side of love for LGBT people, immigrants, and women. We stood for love and justice in the civil rights movement and in the struggle against slavery.
Today I believe our faith calls us to bear witness to the poisonous effects of inequality.
This article appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of UU World (page 5). Photograph (above): UUA President Peter Morales (© Nancy Pierce/UUA).
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The Rev. Peter Morales was the eighth president of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).
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