Unitarian Universalists — How Much Can We Tolerate?

We UUs pride ourselves on our religious tolerance: as it says on the UUA website, “We welcome the many ways that people define, express, and experience the Holy and respect what is considered sacred in our diverse cultures.” But political events challenge us to consider the limits of our religious tolerance. We can tolerate another religion when it remains purely private, that is, when it is only practiced in the home and on the weekends, away from the government and the economy. When a religion becomes public, however, when it becomes involved with the government and the economy, then conflicts emerge. Religions that become public in this sense tend to influence society in ways that contradict our UU values. When that happens, upholding our values means suspending our religious tolerance.

The appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court reminds us of the conflict between our values and our religious tolerance. Barrett is Roman Catholic and belongs to the traditionalist and controversial Christian organization People of Praise. In a recent piece for the New York Times Elizabeth Bruenig, herself a Roman Catholic, raised concerns about whether Barrett “will be able or willing to resist the expectations of her church when it comes to cases involving relevant moral issues.” According to Barrett’s faith her orthodox Christian ethics are a higher authority than the US Constitution. If she practices her faith to its letter then she will pose a serious threat to reproductive justice. Because of our commitment to reproductive justice we must not tolerate, in this case, her practicing her faith. We might say that we tolerate her practicing her faith privately, but, as Bruenig says, “Roman Catholicism does not readily distinguish between public and private moral obligations.” We must be prepared to suspend our religious tolerance if Barrett refuses to leave her faith at the door.

When we ask how we, as UUs, should respond to Barrett’s appointment, we can look to the precedent of the Masterpiece Cakeshop case. In 2012 a gay couple sued the Masterpiece Cakeshop in Colorado because its religious owner would not sell them a wedding cake. The UUA supported the couple, as is consistent with our commitment to LBGTQ justice. When the case made its way to the Supreme Court in 2018 the ruling favored Masterpiece Cakeshop, but had it gone the other way then the cake shop and vendors like it would have been forced to sell their goods even when it contradicted the owner’s faith. That would have been a victory for LGBTQ justice but not for religious tolerance. In this case as in others, defending LGBTQ justice means asking the government to suppress the practice of other religions in public settings like the economy. The UUA itself said, in its statement on the ruling, “All around the world, wherever Christianity has been enforced, populations have been taught to hate the most marginalized and oppress the most at risk.”

In general our UU values compel us to ask the government to suppress the public practice of other religions. To uphold science we must ask the government to force creationists to pay taxes that fund schools teaching evolution; to uphold due process we must ask the government to suppress religious honor killings; to uphold reproductive justice we must ask the government to suppress traditions of female circumcision. It is not simply that other religious groups try to impose their beliefs on others and we try to prevent them from doing so. Rather, we have our own belief, namely that religion should be a purely private affair, which we try to impose on others. We are lucky that in most cases we have the backing of the US Constitution, but that does not change the fact that we are fighting for a particular ideal that makes us intolerant to religions with other ideals.

Because we live under the US Constitution it can appear that religious communities who want to impose their beliefs on the public are the exception, but across history they are the rule. When we think of Hinduism, for example, we often think of meditation, of a rich mythology, and of a colorful style of art and dress. These are things that can exist purely privately, in the home and on the weekends. But Hinduism also includes rules and principles for organizing society, such as the caste system. That aspect of Hinduism, which is often forgotten in this country, inherently exists in public — involving the government and the economy. It is the same with Judaism. The Torah, the fundamental text of Judaism, largely consists of the Law of Moses, which gives rules for settling disputes, regulating agriculture, and generally organizing a political as well as a spiritual community. Islam has Sharia, Catholicism has canon law. In Anglicanism the king is the head of both church and state, as the Tsar once was in Russian Orthodox Christianity. Going even farther back, there is no meaningful distinction to be drawn between ancient Greek religion and ancient Greek society, nor between ancient Egyptian religion and ancient Egyptian society. As a rule, religion is something that encompasses all aspects of life, and not just private life.

A certain strain of radical Protestantism called Puritanism was in some ways an exception to the rule and in some ways not. It was an exception in that it saw spirituality as such an intensely inward experience that over time it came to treat religious life and public life as two things to be held separate. It was not an exception in that it imposed this view of religious life on the public. It did this by preventing other religions from imposing their beliefs on the public. Puritanism successfully imposed its beliefs on this continent against the will of the native inhabitants, Catholic French and Spanish colonists, and the Anglican Church. Those beliefs are enshrined in the US Constitution, which treats religion as purely private and the government and economy as purely secular. Puritanism is also the origin of Unitarian Universalism. We have of course given up the doctrines of Puritanism, but many of the underlying values remain the same. If we see a harmony between our UU values and the US Constitution it is because the two share a common ancestry.

As we look to the future, and ask how we should respond to the appointment of Barrett and events like it, we should be honest about the extent of our religious tolerance. To tolerate the private practice of all religions is enough to take pride in. It is a rarity in the history of religion, and it uniquely lays the foundation for the flourishing of individual liberties. By suppressing the public practice of other religions we leave individuals free to pursue whatever truth they wish in private. But at the same time that we take pride in the extent of our tolerance we must take care not to exaggerate it. It is not true that we tolerate all religions and, as the colonial experience has shown us, claiming to represent a neutral or universal position is a recipe for justifying all manner of oppression. It is a sad fact that there is a conflict between our UU values and religious tolerance, but it is a beautiful fact that as UUs we participate in a great tradition of individual liberty that we are tasked with carrying into the future.

New York based freelance writer. Cultural and political commentary.