Out of Many, One?

Today’s question comes from Beverly.  She writes: “What’s on my mind today is a discussion I was involved in elsewhere about how the biggest political conflict we face in this country today is between the belief that we must adopt a single, unified culture and belief system in order to get along and be able to trust each other, and the belief that the best thing for our country is to learn how to get along and work productively with people of different cultures and beliefs. In short, most of what we’re fighting about is whether people should be forced to adapt to one dominant “American” culture (and which it should be), or whether people should be forced to adapt to a multicultural nation in which their right to live as their culture dictates ends where others’ right to do so begins.  Does your faith perspective suggest any answers for how this conflict might be respectfully resolved with a minimum of forcing anybody?”

Thanks for the great question Beverly.  It is always such a rush to receive questions from readers and better understand what’s on peoples’ minds!

I see a lot of parallels between the political/social question you asked, and the dynamics in faith communities (particularly in Christian faith communities).  In order to address the question, let me back into it a little by sharing a theological approach that has helped me over the years.

In much of her literature (and the literature that has sprung out of the Course in Miracles movement), Marianne Williamson suggests there are two basic choices that people face when considering how to lead their lives: they can choose a life of love, or a life of fear.

Her theological perspective challenged me to think about what it is that motivates people to choose a life based on fear.

Of course, there are many, many reasons why people make such a choice.  Let me focus on just one that I encounter a lot as a spiritual leader.

Many people in our society are raised to believe that if something is true, then it means there is only one way to live out that truth.  To put that into a Christian context, a Christian might believe that baptism is important and conclude that the only legitimate form of baptism are those performed when an individual over the age of 13 and dunked – or immersed – in water.  Any other form of baptism, they believe, is WRONG!  In a secular context, people believe that there is only one way to value life.  There, such people believe, the laws of our country must be written to reinforce that one belief.  In that case, it means to take away a woman’s reproductive choice.

Because of their that approach – if something is true, there is only one way to act on it – people are pushed into living lives of fear.  They are required each day to fight to defend the ONE correct expression of truth.

If a human being goes on a deep spiritual journey, however, many will come to realize that human beings are limited.  And given our limited capacity, none of us have the ability to comprehend the fullness of Truth (note the capital T).  It certainly doesn’t mean there isn’t a single unifying Truth; it means our finite human condition keeps us from fully grasping it.

This spiritual realization breeds in us a profound spirit of humility.  That sense of humility makes it is easier to lead a life of love – since (to use a traditionally Christian concept) you can extend grace to others and allow them to live into the Truth in a way that fits their experience.

Of course, there are practical challenges to living this humility out.  How can we as a country exist – or how can a religious tradition exist – in ways that allow us to both honor the diversity AND create a sense of unity that brings us together?

This is where our form of governance comes into play.

I believe very strongly that communities are healthiest when we organize ourselves in ways that allow for differences.  In doing so, we can help people realize that the space we extend to others is a form graciousness that can bind us together.

Let me give you an example of what I mean from a faith context.  I was raised in the United Methodist Church, which is governed using an Episcopal system.  In Episcopal systems, decision makers gather and vote on church policies and procedures.  At the end of the vote, one perspective wins and all other perspectives lose.  Every local church is then forced to live by the winner’s rule.  This form of church governance breeds a culture of fear – since each side is TERRIFIED of losing and being forced to live by “the other sides’” values.

In a congregational system, while the denomination gathers together every few years to pass resolutions – every local community is empowered to live into those resolutions as they see fit.  Back in 2011 in Tampa, for instances, delegates from our denomination gathered to debate a resolution about affirming the right of LGBTQ parents to adopt children.  During the floor debate, there were a variety of perspectives voiced: including some who were adamantly opposed to allowing LGBTQ persons to adopt.  But when the final vote was taken, the delegates unanimously affirmed the right of LGBTQ persons to adopt.


Because our form of governance stresses that no individual or local church will be forced to live into the policy in a particular way.  There is no one winner.  Some delegates went home to their local churches and became strong advocates for the position.  Other delegates went home and continued to teach that the best homes are those led by opposite gender parents.  Everyone in the room, however, not only heard one another’s values and concerns: everyone felt respected.  It was a powerful spiritual moment to experience!

So how might that generous, congregational way of being be used at the national stage to deal with matters of politics and policy?

Whether we are liberal, conservative, or moderates, we have to shift our attitude and our approach.

When I talk with my friends who are strong “Pro-Life” advocates, I tell them I am a strong “Pro-Choice” advocate for two reasons.  First, I tell them I am Pro-Choice because I believe a woman, her family, her health provider, and her spiritual leader are the best individuals to make this most intimate decision – and not the government.  And second, I am Pro-Choice because I believe that no individual should be forced to live by another’s values.  A “Pro-Choice” position allows those who are “Pro-Life” to live by their values and never try to terminate a pregnancy.  This way of being creates a win/win mentality (rather than a win/lose mentality), and makes it easier to life a life of love instead of a life of fear.

Same thing with a delicate issue like Religious Freedom Acts (RFA).  I tell my friends that I am opposed to all current RFAs because they create a win/lose dynamic.  I do not want one’s religious beliefs to become a weapon used to deny others service.  As a Christian, I believe I am called to do what Jesus did: extend love and service to everyone across all boundaries.  And by extending such hospitality to others, I am assured that others won’t be allowed to deny me services due to their religious beliefs.  In other words, opposition to RFAs as currently proposed creates a win/win environment which, in turn, makes it easier to live a life of love.

Same thing with issues of multi-culturalism.  America has become the amazing place it is today because it has a long history of allowing people from around the globe to come here and bring with them the best of their cultures.  My family’s ancestors – who immigrated to this country from Germany and Norway – brought with them many wonderful traditions that strengthened the communities in which they lived.  I oppose attempts to limit cultural expressions today because such attempts seek to end this long and rich American tradition.  We are better and stronger when we live – and learn – from one another.  This is one more example of what it means to embrace a win/win perspective.

So while it is easy to get sucked into movements that support a win/lose mentality (especially with those that seem to represent “our side”), I would encourage us all to look for attitudinal ways that we can move toward a win/win mentality.  Ways in which we can better articulate the ways in which our country is made better and stronger when we not only allow for differences, but celebrate them.  Ways in which these celebrations of difference are brought together with conscious attempts to affirm our similarities as well.  That is our challenge.  By doing so we can leave behind lives of fear (about losing), and embrace lives of love!

Those are a few of my thoughts on this important question Beverly raised.  How about you?  What do you think?

About Pastor Craig

I'm a 54-year-old who lives in Los Angeles, CA with his black Labrador Retriever named Max. I'm an ordained clergy person in the United Church of Christ. My passions include spirituality, politics, and sports (Go Houston teams, go!). I use my blog to start conversations rather than merely spout my perspectives and opinions. I hope you'll post a question, comment, or observation for me to respond - so we can get the conversation started!
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3 Responses to Out of Many, One?

  1. Beverly Marshall Saling says:

    Thank you, Craig. I would agree that the central issue seems to be a conflict between fear and love, and a question of whether win/win is possible. One of the surprising things I learned in talking to those who believe in the “one culture” solution is how deeply they seem to believe win/lose is essential to human nature. They could not imagine a way in which not being the dominant culture would result in anything other than loss of their way of life to either eternal conflict or some other dominant culture. Unfortunately I think the rhetoric we on the multicultural side sometimes use can reinforce the belief that our goal is to take as much as possible away from them rather than to give as much as possible to everyone. This helps me remember to focus on framing the discussion in terms of what a win/win might look like and how it could be made possible, so I appreciate the insight.

    Can you perhaps expand on how congregational systems of governance operate? If your denomination votes to allow LGBTQ people to adopt, but some congregations choose to teach the opposite, how does that work? It sounds like the secular political equivalent would be an anti-federalist government in which national laws were seen as guidelines and the real, binding laws would come from the state level or below, but I may be misunderstanding.

    • capete67 says:

      Beverly, the answer to your question about how congregational polity works goes back to the issue of framing, framing, and more framing.
      Let me use a concrete matter to show how our polity/governance works. I’ll try to draw parallels on governmental issues – because I certainly understand how on the surface our polity/governance system can sound anti-federalist.
      The United Church of Christ has been ordained LGBTQ clergy since 1973. So therefore, at the denominational/federal level, our policy says that LGBTQ persons should have the same right to be considered for ordination as anyone else.
      Our denomination consists of 4 settings – or what some call, levels – of church: the local church (equivalent of a city); the association (equivalent of county government); the conference (equivalent of a state government); and the national setting (equivalent of the federal government).
      While the national setting/federal government said the church should be open to ordaining LGBTQ persons, the association/county is the entity that authorizes ministry. So while the urban associations in places like Denver and Los Angeles (where I – a gay man – was authorized and ordained for Christian ministry) have been open to following the national/federal guidelines, there are many associations out there in rural and suburban areas that would not be open to ordaining LGBTQ persons. Of course, they would not explicitly say, “We don’t ordain LGBTQ persons!” Their practice would instead show that they have never done this. This is how we in the UCC live out the delicate balance.
      So how might this balance work in a governmental situation – since theoretically federally laws must be followed by states and localities?
      Here’s where the matter of framing comes in.
      Let me use the matter of gay (or same-gender) marriage to show how framing matters.
      When I talk with my socially conservative friends about the issue – and I hear them express their concerns about what is being forced on them – I immediately shift gear and remind them off a couple things.
      First, I light-heartedly point out, no one says that you have to go out and marry a person of the same gender. You still have the right to pick a spouse of your choosing. Second, I point out that your pastor/rabbi/imam/etc. is not forced to bless unions that go against their faith perspective. Clergy have always had the right to decide which unions to bless and which union not to bless. Some clergy, for instance, would never officiate at the wedding of a person who has been divorced while another clergy would. The legalization of gay/same-gender marriage in no way affected that ability of clergy to choose at which weddings they would officiate. Third, I remind them that every individual and family is still able to live out their values as they see fit. Some individuals and families choose not to have friends who are different than they are; some individuals and families choose to have friends who are different. If you want to continue to live in a world where you don’t know or befriend gay/same-gender couples, then you still have a right to do so.
      By focusing on areas that have not changed, it allows individuals who are panicking to relax and hold onto the things that have not changed. This framing of the issue makes them less afraid, and more likely to move toward a place of love: once they realize the world still has room for someone who holds their values.
      There is an excellent book I would recommend to help you further explore the matter of framing: Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Religion and Politics. In that book, Haidt says there are 6 moral foundations: Caring, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, Sanctity, and Liberty. Folks who are liberal or progressive only speak in 3 of the 6 languages (Caring, Fairness and Liberty). They often reject (or ridicule) folks who speak the other 3 languages: Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity.
      If liberals and progressives want to become more effective in reaching folks outside the proverbial choir, Haidt writes, we have to become willing to speak the other 3 languages. In other words, we have to start using the language and concepts that speak to moderates and conservatives. I think you would enjoy the book.
      I hope some of this helps a bit.
      I think we can move away from fear and win-lose mentalities, when we take a huge risk and break the cycle of entrenchment ourselves. If we continue to stay trapped in our place due to self-righteousness and judgment about “the other side”, then things will never change. If we take a deep breath, draw in our egos, and find a willingness to speak in other peoples’ languages, then I believe we CAN make important steps forward.
      Thanks for the awesome dialogue today!

      • Beverly Marshall Saling says:

        Funny you should mention that book in particular; we’re reading it for one of my atheist groups right now! Thanks for taking the time to dive deep on this with me today!

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