Democracy, Politics, and Liberal Religion

Last month, as we studied Creation, we solicited an article from member Michele Root-Bernstein and her husband, Robert. You can read more from them at This month, as we introduce Democracy, we turned to Bloomberg News Reporter and UUCGL member Chris Christoff. As he says in his essay, Chris has spent 30+ years as a political reporter. The “Occasional Political Discussions” he holds at church are always popular. In this election season, we thought we’d ask his thoughts about the intersection of church, state, and democracy. Here are his remarks:

Years ago, a Democratic legislator in Wisconsin gave me homespun advice: Democrats should raise taxes because no one will believe they didn’t, and Republicans should raise taxes because no one will believe they did.

It was wry insight that speaks volumes about American politics today. Elections and policymaking are driven by perceptions, stereotypes, and the cynicism of high-priced consultants who can fool some of the people some of the time – and that’s just enough.

As a politics reporter of some 30 years, I have sifted the clutter of campaign rhetoric and political verbiage for truth or the closest thing to it. I was trained to look at both sides of a story – sometimes there are three, four, or more sides – and to get past personalities and labels. It’s hard to listen to people spout canards that are at odds with reality. It was not my place to debate them, only to get them to speak candidly.

On the other hand, news writing can be liberating, because truth doesn’t have a political party, and I didn’t have to give my opinion, just the facts.

I’ve heard so many points of view, and I believe this: There are good ideas on the right and the left, and there are good people trying to advance them.

More and more they are drowned out by TV pundits and consultants and mischievous profiteers. The likes of Ann Coulter are successful because hate sells. There was a time when those with clashing political beliefs worked together in Lansing and Washington to produce solutions. I know because I watched it happen.

At times, my instinct for the middle road has been uncomfortable in the UU Church. The church has deep roots in movements of social justice and anti-militarism, with which I generally agree. Political liberalism is woven into the pursuit of a liberal religion. Still, the certitude in liberal idealism and disdain for the right seems to contradict the tenets of a liberal, open-minded religion. How can we speak of the inherent worth of all people yet believe those who don’t agree with us politically are evil? If we are willing to consider the spiritual foundations of Christianity, Judaism, or Buddhism, why not try to better understand the foundations of political beliefs with which we don’t agree?

Somewhere in fortified ideologies are ideas that make universal sense. Some conservative ideals make sense for government, taxes, and national defense. Liberal ideals of collective benefits, tax fairness, compassion, and regulatory restraint are workable and ought to be ingredients of policy. And some liberal ideas simply won’t work.

Politics works best in shades of gray, not black and white. The best public servants I’ve known are both Democrats and Republicans – some elected, some appointed – and all know the value of cooperation and compromise.

The pursuit of liberal religion, not politics, attracted me to the UU Church. I’ve struggled at times to reconcile spiritual liberalism with the better instincts of both the political left and the right.

Still, I believe the UU church can be a beacon for productive political debate, as it was for the civil rights movement. History may show it was ahead of its time in melding reason, tolerance, and science with the human need for spiritual peace and promoting a worldview that can work. Ten years ago, the church’s support for gay rights was uncomfortable for those in the political “middle.” That’s less so now, and laws are changing, though not fast enough for some.

The rise of the angry right fringe is at fault for political paralysis. The right and its consultants view elections as a blood sport of winner-take-all. Yet a goal of domination is silly in a nation as diverse as ours.

When creationism, fundamentalism, climate change as “hoax,” and blaming of the poor, blacks, women, and liberals are what motivate one side of the U.S. political divide, it’s bad news for the political center where most of the country lives.

I do little reporting on raw politics these days. As a result, I’m less objective about stupidity in public discourse.

It’s times like these that tolerance, idealism, and soothing music in church are a haven.