In just a few days, Unitarian Universalists from all over the world will gather in New Orleans for our annual General Assembly. A lot is going on in the Unitarian Universalist Association this year, much more than anyone would have expected a few months ago, and in the midst of all of the activity, one long-scheduled piece of business may not get the attention it deserves. I’m speaking of a proposal to change our First Principle.
The congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association covenant to affirm and support seven principles, adopted in their current form in 1985. As it stands, the First Principle is:
The inherent worth and dignity of every person.
A group of people organizing under the name “The First Principle Project” would like to replace the first principle with the following:
The inherent worth and dignity of every being.
At General Assembly this year, the delegates will vote on whether to send this proposal on to a study commission as a first step for eventual adoption.1
I understand the motivation of the supporters of the First Principle Project, and I even agree that creatures other than humans have inherent worth. And yet I think that this suggested change is a very bad idea, one that I will work hard to prevent from happening. The problem is that an unintended consequence of the suggested change is to remove something important from the current version — something important, but implicit.
This implicit idea is equality. In this post I will explain why I see equality in the First Principle, and why the suggested change removes it. The fact that the idea of equality is not stated explicitly in the Principle is one of the reasons, I suspect, that the people supporting this change have had trouble understanding some of the pushback against their proposal.2
The First Principle comes to us Unitarian Universalists through the Univeralist side of our heritage. Historically, Universalists were Christians who believed that a loving God would not condemn any person to eternal torment; they believed that no matter how a person behaved in their lifetime, and no matter what a person professed, believed, or had faith in, that person would eventually wind up in Heaven.3
WizdUUm.net has a good summary of the various principles and statements of faith made by Unitarians and Universalists over the past 250 years. Here’s the history related to the First Principle: In 1935, the Universalist Church adopted a Bond of Fellowhip which included an avowal of faith in “the supreme worth of every human personality.” In 1961, when the Unitarian and Universalist churches merged into the Unitarian Universalist Association, the new association proclaimed that its member congregations united in seeking “to affirm, defend, and promote the supreme worth of every human personality [and] the dignity of man.” In 1985, when the UUA Principles were updated, that wording was modified and placed at the beginning of a list of seven principles, and became the First Principle as we know it today: “The inherent worth and dignity of every person.”
Let’s think about that original 1935 wording: “the supreme worth of every human personality.” The only way that my worth can be supreme at the same time that your worth is supreme is if we are equally worthy. This dovetails with the Unitarian James Freeman Clark’s words about Universalism:4
[Universalism] is the democracy of Christianity. As political democracy contends, not for the absolute equality of man, but for their equality before the law; not for their equality as a matter of fact, but for their equality as a matter of right: so Universalism contends for the equality of all before God’s love. It does not assert that all are equally good, or will be equally happy: but it contends that no child of God is ever orphaned; that he never loses, or can lose, his Father; that the mere fact of death makes no difference in the mercy and love of God to any soul; that God is the same infinite tenderness and infinite benignity in the other life as in the present life; that all souls belong to God, there as here; and that nothing but their own choice can exclude them from the divine presence and communion.
“The equality of all before God’s love.” To me, this is the Universalist essence of the First Principle. I feel it is the essence of the First Principle even though I do not believe in anything I would call “God.” Indeed, this essential equality is the foundation of my theology: The inherent worth and dignity of all people means that in some spiritual way, we are all equal. We are not all equally good; we are not all equally happy; but we are all equally human, and this cannot be taken from us, even by our own actions.
In the gendered language of Thomas Jefferson — which, not coincidentally, also appears as the first item in a list of self-evident truths — “All men are created equal.”
Taking the First Principle seriously is not an easy thing. Accepting that there is some spiritual core to each person, a core with intrinsic worth, can be difficult when the person in question seems distant from you in their beliefs, or their habits, or their morality, or their culture. How do we act in the world if we accept that you, and I, and Barack Obama, and Donald Trump, and the homeless person on the street in Mumbai, and the white supremacist in Oklahoma, and the undocumented worker in San Diego, and the accused terrorist in Guantanamo, and the person you love most in the world, and the person you hate most — how do we act in the world if we accept that we, all of us, have equal worth and dignity?
I struggle with this every day. There is a tension between the ideal of the First Principle and the reality of how I treat myself and others in everyday life… and recognizing that tension, and wrestling with it, is part of my spiritual practice.
So what’s wrong with the proposed alteration of the First Principle: The inherent worth and dignity of every being?
The proponents of the change themselves admit that it requires adopting some kind of sliding scale of worth and dignity. Does a chimpanzee have the same worth and dignity as a human? Does a dog? A mouse? A trout? A snail? A spider? A termite? Yeast? A virus? Unless you are prepared to let termites eat your house… unless you are prepared to forego antibiotics for yourself and for your loved ones; unless you are prepared to let your pets live with parasites in their bodies… unless you are willing to do these things, accepting this new proposed principle requires that you also accept that some beings have more worth and dignity than others.
What I object to in the proposed alteration of the First Principle is its unavoidable introduction of a sliding scale of worth and dignity.
The whole point of the First Principle is its equal application. Once you start saying that maybe some beings are less worthy than others, it becomes too easy to lose sight of the humanity of the accused terrorist, or the convicted criminal, or the person you hate. Or even of yourself, when you fall short of your own ideals.
In my view — and I think I am not alone in this — the First Principle calls us to live with a radical idea of spiritual equality. But we as a society are nowhere near living up to this call. Too often, we dehumanize — and sometimes demonize — others around us: the rich, the poor, the homeless, the disabled, Trump supporters, Hillary supporters, Bernie supporters. White supremacy keeps our society from valuing the lives of people of color as much as it values the lives of white people. We hear how many U.S. soldiers are killed in action during wartime, but our government does not even tally the number of enemy combatants and innocent civilians who are killed — so we come to believe that American lives are more important than non-American lives. And it is truly difficult for us to see God’s image in a person who has harmed us or our loved ones.
Because we are still so far from living up to the ideal of spiritual equality implicit in the First Principle, I think it is critical to keep equality in the principle: There should be no sliding scale where people are concerned.
What is my recommendation to delegates at General Assembly this year? I would say to vote no on the proposal to change the First Principle, because I don’t think the supporters of the change understand or appreciate the importance that many Unitarian Universalists place in the idea of human equality that is implicit in the current version of the First Principle.
And if the proposal passes, and the revised First Principle is sent to a study commission? At the very least, I would lobby the study commission to include words in their revision that would maintain the ideal of spiritual equality that is central to the current First Principle. For example, “The inherent worth and dignity of every being, and the equality of all persons” could do. But even that compromise is worse than what we already have, because it dilutes the central idea of equality.
Yes, we are all equal in the eyes of God. And we Unitarian Universalists should keep our First Principle in its present form, to honor this truth and to encourage ourselves to live up to it.
I will not be at General Assembly this year, but I would be happy to discuss these issues with delegates and with supporters of the First Principle Project. Feel free to present your thoughts in the comments, or to contact me directly.
- If a majority of the delegates agree to send the proposal to a study commission, a somewhat complicated procedure begins. In the usual order of things, the study commission would report back within two years with proposed wording for an amendment to the First Principle (which would not have to be identical to the one voted on this year). The study commission’s version would be placed on the agenda for the first General Assembly following the announcement of their proposal. The UUA Board of Trustees could also propose amendments to the study commission’s proposal at this time, and further amendments could be considered at General Assembly. If the possibly-amended proposal receives a majority vote at General Assembly, it would be placed on the agenda for the following year’s General Assembly for final approval, which requires a two-thirds vote. However, this process can be sidestepped: If four-fifths of the delegates at this year’s General Assembly so desire, the motion to change the First Principal will appear, unamended, on the agenda for the 2018 General Assembly for final approval. If you have really made it all the way to the end of this footnote, then you are probably the kind of person who would like to see the full details of the procedure, which are found in section C-15.1(c) of the UUA bylaws. ↩
- There are other related objections to changing the First Principle; the Reverend Theresa Ines Soto explains hers here. ↩
- I write this in the past tense not because there are no Universalists today — there are plenty of them! — but because the meaning of the term “Universalist” has changed over the years. For instance, I consider myself a humanist Universalist. I am not Christian — I’m not even a theist — and I don’t believe in Heaven, and yet I am still a Universalist. More on this later. ↩
- James Freeman Clark: On the positive doctrines of Christianity, The Monthly Journal of the American Unitarian Association 5 (1864), no. 2, pp. 5–64. ↩