The Foundations of Liberal Religion

“The Foundations of Liberal Religion”

by UU minister Charles Magistro.


“Liberal religionists have a positive attitude about life, are open to new ideas and believe that social progress is possible and attainable. They also tend to believe that personal liberty is precious, but can’t be free to undermine justice, or the common good.


However, within this general framework there are more specific principles which will be talked about on October 14.”



October 14, 2018

This sermon is built from a sermon delivered in 1978 by The Reverend Charles Magistro at the UU Society in Stamford, CT.  Liz and I were then members of that church.  We were often enthralled by his scholarship and insight into the human condition.

Charles often spoke at length, and I have edited it down to suit our needs here at KUUF!

Unitarian Universalists call themselves “religious liberals”.  The term is often interpreted to mean left of center, in either politics or religion, and no doubt we are.  But liberalism is more than that.  It suggests openness to new ideas as well as respect for the old.  It sees progress for humankind as possible, and thus worth working for.  Liberalism sets the individual free to question, to seek the truth outside of commonly accepted boundaries of thought.  Free to question all dogma!   However, liberalism also holds that we must limit individual freedom, whenever that freedom undermines the common good (Gun control, for example, or limiting the power of money to influence elections.)   Liberalism holds that when individual freedom and societal needs are in conflict, societal needs must be protected.

With this said, let’s explore the foundations of liberal faith.  According to James Luther Adams, a UU and Professor at Harvard Divinity School until his death in 1994, religious liberalism rests on 5 basic principles.  The FIRST is that “revelation” is ongoing.  For UU liberals, our faith is not based on the Judeo-Christian Bible.  We recognize that the Bible, together with the holy books of other religions, contains insights, ideals and noble visions.  But we also recognize that revelation is personal and continues through our lives; that new truths, new appreciations, new understandings continually come to us through science, art, music, our reading, the interaction we have with each other, as well as other experiences we have throughout our lives.  Each day has its own potential for moments of enlightenment – for revelation.

The SECOND principle of religious liberalism is that all human relationships must depend on mutual, freely-given consent.  The principle of free choice is what gives them authenticity.  Trust, loyalty and respect can’t be coerced or legislated.  A relationship not based upon free choice is at best impersonal, superficial and pragmatic.

The THIRD basic principle is that each individual has a moral responsibility to work for the betterment of the community.  This is a deeply defining concept.  Love and justice are as essential to the life of a society as they are to the life of an individual.  Hatred and injustice are malignancies that blunt creativity.  they damage the spiritual growth of all they touch.  Allowed to flourish, hatred and injustice lead, ultimately, to the collapse of any democracy and to tyranny.

That leads us to the FOURTH basic principle of religious liberalism:  that social justice must find concrete expression in the educational, political, economic and social structures of society (for example, in non-discrimination laws;  or in adequate teacher salaries, school supplies and proper textbooks for all children;  or equal pay for equal work laws;  or equal opportunity legislation.  Believing our liberalism is not enough!  To make this fourth principle happen, our ideas need to be put into action!  And action needs to be organized and institutionalized.  If not, laws, regulations and social norms will not change, and a free and just society will not happen.   The protection of peoples from the abuse and misuse of authority, and ultimately from tyranny, becomes just an empty dream.

Finally, the FIFTH basic principle: we need to believe that the human potential for the achievement of meaningful change – for progress – justifies an attitude of optimism.  We see and recognize the human capacity for destructiveness, hate, insensitivity and disdain for others and for the world.  This often tempts us to despair.  It is extraordinarily difficult to be optimistic about the future of our nation and the world we live in.  But a genuine liberal is one who recognizes this element of tragedy in the human condition and be nevertheless sustained by the belief that, while history reveals the death struggle, over all recorded time, between justice and injustice, at the depths of human nature, and at the boundaries of what we are, there are human capabilities for good that can prevent a retreat into hopelessness.  Retaining our optimism is an essential article of both principle and faith.

These are the basic principles of religious liberalism, but several other things also define us.

One’s position on an issue isn’t what makes one liberal or conservative; assigning persons or groups to a point on a political or theological spectrum is useful only to the extent that it points up some of the responses or alternatives available to the thinking person.  Labeling us gives no insight into the process that led a person or group to a particular conclusion on a particular issue.  It’s the willingness to engage in the process – in the intellectual, psychological, ethical, quest for meaning and truth – that makes one a liberal or not.

The multitude of beliefs, attitudes and values within Unitarian Universalism supports this view.  We don’t think alike, but hopefully we’re all thinking.  Ours is a religion without a creed – not only because we recognize that truth can’t be captured in a verbal formula;  not only because we rightly fear the divisions generated by church doctrine or party line, but because for us, all political/religious/ethical understandings are tentative………subject to re-evaluation in light of new knowledge and experience.    In the end, an open, ever-questioning mind is an essential part of what defines us.

It seems to me that the true liberal contains within himself or herself the best of the radical and the conservative. If the term ”radical” means to go to the origin of a thing, to the heart of the matter, then every liberal who works for the eradication of injustice and inequality, for the elimination of fascism, anti-Semitism and racism is not just a liberal, but a radical.  If the term “conservative” means to preserve, to be cautious when venturing into the unknown, then every liberal who bears witness to those values upon which human dignity rests, who seeks an end to the poisoning of our environment and the thoughtless depletion of our natural resources, is not just a liberal but a conservative!  We need to remind ourselves that a thinking person can’t be labeled and slotted into one of our neat categories.  We also need to remind ourselves that, as religious liberals, we accept our own mind, our conscience, as the ultimate authority in matters of faith and morals.  We look for truth and justice wherever it may be found.

So, to summarize, religious liberals believe that there is an overriding progressive direction to history which justifies every optimistic effort we make to leave the earth a better place than we found it.  We also believe that for justice to be real, the redemptive power of respect, trust and love must nourish and sustain societal norms, supported by hard-earned changes in law, regulations and social behaviors.

There are tensions within these beliefs, especially between individual freedom and social justice, which will never be easily navigated.  If, for example, we believe that personal liberty is absolute, does that mean that law can’t demand affirmative action from us without violating our rights?  If we believe that social justice sometimes requires that individual freedoms be limited, how do we draw the line over which the power to limit personal freedom becomes so coercive as to become tyrannous?  We liberals rightly want to use the power of government to achieve desirable social ends.  But we can never lose sight of how easy it is for government to abuse and misuse the power we invest in it.  We have learned much about this risk in these past two years!  Liberal beliefs play out on a slippery slope.

Martin Luther King, perhaps the greatest religious liberal of our modern age, sought human liberation within the framework of constitutional order.  In his famous “I have a dream” sermon he addressed the problem is such a way as to inspire the hearts of men and women of good will.  He said, in part:

“…even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.  It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.  I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal…’

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.  I have a dream that one day the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.  I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

“I have a dream today.  I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all the flesh shall see it together.  This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning:  “My country, tis of thee, sweet land of liberty,” and if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.” ….

Dr. King spoke so eloquently of racism, but I know he would have agreed that freedom from oppression and injustice equally applies to all peoples, without regard to sex, or sexual preference, or country of origin, or economic status.  We are all God’s children, he said, and we religious liberals would fully agree with the spirit of this message.

Let it be so.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *