Unitarians and the Liberal Tradition

Part one of a three part sermon series  Rev. Brian J. Kiely, November 11, 2018


(From a United KingdomA level philosophy course study guide) 

The logical starting-point towards understanding any ideology concerns its view of human nature. In straight-forward terms, liberals share an optimistic attitude towards human nature. This is based upon an assumption that our behaviour is determined by rational interest rather than irrational emotions and prejudice. We are therefore governed by reason and should be entrusted with as much freedom as possible.

The liberal belief that humans are rational creatures holds several implications. Firstly, it promotes the view that we are free to choose our own path in life regardless of what society dictates as the ‘norm.’ Liberals firmly believe that we should be allowed to express ourselves fully as guided by our own free will

Another important implication derived from this rationalist perspective is the importance of human happiness. All liberals would concur with Aristotle’s observation that “happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” There are a number of practical illustrations of this liberal attitude. The right of all adults; regardless of their sexuality, to marry the person they love is a recent illustration of this line of argument…

Liberals seek to empower the individual provided our actions do not undermine the freedom of others.  John Stuart Mill wrote, “The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people.”

Liberals refute the notion that human behaviour is shaped by irrational forces of superstition and religion…

Finally, human rights should apply on a universal basis, regardless of gender, ethnicity, social background or sexuality. 


Unitarian Universalism has always billed itself as a ‘liberal religion’ from the earliest days of its institutional life in the 19th century.  But today that kind of liberalism is largely misunderstood, both by our most fervent supporters and our opponents.   Of course, liberalism is under dramatic attack from enemies who use the disgustingly offensive term ‘libtard’ to describe pretty much anyone who questions their views.  I am a lifelong liberal, for better or worse, and wish to re-establish the ground of the philosophy that means much to me.  I think it holds hope for a better future.

So in these three services I would like to do three things.

1. Today I will explore some of the roots of our UU connection to the philosophy while defining classic liberalism.

2. Next Sunday I will look at the virulence of the most recent attacks on liberalism coming from the extreme right and discuss the impacts of this populism on the global political climate.

3. Finally, on November 25th I will offer a call to action for reclaiming liberalism.  But it won’t be a call to arms or a call to match virulence with virulence.  Instead it will be a call for steadfastness, for calm reasoning and for faith in the long term strength of the liberal cause.

So, we UUs have traditionally characterized ourselves as liberals.  Liberalism arose most notably in the 18th century during the Age of Enlightenment.  It was a celebration of the rights of the individual and a rebellion against hereditary power and privilege.  It would also become a justification for the limitation of state power of any kind and the basis for the various Charters of Rights that have been adopted in many parts of the world.

What is sometimes forgotten is that the key tool of liberalism is not a banner waving call for freedoms, but the applied use of reason and rationalism in service of core principles.  

At its most simplistic, the founding argument ran: Human beings were all born in God’s image and were all given the same free will.  Therefore all people all deserve the same rights and treatment before the law.  It is a logical proposition based on a premise.  You can agree or disagree with that premise.  However, it’s not enough to say I like or dislike the premise.  One’s position is to be argued on the basis of fact, not intuition or preference or self-interest.

Claims are not to be justified by high flown rhetoric or refuted with angry denunciation.  Questions are to be considered with calm reasoning and the examination of facts.  The method of liberalism is debate and proof, not fury or ad hominem attacks on opponents.  A liberal that does not listen to and comprehend the positions of opponents does not deserve the label. A liberal, finally, must always be open to a change of mind if new facts are revealed or a powerful case is made.

That’s basic liberalism:  A predisposition to the rights of the individual, including basic equality supported by a methodology of debate and discussion based on reason and fact.  One does the best one can with the information available at the time.

I was reminded of an example two weeks ago at the Canadian Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg.  In October, 1970, radical Quebec Separatistes kidnapped a provincial cabinet minister and a British Consul.  Two weeks later, the minister was murdered.  Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau – a classic philosophical liberal -invoked the War Measures Act and hundreds of Separatist supporters were arrested without warrant.  In the midst of the crisis he was asked on camera, “How far are you prepared to go?”  His famous reply, “Just watch me.”

Most – though not all-  of the arrestees were questioned and released within three days once it became clear that this was not a general uprising, but two small terror cells at work. 

I was 14 at the time and living in Montreal.  Terrorism was something very new in Canada at the time and people were scared.  There was overwhelming support for Mr. Trudeau’s decision, over 85% of both French and English Canadians agreed.  

Looking at the display in the museum though,  I realized that the PM had overreacted, that I had overreacted, that Canada had overreacted.  It was a good reminder that liberalism is not perfect.  That said, when new information came to light, the PM reversed his position and the army gradually relaxed its posture.  That’s the liberal response:  when new information comes to light, be open to changing your views.  

Perhaps the most cogent criticism came from another liberal thinker, Parti Quebecois founder Rene Levesque, “Until we receive proof (of the size the revolutionary army) to the contrary, we will believe that such a minute, numerically unimportant fraction is involved, that rushing into the enactment of the War Measures Act was a panicky and altogether excessive reaction, especially when you think of the inordinate length of time they want to maintain this regime.”  He was right.

That’s the liberal debate at its best.  Levesque challenged the arguments of Mr. Trudeau without overblown rhetoric or personal attacks.  It’s a far cry for what passes for debate in many policy debates these days.

To slip back to my original historical timeline, let’s return to the 18th century.  Liberalism started as a political and perhaps social enterprise. However, ideas like that never remain within one realm of thought and discussion.  At the same time as the rights of people were promoted throughout Europe and North America, similar debates were taking place within the precincts of churches and theological schools.  And that is where institutional Unitarianism was born.

We can even go back farther.  In 1519, the same year as Martin Luther was inspiring the Reformation, a Spanish theologian named Michael Servetus wrote an inflammatory book. He noted that while the Church demanded belief in the divine Trinity, the tripartite God was never mentioned in any way in the Gospels.  The official teachings of the Church, he claimed, made unreasonable claims and ought to be changed.

His (small u) unitarian proposition – one god, not three, would, in time, lead to his execution at the hands of offended Christians.  They could not refute his argument rationally, so they killed him and called it heresy – the 16th century version of ‘fake news’.  The seeds of promoting rational religion had been irrevocably sowen.

It would be two centuries before an actual church with a  rationalist approach to religion would begin to coalesce in England first, and then in North America.  The Servetian approach to religion did not die with him.  The ideas percolated in various circles and grew in strength.  The first British Unitarian clergy were men who found they could not sign the Anglican articles of faith because too many of them – like miracles and yes, the Trinity, simply did not make sense or fit with new scientific understandings. They broke off and started Unitarian chapels.

In part, these breakways were a reaction to extreme religious conservatism. Both English and American religions were in the throes of what the Americans called, the “Great Awakening”, a period of devout Calvinist piety and religious fervour where belief was everything, scientific facts and awkward things like questions were suspect and quickly condemned.

Within the American Congregational church- the largest Protestant denomination, there was a liberal wing uncomfortable with this passionate pose.  In 1819, William Ellery Channing spoke out at a very public event- an ordination in Boston.


The first half of his speech defended the use of human reason in interpreting scripture. His arguments ignored the role of the Holy Spirit. In the second half of the speech, he supported the results of a theology not handed down by God, but developed human mind. Religion had to make sense and fit scientific fact.  Harkening back to Servetus, the Trinity was first to go. “We object to the doctrine of the Trinity, that it subverts the unity of God.” 

Rejecting the Trinity, was only his starting place. He dismissed the Miracles. Christ was not both God and man, nor any more divine than any other human. Salvation by grace was a preposterous notion. Humans had the free will and conscience to discern right from wrong, and the reason to chart their own moral course. In short, virtually every doctrine which seems fundamental to Christian religion, Channing renounced that day. 

It was all terribly shocking, but it had broad support.  In a few weeks the American Unitarian Association was born in Channing’s study in a gathering with several ministers.  It would become a powerful voice in Boston.

From the beginning, this liberal approach to religion built on its democratic philosophy and extended its arguments to the issues of its day: abolition of slavery, rights of women, establishment of public education, prison reform and … well, temperance.  From the beginning we have also had a focus on social justice.  Our actions for the common good are based on liberal principle and usually argued in a logical manner.

The beauty of the philosophy is that it has no fixed positions.  In the 20th century following the despairing reality of the Great War, many people lost faith in God.  A group of Unitarian ministers forged the Humanist Manifesto which outlined religion without the need for God.  It became a powerful force within Unitarianism for 50 years.  Though some traditional liberals Christian sentiment remained.  But then in the 1970’s Unitarians rediscovered the value of personal spirituality.  A different idea about the divine began to creep back in to our gatherings. Pure reason was grand, they said, but it wasn’t enough.  Humans need something more, not a God, per se, but something.  We came to see the value of awe and mystery.  In the debates that brought our current Principles statement into being, this ongoing conversation between humanism and personal spirituality resolved into a document that allows for both without giving primacy to either.

So here we are today, in a church that values both passion and rationality.  But if we face a challenge in these days of political populism, it’s to find  a way to hang on to that liberal philosophy without letting our passion for justice drag us into angry and undisciplined partisan screaming match that passes for government in the US and increasingly in other jurisdictions around the world.  Embracing the tactics of the mob is both against liberal core values and undermines our cause badly.

But that is the topic of part two, next week.

I believe in the value of rational debate and discourse.  If I carry a sadness in me these days, it’s how that kind of conversation, one that allows for compromise and depends on real and generous listening, has fallen out of favour both on the right and on the left.