The Harmonies of Liberty

What does it mean for a community to be truly inclusive?

The Rev. Evan Keely, Interim Minister


The word “fetish” more often has sexual connotations nowadays, but historically it has also had a religious significance. In that context the word is analogous to idolatry, though they are not precisely synonymous. In a religious or spiritual context, a fetish is something fixated upon, something invested with transcendent or even magical properties; the implication is that the fixation is irrational and even dangerous. The thing fetishized in this manner, be it a physical object, an action or ritual, or even an idea is, by definition, not really what it is claimed to be — in other words, when we spiritually fetishize something, we invest it with a certain set of properties or qualities that it doesn’t actually have. Fetishizing is inherently a work of deception and self-deception, which is why it is spiritually unhealthy. It seems to me very likely that no individual or community is exempt from falling into the trap of spiritual fetishism from time to time. If we are honest with ourselves, we recognize when we do this, and more importantly, what motivates us to do it.

I have observed over the years that Unitarian Universalists tend to engage in what I call making a fetish of freedom. Like any spiritual fetish, this one claims to be something it isn’t — in other words, the freedom we fetishize isn’t actually freedom at all. The “fetish of freedom” that I observe among Unitarian Universalists has three facets — more to the point, it is built upon three fallacies.

  • The first fallacy of this fetish of freedom is that the most salient characteristic of Unitarian Universalism is that those who engage in it can believe whatever they want. This fallacy defines Unitarian Universalism principally as a religion which removes restraints, and it often compares Unitarian Universalism favorably to other religious practices which impose restraints.
  • The second fallacy of this fetish of freedom is that this is a good thing — that the removal of restraints in religious life is possible, desirable and worthwhile.
  • The third fallacy of this fetish of freedom is that people are and should be drawn to Unitarian Universalism because of this dearth of restraints and because the removal of those restraints is an inherent good.

Let’s break down these three fallacies. Hopefully, in so doing, we can understand where this fetish of freedom comes from and what motivates people to embrace it.

The first fallacy of this fetish of freedom is that being a Unitarian Universalist means “I can believe whatever I want.” This is a categorically false assertion. It is true that we do not have a creedal test as a requirement for membership in a Unitarian Universalist congregation; this custom can be traced back more than two centuries in our Universalist heritage. It is also true that we do not refrain from making assertions. What we have taken to doing at least since the 1980s (and possibly for even longer) is to claim that the seven principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association are a summation of what this religion is. The first of these, of course, is “we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” If that is intrinsic to Unitarian Universalism, ain’t no way we can “believe whatever we want.” We like to say that ours is a religion without doctrine, but this is a dubious claim at best. Some among us try to worm out of this by saying things like, “We don’t have doctrine, we have principles.” I have never heard anyone explain, for instance, why the claim that every person has inherent worth and dignity is not a doctrinal assertion. Nor has anyone ever explained what’s wrong with doctrine and why “principles” are somehow more palatable. But this notion that we can believe whatever we like is no more true than the claim of the moon being made of green cheese.

The second fallacy in this fetish of freedom is the notion that belonging to a church in which one can believe whatever one wants is a good thing. No one has ever explained to my satisfaction why this would be good. If believing whatever one wants is desirable, why on earth would anyone join a church in order to do it? Why not just eschew religion altogether, and bask in the bliss of never being asked to make a financial pledge or teach a religious education class or serve on a committee? We might respond that people join churches to find community. Sure. In a church we find a community which makes assertions about what’s true and what’s good and what’s right. Once we make a commitment to a community, we give up the right to expect that we can believe or do whatever we please whenever we please and however we please. All relationships impose some form of restraint. This idea that a religion which imposes no restraints is a good thing is a fallacy because no such religion exists. If it did, it would not only be impossible, it would be utterly pointless. The practitioners of such a religion would be the loneliest, most isolated human beings on the face of the earth.

This brings us to the third fallacy of this fetish of freedom: people will be drawn to Unitarian Universalism because this dearth or absence of restraints is good, and people are drawn to that which is good. I hope I have at least made it clear that I don’t believe Unitarian Universalism imposes no restraints (nor do I believe it ought to) and that were it to try to do so, that would not be good. But this may be the most powerful aspect of the fetish: this fallacious notion that Unitarian Universalists confront the world with open arms, declaring, “Come join us! We’ll ask very little of you! And you can believe whatever you want!” And we tell ourselves that in declaring this, hordes of people will say, “Really? Wow! That sounds great! Sign me up for that!” Aside from the fact that there is no evidence whatsoever that people react that way, the statements themselves are false. We can’t believe whatever we want; we do ask a great deal of ourselves and one another. A group that claims to demand little of its members is, in so doing, making it clear that what the group is doing is not important. Is that our message? It is not. It had better not be.

This notion that a low-demand religion would be attractive to anyone is absurd because it ignores a fundamental human truth: people are not drawn to things that are good; people are not drawn to things that are bad. People are drawn to things that create a sense of meaning, that make them feel that their lives are yoked to something of enduring worth. That can be good or bad, and of course good and bad are entirely subjective anyway. I’m sure I express a view held by everyone in this room that the movement of which Dr. King was a part was something good. People were drawn to it, not because it was good, but because the Montgomery bus boycott and the Freedom Rides and the lunch-counter sit-ins and the march across the Pettis Bridge in Selma felt to many who participated in them like something meaningful. I’m sure I express a view held by everyone in this room that the movement of which Hitler was a part was something bad. People were drawn to it, not because it was bad, but because Kristallnacht and the Nuremberg rallies and the invasion of Poland and the Final Solution felt to many who participated in them like something meaningful. Those things were horrors, of course, but we can’t doubt — though, of course, it’s deeply disturbing to acknowledge it — that the Nazis were very skilled at creating a sense of meaning and purpose. The fact that it was pure evil is almost irrelevant; no one would have participated in those barbarities had they not felt like something meaningful.

Making demands of ourselves and one another are essential points of religious life. We hold one another accountable to a standard of behavior that we might not otherwise strive for if we didn’t have the relationships of the faith community. And that is what we desire; that is what makes religious life meaningful. The challenge for us is not only to cast away this fetish of freedom, which of course is no freedom at all, but to recognize what it is that we demand of ourselves one another, and to then demand that without apology. This is an imposition of restraints, and therein lies the blessing of religious life at its best. We must learn and re-learn over and over to inhabit the paradox that our true freedom comes from the restraints of our commitments to one another and to a shared set of values and goals.

Freedom is fetishized in American culture overall, and the phenomena we can observe in our country are analogous to the particulars of our own UU fetishism. In essence, both UU and American fetishes of freedom are fantasies that freedom means that any of us can do as we please, while placing restraints on others in the name of preserving this notion — really, this illusion — of freedom. The egregious self-indulgence and self-centeredness of Donald Trump and his supporters is merely a conspicuous manifestation of phenomena that have been part of our nation’s culture always — and probably every society on earth has similar experiences. The civil rights movement that we recall at this time of year with the birthday of Dr. King was a challenge to this phony freedom and an assertion of true freedom: the simple but radical notion that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, that none of us is truly free when some are oppressed. These are not just high-minded slogans; they are assertions of the true nature of freedom. That marvelous old hymn that has become known as the African-American national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” opens with a declaration of these truths:

Lift every voice and sing till earth and heaven ring,
ring with the harmonies of liberty…

Lift every voice and sing — not just our own voices, not just the voices of those whom we wish to hear, but every voice is needed to create the harmonies of liberty.