The struggle between individualism and communalism is a common one in many religions, but Unitarian Universalism has a unique position, being without a central creed for the community to fall back upon in times of disagreement. However, we are able to find common ground in our values, our ideals, and our belief that Unitarian Universalism has a saving message that the world needs to hear.
In this short excerpt from his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama articulates the tension that exists between balancing these two ideals, the good of the individual and the good of the community, on a national and cultural level. I find that his words aptly describe the challenges in our church communities as well, particularly churches that are going through times of transition and change.
Senator Obama is not a Unitarian Universalist; he belongs to our sister-denomination, the United Church of Christ, whose core ideals are very much in line with our own.
Barack Obama, community, individualism, liberty, patriotism, responsibility, values
from The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream
by Senator Barack Obama
At its most elemental level, we understand our liberty in a negative sense. As a general rule we believe in the right to be left alone, and are suspicious of those–whether Big Brother or nosy neighbors–who want to meddle in our business. But we understand our liberty in a more positive sense as well, in the idea of opportunity and the subsidiary values that help realize opportunity–all those homespun virtues that Benjamin Franklin first popularized in Poor Richard’s Alamanack and that have continued to inspire our allegiance through successive generations. The values of self-reliance and self-improvement and risk-taking. The values of drive, discipline, temperance, and hard work. The values of thrift and personal responsibility.
These values are rooted in a basic optimism about life and a faith in free will–a confidence that through pluck and sweat and smarts, each of us can rise above the circumstances of our birth. But these values also express a broader confidence that so long as individual men and women are free to pursue their own interests, society as a whole will prosper. Our system of self-government and our free-market economy depend on the majority of individual Americans adhering to these values. The legitimacy of our government and our economy depend on the degree to which these values are rewarded, which is why the values of equal opportunity and nondiscrimination complement rather than impinge on our liberty.
If we Americans are individualistic at heart, if we instinctively chafe against a past of tribal allegiances, traditions, customs, and castes, it would be a mistake to assume that this is all we are. Our individualism has always been bound by a set of communal values, the glue upon which every healthy society depends. We value the imperatives of family and the cross-generational obligations that family implies. We value community, the neighborliness that expresses itself through raising the barn or coaching the soccer team. We value patriotism and the obligations of citizenship, a sense of duty and sacrifice on behalf of our nation. We value a faith in something bigger than ourselves, whether that something expresses itself in formal religion or ethical precepts. And we value the constellation of behaviors that express our mutual regard for one another: honesty, fairness, humility, kindness, courtesy, and compassion.