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Real moral values

Articulating a liberal religious moral vision
By William G. Sinkford
March/April 2005 3.1.05

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What are moral values? The country has been consumed by this question since the election because exit polls suggested that more Americans cast their November votes based on "moral values" than on the economy, terrorism, or the war in Iraq.

The right has hailed this as the verdict of the American people against marriage equality, abortion, and stem-cell research. Others have responded that this question was too vague to be useful, that moral values are much broader than the right's hot-button issues, extending to questions of war and bearing false witness.

As religious people, we should welcome the renewed focus on morality. I believe a liberal religious moral vision would resonate with many in this country. Articulating one clearly, however, will require expanding the discussion beyond the religious right's narrow, rules-based sexuality-and-reproduction debate: pro-life vs. pro-choice, marriage only for a man and a woman vs. marriage equality, comprehensive sexuality education vs. abstinence-only education. We need to expand the focus from rigid rules to encompass more complicated realities.

Let me try an example: abortion. The pro-life/pro-choice debate rarely acknowledges the critical point that nobody is in favor of abortion: Women have abortions because of complicated and competing realities in their lives. So a conversation about the morality of abortion isn't meaningful unless it includes comprehensive sexuality education and the equitable provision of birth control, which people need so they can have the knowledge and the tools to make and to act on informed and responsible decisions. Nor can the abortion conversation be morally complete without including adequate support for families struggling to make ends meet, including available and affordable childcare.

The moral values of our liberal religion call us to work toward the beloved community. They encourage us to love our neighbors as ourselves, always widening the circle of who we mean by "neighbor." Morality, in the words of my ministerial colleague the Rev. Galen Guengerich of the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City, is about "holding up the best experiences that we know, recognizing the relationships that make them possible, and then choosing to live in a way that will extend those experiences to everyone."

From values derived in this way comes the moral obligation to care for people where they are and as they are, living the reality of their complicated lives, understanding that we are all in this together: real people struggling with real issues, all of us deserving equal rights, enough to live on, and the opportunity to become most fully ourselves—an opportunity too many do not have, and which the rest of us need to continue to work for. That's what the most fundamental moral value—the individual worth and dignity of every person—requires.

Unitarian Universalists have been consistent in our support for those among us who lack rights and opportunity. We strive to support people and families in the reality of their lives. We have for decades welcomed real families of all sorts into our congregations, and we have the lived experience that being inclusive and openhearted enriches and blesses us.

Our liberal religious sense and our lived experience need to be part of the national conversation. Clearly we will not persuade everyone, and I know that the effort to communicate with people whose religious beliefs rule out genuine conversation on topics such as marriage equality and abortion has been painful for many of you who have tried. But I believe that if we offer our moral vision clearly, it will resonate with many who, in enduring our nation's polarized shouting match, have yet to hear their own values voiced. Perhaps this can prevent the phrase "moral values" from being again wielded by the few to divide the many, the way it was used in last year's election. Perhaps it will help this country to heal. It is a conversation worth having, and I urge all of us to participate.

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