Arthur Dobrin

Since its founding, Ethical Culture has presented itself as a progressive organization. This is certainly true as much so today as throughout its history. Given the progressive orientation of Ethical Culture expressed through its platforms, social action, and the identification of the vast majority of its members, does Ethical Culture provide a place for people who identify themselves as conservatives? If so what is that place of conservatives in the Ethical Movement and what roles can conservatives play in our Societies?

Is there room for a conservative in a movement that has defined itself by its laudable efforts at social change? From the point of view of a practiced conservative, the answer is likely, No. But leaving aside whether a conservative would want to associate with such an organization, what is the proper position for the Ethical Movement to take? Should conservatives be welcome as members?

Two historical examples may be instructive, both involving professional leadership within the Movement. First, there is David Muzzey, the notable American History professor at Columbia and founding Leader of the Westchester NY Society. Muzzey strongly supported the US intervention in the European war while most other Leaders, Felix Adler amongst them, took a radically different view towards what later became known as WWI. From this perspective, Muzzey was a conservative war hawk. Matters were reversed two decades later when Leaders favored intervention in Europe; Brooklyn Ethical Culture Leader Henry Neumann, as a pacifist, opposed entering the war. From this perspective, Neumann’s non-interventionist position was the conservative one.

The problem with identifying Ethical Culture with specific political positions is that specific policies and positions depend upon both theory and context. While the foundational underpinnings of Ethical Culture may be derived rationally, the implementation of the theory is a matter of interpretation. So while Muzzey saw the war in Europe as the defense of Ethical Culture values, other Leaders saw the war as the antithesis; and while Neumann understood pacifism as the proper expression of Ethical Culture values, others saw the use of violence as the right way to defend those very values from the threat of despotism.

Ethical Culture rightly puts the emphasis upon action—Deed before creed. Thinking about the right thing but not doing the right thing is often worse than useless as it easily lends itself to a sleek conscience, complacency and sense of superiority. Ethics need to be put into practice. And that the Ethical Movement has done historically and continues to do today. Quietism and withdrawal are incompatible with its philosophy and the sensibility of its members.

What deeds, under what circumstances and to what degree should always be open to consideration. While the Ethical Movement needs to speak out on social issues and encourage its members to be involved as responsible citizens, it shouldn’t shut out those who at any particular moment and around the specific positions at any given time take contrary positions.

Not all change is positive and not everything modern is an advance. It is possible that at least some of today’s progressive positions will be seen as retrograde by future generations. Some of what today’s conservatives oppose may well be worth opposing and some of what they want to conserve may well be worth preserving. What that will be only time will tell. But why should today’s progressives assume that they have all the answers? That kind of certainty has no more place in the Ethical Movement than does quietism.

Social activism is intrinsic to an Ethical Society. A Society that says nothing about political affairs and does not take action to change the status quo towards a more justice and equitable world is no Ethical Society. But an Ethical Movement that is self-righteous has problems of its own. As long as someone truly believes in the dignity of each person, honors the uniqueness of every individual and lives in such a way as to bring out the best in others, then it doesn’t matter whether the person is a conservative. Conversely, simply because someone is a progressive doesn’t mean that they truly are Ethical Culturists.

If the Ethical Movement can join social justice coalitions with those whose theology and metaphysics are radically different than our own, it would be strange that we would exclude a conservative whose basic set of values are those that we have stood for since 1876.

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