Richard Kiniry

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?

Ethical Societies can often be seen as “the choir,” as in “speaking to the choir,” as in speaking to the already convinced progressive believers. In the past regardless of Ethical Society members’ politics, we mostly shared a general agreement on ethical values. That is no longer the case and actually may have never been but in our present era the center of the political spectrum has moved right, and beside that our social culture is now less polite. Through the decades so much sensible social reform has been blocked leading to a build-up of righteous frustration that is ready to break the dam.

Those facts certainly create an us/them political atmosphere and that divided reality has also influenced the religious world. As religion has gotten more political through the decades, it is the rare religious organization that doesn’t have a noticeable political footprint. Those footprints are usually either liberal or conservative and, although this obvious divergence is complicated, it indicates a substantial difference in worldviews and in the understanding of ethical behavior.

So, the question becomes, can a political conservative be comfortable within a group that claims a relational, naturalistic, nontheistic worldview? Actually, the first question must be, do we care? Self-described conservatives in the 21st century are a far cry from the conservatives of the Roosevelt era, and the extremism of 21st century conservatives seems to preclude interest on their part in us and our interest in such people being part of an Ethical Society. I suspect it would be difficult for a politically conservative person to find a place within an Ethical Society and I suspect that their presence would ultimately be harmful to community cohesion. Much depends on the personality of the individual. Some of our present members may have progressive political opinions but true-believer personalities.

I believe it is more realistic that Ethical Culture be interested in addressing the concerns of Society members who get tired of our political correctness and start to feel alienated. The term political correctness is often used as a club to beat up on progressives, but there is more than a grain of truth in some of that criticism. While our historic concern with social justice issues is an important element of our identity, our consent to a leftist analysis of social problems can be too freely accepted without a nuanced examination of those problems from the ethical humanist perspective. Our primary concern is for the worth and dignity of every human being. Choosing too quickly good guys and bad guys can restrict our view of the underlying sources of problems and in the process produce responses that are shallow and ineffective.

Both men and women participate in the maintenance of the sexist, male dominating subculture that is built into our share lives together and while African-Americans and white supporters declare that “Black lives matter”, the moral righteousness and justifiable anger behind that slogan tend to hide the sublimated socio-economic habits acquired by all of us that are essential to the structure of racism. Remedying both racism and sexism may lay primarily at the feet of white men but a realistic curative approach will demand the honest acceptance of the culpability of every American in racism and sexism.

Coming back to the original question, an Ethical Society that offers an open environment for questioning “approved” opinions is appealing not only to our contrarian members but could also find acceptance by rational conservatives who might accept Ethical Culture’s commitment to social justice but also view those issues from a fresh perspective.

I will admit to a lack of hope for such a utopian outcome. However, I do believe a sensitivity to such a possibility will not only express our commitment to the “intrinsic worth” of everyone but also create an internal environment in Ethical Societies that will make them better places in which our members can grow politically, emotionally and spiritually.

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  1. Abraham Markman Reply

    As David Brooks of the NYtimes has written many conservatives tend to find liberals — elitist. The culural wars we proudly proclaim as victories ignore the anguish that many schooled for millenia in a patriarchal, white supremisist, homophobic belief system. What we on the left have become confortble with, many on the right resist even harder .

    Havng empathy for people unable or unwilling to change at a time of enormous change is one of the great challenges of our time.

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