Belief, Behavior, and Politics: The Uniqueness of Ethical Culture by Hugh Taft-Morales

When Ethical Culture was founded in the nineteenth century, it introduced something new, perhaps radical, to the world of religion. Ethical Culture was also then on the cutting edge of progressive social change. We are now in a different time politically and religiously. What is there that is distinctive about Ethical Culture in the current era? With many diverse expressions of both liberal religion and humanism, what distinguishes Ethical Culture in matters of belief? How does Ethical Culture differ from generic liberalism?

Regarding exploring politics and religion, few have ever been freer than citizens of the United States today. You can join many parties—Democratic, Republican, Green, Libertarian, Working Families, Socialist, and more. You can learn about and advocate for just about anything. Few countries offer as many religious and humanist options. So, what makes Ethical Culture stand out? What makes us unique?

Regarding the uniqueness of beliefs in Ethical Culture let me start by saying that they are bracketed by a conviction about beliefs—that beliefs are less important than our behavior. Almost all Ethical Culturists proudly proclaim “deed before creed.” In other words, how you live your life and treat others is more important than the reasons behind your actions. As Thomas Jefferson said, “It is in our lives and not in our words that our religion must be read.”

I’ll have to admit, however, that this pragmatism is not as unique as we’d like to think. “Deed not creed” appeared in Unitarian and skeptic circles of the 1830’s. Today, people affiliated with liberal religions—such as UU, Congregationalism, and Buddhism—emphasize behavior over belief. Many secular humanist groups, like the Foundation Beyond Belief and the American Humanist Association, also emphasize less talking the talk, and more walking the walk.

A second belief that makes Ethical Culture somewhat unique in liberal religious, humanist, and naturalist circles is our institutional non-theism. As a tradition and as a federation we take no position on the existence or non-existence of god. This removes one of the greatest distractions to doing good deeds: endless metaphysical debate. To be clear, people who join Ethical Societies can be atheist or theist—it’s just that this part of their belief system is not a part of their association with Ethical Culture. Our members may feel more comfortable because Ethical Society are full of atheists, but that is a convenient result of our commitment to naturalism.

While there are non-theist religion philosophies—like Zen Buddhism and Confucianism—Ethical Culture’s non-theism shapes our use of the term “religion.” Felix Adler insisted that Ethical Culture is religious to those who are religiously minded and merely ethical for those who are not religiously minded. It is not the metaphysics that matters, but the conscious choice to honor the worth of others, nurture ethical relations, and build justice that are paramount.

Our dedication to a congregational format—meeting regularly, marking the seasons, honoring life passages, and developing deep interpersonal relationships—marks us off as the most consistent example of “congregational humanism.” Recent efforts by the AHA, the Humanist Hub, and the Sunday Assembly to nurture meaningful community, however, might indicate that this is no longer as unique to Ethical Culture.

A belief related to our congregational structure is our emphasis on relationships. This emphasis distinguishes us from many other groups that protect the dignity of the individual. Ethical Culture appreciates that relationships actually enhance the uniqueness of the individual. Adler understood that the individual is not prior to the group, but arises along with the web of relationships in which it lives. Ethical Culture honors both the relational and autonomous nature of each individual. That affects the political environment in Ethical Culture.

As it is with general beliefs in Ethical Culture, so too regarding politics—philosophically we defend diversity of thought, which helps some libertarians and republicans feel at home at Ethical Societies. But, in most Societies, liberal tendencies are strong. Recent polarization has made it harder for those leaning right to feel fully welcome. Most members support moderate to liberal policies, such as those of the New Deal—social security, home loan insurance, government regulation of utilities, and so on.

There is, however, a difference between traditional liberalism, which rests on the sanctity of the individual, and more collectivist approaches in Ethical Culture. I believe this is due to our emphasis on relationships and appreciation for the broad scope of history. Adler displayed a Hegelian affinity for seeing “the whole” and appreciating the network of relationships from which individuals arise. For Adler, ethical community grows from personal to local to national to international. By learning democratic behavior in smaller groups—like in an Ethical Society—how to draw out the best in personality, we become ethical participants of more complex organizations. This is, for Adler, the “collective task of mankind.” (An Ethical Philosophy of Life, Felix Adler, p. 241)

I will conclude with two manifestations of this characteristic. The Encampment for Citizenship, an educational Ethical Culture youth camp founded in 1944 with a mission to prepare “young people to be informed, responsible and effective global citizens through experiential learning and through living in a diverse, democratic community.” It puts relationships first, personal agendas second.

Putting relationships first is also central to “community capacity building,” a method for building consensus that includes everyone, not just the powerful. Jane Addams created settlement houses based on “reciprocity of relationships” where everyone is involved in the reconstruction of civilization. Agendas are created cooperatively. Those with resources are on the same level as those in need. This is not noblesse oblige, or as one young historian, Esther Lifshitz, put it so well, “not a condescending or a manipulative activity, but the demands of a democracy.” When we engage cooperatively “those of radically different experiences, poor and wealthy alike experienced moral growth.” (Lifshitz, 102)

Ethical Culture Leader Alfred W. Martin said that Ethical Culture strives for “the formation of right relations between personalities.” He wrote that, “…the creating of right relations is valued above all else because such spiritual activity is the very highest kind in which a human being can engage. The supreme good of life is to be found in the act of creating harmonious relations.” (From an essay by Alfred W. Martin in Distinctive Features of the Ethical Movement edited by Horace J. Bridges)

Perhaps I am romanticizing Ethical Culture by calling on sages of the past. Perhaps today our politics is typical of the center left. At its best, however, the politics of Ethical Culture is grounded in a spirituality of relationships, one that takes patience, dialogue, humility and reverence towards others. At this moment in time, when social divisions are hostile and deep, if our politics is not first and foremost about relationships, it ought to be.

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