It has long been my position that if Unitarian Universalists were required to read, study closely, and learn to quote from one single document from our history, it would be William Ellery Channing’s Slavery (available online through Google Books.) While its history is well known — that it alienated the affections of major figures in the congregation which long had revered his service — we cheat the fundamentals of our faith by not focusing on his assertions rather than his courage. The intention he states — to ground equal rights in a philosophical argument that makes no reference to, and recognizes no distinctions, of race, wealth, religious — is just what we need today. For despite Channing’s usual elevation of God, this document joins the lectures on Self-Culture as the groundwork of our humanist values. Much of today’s political breakdown rests on the inability of secular and free-range left wing leaders to articulate a comprehensive philosophical counter to conservative religious arguments. Happily, William Ellery Channing has provided here, in one document, everything we need to lift our stature in current debates. A person, being made in God’s image (according to Channing; you might have a different explanation of our common forms), is plainly an End in himself, purposed by his Maker to pursue the moral law implanted as part of creation and birth.
Here is Channing’s value in the Hobby Lobby, and similar, situations: “Man has rights as a moral being.” Not as a naturally occurring accident which manifests scientific inevitability, not as a servant to even the holiest institutions, not as a covenanted social animal. We are each a moral being and is therefore our inherent right to exercise personal morality.
Pause for a moment to recognize this distinction. It first of all refuses to restate the Locke/Jeffersonian formula: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness [Jefferson]/property [Locke]. Instantly it has value to avoid a pitfall where the current political poles have set themselves and gotten stuck. Yet just as he has not called out Locke/Jeffersion, neither does he call out those who see moral self-improvement in terms of a particular religion or doctrine. Perhaps that explains why Dr. Channing stood alone among Unitarians of his day in fellowshipping with Roman Catholics on terms of mutual respect. In today’s realm, his argument offers as much to libertarians as to covenanters, and, more importantly, states a limit which applies as greatly to radical individualism as to corporate power.
Channing sets this definition against extremist uses of the Locke/Jeffersonian right to pursue, to hold, and to alienate [sell] personal property. Before money, before land, before even clothing and shelter, Channing says there is a basic property inherent from birth, and it is the right to exercise one’s physical, intellectual, and moral capacities for one’s own ends. When we say a criminal forfeits such rights, we are affirming that he or she had them. When a worker signs a contract to provide labor, he hands over only such rights as the contract enumerates, and only for such time as the contract designates. It is the duty of the contractor to assure that implicit rights — human rights — are not by the terms of the labor removed.
Back in the day, schoolchildren studied a play from William Shakespeare called “The Merchant of Venice.” It reeks of anti-Semitism and is therefore no longer so highly esteemed, for its climax used to teach us, in graphic terms, exactly what Channing laid out with such philosophical loftiness. A young man, whose name I forget, has contracted to provide, if he fails to repay the money, a pound of his own flesh. Dim memory hints that this repulsive requirement arose from distaste from the young man’s courtship of the merchant’s daughter, but in any case, this is what the merchant demanded. The young man trembles in fear and turns to legal redress. The judge announces that this aspect of the contract can only be performed if the merchant can find a way to carry it out without removing a single drop of blood, for blood is not something the young man contracted to surrender. So our language came up with the term, “exacting a pound of flesh” for unreasonable requests piled onto what started reasonably.
How valuable this dispassionate assertion as a way to throw cold water into the hot tempers of our current political dysfunction! Whether it’s about unions or family or money itself, Channing has given us a powerful tool. Here are the sentences I would have all of us offer on a regular basis::
“As every human being is bound to employ his faculties for his own and others’ good, there in an obligation on each to leave all free for the accomplishment of this end; and whoever respects this obligation, whoever uses his own, without invading others’ power, or obstructing other’ duties, has a sacred, indefeasible right to be unassailed, unobstructed, unharmed by all with whom he may be connected. Here is the grand, all-comprehending right of human nature. Every man should revere it, should assert it for himself and for all, and should bear solemn testimony against every infraction of it, by whomsoever made or endured.”
I write this post in part to explain my assertion yesterday that the Hobby Lobby case can be turned against its victors by embracing their claim that a corporation has moral duties. Let the Supreme Court assert that human rights apply to corporations, whether set up for profit or social good: what our religion’s greatest founder taught is that moral beings have moral obligations. And the first of these is, to maintain the moral independence of all others.