When the Golden Rule Isn’t the Answer

Today’s UUs are often surprised to learn that Unitarianism was heavily Republican until the 1960s. Republicanism today bears no resemblance to its grandparent, and the same can sometimes apply to our religion. (Universalism has different antecedents, which mattered more in earlier eras, and of which I know too little to comment here.) My Dad was one of those Republicans, as was my mother’s father. My dad, a social scientist and inveterate skeptic, insisted that humanism would get nowhere by relying on The Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”) Yes, it has adherents in every culture, every era, every religion, every region. But at the same time, it constantly assumes that everyone wants the same thing, and that one thing which everyone wants will somehow magically result in peaceful coexistence and mutual advantage.

His alternative was free-market economics, based in the idea that everyone is a rational self-interested actor. (He’s pretty disenchanted with that now.) But when NEITHER of these things was working, he had a handy maxim which these days could probably be useful:

“Your rights end where my body begins; my rights end where your body begins.”

He did not say “body,” but “arm.” Today, that would make this an NRA slogan, rather than a Fourth Amendment (safety in one’s own space) catchphrase. He used the physical body, though, because he did not believe that anything which happens in the home is protected. A perpetual softy and family man, he abhorred domestic violence and neglect or mismanagement of children or elders. When he wasn’t doing civics and economics, he devoted every fiber of his being to either his marriage, his children, his parents, and his extended family. And his civics and economics were all directed at the betterment of families of all kinds.

This came to mind because events this week threw me into one of the situations in which he most strongly asserted that The Golden Rule must be set aside: professional friendship with a conservative Christian.

Religious passion is the number one asymmetrical situation. One party believes — with all their being, with all their power — that the best thing anyone ever did for them was to introduce them to some religious being or group. The other party has no yearning in that direction. To an evangelist, of course, the lack of yearning is just a sign that more work needs to be done. This is where the phrase, “Your rights end where my body begins” answers the bell.

The situation that troubled me this week was equally disturbing for the evangelical Christian. We invited her onto our caregiving team because we know her through the union. She is a skilled and sensitive professional, friendly presence in the home, and intelligent enough to appreciate our constant flow of news, documentaries, and historical writing. But we are a same-sex couple, people she’s been told are “sick,” “deluded,” even “possessed of great evil.” And what she sees in our home is two adults who love each other quietly, struggle to keep each other as healthy as possible, and are planning a religious marriage next weekend. We invited her to our wedding, and she says that if her work schedule permits, she will attend. She says — and I firmly believe this is true — that if people in her religion knew that she is caregiving for us, and looking at attending our wedding, they would give her serious grief. She has decided –and she says this — that we are who we are, and she is who she is, and that is that.

She asks what our religion “teaches” and names various Biblical touchstones. My answers are what she expects, and she says nothing. When I asked what her religion teaches “about families like mine,” she groans and says, “I wish you hadn’t asked me that.” We know what she means. But for whatever reason, she has decided to practice “tolerance.”

“Tolerance.” It’s a dirty word for idealists, but at our house, we’re going to give it a try. I suspect it will be harder for me than for her. She is instinctively open to others and interested in them, while I tend to categorize quickly and struggle to walk it back. Still, the very conversation rearranged my inner energies this week, in ways I hope will be good. It’s Pentecost (in my religion, not hers), so perhaps we can both trust that Holy Spirit, each in our own way.

Meanwhile, this Sunday will be Father’s Day — a good time to honor my father’s formulation. “My rights end where your body begins; your rights end where my body begins.”

It made World War II era Republicans the primary Caucasian Civil Rights allies for African Americans (Democrats were chained to racist local power complexes throughout the South). “Main Street Republicans” were the majority of that party, advocating for small businesses, healthy families, and adequate money and leisure to fulfill one’s personal potential. It probably shaped Dwight D. Eisenhower’s caution against diverting excessive government funds into what he labeled “The Military Industrial Complex.”

For New England Unitarians, this slogan captured a Republican ethos (often violated, I know), that we, their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, might, with personal profit, dust off, and restore to our personal and political arsenal of phrases.

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