Religious Liberalism, Politics, and Empire: Dan McKanan at AAR

The American Academy of Religion’s annual meeting in November is the major North American gathering for scholars of religious studies.  Among the many offerings are plenty of papers and sessions devoted to liberal religion.  For two years now the event has also provided the opportunity for the Unitarian Universalist Scholars and Friends meeting, which features presentations specifically on UU issues and geared toward a scholarly UU audience.  Last year’s session on November 1, 2008 was titled “Religious Liberalism, Politics, and Empire: Resistance and Complicity.”  Four scholars were invited to present; this post is the first of a series about liberal religious papers delivered at the AAR.

Dan McKanan is the first person to hold the Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Chair of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School.  McKanan is also the current chair of the UU Scholars and Friends group and has been a force in raising the profile of liberal religious subjects at the AAR and in wider academia.  Therefore, while he was actually the third to speak at the session, it seems appropriate to begin with his presentation.  What follows is a brief summary of the points of his presentation, offered with his permission.

McKanan began by referencing Gandhi’s assertion that it is easier to turn a violent crusader for justice into a practitioner of nonviolent social change, than it is to transform a person who is merely passive or fearful. In a similar way, McKanan went on to posit, it is easier to transform an imperialist into a practitioner of global solidarity than it is to effect such a change in someone who is a realist or isolationist.

As he used the terms, an imperialist is a person who believes their nation’s civilization to be superior to that of other nations, and who tries to extend the values and practices of that civilization to outside nations for their own good. On the other hand, isolationists have no concern for other nations and therefore tend to promote the interests of their nation by withdrawing from engagement with them; realists also lack interest in other nations’ welfare or improvement of the global order, though they will engage with others in a more global way to the limited extent that it clearly promotes their own nation’s interests. Imperialists, then, are the only idealists and optimists in the bunch: they alone feel some responsibility toward people of other nations and wish to transform the world—though unfortunately this is compounded by arrogance and self-delusion about the value of their own civilization and how its imperial adventures serve to primarily benefit their own nation, not the “targets” of imperial improvement.

Given this understanding of the dynamics behind imperialism, McKanan then proposed that religious liberals create a new spiritual discipline: the practice of transforming imperialists into fellow practitioners of global solidarity—that is, into people who feel that all of humanity possesses the necessary wisdom to produce a better worldwide society, and who wish to humbly ally with others abroad already struggling to do so.

To begin this spiritual discipline, he proposed, we must self-critically reflect on the many ways that we as Unitarian-Universalists are complicit in the imperial policies and activities of our country. This is designed to help us identify and affirm our underlying idealism about offering a non-imperialist alternative, and thus to be able to channel that idealism in ways that are more accountable to people who have suffered from our nation’s imperialism. He used two examples to help illustrate what he was discussing: cultural misappropriation, and international adoption.

McKanan gave examples of how Unitarian-Universalists had been involved in both positive and negative engagements with cultural and religious others. An example of negative encounter was the deep hurt felt by many Native American communities over widespread UU eagerness to borrow sweat lodges and feathers without meaningfully standing in solidarity with oppressed men and women fighting for their children and their land. However, McKanan did not simply offer a blanket criticism of such practices. Rather, he suggested that we view even the worst misappropriators as potential practitioners of global solidarity. While we should not borrow rituals from other communities unless we are willing to assist with their quests for human rights and cultural sovereignty, the best response to such practices is not simple disengagement after the fact, but to provide resources and create alliances that make it possible to move religious liberals toward standing in solidarity with those groups that have informed our faith.

McKanan closed by expanding his envisioned practice to include not only self-reflection but also public witness, the act of clearly stating as people of faith that we will support global solidarity over narrow national self-interest in the political arena. Voting for politicians who support the interests of the entire human family and the interdependent web of all life is itself a manifestation of spiritual anti-imperialism.


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Filed under Liberal Religion at the American Academy of Religion, Liberal Religious History, Unitarian-Universalism

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