Unitarian Universalism and the Draw of Engaged Religion

The Seven Principles and Social Justice:

When asked the question, “What does being a Unitarian Universalist mean to you?” almost every congregant spoke of the importance of the faith’s seven core principles and their connection with direct community engagement. Of the seven, the most commonly referenced principle was Principle One: “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” For many congregants, this principle connected with their passion for social justice and community engagement as well. For congregant Peg Mitchell, being a Unitarian Universalist means: “I’m engaged with people who share such a common set of principles, especially “the belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every human being.”

She said that the inherent worth and dignity of every person is a principle “that we act on in all of our choices such as in our commitment to racial equity.” For Peg, engagement in racial justice is “like saying the inherent worth and dignity is not being acknowledged in this country, but we work for that. So having that common bond is just huge.”1

Another core principle with which racial justice aligns is Principle Seven: “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” For congregant Channing McKinley, this idea of connection among all people and living things directly contradicts racism. She said, “If racism is a system that disconnects us from one another, then it’s fighting against my belief that the way we move forward and create more love and justice in the world is through that interconnection, so I think that racial justice fights against it.”2 Fawzia Khan, a congregant and member of the Racial Justice Leadership Team, expressed that people cannot believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every human and interdependent web of existence without having racial justice. For this reason, Fawzia said, 

“Racial justice should be something that every person of faith thinks about.”3

Although the Unitarian Universalist faith operates under seven core principles, it does not provide strict rules for how to live and is open to many beliefs and perspectives. Every congregant whom I’ve talked to thus far is somehow engaged with activist work, and they many of them explained to me that the absence of a “creed” in Unitarian Universalism informs the church’s depth of involvement with social justice. Merriam-Webster’s definition of “creed” is “an idea or set of beliefs that guides the actions of a person or group.” By this definition, Unitarian Universalists do have a creed, but because these seven principles do not create restrictions on people’s lifestyles, most of my interviewees did not see the principles as a creed.

Congregant Bill Elwood told me, “We live by seven principles. It’s our answer, not an equivalent, but our answer, to some other churches having creeds or dogma. Our seven principles are very short and to the point and deal with things like the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We’re definitely humanists, so our principles describe our duties to each other, and to the world, and to ourselves. But the emphasis is on taking care of ourselves and others and playing active roles in doing that.”  4

Lyn similarly noted, “The statement that we read every day, our covenant, is to help others and make the world a better place. Maybe because we don’t have a creed, so we’re not worshipping in the way that other churches do, maybe our worship, so to speak, is engagement in the community.”5

Although God may be a motivating factor in some of the social justice work that goes on at The First Universalist, because God is not at the center of the First Universalist's message, Peg said that at the church people tend not to act “in the name of God; we act in the name of justice. We act in the name of our values.” She added, “I don't mean to be down on God; if someone believes in God, that's cool.” The main distinction that Peg sees is that Unitarian Universalists are:

“not collectively looking for this future reward. I never think about heaven or hell or any of those things. I just think about what is in front of me today that needs my attention.”6


  1. Peg Mitchell. Interview by Natalie Jacobson. May 15, 2016.

  1. Channing Mckinley. Interview by Natalie Jacobson. May 8, 2016.

  1. Fawzia Khan. Interview by Natalie Jacobson. May 20th, 2016.

  1. Bill Elwood, interview by Natalie Jacobson, April 17th, 2016.

  1. Lyn Rabinovitch, Interview with Natalie Jacobson, April 17, 2016.

  1. Peg Mitchell. Interview by Natalie Jacobson. May 15, 2016.