Unitarian Universalists like to brag about their enlightened religious identity. They point to their support for “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning”, and say that their congregations are great places for children to learn about religion in a way that will enable them to grow up to make their own decisions.
In practice, however, the religious education curricula from the Unitarian Universalist Association often come up short of these goals. Consider a lesson from the UUA’s Tapestry of Faith curriculum as an example.
The lesson is supposed to encourage children to think about forgiveness, and it does, but only in a superficial manner. Typical of the tone of the lesson is the admonition to teachers: “Explain that they have a very short time to complete this and discourage them from over-thinking it.”
In part of the lesson, children are supposed to consider the balance of crime and punishment – but only for five minutes. One of the first things to go out the window, given this rushed pace, is a representation of true religious diversity. Teachers are told: “Mention that in many religions, cultures and legal systems, the penalty must fit the crime — for example, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth (Exodus 21:23-27); no cruel or unusual punishment (the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution).” “Many” religions and cultures are reduced to just one religion, Judaism, and one nation, the United States of America.
The lesson plan does also point to ExploreFaith.org, a web site where teachers can supposedly find “a variety of perspectives at Why Forgive?” That variety, however, is limited to Christianity, as the perspectives on the web site are strictly limited to those that agree with statement: “We believe God is constantly reaching out to us and that we can experience the heart of God through Jesus Christ.”
What does the lesson do with this assertion that the United States legal system and Judaism share the belief that “the penalty must fit the crime”? Nothing. The teacher just mentions it, and then moves on to lead children in listing out what kinds of punishments they think fit particular crimes.
Any adult who is familiar with the Book of Exodus and the Bill of Rights, however, will note some critical problems in the lesson plan’s mashup of a Judeo-Constitutional perspective on punishment. The idea of an eye for an eye and the 8th Amendment to the Constitution offer quite different ideas about how society should deal with people who violate the law. The 8th Amendment does not suggest that “the penalty must fit the crime”. Instead, it requires that criminal penalties must fit within an ethical code of their own, rather than simply fitting a crime. The whole point of the 8th Amendment is that even brutal crimes must not be punished with brutality.
The Unitarian Universalist Association, however, doesn’t want teachers in Unitarian Universalist congregations to point out these differences. Instead, its lesson teaches, incoherently, that religions and legal systems are all agreeing upon a single idea of justice.
The lesson plan also misses an obvious opportunity to consider what kinds of punishments ancient religions called for. The lesson encourages teachers to “mention” a well-known quote from the 21st chapter of the Book of Exodus without explaining what the rest of that chapter in the Book of Exodus teaches:
- A person who hits another person should be punished with execution.
- When sons insult their parents, the children should be punished with execution.
These teachings from the Book of Exodus don’t match the idea that “the penalty must fit the crime”, so the Unitarian Universalist Association pretends that they don’t exist. Looking in detail at these harsh parts of this chapter from the Book of Exodus would undermine the Unitarian Universalist creed that all religions are, despite their apparent differences, actually talking about nice Unitarian Universalist ideas.
An entire hour could fruitfully be spent discussing these issues, and children would gain some ethical deepening in the process, but the opportunity is left behind. The lesson plan doesn’t give teachers any time to examine these issues at all. Why? The kids need time to conduct the climax activity of the lesson: Cutting hearts out of paper.