The reading this morning comes from the book, The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell.
“On a Sunday in November, I walked up to the New York Public Library to see the Emancipation Proclamation. On loan from the National Archives, the document was in town for three days. They put it in a glass case in a small, dark room. Being alone with old pieces of paper and one guard in an alcove at the library was nice and quiet. I stared at Lincoln’s signature for a long time. I stood there thinking what one is supposed to think: This is the paper he held in his hands and there is the ink that came from his pen, and when the ink dried the slaves were freed. Except look at the date, January 1, 1863. The words wouldn’t come true for a couple of years, which, I’m guessing, is a long time when a person owns your body. I love how Lincoln dated the document, noting that it was signed ‘in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States of America the eighty-seventh’….Sermon
“The Emancipation Proclamation is a perfect American artifact to me – a good deed that made a lot of other Americans mad enough to kill. I think that’s why the Civil War is my favorite American metaphor. I’m so much more comfortable when we’re bickering with each other than when we have to link arms… [like right after September 11th when] Rudolph Giuliani, the mayor of New York, kissed his former opponent Senator Hillary Clinton on the cheek as the New York congressional delegation toured the World Trade Center disaster area…
“My ideal picture of citizenship will always be an argument, not a sing-along. I [suppose I] got it from my parents, [who] disagree with me about almost everything. I do not share their religion or their political affiliation. I get on their nerves sometimes. But, and this is the most important thing they taught me, so what?”
I’d like to begin this sermon with a disclaimer. Just so you all know – and so the Internal Revenue Service knows, because I know the IRS is listening – I’m not going to endorse any candidate for President this morning. The title is just a teaser.
I do enjoy politics though and I could easily go on for far longer than my allotted time making all kinds of political observations, like this one: I recently found myself thinking that it is somewhat peculiar that at a time when “change” is the biggest campaign buzzword that the next President of the United States will almost certainly come from the ranks of the Senate. (We can safely assume that Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee will not receive his miracle.) This leaves three Senators –Clinton, McCain, and Obama – to vie for the Presidency. It odd that a race where "change" is the biggest buzzword has come down to three senators because the Senate is the legislative body least synonymous with change. The word “Senator” in Latin derives from a word meaning “old man.” Further, the Senate is the legislative body that is supposed to be the least responsive to the swings ands sways of public opinion. The Senate is not a populist body. Wyoming has the same number of Senators as California. The six-year term of a Senator is supposed to insulate them from popularity, permitting them to use wisdom even when that wisdom isn’t popular.
Not to mention, running for President as a Senator has been the kiss of death in recent years. Going back through recent history we see this: Governor George W. Bush defeated Senator Kerry four years after he defeated Senator Gore (well, sort of). Four years earlier, Governor Clinton defeated Senator Dole in ‘96. George H. W. Bush, a non-Senator, defeated Governor Dukakis in ’88. Perhaps Bush avoided the Senator curse when he lost his Texas Senatorial bid in 1970 to none other than Lloyd Bentsen, Dukakis’ running-mate. Going back further, we find that Governor Reagan defeated Senator Mondale convincingly in 1984.
That makes Richard Nixon the last Senator to be elected President of the United States, 36 years ago. However, it is worth noting that both Nixon’s Presidential victories came against other Senators: Hubert Humphrey in ’68 and George McGovern in ‘72. Likewise, Senator Lyndon Johnson defeated Senator Barry Goldwater in ‘64 just as Senator Kennedy defeated Senator Nixon in ’60. To find the last Senator to defeat a non-Senator, we need to go back to Truman’s defeat of Governor Dewey in 1948, 60 years ago!
That digression aside, the seeds to this sermon originated in an awareness of my own reaction to events half-way around the world two months ago. When Benazir Bhutto, the former Prime Minister of Pakistan and leading opposition candidate, was assassinated weeks before the general election in that country, I caught myself thinking, “What a joke of a democracy they have in Pakistan!” And then I remembered our nation’s history. We have had four Presidents assassinated: Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy. That’s about one out of ten. In addition, assassins have attempted to kill eleven other Presidents, including Andrew Jackson, Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, Truman, Nixon, Ford, Reagan and, most recently, George W. Bush. The Bush assassination attempt came when a would-be assassin lobbed a grenade in his direction as he spoke in Georgia (the former Soviet Republic, not the Peach State.) In addition, attempts were made to kill Jimmy Carter, the first President Bush, as well as Clinton (twice) but all those attempts were so bumbling as not to pose a legitimate threat to the lives of those Presidents.
Of all these assassination attempts, Teddy Roosevelt’s takes the cake. As he was preparing to give a speech Roosevelt was shot in the chest. His speech, folded inside his breast pocket, slowed the bullet. After being shot, Roosevelt calmed the crowd by announcing, “Quiet, I’ve been shot.” He then ordered the would-be assassin taken into custody, then proceeded to deliver his entire speech with the bullet lodged inside his chest before he sought medical attention.
So, now that I have the attention of the Internal Revenue Service and the Secret Service… and hopefully your attention as well, I want to offer these reflections.
Winston Churchill once quipped that, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the other kinds of government that have been attempted.” Democracy essentially means rule by the people. And Democracies resist all manner of tyrannies: A monarchy is a genetic tyranny. An oligarchy is a tyranny of the elite. A theocracy equates to religious tyranny.
Democracies, however, are always in danger of acting out the same kind of tyrannies they are established to prevent. In a democracy it is more often the majority that takes on the role of the tyrant. We belong to a liberal constitutional democracy that is conceived to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority. In our liberal constitutional democracy we’ve created all sorts of checks to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority. If, in our country, the majority decided that communism was evil, the majority could not ban the selling of Mao’s Little Red book. That’s why we have the first amendment. Similarly, if the majority decided that Ann Coulter was evil, they could not ban her books. If a majority was opposed to Unitarian Universalism, they could not outlaw us. This is all first amendment stuff. It is what makes us a liberal constitutional democracy… and it should be noted that not all democracies function this way. In other democratic governments, a majority can mandate a state religion or a religious test for office. Other democratic governments do enforce blacklists of banned movies, books, and other media. Some ban religions or political ideologies. In these countries, the will of the people can have its way, but the majority is a tyrant to minority positions.
A democracy is also a fragile thing. As all the talk of assassinations earlier pointed out, the tyranny of a super-minority of one person can thwart the will of a majority of millions. It only takes one person to undermine a democracy.
So, when will the civics lesson end and the sermon begin? According to our Unitarian Universalist fifth principle, we are supposed to affirm and promote “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process in our congregations and in society at large.”
What I would like to do in my time that I have remaining is to offer you a kind of meditation on our UU fifth principle. At first glance the fifth principle seems unremarkable. We support the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process in our congregations and in society at large. Who could possibly be opposed to that? Yawn.
It should be noted that this belief in democracy goes way back in our tradition and that the ideal of political democracy and the idea religious democracy were once linked in our history. The political desire of the founding fathers for self-government was one and the same with our religious ancestors’ longing for religious liberty. Recall: the British King was sovereign politically and religiously, the head of the State and the head of the Church of England. In declaring independence, we achieved political and religious freedom simultaneously. Two birds with one stone. Furthermore, the author of the Declaration of Independence was theologically a Unitarian and its others signers included Unitarians and Universalists.
Today, at the same time that we strive vigilantly to protect the democratic process in our society, Unitarian Universalists hold up the rights of conscience of those in our congregation. We say that you are not required to subscribe to a creed or a specific understanding of God or an understanding of God at all. But we also affirm the rights of conscience in other matters. You need not support one candidate for office. Remember this. And, on the societal level, just as we would believe in a vision of religious pluralism for our nation – Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Jew – we would also hold out a vision of political pluralism as a good thing for our nation.
But, let us remember Sarah Vowell’s words. “This freedom is a good thing that makes a lot of people mad enough to kill. My ideal society will be an argument, not a sing-along.” Where freedom does not exist, dissent is often the first thing that is abolished. Without freedom, there can’t be bickering. Discussing and even arguing theology and politics is a consequence of freedom.
Even though political freedom and religious freedom used to be intimately yoked, we tend to think about them differently nowadays. The reason we think about them differently is because our religious affiliation and our national affiliation represent two different kinds of associations.
To borrow language from the Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams, churches are voluntary associations. Our affiliation with them is voluntary. There are all sorts of voluntary associations to which we might belong: churches, the boy scouts or girl scouts, the ACLU or the NRA, the chess club, the community theater, the Republican, Democratic, Green, or Libertarian Party. These are all voluntary associations. We join them with our free consent. And free consent is the only thing binding us to them.
Nations are not voluntary associations. You can go down to the county election office and change your political party. It only takes a minute or two. Try showing up and saying, “I’d like to change my citizenship from US citizen to a citizen of Zimbabwe.” Our nationality, for all practical intents and purposes, is an involuntary association, much like the families to which we belong.
Sometimes liberals like to push the boundaries of voluntary and involuntary associations. Here is an example. At dinner parties that liberals attend, you can frequently hear a sentence uttered that goes, “If Sam Brownback (or insert your conservative politician du jour) were to become President, I would move to Canada.” I often wonder if conservatives do the same thing when they gather at dinner parties? Do conservatives sit around and say, “If Ted Kennedy became President, I’d move to…”? Where exactly would they move? Certainly not Zimbabwe. I’m leading us off topic here. But I do want to make the simple observation that while we remain quite good at using the democratic process in the involuntary associations to which we belong, we have become less adept at exercising the democratic process in voluntary associations. We tend to leave rather than vote, rather than argue.
The fifth principle of our faith calls upon us to use the democratic process in our congregations. I want us to take this principle seriously, not just pay it lip service. Right now the nominating committee is hard at work readying their nominations for next year’s Board of Trustees. How many of us have spoken with a member of the nominating committee about the leadership you would like to see on next year’s Board? Tomorrow night, the Board will look at the first draft of next year’s proposed budget. How many of us will talk with our leaders on the board and finance committee about our hopes for such a budget? Is that phrase, “the use of the democratic process in our congregations” an empty sentence?
Sticking with the democratic process in an involuntary association is one thing. What other choice do we have? But to stick with the democratic process in a voluntary association is much, much more difficult. It is hard to stick with an organization that you are free to leave at any time when you are not getting your way. That is the challenge of our 5th Principle.
Tomorrow is President’s Day. All this month we have been observing a month of gratitude at this church. Today’s and tomorrow’s gratitude exercises are related. Today’s is to thank a volunteer leader in the congregation. Exercise your democratic muscle by actually having a conversation with an elected church leader about an issue you care deeply about. Tomorrow is President’s Day. My challenge for you tomorrow is to send a letter or an email to a politician who you admire thanking them for their competence, their courage, or their sticking up for values that you hold dear.
I began this morning’s sermon by reading some words by NPR commentator Sarah Vowell. I want to close with a few more words by her. Earlier she wrote about how democracy is most real to her when it is an argument rather than a sing-along. In the same chapter where I found that quote, I found the following description of her image of democracy in reality. Vowell writes,
“The other day, in the [New York] subway at 5:30, I was crammed into my sweaty, crabby fellow citizens, and I kept whispering under my breath ‘we the people, we the people’ over and over again, reminding myself we’re all in this together and they had as much right – exactly as much right – as I to be in the muggy underground on their way to wherever they were on their way to.”
On the subway, Vowell notices the instructions on what to do if someone on the train experiences a medical emergency. The instructions tell fellow travelers not to pull the emergency brake as that will only delay help from reaching the person experiencing a medical emergency. The instructions say to wait until the train reaches its next stop at which point you are to get the attention of the train conductor and the station attendants. The instructions declare, quote, “You will not be left alone.”
“You will not be left alone.” In a nation of the people, by the people, and for the people… in a religion of the people, by the people, and for the people… perhaps this phrase represents the greatest ambition of a democracy: that when rule is by the demos, by the many, no one should be left alone.
Democracies, whether they are present in voluntary groups or in great nations, do not occur because of ideas and dreams. They happen because of participation, vigilance, and constant service. May our democratic church, our democratic county, our democratic state, and our democratic republic be so ennobled by your vigilant care, earnest participation, and heartfelt service. God bless. Goddess bless. Blessed be.