Monday, November 03, 2008

Sermon: "Democracy is a Sticky Thing" (Delivered 11-2-08)

Prayer for our Democracy
With awareness and abundant gratitude for this moment, this moment we are fortunate to enjoy as residents of this free country, where we celebrate the right to worship, the right to practice our faith, and the rights of conscience, let us pray for our democracy.

In less than two days Election Day will be here. We pray first of all for the candidates. We pray for the safety and for the health or Barack Obama. And we pray for the safety and for the health of John McCain. As well, we pray for the health and safety of each and every candidate for elected office in our nation.

For the winners on Election Day we ask that they receive and exercise the gifts of courage and humility, of integrity and wisdom. We pray that they accept the yoke of public service and serve with honor.

For every person eligible among us, we pray that we exercise our civic duty to vote, and partake of the holy sacrament of democracy. When we do vote, we ask that we go to the polls accompanied by the better angels of our nature and reminded of the loftiest aims of the faith we claim.

We join with others in this sacrament. Let us give thanks for the youth, 18 or 20 or 21 or 23 who will vote for the first time. Let us give thanks for the new citizen who will vote for the new time as well as for every first time voter, no matter what age.

We recall with pride those in our nation’s history who fought so long and so hard for suffrage. We remember generations of women who organized and suffered and battled for the right to vote. We remember African-Americans both long ago and more recently whose votes have been suppressed and denied. We remember the history of disenfranchisement, of poll taxes, voter intimidation, misinformation and misdirection. We are reminded that the democratic process requires vigilance and oversight.

And finally, let us pray that in the days and weeks to come a symbolic olive branch may be extended and civility rebuilt. We know that it is foolish to seek after a unity of ideas so may we aspire to a unity of purpose, for it is only with such a shared effort that we will be able to bring security to our hurting nation and peace to our hurting world.


[I began the sermon by passing out a two sided democracy quiz. One side of the page asked questions about the upcoming election. The other side asked questions about democracy in our church. Here is the quiz…]

1) Can you name the birthplaces of the following nominees on the Presidential ticket? (Hint: One was not born in the 50 states.)

Joe Biden:
John McCain:
Barack Obama:
Sarah Palin:

2) How many electoral votes are needed to become President?

3) How many electoral votes are up for grabs:
In Kansas?
In Missouri?

4) Who are the two major party candidates for the US Senate in Kansas?

5) Alaska, Georgia, Minnesota, and North Carolina all have closely contested US Senate races. How many candidates can you name?

AK: Republican: Democrat:
GA: Republican: Democrat:
MN: Republican: Democrat:
NC: Republican: Democrat:

6) Which two states will elect BOTH their Senators on 11/4? (Republicans are favored in all 4 races.)

7) Which state had the largest percentage of:
Kerry voters in 2004?
Bush voters in 2004?

Inside your order of service I’ve included an entirely non-partisan quiz to test what you know about the upcoming elections and about the democratic process here at the Shawnee Mission UU Church. I thought I would begin by giving you the answers to the Election quiz.

In the first question I ask if you can name the birthplaces of the Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates on both major party tickets. We’ll answer this is alphabetical order and the funny thing is that Biden’s birthplace may be the easiest to identify, because he often talks about being a boy from Scranton, Pennsylvania. McCain is the trick question here. He was actually born outside of the fifty states, on a naval base in Panama. Obama was born in Honolulu, Hawaii and Sarah Palin was born, not in Alaska, as you may have guessed, but in Idaho.

As far as electoral votes go, there are 538 electoral votes up for grab so you need 270 to win the Presidency. The candidate who wins in Kansas will pick up six electoral votes and the candidate who wins in Missouri will capture 11.

The next several questions are focused on Senate races. Here in Kansas Democrat Jim Slattery is challenging Republican incumbent Pat Roberts. If you are watching the elections at home, you will want to pay attention to four other Senate races across the country. These are, in my opinion, the four most interesting and closely contested Senate races. In all four races the Republican incumbent faces stiff competition from a Democratic challenger. In Alaska, incumbent Senator and recently convicted felon Ted Stevens is trying to hold onto his seat against Mark Begich. In Minnesota, the Senate race has celebrity flair with comedian, actor, radio personality and author Al Franken challenging incumbent Norm Coleman. In North Carolina, Senator Elizabeth Dole is trying to win re-election against challenger Kay Hagan. Finally, in Georgia, incumbent Saxby Chambliss faces a challenge from Democrat Jim Martin. If Democrats sweep all four of these races, they will almost surely secure a 60 member super-majority in the Senate.

Both Wyoming and Mississippi will elect a pair of Senators on Tuesday. In the 2004 election, Kerry received the highest percentage of the vote, over 60%, in his home state of Massachusetts whereas Bush won more than 70% of the votes cast in the state of Utah.

I do have one more quiz question to ask. Two weeks ago Barack Obama came to Kansas City to deliver a speech in front of the Liberty Memorial. In his speech he mentioned many people by name, but one person he mentioned received the loudest boos. Who can name the person who received the loudest jeers from the crowd? The person was not George Bush. It was not John McCain or Sarah Palin. It was not Joe the Plumber. No, the loudest boos and catcalls from the audience came when Obama spoke the name of the Kansas City Chiefs head coach Herm Edwards!

Election sermons are a part of our religious tradition dating back to our Puritan heritage. In this tradition, endorsements were common and those endorsements often carried a strong warning that choosing the wrong candidate might lead towards the path of ruin and God’s judgment.

Today, for better or for worse (but mostly I think for better), this practice no longer exists. Today, our reverence for democracy is enshrined in the fifth of our seven Unitarian Universalist principles, the one that states that we “covenant to affirm and promote the rights of conscience and the use of the democratic process in our congregations and in society at large.” I will come back to this principle, but I want to reflect on it in light of our seventh principle. The seventh principle declares that we are part of “an interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

Now, and maybe I’m just being picky about the wording, but I’ve never cared for the word “web.” It comes across as a little bit too Halloween-ish for me. I imagine a spooky spider. Fortunately, these same sentiments have been uttered by others using imagery without spiders. Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley writes, “If recognizing the interdependence of all life, we strive to build community, the strength we gather will be our salvation.” Mark Morrison-Reed writes, “The central task of the religious community is to unveil the bonds that bind each to all. There is a connectedness, a relationship discovered amid the particulars of our own lives and the lives of others.” Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

I’ve always felt that these, deep down, are true statements although the words differ. There is truth in the image of the web, in the interdependence of life, in the bonds binding each to all, and in the inescapable network of mutuality. About this truth I’ve often wondered, what do we name the force that keeps us connected, that keeps the garment from being rent, and that keeps the filaments of the web from breaking loose?

It occurs to me that if this were the church of Star Wars, we might just call that force, “The Force.” If we were Taoists, we might call it the Tao. I posed this question to some colleagues of mine. One suggested we call the force “love.” Another suggested “compassion.” I called my Dad, a physicist, and asked him for a science lesson. He explained to me, and I hope I understood him correctly, that there are several forces at work in the universe. One of these forces is gravity, but gravity is actually an extremely weak force. According to my father, gravity was the primary force in the universe for only a very, very short period of time after the big bang. How short of a period? Well, for about one-billionth of one-billionth of one-billionth of a millisecond. After that, other forces such as electromagnetism, weak force which is also known as beta decay, and strong force which is also known as nuclear force, came into being. These forces are what hold together atoms and sub-atomic particles. Physicists have even theorized the existence of others kinds of forces. But, my point is that there are these extremely powerful forces within atoms that keep them, and us, stuck together.

The point of this detour is to create some space in our imagining for this idea of interconnectedness. And, while I may be picky about the word “web,” I want us to imagine that all of existence is sticky.

This morning, I want to talk about democracy as a sticky thing. A democracy, it seems to me, is simply this: a democracy is one way, among many, of organizing a bunch of apes into a group. There are other ways. In dictatorships one ape is given control of the whole group. In communist systems all the apes are coerced into an arrangement designed with the goal of all of the apes being equal. In oligarchies the apes that have the most bananas are allowed to rule. In theocracies all apes obey some divine, ape-like being and follow the commands of ape priests or priestesses who best know the will of the Great Ape. And then there are democracies, where apes freely select their leaders and have opportunities to change them at regular intervals.

Of course, none of these arrangements are natural. When hominids first evolved, families and then tribes were how our ape ancestors arranged themselves. Families are very sticky. The bonds of kinship are strong. Tribes are very sticky as well. There is an enormous human impulse to identify with a tribe. Tribes are neither good nor bad, but you can see tribal dynamics at play all over the place. Observe a group of teens at the mall. A fraternity or sorority. A rotary club. A small church. Malcolm Gladwell, in the book The Tipping Point, points to sociological research that says that when a tribe grows to a size of greater than one hundred and fifty persons, it will lose its sense of stickiness, its sense of cohesion.

And, if you look at the sociology of families, the sociology of groups, you can ask what gives any particular group a sense of cohesion and what threatens the sense of cohesion? Often, groups have found cohesion through exclusion. Throughout history you can look and see examples of this. In our nation’s history, racial segregation, whether official or silent, has often given a group a sense of cohesion. You can look, for example, at different golf courses, athletic clubs, social organizations, or even neighborhoods right here in Johnson County and ask, “Did that club not allow African Americans to join? Did that golf course not accept Jewish members?” There was a sense that the stickiness of the group could only be preserved by excluding certain types of people. There is someone I know who engages in ugly and vulgar acts of xenophobia. This man takes it as a personal affront whenever he sees signs that are written in both English and Spanish and loutishly complains to store managers demanding that they take down the signs in Spanish. For him, a multilingual culture is a threat to his tribal idea of cohesion.

I think there is a tribal element to the news reports we hear about people stealing each other’s political yard signs. In the elementary school game of capture of the flag, the children are divided into two tribes and try to steal the other tribe’s flag while defending their own. I read a CNN news report this week that the political yard sign of 70s rock star, Peter Frampton, who now lives in Cincinnati, has repeatedly been stolen. I had two reactions to this story: the first was to shake my head at those louts who steal yard signs. My second reaction was to think, “Why the heck does Pete Townsend live in Cincinnati?” Provincialism is its own form of achieving cohesion through exclusion.

There are others though, for whom racial differences, cultural differences, religious differences, and political differences are not threatening. I had this experience four weeks ago when, on a Friday night, I caught the Long Island Railroad into Penn Station at rush hour and then caught the subway Uptown to visit the Whitney art museum in New York City. Surrounded by the most amazing diversity, I felt blessed, not threatened. I recalled the remarks made by baseball relief pitcher John Rocker in the 90s, about his hatred of the diversity one finds on a New York Subway. I feel exactly the opposite. Stickiness is a way of being in the world, a way of feeling like you can fit no matter where you go.

In a nation larger than one hundred and fifty people, we need to find ways of being together: of being a part of an interdependent web, of recognizing the bonds that binds us, of being caught in an inescapable network of mutuality and tied in a garment of destiny. Democracy is a process that requires stickiness. We participate. We cast our vote. Our preferred candidate wins or loses and we stick with the system, until the next time our moment of choosing comes around. We live in a nation that requires that we stick with the people we elect whether we like them or not. We do not have to like their ideas. We do not have to agree with them. We should be civil and peaceful towards them, but we can challenge their ideas, protest their actions, and work our rear ends off to get a different person elected next time. But we also have to stick around.

I suppose we could move to a different country. I suppose we could try to organize for our small tribe to secede from the union. I suppose we could throw our hands in the air when we don’t like the direction we feel our country is headed and abstain from the process. We could ignore it all in the name of apathy and cynicism. But Democracy is a sticky thing. Democracy is a sticky thing. Imperfect countries are run by imperfect politicians elected by imperfect voters. We stick with it. The alternative is so much worse.

Our Unitarian Universalist fifth principle tells us that we are to affirm and promote democracy not only in our nation, but also in our churches. The most prominent Unitarian theologian of the Twentieth Century, James Luther Adams, called churches “Voluntary Associations.” By that, he meant that all of us are basically free to choose whether we will come here or not and the extent to which we will participate. And, he was basically right about that. It was a true statement. This is unlike, say, being a resident of the United States. For most of us, residing in the USA is not really a choice. Some of us did chose to come here from another country. Others of us could choose to give up our citizenship and live elsewhere. But for the most part, it is not a thing that we even think to choose.

I think we should apply that some of that same sense of stickiness that is required of us to be a functional part of a democratic nation to being a functional part of a Unitarian Universalist congregation. We are an imperfect church made out of imperfect members led by imperfect leaders. Our own spiritual growth depends, in part, on our own ability to be sticky and to fully participate in the democracy of this church. The fulfillment of our mission as a church requires that we stick together and stick around.

On the flip side of the insert I have included a quiz about the church:

1) Can you name the four officers and five at large board members on the SMUUCh Board of Trustees?
5 at large members:

2) How many things can you list that the membership votes on at a Congregational Meeting? What percentage of the membership constitutes a quorum at a regular congregational meeting?

3) When is the next Board of Trustees meeting? What time? Where?

4) How would you go about requesting that an item appear on the agenda of a board meeting?

Here are the answers. Our board consists of President Al Forker, Vice-President Keith Dalton, Treasurer Jim Geiger and Secretary Elizabeth Barker. The five at large members are Patsy Pierce, Deneen Slack, Nancy Dumler, Tracy Goold, and Bill Roush. A quorum at a regular congregational meeting is 25% of the membership. The business conducted at meetings includes the election of the voting members of the board of trustees, the election of members of the nominating committee, voting on changes to the by-laws, the call or dismissal of a minister (which requires a quorum of forty percent of the membership), and votes that may be required or recommended by the Unitarian Universalist Association, such as our vote two years ago to become a Welcoming Congregation.

Board meetings are held on the second Monday of the month at 7:00 in Saeger House. One week before, the Executive Committee meets to set an agenda. The agenda, with supporting materials, is then sent out to the board so that they have the time to consider the pertinent information and make wise decisions. In order to get something on the board agenda, you would need to submit your proposed agenda item to Al Forker, Keith Dalton, Jim Crist, or myself. At our meeting, one week prior to the board meeting, we meet and decide whether an item will be taken up by the board or whether the item should be addressed in another capacity.

Stickiness. I ask you, in the days ahead and in the weeks ahead, to look into yourself and to determine how “sticky” you are. How willing are you to remain engaged, even when it is difficult? How willing are you not to pull back, or pull away, but stick with others in community? How willing are you to increase the power of your own personal gravitational pull, to form authentic relationships with all the diversity that is manifest around us? This is soul work. This is religious work. It is what is needed for vitality in our community, vitality in our church, and yes, even vitality in our democracy.

May the force be with you!