I want to begin by telling you about an educational experience that profoundly shaped the way I think about politics and the church. During my first year at Harvard Divinity School we were required to take a course that was an introduction to theological education for ministry. In part of the class, panelists would come and speak to us about their understanding of the ministry they did. One speaker who came was a Harvard graduate and the minister of an African-American congregation in Boston’s inner city. He told us about a major shift that had occurred in his understanding of ministry. At first his ministry was predominantly concerned with personal morality and with the believer’s personal relationship with Jesus, the holiness and salvation of the individual. His church taught a message of a religiosity that helped believers to stand apart from the corruptions of society and culture. Then, something happened that changed the way he thought about ministry. A gang member came to an event at his church looking and shot and killed a teenager in his congregation.
This incident changed the way he thought about ministry, he told us. He came to believe that the church needs to go out into the world because the world will most assuredly come into the church. The church, he explained to us, needed to be political, not just personal. He explained that he used the word “political” in the original sense of that word, what the word would have meant in Ancient Greece and in the philosophical writings of Aristotle and Plato. The word “politic” comes from the Greek word polite, meaning citizen, which in turn comes from the Greek word polis, meaning city. The word “politics,” in its most basic sense, means the affairs of the city, the affairs of the state. Polis, polite, politics. City, citizen, the affairs of the city.
In response to the gang shooting that happened within the walls of the church, this minister began to reach out aggressively to the Mayor, the Chief of Police, and to other community leaders. Working cooperatively, they began initiatives and launched programs that proved effective at reducing youth violence in the inner city. In fact, their programs became a national model for addressing youth violence in the inner city.
I share this story because it represents for me a foundational understanding of what politics means and what politics is about. I share this story because it has to do with politics in the very best sense of the word, people working together to shape the affairs of the city. The minister of the African-American church who came to speak as a panelist in that class had a vision. His vision went beyond the walls of his church. His vision had to do not only with the youth of his church being safe, but with youth throughout the city being safe, and having better choices and better opportunities than had been available to them. It was a political vision, a community and city that made real investments in the lives of young people. It was also a religious vision, just one that was not parochial or provincial or sectarian. The religious vision was that every youth in the city was a child of God, born with worth and deserving of dignity.
One of our congregation’s earliest homes was the Nallwood Junior High School in Overland Park, where we met for a time in the late 1960s before we purchased this property. When Nallwood Junior High was constructed in 1961 it was dedicated with the plaque that read,
Erected and equipped by the tax payers of this school district as evidence of their faith in the American system of public education, this building is dedicated to the principle that education is the foundation of good government and world peace.
Such a plaque is evidence of a particular vision and a particular faith that presents itself as universal. It is a faith that goes beyond any narrow denomination and beyond any particular name for the divine. It is a vision and faith that scholars have called “civil religion” and politicians have called “the American dream” or “the American Way of Life.” If you grew up in this country, you probably received some education in American civil religion, a worldview with its own mythology, its own pantheon of saints – Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Lincoln – as well its own holy scriptures in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. American civil religion tells us that liberty, freedom, and justice are inalienable and supreme rights and that the democratic process is sacred ritual. Questioning and challenging these assumptions is often treated as more than dissent; it’s treated as outright heresy. G.K. Chesterton once called America a nation with the soul of a church. It is an apt description.
My message this morning deals with the disconnect between the soaring, sacred rhetoric of democracy and the much more challenging practice of actual democracy. I’ve titled my sermon “Staying Sane in the Election Season” because the election season is so often a disorienting emotional rollercoaster. It is my belief, and it is the point that I’ll argue in this sermon, that understanding democracy as a religious system helps to explain both why politics affects us in the way that it does, and how we can better stay sane this election season.
This year, and each election cycle, members of this church have told me how this time of the year can lead them to feel alienation, aggravation, cynicism, and despair. One member of the church described to me a verbal confrontation in the Whole Foods parking lot with a rude shopper who objected to his bumper sticker. Another member tells of how she found a nasty note pinned under the windshield wiper of her car in response to her political bumper sticker. Other members of this church, through the years, have told me about their yard signs being stolen, their bumper stickers being removed, and their personal property being damaged because of their demonstrated support for a particular candidate.
I’ve witnessed political posts on Facebook turn into undignified shouting matches composed in all caps. More than one member of this church has copied me on an email to a friend or family member telling that person that their political opinions are not welcomed, or sometimes just plain telling that person off.
There are many members of this church, I suspect, who experience feeling under siege, attacked, or just generally feel defensive in the presence of friends, family members, or co-workers. There are many members of this church, I suspect, who have felt antagonized by neighbors, by other drivers on the road, or by fellow shoppers in the grocery store parking lot. Truth be told, there may be people in this room who have actively antagonized others. Congregation, do you resonate with what I’m describing here? Have you found yourself embattled with the stranger in the parking lot or with the in-law over email? Have you found yourself embattled on the inside, feeling your blood-pressure rise on account of a yard sign or bumper sticker?
In terms of the coming election in November, for better or for worse, those of us here in Kansas and Missouri may actually experience a little less drama than many of our friends in other states. Neither Kansas nor Missouri is considered a “swing state” and the presidential campaigns are spending less money advertising here than they are elsewhere. In Kansas we are not electing a Senator or a Governor, and the Congressman in this district is running unopposed. In Missouri, the National Republican Party has pulled its support for the Republican candidate for the Senate, which means fewer dollars going to the candidate and fewer ads running on television. This is not to say that the election in either state is unimportant. Quite the opposite. There are races at the national, state, and local levels that are hugely important, but those races won’t receive nearly the same amount of coverage in the media. Our storm has relative quiet before it, but it is still a storm.
In a true swing state or in a particular race that garners significant national attention, you can imagine how even more bombarded you would be with political advertisements. In swing states, the mood experienced can be a kind of mania. Here the symptoms tend more towards depression.
All through the summer I’ve been reading the frequent postings by my colleague Meg Riley that are published on the Huffington Post. Meg Riley lives in Minnesota and has been extremely active in working to get voters in that state to reject the proposed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages. The title of each blog post is always the same, “X number of days till Minnesota votes on my family.” For Meg I suspect, part of staying sane in the election season means working like hell to defeat the amendment even though the work is frustrating. In her post, Fifty three days Till Minnesota Votes on my Family, Riley writes about volunteering at a phone bank making call after call to a conservative rural area of Minnesota where she is judged over and over again. Feeling dejected, she talks to her daughter who has also been working the phone banks. Her daughter told her, “But when you change the minds of one of those people, it’s the best feeling in the world. I did that just yesterday. One of those calls is worth being sent to hell fifty times… The calls I make, just me myself, could decide this election!” She’s right. It could, though it is an uphill battle.
We might do well to ask, what exactly sanity means in the context of a charged and combative political environment? What does health really look like? It would be a far easier question to answer if the stakes weren’t so very real. Political choices might make the difference between ending war and continuing war, between choosing to start a war and choosing not to start a war. Political choices might make the difference between certain health care options being available or not available to your family. Political choices might make the difference between whether or not many social and health services are provided for those with disabilities or mental illness in our society. Political choices might determine the amount of funding your child’s school receives, impacting everything from class sizes to the quality of materials to access to art and music. Political choices might determine whether women will have access to health services. Political choices might make a difference in the areas of environmental protection, financial regulation, taxation, immigration, education, and procreation. Again, what does sanity look like in this context?
Earlier I made the claim that the American political system functions as a religious system. I believe that we can apply some of what we know about religion to what we know about politics, and that this in turn can tell us a bit about sanity. As Unitarian Universalists we know that salvation is not achieved at the level of the individual being promised a better world after this world. Salvation is not a state of inner peace that we attain, but a social reality that we build. It is tempting to think that staying sane in the election season is a matter of avoidance and separation rather than participation and engagement. The stance that says, “Politics is a dirty business that I find distasteful and off-putting so I do not get involved,” is a form of denial. It is a form of willful ignorance.
There is corollary to this. Just as we understand that being a Unitarian Universalist means practicing your faith, it does not mean constantly trying to convert your family members, friends, or strangers. The same is true of politics. Not every conversation needs to turn into debate about politics. This can be difficult.
When I say that politics is a religious system, I am making an analogy. It is not a perfect analogy, but it is an understanding that offers plenty of insights. For example, it is very clear to me that religions have the same fights over interpreting the Bible that politicians have over interpreting the Constitution. Both are documents that approved of slavery, by the way. There are battles over whether these documents ought to be read literally, or whether our interpretation ought to evolve over time. Do new occasions teach new duties or is there never anything new under the sun?
At its core, here is what staying sane means to me. It means having a powerful and profound vision of what a good society looks like to you. Paint a picture of that powerful vision in your mind. Imagine it engraved on a plaque in a public place. Maturity and health means staying true to that vision. State the vision positively. Refrain from name-calling because there is a smallness there that is not worthy of you.
Maturity and health means stating and restating your powerful vision in the clearest and most powerful language you have, and working on behalf of it. And the sanest thing you can possibly do is hold onto that vision no matter what. Indeed, it is the only sane thing to do.