October 26, 2004
Rev. Douglas Taylor
I must have been sixteen the night I snatched the political candidate sign from my neighbor’s yard. I certainly don’t recall the name on the sign of the person running for senate and I’m not so sure I could even tell you who the opposition, whom I supported, had been. Or whether the candidate I favored won or not. But I remember stealing the sign. It was dark as I ran across the road and grabbed the sign. My sister sat in the driver’s seat as I hastily lumbered back to the car with the opposition’s advertisement. It was a heavy-duty metal job, too. Not this modern poster board kind attached to coat hanger wire. This was designed to be permanent! It was a thin sheet of painted metal with a half-inch wide strip of metal holding it up. It was serious signage! We hid it down in the basement and it must of sat there for a couple of years before we figure out some way to get rid of it.
Ronald Reagan was in the middle of his second term as president. Nuclear war was a looming threat to the world. Sting had released a solo album the year before with a song that said, “I hope the Russians love their children, too.” In church we had watched and discussed the made for-TV-movie “The Day After,” a dramatization about the likely effects of nuclear holocaust on a mid-sized American city. There was a lot of fear and anxiety floating around at that time. Fear and anxiety provoke normally rational people to do irrational things.
Lately I’ve read in the Press &Sun Bulletin regular letters to the editor from individuals who have had their political signs stolen or the “support our troops” magnets snatched from their cars. A letter-writer in yesterday’s paper lamented that it was the second time magnets had been stolen from her car. Now, I haven’t been keeping careful track of these, but it certainly seems as though there are a couple of letters like this each week. The question implied if not out right stated a by a few is: why do people do this? Why do they take my magnets from my car or my signs from my yard?
I certainly wonder with them: what is gain by such thefts, what statement is made, what greater good is served by such actions? Why do people do this? Why did I do it way back then? It certainly does not fit with any commitment to the freedom of speech to be tearing down the opposition’s signs! I suppose it might be in line with the ideas of the first amendment to sneak onto someone else property and add your own signs! But nobody does that. Instead we have this petty pilfering of each other’s political propaganda.
Both sides do it. Politics does seem to bring out a certain divisiveness among people. Political campaigns push a shallow black and white perspective, a simplistic ‘yes’ or ‘no’ mentality in which shades of understanding and layers of nuance cease to exist. At the extreme I hear even the demonizing of those in the opposing party and their supporters, a rather dramatic claim. As William Sinkford wrote in the pastoral letter sent out recently, “Our congregations have been ministering to a deeply divided nation.” We seem to have lost our unity “beneath the battle lines drawn between blue states and red states, conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans.” When I read the letter earlier, I ended with the prayer. The letter does, however continue with this: “there is more that unites us than divides us, and there can be but one common destiny for this nation.”
It would seem so obvious that there is so much uniting us in this country, and yet, we stand so strongly divided on the issue of this election that I wonder if there is more going on this time through compared with other election cycles. I have certainly heard some of my older colleagues witness to such an idea. I can’t attest to it one way or the other but I can certainly see that there is a problem now, there is no denying this presidential campaign has been too often malicious and disturbing. Seminal ideals of our nation such as a commitment to fair play and the strenuous use of reason just go right out the window as both sides sling mud across the aisle.
The Reverend A. Powell Davies, Unitarian Preacher from the 1950’s regularly spoke and wrote about the idea of democracy. He would claim that democracy was a governmental system secondarily and a spiritual system first. He railed against the idea that democracy was merely a system of checks and balances held together by self-interest. Self-interest alone lead too easily into corruption when given opportunity, and what is America but the land of opportunity! “[Democracy] sees the individual in relation to all his obligations and asks him to rise, of his own accord, to the level of them. Democracy is not a system of checks and balances, except in a secondary way. Democracy is brotherhood in political and social embodiment. In short, democracy is spiritual. It is not a way of government unless it is first a way of life; it is not the form of a society unless it is also the faith of that society.” (from The Urge to Persecute, p205) He further defined this saying that the United States was not founded merely on freedom – the liberty to do what you like – but also on unity.
Today it seems we are the divided states of America. The unity is lost, and seems to have been lost for some time. Perhaps the last time we felt national unity was when we were united in sorrow and pain in the wake of the events of September 11 a little over three years ago. Though I don’t recall much unity of spirit in the nation before 9/11.
We are, I believe, a nation in trouble. Aristotle said, “A democracy, when put to the strain, grows weak, and is supplanted by oligarchy.” (Oligarchy is a government run by an elite few.) I think our democracy has been under strain lately: the strain of disinterest and disenfranchisement, the strain of greed and corporate self-interest, the strain of moral decay! [Moral decay? Did our liberal minister just say moral decay?] Yes! The worst form of moral decay in our society today is the excess of public moralizing about sex that sticks its nose in everyone’s private affairs and yet completely ignores the economic immorality of accounting fraud, tax evasion, and the exorbitant pay of top executives. These are public issues of morality that are being ignored in favor of the sexier issues! Our democracy is groaning under such strains. And I would not be the first to suggest that Aristotle’s prediction concerning a strained democracy turned oligarchy has indeed come to pass, and likely some time ago.
We have been asleep. We lived trough the turmoil of the depression in the thirties and the second great war in the forties, the committee on un-American activities hunting out communists in the fifties, the Vietnam war and the civil rights movement in the sixties, and seventies had disco, and the eighties had greed, and the nineties had the soaring stock market, and in 2001 we were reawakened to the turmoil and woe of the world around us and even at our own front door. We seem to have been asleep these past few decades dreaming of a new age, dreaming of peace and prosperity while pockets of discontent and anger simmered around the world. Perhaps you personally lived in or were well aware of one or two of these pockets of pain in the world. Perhaps you personally were not asleep, perhaps you saw that the dream of peace could never become reality through merely the dreaming of it. But for the rest of America, September eleventh was an awakening into a new age indeed: an age of terrorism and exploitation, fear and division and the building of walls.
It was an awakening for America that lasted for an unfortunately brief time. I fear that even now we have slipped back to sleep, dreaming of superheroes and victory, shallow entertainment and cheap gas just on the horizon. I wonder if what we are seeing is in fact the symptoms of a deep moral sickness of the people, an illness unto the very soul of our nation. I wonder if the strains of greed and meanness that threaten our democracy are merely symptoms of a deeper ill. Perhaps our rampant civil disinterest and shallowness, our quest for titillating entertainment ironically coupled against the rise in excessive public sexual moralizing, and the sheer meanness of the current political climate are all symptoms of some deep spiritual disease!
I suggest a very simple and yet alarmingly insidious possibility. Isolation: a basic refusal to adhere to a social compact, a distain for the ties that bind. A. Powell Davies called the unity written in the constitution our ‘spiritual inheritance.’ For all our interconnectedness and global trade of goods and information, we have managed to isolate ourselves from quite a lot. The average American managed to be extremely clueless about anti-American brewing in parts of the world prior to 9/11. How often did you hear the refrain, “But why do they hate us, so?”
Dare I even suggest that in attacking the disease of our own isolation, we will be picking up the same tools needed to really deal with terrorism in the world. Terrorism is not a place we can go conquer, or a set group of people we can hunt down. Terrorism is a style of fighting, it is a tactic used by desperate people fueled by anger and hate. In his book “Reason” Robert Reich says “fighting terrorism by taking over unfriendly regimes is comparable to fighting cancer by removing affected organs. Sometimes it can help, but it’s dangerous and it often comes too late. Taken to its logical extreme, this approach would require America to assert control over many of the world’s unstable regions. We would have to a permanent occupying force, fighting guerilla wars over vast segments of the globe.” (p166)
To defeat terrorism we must break out of our individual and national isolationism and build real alliances again with our neighbors. We need to stop being the world’s bully and become again the beacon of light. We must accept that the common good for our nation is intricately tied in with the common good of some many more nations. We must take up our spiritual inheritance, the unity Davies spoke of; we must take up our inheritance and engage with one another and with the world.
This means we must be in this world with an eye toward the reality that we are at the same time American citizens and global citizens. Davies again, “There must be dedication to the common welfare. It must even surpass a dedication to the national interest of America. I agree with the writers of the city of man who say that “he who is only an American is not yet an American.” For the founding principles are universal. … Today, the earth – we have heard it over and over again – is just one neighborhood. Fair play is needed not only in one place but in all places; justice is essential everywhere. And more than justice. Mercy! Compassion! And that is part of what it means to be American.” (Ibid, p206)
There is but one common destiny for this nation and whatever the results of the election we will continue to reach out and break the cycle of isolation. Unitarian Universalism has a great message to offer to the situation: a message of love and engagement with the world around us. Bill Sinkford’s wonderful pastoral letter has one final paragraph that I had to save until the end of the sermon. “So let us stand purposefully on the side of love. The message of fear has been trumpeted throughout this election season. The message of love is quieter, but it is the antidote to that fear. Let us do what we can to help this quieter message be heard. And let us all do our part to bless and make whole a country wounded by partisan conflict and weary of division.”
I am a relentless optimist who struggles to also be a realist. I know how easy it is for me to grow angry and cynical and weary and finally disengaged from the cruel reality around me. Perhaps this is so for you as well. My confidence and hope arises from my connection with all of you and with all those who reach out in spite of the brokenness of our days. I see the work we do together and feel the connection built on that work, and my faith in humanity is restored again in my eyes. I shall not despair for I see the beacon of light we are becoming.
I remember a story from a decade or so ago of a teacher who asked her class of first or second graders about the possibility of nuclear war. And as startling as it was to discover that all but one child was resigned to the fear of this potential, there was that one remarkable child who said in effect, “I am not scared because every Tuesday night my daddy goes to a meeting at church to make sure that won’t happen.”
We are here, and this is why!
In a world without end,
May it be so.