“Dear Mr. President”
An election sermon in letter form
The Reverend Douglas Taylor
Unitarian Universalist Congregation
Dear Senators McCain and Obama,
I hope my letter finds you well. I imagine your campaigns are wearing on each of you at this point with less than a month to Election Day. I have been paying attention to your campaigns and have been at turns thrilled and dismayed, proud of the moments of true leadership and resigned to the banal mediocrity of it all. And so I imagine you each are also tired and that the walls of ‘us vs. them’ and the standards of partisanship have begun to solidify again. Would that it could be different this time. I would like to pretend, however, that my letter can recall to each of you the common goal of our national future. I would like to further pretend that you will each have time to read my letter, that you will hear my concerns and my hopes for the future as words of encouragement and challenge, and that you will personally respond to my letter – even though I know neither of you would really have time to do any of that simply as senators representing your home states let alone as candidates in the last long run to Election Day. But I will pretend anyway, and write my thoughtful letter with the idea that you will really hear it.
In fairness, I ought to locate myself: I am a Unitarian Universalist minister serving a congregation in New York State. This may be enough information for you to assume I am politically liberal because the faith tradition in which I serve is religiously liberal and the state in which I reside is “blue.” I will be honest and tell you that the jokes about Unitarian Universalism being the ‘religious arm of the Democratic party’ set my teeth on edge. While I am a man of faith, our faith is not one that invests itself in the levels of certitude that lead to fanaticism. Instead we remind each other in our congregation that all truth is partial and our understanding is ever unfolding and improving. This helps us, when we allow ourselves to be at our best, to forgo stereotypes and simplified sound-bytes even in the midst of divisive political times. I have found that this congregation I serve has people who are as likely to vote Independent, Libertarian or Green as they are to vote either Democrat or Republican.
But that is not why I am writing this letter – I am not promising votes for one side or another, I am not encouraging the members of this congregation to vote for one candidate or another or a third. We don’t tell each other who to vote for and which social issues God cares about, rather we bid one another to be involved and engaged. While there are some who would say that faith and politics do not mix, I disagree. I disagree, as do a significant number of people in the congregation I serve. To abstain entirely from social issues, to say you are not going to muck around in that political stuff is a disservice to the faithful pursuit of a spiritual life. As it says in the Epistle from James, “Faith without works is dead.” A deep faith requires the faithful to act for justice, and to speak out against injustice. We Unitarian Universalists affirm that our beliefs and our behavior ought to line up. That faith and action are two sides of the same coin. One follows the other as night follows day. The day does not cause the night or vice versa: they just go together, that’s how it works. I understand that the Internal Revenue Service has rules about the mixture of faith and politics. I am mindful of such rules and will engage with the moral arguments and the ethical side of the political conversations.
And so I wade into the conversation, I engage the debate. I will try to contain myself and not create a laundry list of issues that I care about, a laundry list of my version of a moral agenda. Tempting though it is, I will strive to focus on what I see to be a few very big issues that we as a nation must deal with in the next few years. I will certainly encourage the members of my congregation to sign their names to this letter I have written, or to write their own letters to each of you that they may convey their own hopes to you. I am writing in anticipation of January when one or the other of you is in office and will take the reins of this, the most powerful nation in the world today. I write to you now, before one or the other of you is elected, to cast before you my hopes for the future of our nation. I write to you as a citizen and as a minister; the issues I seek to address are not political issues, but moral ones. Setting aside any dramatic differences there are between your positions, Senators Obama and McCain, I wish to lift up what I greatly trust either of you will pay attention to in the years of your presidency.
Let me begin with the economy. The economy has dominated the attention and the fears of people, and for good reason. I have been struggling to understand what has been going on, asking many questions and learning a lot abut our national economy that I had not previously known. While I have only a basic layman’s understanding of all this I can see clearly that we are long past time for a reality check and a decency check in terms of the practices and policies of our economy. This seven hundred billion dollar bail-out has set us on a trajectory that is deeply troubling. I get it that a bail-out was about the only thing we could do at this point. I get it that small businesses and regular people would be hit negatively and dramatically by the freezing up of the financial system. I get it that simple things like student loans and car loans and inventory credit for small businesses would dry up. But by turning the free market’s debts over to us tax-payers, thereby excusing the financial scoundrels of the consequences of their reckless mistakes and greed, we have effectively tied the hands of any future administrations. Senators McCain and Obama, which ever of you will be elected, you will be grossly limited in your ability to pay for any initiatives you have promised us in your campaigns. Your work during your first and perhaps only term in office will be to repair and rebuild from the failures we now witness. Whatever tactics you propose for doing that repair work and rebuilding work, I pray that you keep the people of this nation in mind. I can imagine the distinctions between a Republican’s response and a Democrat’s response, yet I trust that whichever of you is in the oval office come January, there will be a response. Please, I pray, allow your response to be not only a reality check but a decency check. We are in this financial mess because of greed. Greed on the part of people who wanted to own houses unreasonably beyond their means. Greed on the part of lenders who issued loans they knew people could not sustain. Greed on the part of insurance companies who covered the bad loans on the assumption that there was no end in sight for the steroidal growth of the housing market. Greed on the part of the banks and other companies who bought into these problems for the promise of a cheap, easy profit at the expense of reality itself. Greed has become the new American Dream and that is sick: both morally and financially sick.
May I propose a radical idea? I think if we were to invest our nation’s resources into the people rather than ideas and schemes then we would see a return to financial stability. The odd spin that went around your statement, Senator McCain, about the fundamentals of our economy being sound, that spin was very deft and I applaud it. The fundamentals of our economy are the people of our country who have a strong work ethic and ingenuity. If we truly invest in such fundamentals we will rebound. Our number one resource is people and we should put our people back to work. I cannot recommend strongly enough the wisdom of Van Jones, an author, community organizer, and founder of “Green for All” when he writes about the New Green Deal and the Green Collar Economy. “It’s time to stop borrowing and start building,” Jones writes. “America’s No. 1 resource is not oil or mortgages. Our No. 1 resource is our people. Let’s put people back to work retrofitting and repowering America. … You can’t base a national economy on credit cards. But you can base it on solar panels, wind turbines, smart bio-fuels and a massive program to weatherize every building and home in America.”
In seeing that the vehicle through which our economy fell was the ridiculously poor management of buying and selling land, perhaps paying attention to and caring for the land can be our avenue back to a sound economy. The land that we so greedily parceled out and upon which we built up a house of cards is the same land that can teach us and heal us and save us. Rather than believing that a sound environmental policy with reasonable regulations would harm the American economy (as the current administration has gone on record as believing); the next administration, either yours Senator Obama or yours Senator McCain, must recognize that aiming for an environmentally sustainable future will be exactly the policy that will produce an economically sustainable future. The earth can show the way out the economic failure through which we now stumble. As it says in the Ute Prayer (Adapted):
Earth teach me stillness as the grasses are stilled with light.
Earth teach me suffering as old stones suffer with memory.
Earth teach me humility as blossoms are humble with beginning.
Earth teach me caring as the mother who secures her young.
Earth teach me courage as the tree which stands all alone.
Earth teach me limitation as the ant which crawls on the ground.
Earth teach me freedom as the eagle which soars in the sky.
Earth teach me resignation as the leaves which die in the fall.
Earth teach me regeneration as the seed which rises in the spring.
Earth teach me to forget myself as melted snow forgets its life.
Earth teach me to remember kindness As dry fields weep with rain.
Earth teach me how to live.
Instead of chasing after non-renewable energy such as oil and coal, energy sources that have a limit; let us focus on renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, wave, and bio-fuels. Oil is a product of death, oil is dead plants and animals from millions of years back. It is not created quickly and there will come a time when it is gone. Why sink any more money in pulling this death-based energy from our mother earth? Wind and sun are life. We can set wind turbines throughout the Midwest. We can build solar panels on the roofs of the skyscrapers and the tenement buildings. We can plant rooftop gardens and community gardens throughout our towns and cities. We can invest and innovate our way out of this crisis: out of this financial crisis, this environmental crisis, this moral crisis! Forget about digging death out of the ground – we can’t drill and burn out way to a health economy, we must invest in the innovation of real people and together create a new Green economy. Because who will design all those wind turbines and who will build them and who will maintain them? Who will design and build and maintain the solar panels? Who will design and build and maintain all those community gardens? People! And how will we pay for it? Come on! If we can authorize $700 billion dollars for a bail out to the big wigs, surely we can find enough money to fund the creation of hundreds of thousands of green jobs! If we can pull out seven hundred billion dollars to patch up past failures of a handful of greedy rich people, then by God we better be able to pull out a fraction of that to invest in the future of the regular people of our nation!
By simply taking care of the earth we will find that the earth can take care of us. That is how it has worked for ages, yet we in our modern civilizations have forgotten our basic relationship with our mother and are reaping the consequences. But we can turn out attention and our policies back to the land that holds us and we can live.
All of which, interestingly enough, leads me to foreign policy. Would that I could ask each of you to promise to get us out of Iraq as one of your ‘first hundred days in office’ promises. Would that I could implore you to reinstate our reputation in the world by the capacity of our compassion rather than the magnitude of our military within the ‘first hundred days in office’. But I know such things involve long hard work. Although I can offer one quick action that will create amazingly positive results in terms of our global reputation and your ability as the next president to begin the hard work of being the leader of the most powerful nation in the world. Close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. That simple action would send a signal to the world that they are dealing with a new administration that will take its role in the world as something other than the insecure and immature bully among the nations. Close the prison in Guantanamo Bay and you will see foreign policy opportunities open up before you.
But really what I want to suggest, rather than any hopes for a particular foreign policy agenda items that either you Senator McCain or you Senator Obama might promote, I wish to offer an overarching theme that may prove productive. And the reason this suggestion will tie back into what I was saying earlier about the earth is that I would hope for a foreign policy grounded in the promotion of agriculture. Hungry people are angry people. Hungry nations are hard to work with unless you are offering to help them with food. If we approached the world from the perspective of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs we would easily see that feeding people is a greater insurance toward peace than bombing them. I was astonished to learn, for example, that in Afghanistan after we had uprooted the Taliban back in ’02 and ’03 we failed to think about agriculture. If you are going to wage war you must be prepared to lead after the war is done, you must prepare to wage peace. If this notion did not already have enough examples to support it here is another one. In Afghanistan after we broke the hold of the Taliban we could have invested a relatively small amount of money in crops; we invaded Iraq instead. When the people who had fled the war returned they had no money to plant crops and no government in place to help them. So they planted the easiest crop they could get hold of: Poppies, which require practically no water or tending. So Afghanistan became the lead exporter of opium in the world. And who gets the bulk of that money made on Afghanistan’s opium? Al Qaida through the Taliban. I hear that providing electricity is a fundamental benchmark in nation-building. Surely providing food and the means to food is closer to the true needs of the people. A hungry people are an angry people. Look at the world with an eye toward feeding people and the possibilities of a successful foreign policy agenda will become clearer. You may not pad the pockets of the movers and shakers in Washington or enrich your buddies with such an agenda – but you will be on the path to redeeming the soul of our nation.
I hope that your administration is up to the task. Remember the earth and the blessings it can offer if you learn its lessons and learn your place. I will pray for you, whichever of you is elected. And may God bless your work and may God challenge your conscience to do the right work.
Yours in faith,
The Reverend Douglas Taylor
Unitarian Universalist Congregation