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Whither the Nation


Rev. Douglas Taylor

This was a close election. It should not have been close. Outgoing President Donald Trump attacked his rivals; he attacked vulnerable citizens and minorities, he attacked science and truth, he attacked the foundational institutions of our democracy. And the race was close. He attempted tyranny and almost won. Donald Trump is done, but the thread of indecency he brought to the surface in our nation is not done.

I have heard a number of people from the liberal end of politics making conciliatory sounds, calls for the Democrats to be gracious winners. And I have heard other liberal voices calling for the country to not jump so quickly for reconciliation. I have heard many saying now is the time for healing, calls for liberals and progressives to not gloat or be rude to political opponents. And I also hear voices calling for a stronger and bolder rebuke of those who sought to destroy our democracy and tacitly supported that hate.

In short, I have heard that we are not done. Voting is one part of the work. That part is done. Howard Zinn once said “Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens.” The voting is done. We have a new administration waiting to take the reins. And the deeper work has now begun.

In March of 2019 Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted the following comments about President Trump:

He can stay, he can go. He can be impeached, or voted out in 2020. But removing Trump will not remove the infrastructure of an entire party that embraced him; the dark money that funded him; the online radicalization that drummed his army; nor the racism he amplified & reanimated.

Our president, Donald Trump, has multiple times over the preceding week declared himself the winner of the 2020 presidential election. That is not something a democratically elected president can do. Not only that, it was an obvious lie, meant to stir up his base and I believe to potentially incite violence. Abusers don’t make good losers. And President Trump has long displayed too many of the traits and behaviors of an abuser for us to ignore what he is doing now.

The most dangerous time in an abusive relationship is when you are leaving. President Trump has signaled several times that he would like his para-military followers to resort to violence as a means of keeping him in power. Yes, the voting is over, but our work is not done.

Mr. Trump is attempting to shred the foundational principles of democracy in our country – the trust in our election process, the truth in media reporting, the decency of civilians to share in this democracy. I certainly have my own political opinions and views, but what I’m talking about this morning is deeper than the difference between parties and partisan perspectives. I am not against Republicans this morning. A few weeks back I preached a sermon titled “My faith is not fascist-friendly.” We can be Republican-friendly, but Unitarian Universalism cannot be Fascist-friendly.

Consider the reality that Donald Trump is not really a Republican. I would love to have some old-school, fiscally responsible, states-rights, pro-business Republicans running the Republican party again that I can argue with. But there is something happening among the Republicans of today that was not at play for the Republicans a generation back. Trump is not a Republican. He ran on the Republican ticket, but there is almost nothing of the core values and platforms of Republicanism that Trump supported and pushed through during his time in office.

But guess what? Modern Democrats are not really Democrats anymore either. Young people voting as Democrats are really Progressives longing for a platform far more to the left than the basic liberal Democratic platform. This whole election has been about people stuck in the Republican vs Democrat mindset, desperate for something different. This is, perhaps, that ‘tragic gap’ Parker Palmer spoke of – that gap between the suffer we experience of present reality and the hope we continue to cast for what could yet be.

And perhaps this was not very obvious because of the way this election season unfolded. It was not driven by policies or party platforms or positions on issues in any way. Donald Trump put out exactly zero policy initiatives for his second term. Joe Biden put out a policy platform which was ignored and had no practical impact on the national conversation. This election was driven by identity, not policy. This presidential election was a referendum on our identity as a nation. This weekend, we heard that character matters, the character of the nation and the character of our leaders matters to us. Yes, it was a close race, and in the end, decency matters.

And here I want to caution all of us against thinking we are the good guys in this story. This is about us. This is not about some mythical ‘them.’ We are Americans and America has always had this ugly story of division deep in our identity. America was founded as a paradox of both freedom and slavery. We were created in the out of the near-genocide of American Indians and the bold expansion of adventurers and explorers. The tension is painful at times. The mix of pride and shame is explosive. But this is not about ‘them.’ It will always be about ‘us.’ This is America.  

The tragic divide we’ve experienced this election season and during Trump’s term in office is not new. It is baked into our American identity. That’s what I mean when I say this election had little to do with policies and partisan platforms, and almost everything to do with identity. Who are we as a country? And do not forget that it was a close race. This was not a resounding rebuke of the racism and attempted tyranny, much though I wish it could have been. Yes, we landed in the camp of decency, and it was a close race. So, we still have work to do.

Whither the nation? Where do we go from here? How do we move forward? The healing I hear us calling for will come. It will be tempered by the truth and by our compassion. Reconciliation will not happen by pretending we did not just experience what we all experienced. But neither will it come without a determined choice to move forward together.

We will focus not on the outgoing president. Some people will need to focus on him, lawyers perhaps, journalists I suppose. But we can turn our attention back to matters of consequence. Because we have work to do to heal our nation.

Take a deep breath with me.

Let me share with you a small set of ideas that can serve as a guide for the coming months. Parker Palmer, in his book Healing the Heart of Democracy, offers five habits or attitudes that we need as a democracy. The five habits are these:

An understanding that We Are All in this Together

An Appreciation of the Value of ‘Otherness’

An Ability to Hold Tension in Life-Giving Ways

A Sense of Personal Voice and Agency

A Capacity to Create Community

Whither the nation? Let me spend a moment unpacking this small set of ideas to give us guidance for this time. In short – the answer is to focus back on our deeper moral principles as a people; to lean into the identity that was revealed in this election.

We are deeply interconnected and interdependent. This is what Palmer listed as the first of these five habits. We are all in this together. For our democratic republic to continue to function, “we” needs to really mean “we” – all of us. As my colleague Theresa Soto has said, “All of us need all of us to make it.” We can’t move forward divided.

But Palmer’s second point is that while we are all in this together, we are not all the same. We are each unique, and amazingly different. And our differences are part of what makes our country beautiful. And it is true we tend to gather in like-minded and like-hearted sub-groups, to create ‘us’ and ‘them’ clusters – that doesn’t need to descend into competitive acrimony. Parker Palmer reminds us that ‘us and them’ is fine. It is when it becomes ‘us vs. them’ that we have trouble.

Well, this, of course leads right into the third habit Palmer offers: an ability to hold tension in life-giving ways. Embracing differences while still finding our unity is a tension. Promoting personal agency and working toward creative community is also a tension. America is an extended exercise in holding tension – but you know what? So is Unitarian Universalism. Yes, it’s hard, but it gets easier with practice. And it does take practice. It takes work to hold tension well.

The fourth and fifth habits in Palmer’s list are dramatically revealed in this recent election. One vote is just that. We each cast our ballot. But the agency of one vote is lost without the context of the community. We need to be actors in the ensemble – participants in the full drama of life.   

This is an elegant set of five habits. The first two are complimentary: we are united and we are different. The last two are also a complimentary pair: We must be strong individuals and we must build strong communities. The middle one is simply the glue – we must be able to hold creative tension in life-giving ways. There is actually a lot of overlap between these habits Parker Palmer offers and the Seven Unitarian Universalist Principles.

The way forward for us as a nation is through a set of habits that we Unitarian Universalists have been practicing at for a long time. The habits of holding tension as pluralism, of promoting individual agency while also building community, of honoring our differences while focused on our unity.

We are certainly not the only religious community doing this sort of work, but it truly is our bread and butter as Unitarian Universalists. And I’m not suggesting this is therefore something easy. The way forward means we need to speak the truth about who and what has been hurt, threatened, and endangered. And we must stay with each other as we figure it out together – because “all of us need all of us to make it.”

In closing I want to offer you a few words from a sermon I delivered four years ago. This was the sermon I preached the Sunday after Donald Trump was elected president. I preached about our principles of conscience and integrity. I called us into that difficult space of defiance and compassion and faith.

Gandhi has written:

A principle is a principle, and in no case can it be watered down because of our incapacity to live it in practice. We have to strive to achieve it, and the striving should be conscious, deliberate, and hard.

[Thus, I went on to say four years ago] Even in bitter defeat, I am committed to love.

Our Unitarian Universalist theology and covenant call us into a difficult place. We are called to reach out across even these acrimonious differences, to resist the urge to demonize those who have been political adversaries, to treat all people with respect, to do our part to heal the wounds of our day and bring more peace.

And we are also called to challenge hate. Our Unitarian Universalist theology and covenant call us to take the side of the poor, the marginalized, the disempowered, and those treated with injustice and cruelty. We are called to get in the way of systemic injustice, to stand up against tyranny, to agitate the establishment for change so that all people can heal from the wounds of our days and we can all experience more peace.

The way forward from this election season [I told us four years ago] is a paradoxical path that is the hallmark of our faith. We must act with both open-handed reconciliation as well as steadfast dissent. Gentle and resolute – I will not harm you, but neither will I stand by if you harm or threaten to harm others.

Here we are now, four years later on the other side of that experience. And this is what we need to do: keep faith with our messy democratic process. Keep fighting for truth. Keep vigilant against the outbreak of violence. And stay true to the underlying principle of Unity to which we aspire as a people.

May grace and mercy go with you through the days and months ahead. We’re on a new road now; mind your step. Stay safe out there. Look after each other.

In a world without end, may it be so.