(This homily was shared 11/07/12 at the San Fernando Valley Cluster Vespers Service, the day after the Presidential election. It was inspired by Parker Palmer’s book: Healing the Heart of Democracy)
At the end of each church year I ask the members and friends of the congregation I’m serving: to dig deep. To search the nooks and crannies of the year, of their own experiences and of church life; to coax out any and all “lingering questions” they might have (knowing full well there are always questions).
Without fail, each year, there are questions about the definition and theoretical OR practical significance to UUs, of: ritual, prayer, God; pledges, covenants and Sunday morning announcements. (All of which I anticipated when I started this tradition.)
The question that most takes me by surprise, the question that is generally so loaded with intensity and pain that it inspires nervous laughter among those gathered is: “is the Democratic Party the de-facto party of Unitarian Universalism?”
To which my response is, each year, a version of the following:
Unitarian Universalism insists upon a link between responsibility for the common good, and the freedom to reason one’s way through moral, political, social dilemmas and goals.
A great many Unitarian Universalists making that connection do align themselves with the Democratic Party (vocally, visibly and as a majority). Motivated by their love for this country, informed and empowered by their UU values and a growing network of Unitarian Universalist legislative activists, they feel themselves, viscerally, part of that stream of history that worked to abolish slavery; that gave women the right to vote; that marched in Selma; protested bloodshed in Vietnam and Afghanistan, and economic disparities everywhere.
But it is a mistake to think (and this is something I need to remind myself of periodically) that Unitarian Universalist values can lead to only one approach to this country’s many complex problems. Believe it or not, Unitarian Universalist values coupled with love for this country can lead to conservative political perspectives.
Disturbing to me is that those who hold such perspectives are often silent at church. At certain times of the year they are altogether absent; feeling, I have been told, alienated; vacillating between deep sadness and anger at the “hypocrisy” of it all. The hypocrisy of “covenanted religious community” claiming to value diversity and yet expecting, encouraging, tolerating, and at times even celebrating only one value-driven political perspective.
Or worse still: expecting, encouraging, tolerating, and at times even celebrating SILENCE. The silence of conflict-avoidance. The silence of fears and hopes withheld all around (left, right, center). All in the name of keeping the peace; in the name of friendliness; when it comes down to it, in the name of spiritual identity hidden, distinct and detached from the world, and therefore impotent.
Reflecting on all of this and on the words of Parker Palmer, who wrote a book called “Healing the Heart of Democracy” (which I highly recommend) – there are two issues I want to speak to here, briefly. First, the fact that Diversity is hard. Let’s just name it. It is so much easier, so much less “stressful”, to engage with those who are “like minded”. Or, to offer to “pray” (as Mitt Romney did in his concession speech) for those who think differently (generously putting President Obama on the receiving end).
But diversity is essential. Not only within our Unitarian Universalist communities – given what we proclaim to affirm and promote about the nature of reality. But also in order to keep alive and vibrant the “grand experiment” of democracy. Which can very well be predicted to collapse if we don’t keep working actively at identifying and utilizing the creative potential inherent in diverse perspectives.
Related to this is the fact that the separation of church and state is confusing and confounding to many. It is a fine line to walk. As a minister, responding to my moral compass and bound by federal tax law in what I say publicly – I struggle with it constantly. Clearly our forefathers knew the danger of having a country governed by religious institutions. But that does not mean that religious VALUES can’t or shouldn’t influence an individual’s political identity or engagement on behalf of a more just society. Ideally, religious values are made visible in EVERY aspect of one’s identity.
And, ideally, the liberal religious community is the place where we “practice” opening our hearts and minds to one another’s ideas about HOW to do that. Ideally it is where we learn how to face fear and heal the wounds symptomized by silence; offering to one another, unconditionally, holy curiosity and sacramental honesty.
Otherwise, what’s the point of calling it religious community?
So, the election is now over. And I have to say it was an exhausting, fractious process – which will hopefully now allow us all to refocus our energies and funds; to unify as a nation, as best we can, around the common goals of “we the people”. Among them I recognize safety, stability, opportunity, and the pursuit of happiness.
We are going to continue to have different ideas about how to reach those goals. And according to Parker Palmer, if we are going to be the kind of citizens democracy demands, that’s going to require of us all a certain amount of chutzpah and humility. Chutzpah, meaning gumption: the insistence, the conviction, that your “voice needs to be heard”. And that you have “the right to speak it.” And humility: the acceptance of the fact that your “truth is always partial, and may not be true at all.” And, benefits greatly from the perspectives of others.
Both of these, chutzpah and humility, were exhibited in President Obama’s speech last night – particularly when he offered to actually sit down with Mitt Romney; to listen to his defeated opponent’s ideas! That was paradigm busting leadership, if ever there was any to behold.
So, is the democratic party the de-facto party of Unitarian Universalism?
It may look like that. But it’s not. It can’t ever be. And, if democracy as a “process” is to survive and thrive we need to open our hearts to that fact; to develop (as Parker writes) an appreciation of the value of “otherness” alongside an appreciation of our own “personal voice and agency”.
We need to “cultivate the ability to hold the tension” of differences in “life-giving ways”, remembering that we “are all in this together”.
“We the People” is all of us! Not just those who speak up most easily, or are heard most often or who “win”. But also those who may need to be coaxed out of silence, and into empowered and engaged citizenship – wherever they may be on the political spectrum.
So may it be, for the next four years, and beyond. Let that noble work begin.