This message was was presented at the 2013 UU History Convocation in Washington, DC, as its award-winning sermon.
It was 1917, and America was at war. Most Unitarians were for it, including the moderator of the National Conference of Unitarian and Other Liberal Christian Churches, former U.S. president William Howard Taft. But some Unitarians were NOT for it, and this minority included John Haynes Holmes, minister of one of our most prominent churches of the time. Said the Rev. Holmes, “War is never justifiable under any circumstances. And this means . . . for me—and for myself only can I speak—that never will I take up arms against a foe. And if, because of cowardice or madness, I do this awful thing, may God in his anger strike me dead, ere I strike dead some brother from another land!”
But though the Rev. Holmes said he could speak only for himself, as if to suggest that others could reasonably disagree, in reality (given the force of his personality), if you disagreed, he let you know in no uncertain terms you were stupid. Or you were morally corrupt, spiritually perverse.
It didn’t sit very well with the former U.S. president, whose personality had its own kind of force. At the National Conference in 1917, John Haynes Holmes proposed a resolution in favor of reconciliation and peace, and William Howard Taft slapped back hard, loudly denounced it, and then proposed something of his own—a pro-war resolution—which passed almost unanimously. Ultimately this would lead to pacifist ministers being dismissed by Unitarian churches across the country. Because they didn’t have the right politics. Too liberal, politically. As for John Haynes Holmes; he left the Association, struck out on his own.
There’s an Edwin Markham poem that religious liberals know and love—first time I ever met it, it was framed on the wall at my internship church in Hinsdale, Illinois, right up there with the Principles and Purposes. Goes like this:
He drew a circle that shut me out
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout
But love and I had the wit to win;
We drew a circle that took him in.
We do this in terms of belief and gender and sexual orientation and race and class and ability and on and on—at least we try. But as for politics: politics puts the “cuss” in “discuss.” Politics can foil our wit, so that we don’t have enough of it to win, we don’t know how to draw a big-enough circle to take in the minority political views among us. We saw that during World War I with pacifists, and then, during Vietnam it was the pro-war minority among us who felt ostracized. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. The war issue is only one example.
It’s just time to name it. How we, as Unitarian Universalists, lovers of diversity, have a really hard time with this kind of diversity. God bless us, we just do, and always have. Almost 100 years ago, it was hard being a certain kind of political liberal among us, as people like John Haynes Holmes discovered. And ever since the 1960s up till now, it’s been hard being a political conservative.
A 1960 letter to one of the ancestors of our denominational magazine put it like this: “We make no religious creeds, but we hesitate not for one second to plunge into political creeds, social creeds, foreign relations creeds.” A 1970 letter is even more blunt: “I am an oppressed and alienated Republican among a host of shouting Democrats.” In 1985, the Rev. Hugh Weston had this to say: “On social issues, UU ministers speak with one voice, one cause, one conviction. No ‘broken field runners’ that I know of. Few, if any, ‘marching to the beat of their own different drum.’ Where is the UU minister who is a Reaganite? Or even part-Reaganite? Where is the alleged ‘pluralism’?” The Rev. Weston goes on to wonder, “Shouldn’t Beacon Press [in the interests of pluralism and diversity] publish an occasional right-wing book on a social issue? Shouldn’t the UU World have a regular column written from a minority conservative point of view by one or more authors? Shouldn’t we have a few minority view UU ministers publicly preaching conservative views on social issues, just to ‘keep us honest,’ as the saying goes?” Shouldn’t we? These are all good questions.
For myself, I can’t directly speak to what was happening in 1960 or 1970 or 1985, since I was not a minister yet. (In 1960 I wasn’t even born yet.) But the issue came to light for me personally and vividly in the course of my first ministry, a student ministry during seminary, in 2002. In one of my sermons to the congregation of about 60 members, I said something harsh about Fox News—its shameful bias in favor of political conservatives. I still stand by that, I still mourn how our news media is becoming less and less able to support an impartially and accurately informed democracy, with Fox News to the right and MSNBC to the left and one website after another communicating news that is unfair and unbalanced. I was just a little passionate about this. And it hit a raw nerve in one of the key leaders of that congregation. I’ll call her Sally. It brought up, for Sally, lots of painful stuff. We talked and talked. One story she shared had to do with the time she went to a district-wide economic justice workshop. During it, there was a role-play in which the bad guy was the “rich man.” Sally asked the facilitator of the workshop, “Is a person who has financial assets automatically bad?” and the stammering answer she got was “Well, of course not.” But it had been presented as just that. “Republican” got the same treatment—“bad guy.” Stuff like this happening at district events, and also in her congregation. Sally told me about times during coffee hour when she’d be in a small group discussing the service, and when she’d express her politically conservative perspective, either one of two things would happen. Either someone would respond with jaw-dropping disbelief that a Unitarian Universalist would hold such an opinion (the horrors!), or people would go something like, “Oh, that’s just Sally,” and they wouldn’t really listen, the conversation would just pick up where it left off, right before Sally spoke.
I want you to Listen to Sally’s words, in this letter she wrote me (and remember, this is 2002): “Unitarian Universalists would never tolerate similar behavior if it was about race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. Why is it acceptable when it is political? Doesn’t it seem a little out of whack that we can embrace all manner of religious practice because people have an inherent right to freedom of religious belief and expression, and yet we routinely view half of the American population (everyone who voted for Bush) as political kooks or at best woefully misled? Brad [Brad is Sally’s husband] notes that regardless of what one’s opinion is of the outcome of the last presidential election, roughly half of the country voted for Gore, and roughly half of the country voted for Bush. As UUs, do we really want to be putting out the un-welcome mat for 50% of our population? Can we believe that there is a myriad of answers to our spiritual questions, but only one capital T truth for our political/economic ones?”
After my experience with Sally, that Edwin Markham poem, up on the wall of the congregation where I did my ministerial internship, up there with the Principles and Purposes, would never be the same for me. Never again uncomplicated.
He drew a circle that shut me out
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout
But love and I had the wit to win;
We drew a circle that took him in.
But do we? Is it even possible?
For some, the answer is yes—but only if we just stop talking politics. Keep the circle pure! That way, there’s nothing to put the “cuss” in “discuss.” John Haynes Holmes and William Howard Taft back in 1917 no longer have cause to collide, since no one’s talking about the war. The young, wet-behind-the-ears Rev. Anthony Makar doesn’t say anything about Fox News, and Sally his parishioner is not triggered.
At least two things make this strategy appear reasonable. One is the “oasis” view of the congregation. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard this analogy, maybe you too. Life is a journey through a harsh desert, full of strife and struggle, but at least once each week, we’re able to pause for a moment, park our camels, enjoy the beauty and serenity of the oasis, refresh ourselves, recharge, and then get back out there into the desert. We can hold to this vision even though, in reality, churches are family systems and families are always boiling and bubbling with something. Somebody can just look at you wrong—give you a certain tone of voice—and it’s ON. Nevertheless, where politics is concerned, we seem to hold on to the oasis vision. Don’t bring the strife and struggle out there in here! Don’t ruin it for us!
No politics! Yet another justification comes from the deep libertarian impulse within American culture. Think of that flag from the Revolutionary War that says, “Don’t tread on me.” Know what I’m talking about? According to this mentality, the cardinal sin is meddling, telling others what to do. It’s our mentality whenever we feel that we have a right not to be tread on by others’ opposing convictions and not to be challenged by “true believers” who come across so superior-like and won’t play nice and won’t back down. It’s why Americans, for example, typically prefer to complain anonymously to police when troubled by neighbors rather than risk face-to-face confrontation. Face-to-face confrontation implies taking a superior attitude which breaks the 11th Commandment which is … Thou Shalt Not Judge. But political conversations break the 11th Commandment all the time. Someone says something political, and our instant response is to feel tread upon. The feeling wells up from the deep libertarian instinct within us, which is part of our DNA as Americans.
And there you have it: two reasons for no politics in church. Keep the circle pure!
But are the reasons good?
Go back to the oasis view of church. From my comment about how churches are family systems and in family systems something is always boiling and bubbling, you can already tell how I feel about it. The view is unrealistic. Ever seen that classic movie Babette’s Feast? People can talk about the oasis view all they like, but it doesn’t stop that view from being pure sentimental fantasy.
But above all, the oasis view is just unworthy of us as a people called to change lives and to be changed in turn. Our congregations are called to be Beloved Communities in this world, and to me what that means includes being the place where we can model (as best we can) the kinds of behaviors we want to see in the larger world. Places where (as James Luther Adams puts it) we get to “practice being human.”
Money, for example, is an issue people struggle with—spending money in line with highest values, what to give more to, what to give less to—and so we talk about money in church, we encourage generous giving, we do it because maybe at church we will learn better money ways which we can then take into the larger world. Extend the love.
Citizenship is an issue people struggle with—being reasonably informed about the issues, stepping up to vote, finding ways of taking care of their little part of the universe—and so we invite people to step up and take part of helping to create their church community, we encourage volunteerism shared widely and fairly, we discourage burn out or free-riding, we do it because maybe at church we will learn better ways to be good citizens which we can then take into the larger world. Extend the love.
Beloved Community matters exactly because congregations are not hermetically sealed-off from the larger world. Problems in the larger world are problems here. The problem of crazy partisanship in our larger American political process is absolutely here. We Unitarian Universalists didn’t start that fire. But if, here, in our congregations, we can learn some solutions, learn to temper that fire, our congregations truly will be Beloved.
We have to bring politics in. Here’s another reason why. Remember a moment ago I talked about the libertarian “don’t tread on me” impulse in American individualism? Well, that’s only a part of the picture. Fact is, to be an American is to live within the tension of competing impulses. Feeling pushed together and pulled apart. This is just the way it is. For in addition to the “don’t tread on me” aspect of our individualism is the “government of the people, by the people, for the people” aspect. I’m talking about democracy. Our Unitarian Universalist 5th Principle. Democracy challenges each of us to get in touch with our deepest moral and spiritual convictions about human well-being and not just to vote in line with this, but to persuade others to vote with us. Build a majority. And this, of course, takes us right to the edge of moral superiority. Right to the edge of breaking the 11th Commandment, if not right over. But we can’t do democracy if people stay in their shells and don’t become public activists in pursuit of a vision. So in the world we form coalitions, we form special interest groups, we compromise on little things to get to the big. In the congregation we learn about political issues; we discuss and debate. In ways that do not violate our legal status as a 5010(c)3 organization, we act. We do what it takes to get our vision of human well-being and happiness into the form of public practice and policy. And we get what we work for. If we hang back, stay in our shell, we can grumble all we like, but the country will be taken from us because that’s just the way the game of democracy works. We know that even a minority voice in this country can be extremely powerful if it’s organized and on task. Guess which minority voice I’m alluding to…. Not coffee but….
Individualism in America has two sides to it, in tension with each other, and we have to understand this, we have to keep the tension creative. Avoiding politics at church is just not helpful to this, just not the way forward.
So what IS the way?
Part of it is as I’ve already mentioned: being scrupulously forthright and honest about the problem. Minority political voices among us being ostracized, dehumanized, silenced. Almost 100 years ago, it was the politically liberal voice. Now it is the politically conservative voice. Partisanship in the larger world has been a problem in our congregations—so let’s use this as grist for the mill. Let’s get to discussing even if at times it leads us straight into cussing….
Another part of the way forward is simply living more deeply into our Unitarian Universalism. Drinking more deeply than we do from the living waters of our tradition. The living waters, for example, of Covenantal way in religion, that “we do not have to think alike to love alike.” If you’ve ever taken it for granted that the people you think you know share your political beliefs, so you feel perfectly comfortable making jokes about Republicans, our Covenantal way asks you to think twice. If you have ever been that person in the social hall who, when encountering a dissenting political point of view, responded with either dramatic jaw-dropping disbelief or by simply ignoring what was said, as if the person was not even there, then our Covenantal way asks you to do better than that. Respect them by asking why they said what they said. Get beyond labels. We are so much more than labels! To misquote politician Fiorello LaGuardia, There is no Democrat or Republican way to watch football, eat dinner, go dancing, watch movies, exercise, have fun, and do most of what makes up our lives and our relationships. When we get beyond labels, what we will in fact find is that Democrats and Republicans and pacifists and pragmatists and Tea Partiers and Coffee Partiers and Red Sox fans and Yankees fans (yes! even them!) have a lot more in common than we suspect. We all want love and justice in this world. We have different ideas about the how, the implementation. But we all want what’s best, as best as we know. In our simple humanity, we can find a place to meet and be friends.
I’ll close with a story that takes us back to 1917 and the Rev. John Haynes Holmes, who was so impassioned by his politically-liberal pacifism. He feared it would cost him his job, but nevertheless, he preached it from the pulpit. On the Sunday morning he did that, the response, from his politically conservative congregation was … stunned silence. Could’ve heard a pin drop. He left the pulpit, thinking he’d never be able to return. The next day President Woodrow Wilson requested from Congress a declaration of war on Germany. That very evening the board of John Haynes Holmes’ church met to respond to their minister’s pacifism. They took two votes. One was to unanimously condemn his position, declaring it dangerous, “wrong-headed,” even treasonous. The other, also unanimous, was that, wrong-headed or not, their minister, John Haynes Holmes, had the obligation and the right to speak his mind. He was their minister, and their minister he would remain.
We Unitarian Universalists sometimes draw the circle way too small. But that’s not how it has to be. Every time we hear a political opinion we don’t like, or even hate, we can take two votes. One, that we disagree. And two, that the opinion (and the person holding it) still belongs. THAT is the way forward.
Closing thought: “The enemy isn’t conservatism. The enemy isn’t liberalism. The enemy is bullshit” (political columnist Lars-Erik Nelson).