The Soul of a Nation
Rev. Douglas Taylor
November 12, 2017
In his 1975 address before a joint session of congress, president Gerald Ford declared “The state of the union is not good.” It is the only recorded instance when the president has said that. The following year he said it was improving but still not good. Throughout the history of the ‘State of the Union’ address, there have been times when a president has signaled difficulty, trouble, and strife in the union; but Ford is the one who named it so succinctly. The more recent history shows a propensity for a positive spin. Many presidents have declared the state of the union to be good, getting better, sound, strong, or stronger. The past five in particular have used the word Strong almost exclusively.
Friends, I find the state of the union is not good. When Ford made his claim over 40 years back, he cited economic reasons; high unemployment, growing inflation, and an expanding federal deficit and national debt. The economy, however, is not the only measure of our national health. The unhealth I decry is more along the lines of our unity, our sense of identity, something almost spiritual – something about the soul of our nation.
There has been a lot on my mind this past year about the direction in which our country has been going. Certainly, some of that is about the economics and access to resources, the income inequality gap has been widening since Reaganomics. That’s not new.
And like the growing economic disparity, this spiritual corruption undermining our union has also been growing more pronounced over the decades while the past five presidents continue to declare the state of our union strong. In many ways it is not anything new that is worrying me, it is more the current scope and prevalence that has me concerned.
We have powerful men being revealed as sexual predators, unmasking the ugly prevalence of harassment and complicity that has been festering. The #metoo phenomenon that hit facebook a few weeks back unveiled how prevalent the problem is. And the president, while still the Republican candidate, admitted to sexual assault. And, sexual assault against women is not new, only more noticed, perhaps.
We have white nationalists marching in Charlottesville while police continue to murder people of color with impunity. And the president says there were “some very fine people” among the KKK and neo-Nazi’s and makes jokes about excessive police violence. Again, racism is not new, only more documented and talked about with some fresh perspective now.
We have another surge of mass shootings in our country; and congress continues to do nothing in response beyond “thoughts and prayers” which is beginning to sound like profanity to my ears. The love-affair with violence and guns is not new, but by frequency we begin to grow numb.
These and other issues are not new. My concern is the growth we notice in the pattern. Something deeply wrong is being allowed to grow and flourish.
Meanwhile the president continues to be combative with the press as well as with people he sees to be his political opponents both foreign and domestic. He is making no efforts toward reconciliation or unity or helping the nation come together. Quite the opposite, he is politically divisive and unbalanced, and seems to revel in that. And further, the nature of his divisiveness is destructive for our country.
Of course, it is not all the president. The office of the president does hold a special sway in terms of the soul of the nation, but I’ve been preaching on divisive politics since my ministry began in the previous century. The current president simply epitomizes the worst aspects of our national discourse only too well. But these problems have been undermining us for some time.
And to be clear: as Marianne Williamson said in our reading: we’ve always had the good and the bad among us throughout this experiment of self-governance. “Both slaveowner and abolitionist, conscienceless industrialist and labor reformer, corporate polluter and world class environmentalist.” But the American ideal, “the expression of humanity at its most free and creative and just,” that is the whole point. And that is what I see to be at risk for us. America can survive our con-men and corrupt politicians so long as do lose the ideals of humanity at our center.
Our democracy is threatened. This growing pattern in our politics of divisiveness and mean-spiritedness threatens our union. Those ideals of justice and freedom are obscured and maligned. And too often it is accompanied by apathy by the majority of citizens. I wonder what is needed for the nation to wake up and realize the severity of our situations. Maybe a pair of dramatic mass shootings or neo-Nazis marching down main street? What would it take? We are being torn apart, our hate and fear is destroying us.
Last year’s presidential election was contentious and acrimonious. The sense of ‘us vs. them’ was rampant. A pair of short vignettes: Our congregation serves as a polling place. Last year someone stopped at our bake sale table and made a point to saying “I’m not going to buy anything because I don’t like the sign you have hanging out front.” The person was referring to the Black Lives Matter sign. This year, similarly, someone stopped at the back sale table and while buying a few things said, “I am glad to support this. I respect your congregation and what you do. I don’t like the sign you have out front but I am still glad you are here.”
I share these two stories to say I am glad we’ve eased off a bit, for we reached a fevered level. Still, it is a trajectory we’ve been on for a while. We’ve been warning each other against our incivility and divisiveness during several election cycles. Back after the election in 2000 we were saying we had become the divided states of America.
When I am troubled by what I see in our country, I find continual comfort and wisdom in the words of A. Powell Davies. The Reverend A. Powell Davies, was a Unitarian Preacher from the 1950’s who regularly spoke and wrote about the idea of democracy. Davies occupied our pulpit in Washington DC during the McCarthy era Red Scare. He would claim that democracy was a governmental system secondarily and a spiritual system first. He railed against corruption and fear-mongering, greed and unbridled self-interest.
[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.
This is the way in which this conversation is not merely a rant about politics. There is a theological statement about human nature at the heart of our democracy. As Needleman said in our earlier reading, our form of national government is based on a philosophical assumption: that “We are capable of guiding our own lives toward and authentic and purposive end.” I know that to be more than a philosophical assumption, that is the theological ground of Unitarian Universalism as well. We have a stake in this argument. And I’ll repeat Davies’ statement “In short, democracy is spiritual.”
What are we to do? A. Powell Davies called the unity written in the constitution our ‘spiritual inheritance.’ For all our technological connectedness and global trade of goods and products, we have managed as a nation to isolate ourselves from quite a lot. That is the obvious impact of the hate and fear-mongering, it separates us, isolates us. It destroys the unity we need for our democracy to thrive.
Rev. William Barber drew national attention as the vocal leader of Moral Mondays down in North Carolina, and was the speaker who visited Binghamton last month talking about the new Poor People’s March. William Barber has said, “Some issues are not left versus right or liberal versus conservative – they are right versus wrong… We can’t give up on the heart of our democracy. Not now. Not ever.”
Dare I even suggest that in combating the disease of our own isolation, we will be picking up the same tools needed to rebuild our unity in the face of the multitudinous forms of hate and fear in our world. The sexual violence, the global terrorism, the mass shootings, the white nationalists, the police brutality, and the systemic racism that is in the news today – these are the various faces of hate and fear.
To defeat this malignant hate and fear in our democracy we must break out of our individual and national isolationism and build real alliances again with our neighbors. We must rebuild our unity based on freedom and justice. We must stop aiding and abetting violence against the vulnerable in our communities and instead call the powerful to account for their actions. We need to stop being the world’s bully and become again the beacon of light. We must accept that the health and welfare of the least among us is tied with the health and welfare of our nation. We must accept that the common good for our nation is intricately entangled in with the common good of the world. 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.
I want to close with a passage from Trebbe Johnson, a piece from her forthcoming book, Aphrodite at the Landfill due out in the fall of next year.
We take certain actions on behalf of the living planet, or justice, or freedom, because they are essential to our very being. Our lives depend on us taking them, whether, in the end, they make any noticeable difference to anyone else at all.
And then she shares this story.
A.J. Muste was a Dutch-born pacifist and anti-war activist, who, during the Vietnam war, walked every night to the front gate of the White House, where he lit a candle. One rainy night a reporter asked him, “Mr. Muste, do you really think you are going to change the policies of this country by standing out here alone at night with a candle?” Muste allegedly replied, “Oh, I don’t do it to change the country, I do it so the country won’t change me.”
You may have a small thing to offer in support of rebuilding our unity, it is most important that you share it. 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 and troubling reality around me. Perhaps this is so for you as well. My confidence in our capacity to restore our unity 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 us reaching out across our differences. I see us working to figure out how we can make a difference and offer some healing. I see the work we do together, and I feel the connection built on that work. I see hope for the state of our union, hope based on the continued efforts to rebuild our unity; and thus my faith in humanity is restored again in my eyes. We need a beacon of light. I shall not despair for I see that we and countless others, in ways large and small, are becoming that light.
In a world without end
May it be so.