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sermon061105

 

"AN ELECTION SERMON"

Reverend Scott W. Alexander
River Road Unitarian Church
Sunday, November 5, 2006

 

My election sermon this morning will (of necessity) be in TWO DISTINCT PARTS.

1) The first part will be a discussion of why we must, MUST (despite the discomfort that sometimes results) regularly address political, election, and governmental matters here in church.

2) The second part will be a discussion of the pressing (and they are pressing, dear friends) moral and ethical issues that confront all of the American people next Tuesday -- including all of us in this room this morning -- when we step into the voting booth.

It is possible that both parts of my this morning sermon will prove to be controversial (in different ways ... to different ones of you) sitting here this morning ... but that is, after all, a risk I face each and every Sunday I step into this pulpit. But that is the risk that comes with doing religion fully and fearlessly. So let's get about this election sermon.

Let me begin by talking about why I passionately believe we must regularly address political, election and governmental matters here in church.

This is the fourth time in my nine-year tenure as your senior minister that I have preached an election sermon -- which I have faithfully done every two years, in early November, just before each national election day. Now I know that some of you, out of your concern for the long-standing American principle of "the separation of church and state" have been uncomfortable with my doing so ... and have been clear and insistent in articulating your concerns. I have listened ... but I passionately believe that for religious leaders (or congregations like this one) to hesitate to engage election issues IN THE LIGHT OF THEIR RELIGIOUS BELIEFS, PRINCIPLES, AND VALUES is to misunderstand the separation of church and state -- that was written right into the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States by our nation's founders. The First Amendment to our U.S. Constitution simply states that Congress "shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech." That is the only thing our national Constitution (or any other early national document, to my knowledge) says about church and state (and how they should or should not interact) ... a straightforward prohibition of the STATE either establishing or abridging any religion ... period. My reading of our national history leads me to state categorically that the American principle of "the separation of church and state" was NEVER established to protect the state from religious influence or interference. Many of you may not know, for example, that after the nation's founding in 1776, clergy regularly delivered what were called "Election Sermons" to the newly elected legislatures (in states like Massachusetts) to instruct the newly elected representatives on what the church believed were the great moral and social imperatives of the day. Many Americans today incorrectly believe that the principle of "separation of church and state" means that both the church and state should stay out of one another's business ... but nothing could be further from the truth ... with one notable exception.

My guess is that very few of you know that it was in the year 1954 that the Congress of the United States -- at the urging, incidentally, of freshman Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson who was upset that a non-profit organization -- not a church, but a non-profit organization -- had opposed his candidacy. It was as recently as 1954 that Congress amended the Internal Revenue Code to henceforth prohibit non-profit organizations ... INCLUDING CHURCHES (if they want to keep their tax-free status) from endorsing or opposing political candidates at election time. This means that from the founding of this nation until 1954 there was absolutely nothing in U.S. law or practice which prohibited ministers (and congregations!) from direct partisan electioneering.

Now as a liberal religious leader, I happen to agree with this one, clear and limited 52-year-old restriction on religious organizations by the federal government. I do not believe that either ministers or congregations should, at election time, endorse or oppose particular candidates on a partisan basis, and I am perfectly willing to abide by the IRS restriction, as I understand it. But many on what is called "the Religious Right" do not agree even with this limited restriction. I don't know how in Gods' name I got on the mailing list, but back in October, I received this copy of Jerry Falwell's "National Liberal Journal." The masthead proclaims it as "The Conservative Christian's Newspaper," and inside I read with interest an article by Mathew D. Staver, an attorney who works at Jerry Falwell's conservative Liberty University's School of Law. He writes,

The Internal Revenue Code now expressly prohibits churches and other nonprofit organizations from directly endorsing or opposing political candidates ... [but] while the IRS states that a pastor may not personally endorse a candidate while in the pulpit, I believe such a restriction is unconstitutional. No pastor has ever been targeted by the IRS for giving a personal endorsement from the pulpit. My recommendation is that if the pastor wants to personally endorse a candidate, he should feel free to do so, as long as the endorsement is stated as a personal, rather than corporate church endorsement.
And, similarly, at the recent "Values Voter Summit," sponsored by a group of conservative organizations (including Focus on the Family), conservative political activist Gary Bauer passionately told the conservative Christian pastors in attendance not to be intimidated by the threat of potential IRS investigations and sanctions. Bauer declared that "Pastors are not violating IRS regulations by encouraging their congregations to vote for candidates whose moral values are aligned with their own." [From an article by LaShawn Barber, Washington's Examiner newspaper, Tuesday, September 26, 2006.]

Now, it is, of course, possible that these conservative political and religious activists are right ... that ministers serving churches (like myself CAN get away with endorsing particular candidates and parties from their pulpits and not risk their congregations losing their federal tax-free status). But that, as you might already suspect, is not something you are going to hear from this pulpit this morning. Oh, believe me, I personally have very strong feelings about particular candidates (and the parties they represent) that are running for office in our region. Politically, I am a passionate progressive, and it would be very easy for me to tell you this morning which candidates have progressive and liberal moral and ethical values which "align with my own." But I don't believe that is the best way to serve you -- or our Unitarian Universalist faith -- at election time. I believe that religious congregations are at their best when they intelligently address not particular candidates (you, as thoughtful and well-informed voters can and must make those voting-booth decisions), religious congregations are at their best when they address THE PARTICULAR MORAL AND SOCIETAL ISSUES that are at stake on any given election day.

The reason, of course, that religious organizations -- like River Road Unitarian Church -- must actively address and engage political and governmental issues at election time is that it is in the political and governmental spheres that the shape and quality of our shared life as a civilized society is to a large extent determined ... and how can any religion ignore the shape and quality of human life? How would it be possible, I ask, for a seriously religious person (or congregation) to ignore what is humanly at stake next Tuesday?

And a quick aside here, if I might, to remind you that this freedom (or should I say duty?) that religious people have to try to influence the shape of society applies to conservatives as well as liberals. We must understand that conservative religionists with very different values and ideas than our own will also be out there voting their consciences and beliefs. That's how true democracies work, and we have nothing to fear from others trying to influence American life in very different directions!

All of this is by way of affirming that we should be voting our Unitarian Universalist values next Tuesday. I would like to refer you briefly now to the backs of your Orders of Service, where you will find listed (as you will every Sunday) the Seven Principles that guide Unitarian Universalists. These are the principles -- THE VALUES AND BELIEFS -- that should guide us in our work lives ... and family lives ... in our lives as members of communities ... AND IN OUR POLITICAL LIVES AS CITIZENS OF AMERICA. How, for example, can I say I believe in "the inherent worth and dignity of every person" or "justice, equity and compassion in human relationships" or "the goal of a world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all" or "the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part," and not take those values with me into the polling place when I vote for my elected representatives? It cannot be done. If you are serious about being a Unitarian Universalist, you cannot somehow leave your religion and your values at the door when you enter a polling station. In fact, you must fiercely and intentionally take your faith (and everything you believe about what is best for humanity and this troubled world of ours) into the voting booth with you, and vote for candidates who you believe will best serve your religious and moral convictions (as well as your other convictions).

Right after the 2004 election, a number of national pollsters suggested that the largest block of people who bothered to take the time and trouble to vote were so called "values voters." Now what they meant by this, of course, was CONSERVATIVE "values voters," social and religious conservatives who are opposed to a woman's right to choose ... opposed to gay marriage and partnership and equal rights ... opposed to gun control ... and who favored the war in Iraq, reduced taxes for the wealthy and the abrogation of civil rights at home ... and who, sadly in my view, carried the day. Well, I want to go on record to say that there were, of course, millions of other "values voters" who filled polling places that day, including large numbers of committed Unitarian Universalists (and other religious and social progressives), who similarly went to the polls to pull those levers for candidates and parties whose values and moral commitments aligned with their own. And this is as it should be, for religious people must always take their values with them when they vote ... always.

So, while (as I have already said) I have absolutely no intention of endorsing any particular candidates or parties from this pulpit this morning. (I will show you -- as an intelligent and engaged voter -- no such disrespect, even though Jerry Falwell says I could probably get away with it with the IRS). What I am going to do this morning is speak broadly about THREE sets of crucial moral and societal issues that I feel demand our foremost attention when we enter the voting booth next Tuesday.

The three sets of crucial moral and societal issues that I feel are at stake in this election are as follows:

PROTECTION OF THE GLOBAL ENVIRONMENT;

PROTECTION OF ALL CITIZENS;

PROMOTION OF PEACE AND INTERNATIONAL RESTRAINT;

Let me take each of these in turn:

FIRST -- perhaps the most obvious (and arguably the most important to humanity in the long term) -- PROTECTION OF THE GLOBAL ENVIRONMENT. It stuns me to realize that just since the last national election in November of 2004 -- in just the last two years' time! -- global warming (and other irrefutable signs that our planet is being increasingly environmentally endangered) have become much more apparent to absolutely everyone who is paying any attention to the facts about our global climate change. Despite what some politicians still foolishly imply, there is no longer ANY credible debate in the scientific community about the fact that humanity now must (on an international and cooperative basis) immediately begin to find ways to greatly reduce our burning of fossil fuels (and the accompanying accumulation of greenhouse gases, the destruction of habitats and the extinction of thousands of vulnerable species) if our planet is to remain a safe and congenial place for the human family, not to mention the rest of life. As Unitarian Universalists, we passionately believe our planet home (this amazing and intricate "interdependent web of which we are all a part') is a precious and sacred place we must treasure, protect and preserve. As Unitarian Universalists -- and as passionate "values voters" -- you must, MUST vote on Tuesday for those office seekers who you believe will be WISE STEWARDS AND PROTECTORS of our earth. You must vote for those candidates who you believe will fight for public policies which protect and preserve this vulnerable planet ... and (by similar moral logic) you must withhold your vote for candidates for public office who you believe will NOT act to save our earth.

SECOND -- PROTECTION OF ALL CITIZENS. This second great moral and societal imperative (which I feel is so at stake in Tuesday's national election) might seem a bit broad and diffuse (and maybe even a bit overwhelming as a responsibility for us as citizens), but is nonetheless terribly important for us to take with us into the voting booth. As Unitarian Universalists, we believe in "the inherent worth and dignity of every person," and in a societal order which seeks to establish "justice, equity and compassion" for all. This means that we work (with others of good will and compassion) and vote for a social order here in the United States that protects and cares for all citizens -- most especially the poor and historically disadvantaged. I believe that if we live up to the highest, most humane ideals of our nation, we as a people (by freely choosing the right leaders and governmental policies) will someday ensure that every American man, woman and child is afforded a basic level of comfort and dignity.

In 2006, this means, for example:

  • that we work (and vote!) to ensure that quality health care protection is available to every citizen;
  • and it means that we work (and vote!) to ensure that no one in America goes to bed hungry at night, and has a decent roof over their head and has the opportunity to have a fulfilling job that pays a decent, living wage;
  • and it means that we work (and vote!) for quality education for every child (regardless how poor a community they might come from);
  • and it means that we work (and vote!) for protection of the disabled and old and sick and all with special needs, no matter how inconvenient the costs;
  • and it means that we work (and vote!) to extend civil and legal rights to all citizens, even if they have a non-traditional family, or love someone of the same gender;
  • and it means that we work (and vote!) to treat all immigrants (who come to this broad and beautiful land, just as we and our struggling forbears did) with respect and dignity -- and welcome them as people who will strengthen and beautify the human tapestry of this great, welcoming nation;
  • and it means -- perhaps most importantly of all -- it means that we support (and vote!) for equitable and adequate tax policies that ask all Americans (most particularly the advantaged and the rich who -- because of recent changes to the tax codes -- have increasingly been given a virtual free ride) to share in the very real cost of American becoming a compassionate, just and inclusive nation.

This year, some candidates (and parties) are urging us (when next Tuesday rolls around) to -- first and foremost -- "vote your personal pocketbooks." For voters, of course this is political sign language -- for "Hey, don't worry; no one is going to ask you to be a good citizen. You can keep what you've got, regardless of the demands of justice ... regardless of the human state of the nation." While no one wants to support excessive or frivolous governmental spending, the truth is that (generally speaking) tax dollars successfully address many of America's most pressing human problems, and more tax revenue would mean that together, we as a people could bring America more and more in accordance with its humane ideals. Taxes are not (as some candidates would have you believe) governmental robbery. Taxes (as I have said many times from this pulpit) are the capital of a civilized and caring society. All of this is by way of saying that next Tuesday, I believe that as Unitarian Universalists, we should not (first and foremost) be voting our own private pocketbooks, we should be voting our conscience, our principles, and our deepest hopes for a humane and prosperous America. I pray you will vote for those candidates and parties which promise to address this nation's most pressing social and human problems ... address them with generosity ... with adequate tax revenue ... with compassion ... and with patience.

LASTLY -- the third, crucial moral and societal issue that is at stake in this election is the PROMOTION OF PEACE AND INTERNATIONAL RESTRAINT.

On January 8, 2003, two months before U.S. troops launched the second Gulf War (which three-and-one-half sad years later we are still enmeshed in), the ministers of this congregation (Lynn Strauss, Ginger Luke, and I) wrote President George W. Bush a letter, urging him (in the strongest possible language) NOT to rush into a pre-emptive (and what has sadly proven to be bloody, protracted, and incredibly costly) war against Iraq. I quote briefly from that letter now:

Dear President Bush, We oppose your apparent plan for a pre-emptive war in Iraq.... Please hear the many religious voices being raised for peace and patience.... [We] prevail [upon] your moral and ethical responsibility to save lives, to create justice, and to work within the international community and the United Nations.... We do not support the [pre-emptive] killing of Iraqi people simply because they might at some future time [seek] to kill us. Peace is the path of courage; war is not.

Three and a half years later, Lynn, Ginger, and I are not alone in wishing the President had listened to us. As we approach Tuesday's election, all the national pollsters are now saying that the continuing, bloody, and incredibly costly war in Iraq is the leading issue weighing on the hearts and minds of American voters. It is now, finally clear to an overwhelming majority of Americans that this war (and its clumsy, tortuous execution) were disastrous mistakes that have led to immeasurable human and financial costs --- and so much unnecessary death and misery to families both in Iraq and here in America. Once again in human history, we have learned that the pursuit of war -- for whatever lofty justifications are given at the time -- has so many unintended, costly and painful consequences, and should be avoided in all but the most extreme situations of direct threat to our nation. Next January, the Congress (with what will undoubtedly be many newly elected Representatives) and the Administration (which is responsible for starting this conflict) must find a way to extricate our nation from this terrible, unwise war. There are many candidates on Tuesday's ballot -- now finally representing both major parties -- who understand this war (including, shamefully, the inhumane way we have been treating and torturing our prisoners) to have been a terrible mistake (both militarily and morally), and who promise to show leadership in the new Congress to help America adopt wiser and more restrained international policies. As Unitarian Universalists, we promote "the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all," and so on Tuesday I urge you to support the candidates who understand that the United States must always be slow to war ... always work diligently for peace through diplomacy not bombs ... and take an increasingly humble, patient and peace-seeking place in the world community of nation, and who will support the United Nations (and other international organizations) working to expand peace, justice, and human dignity everywhere in the world.

I hold in my hand the "November 2006 Voter Guide" of the Christian Coalition of Florida, being distributed (I'm told) in hundreds of conservative churches in Florida this morning ... and meant (of course) to steer voters in those churches to the candidates who support the Christian Coalition's agenda -- which is (according to this document) opposition to equal rights and marriage rights for gay Americans, opposition to reproductive choice for women, opposition to stem-cell research, support of federally funded school voucher programs for Christian schools, and opposition to increased taxation of any sort. THESE ARE THE ONLY ISSUES LISTED FOR VOTER ATTENTION HERE! And by the way, need I point out that if Jesus, the original Christian were to see this [quote, end quote] "Christian" voter guide, he would not recognize it as pertaining to the religion he taught. For in this entire document, THERE IS NOT ONE WORD -- not one word! -- about the poor, the hungry, the sick, the homeless, the elderly, the immigrant, the despised or those in prison ... not one word about the issues of justice and compassion that Jesus devoted his life and ministry to. As far as I am concerned, there is nothing "Christian" to be found in this document being handed out in churches all across Florida this morning ... nothing.

And in this Unitarian Universalist congregation in Maryland, I have no tidy little "voter guide" to hand out to you this morning As I said earlier in the sermon, because of the respect I have for each of you as informed and intelligent voters, I have no slick check-list to pass out to you, to instruct you (in vaguely veiled terms) precisely whom to vote for on Tuesday. Here is the only "voter guide" you need:

When you step into the voting booth next Tuesday (and I pray each and every one of you who can do so will fulfill this responsibility of citizenship, for as I have said this morning, so very much of human and societal importance is at stake when we choose our elected representatives in this democracy), WHEN YOU STEP INTO THE VOTING BOOTH NEXT TUESDAY:

    • BE GUIDED BY YOUR HEART ... for you know what is compassionate and good;
    • BE GUIDED BY YOUR CONSCIENCE ... for you know what is moral and right;
    • BE GUIDED BY YOUR FAITH -- UNITARIAN UNIVERSALISM -- for you know that this religious tradition teaches what is loving and wise;
    • BE GUIDED BY YOUR HIGHEST DREAMS FOR HUMANITY ... for you know that nothing less will do;
    • BE GUIDED BY YOUR UNDERSTANDING OF THE COMMON GOOD ... for you know that we are called to care for the good and the decency of the whole society;
    • BE GUIDED BY WHAT'S IN HERE [SCOTT TAPS HIS CHEST OVER HIS HEART]. IT'S ALL YOU NEED.

AMEN.