River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation

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An Election Sermon - In Two Voices

River Road Unitarian Church
Sunday, October 29, 2000
Rev. Scott W. Alexander
Rev. Lynn Thomas Strauss


Introduction By Rev. Scott W. Alexander

Before Lynn and I each speak to you this morning about the upcoming election and what we think it means to us as Unitarian Universalists, I must address the whole issue of the propriety and wisdom of talking about politics, religion and elections in church in the first place. In this election campaign - more than any other in recent memory - the issue of religion being brought to politics has been repeatedly raised, by Democrat and Republican alike. Early in the primary season, George W. Bush -- when asked about his favorite political/social philosopher -- declared that "Jesus Christ" was the person that most defined his outlook, and last year as governor declared an official "Jesus Christ Day" in the state of Texas. Similarly, immediately after he was selected as a Vice-Presidential candidate, Joseph Lieberman, declared that his religion was central to his self-understanding as a politician, promised to be visibly religious in office, and proclaimed that all of us share (and now I quote him), "children the same awesome God," and just this week (in a speech at Notre Dame declared, "Vice President Gore and I want to bring truth to power - the truth of faith and the power of values that flow from it...and encourage [a] new burst of moral and cultural renewal." All this (and much more) unashamed religiosity out of the mouths of politicians has made a lot of people of faith (and a lot of religiously unaffiliated folks) - liberal and conservative alike - uncomfortable...and with good cause.

This democratic republic, as you all know, was founded (among other things) on the principle of maintaining a separation of church and state. The first amendment to our U.S. Constitution states that Congress "shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise there of, or abridging the freedom of speech..." We would all be wise to be wary, therefore, of any politician or religious leader (of whatever stripe or perspective) who would seem ready to blur the clear and cautious boundaries that our founders drew between church and state.

But none of this means, of course, that we -- as religious people...as Unitarian Universalists who care deeply about the shape and substance of human life - should ever hesitate to regularly bring our moral, ethical, societal or theological convictions to government or to the voting booth. I would remind you again -- as I did two years ago when I preached my first election sermon as your minister -- of my deep conviction that while we must all do our part to make sure that our government maintains the all-important boundary between church and state, there can never be a successful or appropriate separation between: 1) our religious lives beliefs and principles, and 2) the political aspects and activities of our lives as citizens of this democracy. The principle of the separation between church and state (as expressed in the First Amendment to the Constitution which I read you earlier, and as clarified many times by both congressional statute and Supreme Court rulings) is purely a ONE-WAY BOUNDARY OF PROTECTION...a firm insistence that government never interfere (or express preference for) any religious group or expression. It does not mean (and it must never mean) that religious peoples should leave their beliefs and values at democracy's door. No religion worth our allegiance can abrogate its responsibility to speak of, care about, and try to influence the society in which it finds itself. Look for just a moment (once again) at the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism (which I incorporated into our opening words this morning). How could you take these justice-and-humanity-centered principles seriously and not have them INFORM your democratic decisions (in the voting booth and elsewhere)? You can't. Dear friends...You must never hesitate, as a Unitarian Universalist, to bring your beliefs and values to government.

That is why Lynn and I decided that on this Sunday just before our all-important national election (which will, let there be no doubt about it, profoundly shape for years -- perhaps decades -- to come the future of the legislative, judicial and administrative branches of our government -- which -- in turn -- will determine so many crucial dimensions of our shared American life) to reflect with you on what we believe are the FUNDAMENTAL HUMAN, ETHICAL, AND MORAL ISSUES that now face us as a people. This will not, I assure and promise you, be a partisan exercise, even a cleverly veiled one. Our own personal political perspectives and prejudices aside, we both know that the key issues which will determine whether or not the United States lives up to its dream of justice, equity, dignity and compassion for all transcend the articulated differences between Democrat and Republican, Reform and Green parties. While we regularly talk about government and politics in this congregation, no one in this church ever should (or - if I have anything to say about it -ever will) tell you how to vote...and if anyone ever tries, tell them to mind their own business! For it is your duty as a thoughtful and caring Unitarian Universalist citizen to study the issues, parties and candidates and make your own evaluative judgements about which will best serve our national dream (and our parallel Unitarian Universalist dream) for a good and just and compassionate nation.

So Lynn...where are you morally, ethically and theologically focused in this election campaign?


Election 2000 Reflection - Rev. Lynn Thomas Strauss

Every four years at election time I find myself in the tension between cynicism and hope. I find myself with an opportunity to consider how the world might be. These words of poet Adrienne Rich capture that tension.

My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
So much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those who, age after age,
perversely, with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.

Adrienne Rich

I was a high school student when I heard John Kennedy say; "Ask not what your country can do for you…but ask what you can do for your country." Perhaps some of you remember inspiring words from a different political campaign. There have been some presidential campaigns in which hopes for fundamental change were high. But usually, political compromise leaves us with less than visionary choices. Most election seasons, I confess I must work up enthusiasm for the political process and confidence in the power of my single vote. I become impatient with democracy and its ability to make substantive systemic change.

Where is the compassion? For that is what is needed to bring our potential to fruition as a nation. In the current campaign, both sides claim the moral high ground of compassion, but which side is willing to risk compassion over profit?

Although I believe the candidates and the parties to be far more similar than I would like, I know that it matters who becomes the next president of the United States, and it matters what kind of majorities we have in the House and Senate. As imperfect as our democracy still is; whom we choose and how we exercise our rights as citizens matters greatly.

I want to remind you that women have had the right to vote in this country for only 81 years…some of our grandmothers did not have the right to vote when they turned 21, and many of our great-grandmothers never had the opportunity. There have been less than two dozen presidential elections in which women could exercise suffrage. As a feminist, I vote because it is a hard won right.

I am painfully aware that we have yet to see a woman as candidate for President of the United States. It's unbelievable, really. I can only hope that my daughters and my son will someday have the opportunity to vote for a woman for the highest office in the land.

I will vote on Election Day because I care about the future of our nation and of the world. I will vote because, even in my moments of cynicism, I hold a vision of what could be. I will vote because I take responsibility for future generations -- for my children and their children and their children's children. My deep concern for children and youth and for the future grows from my ethical values and from my religious commitments. My faith is the source of my hope and my compassion.

Our seventh principle, "respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part", connects us to the Native American ethic of seven generations. Looking forward, not back, is a Unitarian Universalist value. We must leave the earth more whole, more just, more caring than we found it. So, we cast our lot with those who, age after age, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world. To reconstitute the world…to sustain the earth, the water, the air…to reconstitute the world…with freedom and equality for all -- with housing and education and health care for all…to reconstitute the world with fewer prisons, with peace and reconciliation…to reconstitute the world with shared resources and no child hunger.

Through exercise of the democratic process, we can have a voice in the reconstitution of the world.

In a nation as wealthy as ours, we could, if we would only choose, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, educate every child, provide universal health care, bring bread and roses to people of all socio-economic groups. It is all about compassion, not greed or individualism. Christian theologian, Parker Palmer, speaking of the connection between religious life and the public life in his book In the Company of Strangers, writes,

…it is more than humane to practice compassion in a hard world. It is divine. Only as we allow the world's pain to break us open to the flow of divine love will we be able to risk love in hard places. And only as we risk it will the private rhetoric of intimate caring become a public language of love.

There is a paradox that joy and power for life lie on the other side of pain, (and I would add, the other side of cynicism). That power will be ours only as we live fully amid the tension of our time. And that is the opportunity for growth and service afforded us by public life. Community is not an escape.

To provide for seven generations is not easy or uncomplicated…but to begin it requires us to care for our children first. This is the mandate that I would wish for our next administration. A government that puts children first. It's great rhetoric - but if we really did it….as a nation, what a difference it would make.

If all bills and policies were measured against the question, "what is good for the children?" If all spending was preceded by the question, "what is good for the children?quot; If all Supreme Court Justices, examined the cases before them…in light of what was good for children. Wouldn't things be different in health care, education, medical research, television programming, gun control, gay/lesbian rights and education, birth control and abortion availability, and health care?

Eric Erikson, human development psychologist, named the highest developmental stage the generative stage…as we mature, we should grow in our ability to care for others, to care especially for the next generation. To do the work of caring for the next generations requires the commitment of many. To be for life…to respect life.

Ethics asks us to be concerned about people whose lives are distant from our own. I think of people distant from myself in both miles and time. I think of the next generations. Sometimes I get ethically lazy…when I hear about social security running out, when I think about global warming, or overpopulation and hunger….I sometimes, in the dark , ungenerous part of my heart….I think, "I'm just glad I'm not going to be around to see that!" I selfishly think that if I'm not here to be inconvenienced, or horrified, or guilty….that I don't care about what happens in the future.

And then in the next moment I remember my children.

When I heard the words of President John Kennedy…I was inspired to ask what I could do for my country. I was inspired to imagine a world made freer and better and fairer. I still imagine, when I hear Nelson Mandela, or Vaclav Havel, or a visionary poet like Adrienne Rich….I still imagine a world without war, a world without hunger, a world of free education for life, free health care, free housing for all, satisfying work, streets of beauty and music and poetry, neighborhoods of learning and playing and sharing.

These days I am inspired by our young people. I asked my 16 year old son, why he would vote if he could…"to make my ideas and opinions heard", he said. I often see that his father and I are more cynical that he. I see many young people after college joining Americorps or Teach America, I see teenagers helping to feed the homeless, and building habitat houses and raising money for AIDS and cancer research.

There is a new hopeful spirit in our young people. They are full of compassion and of hope. There are many who resist the path of greed and consumerism and choose instead a path of responsibility - there are many young people who work to reconstitute the world….little by little, month by month.

We approach a day of possibility. Election Day -- a day when we can act on behalf of our nation, rather than ourselves, a day when we can act for the future and not for the past, a day when we can speak with our vote for a country that will care for the next generation and the next and the next. I will exercise my responsibility as a citizen by holding in my mind and heart…the question, "what is best for future generations….what is best for the children"?

I urge you to consider what values guide your responsibility as citizens. I urge you to imagine the world in which your great grandchildren will live. I urge you to dream, to hope, to participate, to vote.

Then, as Parker Palmer says, community will not be an escape.

So May It Be. Amen


Election 2000 Reflection - Rev. Scott W. Alexander

There are so many terribly pressing and complex issues in American life and politics right now which I, as a Unitarian Universalist, am deeply concerned about. Let me begin my reflection by naming just a few:

  • Can America find the will and the way to protect our precious and vulnerable natural environment?
  • Will women be systematically protected from domestic violence, economic discrimination and reproductive interference?
  • Will our education, economic and health systems be truly opened to all Americans regardless of race, creed, national origin, physical ability, or sexual orientation?
  • With the U.S. prison population quadrupled since 1980 to nearly 2 million, can we find some way to reverse this national tragedy, and the drug scourge which causes most of it?
These are just a few of the pressing issues on which I will be basing my vote next Tuesday...for I want candidates who share my concerns and offer programs and visions to address them. But for this morning's purposes, time being limited as it is, I am going to singularly focus on the one moral and ethical issue I feel most endangers our health and humanity as a society...the one issue we must effectively address if we are to ever achieve our potential as a nation...namely the scourge of poverty and physical deprivation we chronically allow to exist in America.

I am moved anew every time I see the inscription. Several days ago, amidst a beautiful autumnal sunset, we were showing old friends from Houston the FDR memorial (which they had never seen). There, on one of the red granite slabs, within sight of statuary portraying desperate, hungry, out of work Americans on a bread-line during the Great Depression is this quotation from then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt: "The test of our progress [as a nation] is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."

One of the most amazing things about this quotation is how, more than half an American century after it was spoken, it still haunts and challenges us with its undeniable moral truth. We now live (as you all know) in the most prosperous/abundant nation in the world...in the most prosperous/abundant time in our national history. America as a whole has never had it so affluent and good. It is clear from Maine to California that many have recently been lifted out of poverty by our incredible national economic growth...and yet (according to the most recent Federal statistics and World Bank estimates - and please listen carefully to these numbers -- for numbers matter because real people lie just behind them) something like 12% of our citizens live in poverty. Here in the District of Columbia (according to the Feds) the figure is 18.6%...and nationwide (sadly reflecting our racial disparities) 23.6% of African American and 22.8% of all Hispanics fall below that minimal poverty line, as do fully one-sixth of all American children - that's almost 17%. A related statistic, which really breaks my heart, is that it is estimated that about 31 million Americans (that's about 11% of us) still face hunger (or the fear of hunger) on a daily basis. As devastating as these numbers are, the good news (which we must not ignore) is that these statistics mean that poverty and hunger (and the numbers of people trapped in welfare) in America are now at a twenty year low, and dropping. As it has in every region of the country, poverty here in D.C. (for example) has dropped a full 3.6% in the last decade, and we must celebrate that significant progress (as our President recently has). But my moral and human question to you this morning before our national election is: as a civilized and humane nation, ARE THESE NUMBERS ACCEPTABLE TO US? The Washington Post reports that "America's poverty rate is roughly twice as high as that of other industrialized nations." Jesus may have been sadly right when he said, "The poor will always be with you," but can we here in America (citizens one with another) tolerate these numbers and the human misery that goes with them? This Unitarian Universalist citizen says NO, absolutely not.

Ours is a religion that affirms the inherent worth and dignity of persons, and promises to work for a social order with justice, equity and compassion for all, and so of course these suffering index numbers are unacceptable to us. WE must insist that our governments (at every level of American life) use whatever methodologies and strategies are available and effective to bring these numbers dramatically down (and suffering and humiliation down with them)...but therein, my fellow citizens, lies the great confusion and the great rub.

As you all know (if you have been listening to the various election campaigns raging around America right now)...good, compassionate and thoughtful people (diverse candidates and parties who sincerely care about ending poverty, hunger and injustice in America) can and do rationally disagree about those methodologies and strategies and their effectiveness. For example...some politicians, economists and political parties (generally those labeled more conservative) tend to believe that "a rising economic tide lifts all boats," and therefore support governmental policies which trust free market enterprise, lower taxes (which, according to many economists frees up dollars for private investment) and increased personal responsibility and individual achievement to alleviate poverty. As the Washington Post recently observed on its editorial page, "Limited government is a key ingredient of America's economic growth, which has recently begun to lift substantial numbers out of poverty." It is hard to totally dismiss conservative economic thinking. On the other hand, other politicians, economists and parties (generally those labeled more liberal) tend to believe in intentional tax-supported program intervention (things like food stamps, welfare subsidies, job training programs, education initiatives, income tax credits for the poor, and so forth) as methodologies and strategies for lifting more Americans out of poverty. Your tough job (as an American citizen and voter on Tuesday) is to use your best economic, social and political DISCERNMENT to WEIGH the merits of these somewhat contradictory and competing methodologies and strategies and decide which you believe will be most effective in ending the inequality and suffering that still effects more than one-in-ten of us trapped in poverty. I, of course, as one voter have reached my own personal political and economic conclusions. I unequivocally know how I'm going to vote, and why -- but this is most definitely NOT the time, place or venue for me to express what I (as a minister and citizen) think. What is more, I am smart enough to know that I frankly cannot tell you (with any real authority or certainty) which party or politicians clearly have the best plan for helping to end the scourge of poverty in America as we sadly know it. But what I can tell you (and should tell you here in this church the Sunday before the election) is my clear and unequivocal conviction that Unitarian Universalism calls upon us to 1) hate poverty, 2) name it as an unacceptable and correctable tragedy of American life, and 3) do our part (even if that means making economic sacrifices like paying higher taxes) to end its spirit-crushing presence among us.

Two-and-a-half years ago, when I was introducing myself to you during my candidating week before I became your minister, I told a true story from my own family's history that is particularly appropriate for me to remember and retell today. It was precisely 370 years ago that my Mother's Great, Great, Great, Great, Great, Great Grandparents (impoverished Puritans by the name of Reid who were fleeing religious persecution in the British Isles) were on one of the fragile ships which dropped anchor in the harbor of Salem, Massachusetts with what was known as John Winthrop's Great Fleet. The next morning, before the outcast settlers rowed to shore in the New World, the ships were all lashed together, and John Winthrop (who later became the great Governor of the commonwealth that was to be known as Massachusetts) delivered a sermon from the pitching foredeck of his flagship, The Arbella. That sermon, which is in part often quoted by modern American politicians, helped to shape the moral and social vision of the emerging nation. It gives me goose bumps to realize that my Reid ancestors heard (and I can only hope embraced) Winthrop's stirring words. With their new promised Land in sight, he described his dream of "That shining city set upon the hill," which he prayed they would have the compassion and wisdom to build together. Winthrop proclaimed that the "Shining City" would be a true, caring community in which every citizen's basic welfare would be of primary public concern. He proclaimed,

We must be knit together in this work as one. We must be willing to abridge ourselves in our superfluities, for the supply of other's necessities...We must delight in each other, make other's conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together...always having before our eyes our community as members of the same body.
Tuesday -- as you fulfill your American democratic responsibility to vote as citizens, and lend your voice and values to the moral direction and human quality of our republic - may Winthrop's ORIGINAL AMERICAN DREAM echo in your ears (as I pray they did in the ears of my Puritan Reid ancestors). No one can or should tell you how to vote. Study the candidates' programs and perspectives. Follow your own political instincts. Express your own economic viewpoints and social convictions - that is what it means to be freely and responsibly American. But I pray you, when you step into that voting booth on Tuesday, have (centrally and securely in your heart) that compassionate dream of the shining American city of mutuality set upon the hill...remember (as our faith tradition teaches) the unquenchable worth and dignity of every person living in this land (and beyond)...and vote for that, my good Unitarian Universalist friends, vote for that and nothing less.