God and Democracy

I have a confession to make.

I am just nutso crazy in love with America.

I have been in love with America since I was a little girl. It has been in my blood since 1630, since my great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather John Winthrop came to Massachusetts and saw a “shining city on a hill.” My parents’ living room was lined with books about the Revolution and the Civil War. Our family vacations were always historical journeys; Old Sturbridge Village and Williamsburg were my amusement parks. My favorite songs from Schoolhouse Rock were about the Shot Heard ‘Round the World, the Constitution, and the 19th Amendment. For the Bicentennial, my father participated in a reenactment of the signing of the Declaration, and I insisted in going to the festivities in period costume. My favorite books were historical fiction. Later, I majored in American political studies.  It’s no wonder I am a Unitarian Universalist – while our roots are European, our expression of our faith is uniquely American. Even now, I cannot let an Independence Day go by without watching the musical 1776 – although I don’t know why I watch it, since I can sing the whole thing for you from the opening shouts of “Mr. Adams!” to the closing bells. And yes, I can also quote large passages from the TV series The West Wing.

But it’s not just Americana that I love. I love the idea of the United States. I stand here in admiration for our forbearers – the men of the Continental Congresses who absolutely believed that they could develop a political system that would stand the test of time and debated fiercely to guarantee the rights we take for granted today. There are the gripping arguments over the wording of the Declaration, then after the war was won, came the first American example of battling punditry: the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers, op-ed pieces where the content of the Constitution was debated. All of these discussions always had the formation of this extraordinary, democratic government in mind. As author John Gunther points out, “Ours is the only country deliberately founded on a good idea.” That good idea – that all are created equal, that we ARE endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights, that, as Henry Ward Beecher says, “every man shall have liberty to be what God made him, without hindrance” – that good idea is the genius we recognize today.

I appreciate, too, that the genius we celebrate has flaws. I like that our forbearers put together this incredible experiment in governing, full of imperfections. Sigmund Freud called America “a terrible mistake,” but it is the mistakes we make that make us resilient. Walter Cronkite explains:

Through the greatest of daring and the greatest of ambition this nation’s Founding Fathers brought forth the design for a nearly perfect government that guaranteed the freedom and dignity of the individual. Perfection was denied, since, despite their high resolution to recognize and promote equality among all humankind, the economics and morals of the time permitted them to leave in existence the most abominable of inequality – the practice of slavery. The government they devised, however, was a model of democracy.

Unitarian poet e.e.cummings continues the thought: “America makes prodigious mistakes, America has colossal faults, but one thing cannot be denied: America is always on the move. She may be going to Hell, of course, but at least she isn’t standing still.”

I know it is possible to be patriotic without being jingoistic, to love a country and disagree with some of its government’s policies, to believe, as John Adams wrote to Abigail in of the arduous fight over the Declaration, that “through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will triumph.”

Now that’s not to say that I couldn’t spout volumes of criticism for our government and some of our fellow Americans. Holy cow, it’s bad out there. The country is in a hot mess regarding race, immigration, voting, corporate power, women, the environment, LGBTQ issues, and income inequality. And it has been a hot mess for a long time. Consider this poem, written 75 years ago by Langston Hughes (“Let America Be America Again”):

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed –
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek –
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean –
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today – O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home –
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free?  Not me?
Surely not me?  The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay–
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again –
The land that never has been yet –
And yet must be – the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine – the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME –
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose–
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath–
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain–
All, all the stretch of these great green states–
And make America again!

We wrestle with the same problems, wonder the same things. Can we ever build a homeland of the free? Can America ever be America again? Where is the triumph for posterity? What happened to the noble cause of liberty? The free pursuit of happiness? The value of democracy? It is easy to criticize, and it is our right, after all; our First Amendment still gives me that right as a citizen in this democratic republic. President James Buchanan once said “I like the noise of democracy” – and I agree with former congresswoman Pat Schroeder that “we wouldn’t have thrived and developed as we have without that noise.”

Democracy says there is room for every noisy voice at the table. Even the ones that drive us crazy.

Democracy says that even the minority opinion should be heard. Even if we’re the only one saying it.

Democracy says that we all come together to choose. All of us, no matter our gender, creed, race, or orientation. No matter where we come from. Whether we’ve just arrived or whether we’ve been here for generations.

And if early 20th century Universalist theologian Clarence Skinner is right, Democracy is at the heart of our faith, and that our idea of God is democratic.

Now I hadn’t thought much about a democratic God; to me, God was always the god of empire, of monarchy, a deity whose sympathies are particular in who is favored. That is certainly the god of the Old Testament, who blesses Israel as the chosen people, who favors some over others. Yet, as Skinner points out in his book The Social Implications of Universalism, the more we “lay bare our hearts and minds to the great human currents and exult in the tides of feeling which pour upon us, enriching and enlarging us,” we cannot help but see a God who reflects humanity. He continues,

There is no mistaking the widening of sympathies, the greater sense of inclusiveness, the new solidarity of humanity. Such a humanity will no longer brook the imperious and fastidious god who has scored the fellowship of most of his creatures in the past. A democratic people demand a democratic god, a robust deity who likes his universe, who hungers for fellowship, who is in and of and for the whole of life.

In other words, when we embrace all of humanity with all its quirks and foibles, and when we honor the minority opinion and the rights of the weakest among us, we conceive of a more universal, just God who is more intimately associated with life – the creator/creating god of process theology. And… the more universal and just and intimately associated with life our God becomes, the more democracy is spread among humanity.

Life begets life. Openness begets openness. Justice begets justice. Compassion begets compassion. Whether you are a theist or an atheist or somewhere in-between, we aren’t just democratic by our political nature; we are democratic in our faith. It’s no wonder our fifth principle is “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” We strive to practice inside our walls what we want to see happen outside our walls. And it isn’t just about congregational polity and long annual meetings. It’s about a frame of reference, how we understand the call to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” to be not just a political call but an ethical, moral, faith-driven call. As Skinner puts it, our “universal faith demands a universal application. It means the wreck of exploitation, the ruin of aristocracy; it means the exaltation of the meanest and weakest of God’s creatures to the height of fulfillment. It means democracy.”

It’s not been easy; this vision devised centuries ago and living in us as Americans and Unitarian Universalists, makes some shiver at the thought of losing power and prestige. Just this week, we have seen both great strides and great defeats, and much celebrating and gnashing of teeth as the vision gets forged and hammered and forged again. But as they say, the long arc of history bends toward justice.

We must not forget, however, that without us, it will not bend at all. We must remember that our power comes from our faith, which is grounded in justice and compassion, that we are called to serve the family of humanity, to stand of the side of love, to make sure the smallest voice is heard.

And we can’t just talk about it; we have to do it.

Because there’s one thing very true about democracy: it isn’t passive. You have to speak up. You have to vote. You have to act. Richard Lamm, former governor of Colorado, puts it this way: “America … is the continual search for justice and fairness … greatness is not a guarantee, it is a continuing challenge. It must be won anew each generation.”

The long arc of history bends toward justice, but it needs help. Your help.

Now I’m not saying we all have to run for public office or mount major protests – I mean, you can if you want, but this isn’t the real call. The real call has been sounding for centuries; Dr. Benjamin Rush – signer of the Declaration – remarked that “social action is an inescapable consequence of Universalist faith.”

The real call of our faith is social action, right next door. The call of our faith says, in true democratic fashion, we must listen to our neighbor, who may be different from us, or have needs we cannot know just by looking at them. Who is your neighbor? Are they doing okay financially? Are they battling discrimination because of race, creed, gender, or sexual orientation? Are they hurting emotionally? Hurting physically? What is your neighbor’s pain? It won’t be the same as your pain, or your other neighbor’s pain, but your neighbor’s voice has a right to be heard, and your neighbor’s needs have a right to be met. Can you help? Can you make your block, your street, your community more democratic?

The call of democracy is palpable. Our open minds and hearts cannot help but hear the call. Our nation cannot help but hear the call, inscribed on the faces of every person, inscribed in our sacred documents, inscribed even on the front door to the nation, at the foot of the Statue of Liberty in the words of Emma Lazarus (“The New Colossus”):

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

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Learn more about my ministry at The Art of Meaning

Read my thoughts about congregational life at Hold My Chalice