Tuesday, October 29, 2019

The Spirit of Democracy

presented at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois
October 27, 2019

Opening Words

The opening words are from the sermon John Winthrop preached in 1630 on board the Arbella, to the colonists on their way to found the new settlement of Boston.
We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body.

Children's Story: Stone Soup

One day a traveler came to a village, pulling a cart behind him. In the wagon was an enormous cooking pot, and inside the pot was … nothing.

As he approached the village green, villagers came up to him, looked in the wagon, looked in the pot, and said, “You don’t seem to have any food with you, so I think you’ve come to the wrong place. This is a poor village in the best of times, and these are not the best of times. Many are hungry, and no one has extra food to offer you. You should just keep going, and maybe you’ll have better luck down the road.”

But the traveler said, “You mistake my purpose. I didn’t come to ask you for food. I am going to cook a wonderful soup in this pot, and offer a bowl to anyone who wants it.”

Well, there were indeed many hungry people in the village, so that offer drew their attention. “But what are you going to put in your soup?”

To which the traveler replied: “Watch and see.”

So everyone watched him as he filled the pot with water from the village well, and gathered wood and started a fire. And as the water began to heat, he took something out of his cloak and unwrapped it: a stone.

“This is a magic stone,” he said. “Exactly how I obtained it is a tale that perhaps I might tell some other time. But for now just let me tell you how the enchantment works: Whenever I am hungry (and I have to admit I am hungry now) all I have to do is boil this stone, and it produces stone soup, which is the most filling and nutritious soup I have ever eaten. The stone will fill any vessel with soup, and that’s why I carry a pot so much bigger than I need for myself, so that I have plenty to share with others.”

The villagers weren’t sure what to make of this story, but they watched as the traveler stirred and sniffed and reminisced about all the wonderful times he had eaten stone soup. As they listened to him, their mouths watered and their stomachs growled.

“And all you need is that stone?” someone asked.

“Well,” admitted the traveler, “by itself stone soup is filling and nutritious, as I said. But if you add just a little cabbage, it becomes tasty as well.”

To everyone’s surprise, one of the village’s poorest and hungriest women said: “I have a few cabbages hidden away.”

“These will do marvelously,” said the traveler as he cut them up and added them to the pot.

Now the air was full of the smell of cooking cabbage, which drew all the rest of the villagers out to the green. “Stone soup with cabbage is indeed quite tasty,” the traveler said. “But if it also has a few carrots, it becomes downright delicious.”

“I have a few carrots,” another villager said.

Once the carrots were added, the aroma became irresistible, and the villagers began to volunteer. “Do you think some potatoes would help?”

“I have just a bit of salted pork.”

“Corn,” offered another. “Salt and pepper.”

The traveler praised each offering as exactly what the soup needed, until one by one, every household in the village had added something to the pot. With each ingredient, his claims for the soup grew, until he declared that even the King himself would not enjoy such a fine soup that day.

When the traveler pronounced the soup done, he ladled out a bowl to each and every villager. And as he scraped out the last of the soup for himself, there at the bottom of the pot was the stone. He very carefully picked it up, cleaned it off, wrapped it up, and put it back in his cloak for the next time he might need stone soup.

And as the villagers ate, they all agreed that this was the most wonderful soup they had ever tasted, and every word the traveler had said about it was perfectly true.


Like many people who grew up in Quincy, my ancestry is almost entirely German. In most situations, that puts my American-ness beyond question. Nobody sees my presence in this country as a problem, or claims that my German background makes my loyalty dubious, or tells me to go back where I came from.

Today, Pennsylvania Dutch — Dutch being a corruption Deutsche, meaning German — is a tourist-attracting species of Americana, and the entire town of Frankenmuth, Michigan is basically a Bavarian theme park.

But it’s worth remembering that German immigrants weren’t always considered so benign and charming. In a letter to Peter Collinson written in May of 1753, Ben Franklin expressed his concerns about the cultural threat the rising wave of German immigration posed to the English Pennsylvania colony:

Advertisements intended to be general are now printed in Dutch and English; the Signs in our Streets have inscriptions in both languages, and in some places only German: They begin of late to make all their Bonds and other legal Writings 
in their own Language, which (though I think it ought not to be) are allowed good in our Courts, where the German Business so encreases that there is continual need of Interpreters; and I suppose in a few years they will be also necessary in theAssembly, to tell one half of our Legislators what the other half say; In short unless the stream of their importation could be turned from this to other colonies, as you very judiciously propose, they will soon so out number us, that all the advantages we have will not in My Opinion be able to preserve our language, and even our Government will become precarious.

In time, though, Germans and a variety of other immigrants became acceptable, and de Tocqueville observed 
that Americans were united more by political ideas than by a particular ethnicity or religion. Those ideas have sometimes been called “The American Creed”. And though that creed has never been codified, It is expressed in some canonical documents that we all recognize. I have collected a few here.

From the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, 
Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

The Preamble of the Constitution:

We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, 
provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

From the Gettysburg Address:

We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

From “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus:
“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-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Early chapters of Samantha Power’s autobiography The Education of an Idealist tell what it’s like to pass through that golden door. If you’ve ever seen her on TV, you may not have guessed that this former Ambassador to the United Nations is an immigrant, but she came from Ireland at the age of 8, and wasn’t naturalized until adulthood. She describes the ceremony like this:

During our collective Oath of Allegiance, we pledged, ‘I will support and defend the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic.’
Looking around the courtroom, seeing emotion ripple across the faces of those whose hands were raised, I was struck by what America meant as a refuge, and as an idea. All of us gathered that morning had reached the modern Promised Land.
We weren’t giving up who we were or where we came from; we were making it American.
I hugged an elderly woman from Central America on my left, and a tall man from Russia to my right. We were all Americans now.

The Spirit of Democracy

I don’t think it’s news if I tell you that democracy is in trouble. A wave of authoritarian populism is sweeping the world, undermining and ultimately ending democracy in all but name in countries like Russia, Turkey, and Hungary. Other countries, like Poland, are moving in that direction. Authoritarian parties centered on the old fascist themes of blood and soil, are increasingly competitive in places like France and Germany, where democracy once seemed solidly established.

This morning I want to take a different tack than I often do in my weekly political blog, which I know some of you read. Rather than focus on the immediate crisis, which often involves denouncing whatever the outrage of the week might have been, I want to take a longer view. This morning I want to call your attention not so much to what is attacking democracy 
as what has made us vulnerable to that attack, and what we will need to rebuild if we make it through the current challenge. Not what is tearing democracy down, but what makes democracy work in the first place?

In any organism, health is more mysterious than disease, and I believe that’s the case here. Some very important factors in the health of democracy aren’t well understood or appreciated, even by people like Unitarian Universalists who value democracy highly.

One big misunderstanding, I’m sorry to say, is embedded in our Fifth Principle, the one that commits us to affirm and support “the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” It’s the only mention of democracy in our principles, and from it you might get the idea that the essence of democracy is process: Hold elections, 
pass laws, list some basic rights in your constitution, and you must be a democracy.

Again and again, that misconception has led the United States astray in our “nation-building” efforts overseas. The European powers made similar mistakes when they gave their colonies independence after World War II.

Because if you are powerful enough, you can step in from the outside and install a process in some foreign land. You can convene a constitutional convention, oversee an election, and guarantee that the votes are counted fairly. So when you leave, there is an elected government operating under a constitution that promises human rights and the rule of law. What more could anyone ask?

And yet, again and again, those externally established democratic processes have failed. Because processes are dead unless some spirit animates them. Without the spirit of democracy, the processes of democracy become an elaborate performance with no underlying reality, like a ritual to honor a god no one believes in.

I don’t want to get too mystical about this, so I should give a concrete example of a living democratic process I have experienced myself, and which you may have experienced as well. Several years ago I served on a jury in a drug case. In the beginning I wasn’t that excited to be there, and I doubt that my eleven colleagues were either. Who is, really? I doubt many people get the summons and say, “Oh goody! I get to do jury duty!”

But it didn’t take long for the ritual of the court to work its magic on us. Surprisingly quickly, it became real to us that in this particular time and place, we were the community. It was up to us to balance the interest of the state in enforcing its laws against the right of the accused not to lose his liberty without a good reason.

We had no special reason to care. None of us knew the defendant or were victims of his alleged crime. But we did care, and we did our job well. We listened intensely, both to the witnesses and to each other. We deliberated seriously, and several of us changed our minds.

But if we had not caught the spirit, it would have been easy to treat that trial as a meaningless performance. We might not have bothered to pay attention and instead just voted our preconceived opinions about crime or the drug laws or the police or the people who live in that neighborhood.

We did not do that. And even though our verdict was guilty, if I am ever on trial, I hope that I get a jury like us.

There are times when I believe that Vladimir Putin and the other new authoritarians understand democracy better than we do. Because they have very adeptly focused their attacks on the spirit of democracy rather than its processes. In countries where they take control, democratic processes aren’t swept away; they are hollowed out, and become empty rituals.

The formalities of campaigns and elections continue, but without any genuine attempt to seek the consent of the governed. The news media remains in the private sector and looks independent, but all major outlets are owned by allies of the government. Rituals of justice are still performed, but investigators, prosecutors, and judges all owe their loyalty to the Leader rather than the law.

If you give voice to the People’s frustration, you probably won’t be whisked away to a gulag in the dead of night. Instead, you will be investigated for corruption and sentenced to prison in an orderly fashion. You will experience all the trappings of justice, but not the reality.

The worldview that underlies these empty rituals is one of deep cynicism: Politicians are all corrupt. Businessmen are thieves. Science is fake. News is propaganda. Justice is a fairy tale. Fair play is irrelevant; all that matters is who wins.

Worst of all, none of this is seen as the debasement of higher values. It’s just how life is. There are no real democracies, no common truths on which we might base our discussions, no shared principles that might guide our deliberations. Only children believe in such things.

Having invoked that cynicism, it’s time for another positive example, this time from a different document out of the American canon, the Mayflower Compact, signed by the first pilgrims on their way to found the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Compact is pretty thin on process. The pilgrims promise “to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient”. In other words, they pledge to come up with some kind of process eventually.

But they do something else in this document, something that usually doesn't happen in the doomed democracies defined by lines some colonial power drew on a map. They pledge to “covenant and combine ourselves together 
into a civil body politic”. They promise that those processes they intend to establish someday will be “just and equal”, 
as well as “meet and convenient for the general good of the colony.”

What the pilgrims are pledging, in other words, is to be a People together. Rather than submit to some external authority, they commit to govern themselves. And rather than use that government as a way for some to exploit others, they pledge to treat each other as equals and seek the general good.

That’s what’s missing when the processes of democracy become empty: a covenantal relationship among people. Democracy is alive not when we are loyal to freedom of the press or one man one vote or trial by jury. All those abstractions only come alive when we are loyal to each other, and to everyone who joins our covenant. Everything else flows from that.

“Delight in each other,” John Winthrop told his flock. That’s where it starts. When we value each other, when we feel responsible for each other, and accountable to each other, then the spirit of democracy will animate our processes.

And that’s where the attack of the authoritarian forces has been most intense. When Putin launched an information war against us, the stolen identities and fake social media accounts weren’t used to push his philosophy and his point of view, the way that the Soviets might have done a generation ago. Instead, all that influence was used to turn us against one another, to feed our prejudices and build our rage against our own countrymen. The point wasn’t that Russia is good and Putin is your savior. It was that other Americans are out to get you. They hate what you stand for, and they want to take what’s yours.

The would-be authoritarians in our own country are trying to hollow out citizenship itself. That naturalization ceremony that felt so meaningful to Samantha Power, that made her hug the Central American woman and the Russian man because “We were all Americans now.” — they want to turn that into an empty ritual as well.

So what if you have been naturalized? If you are the wrong color or religion, your American-ness will always be suspect. If you make too much noise, if you get in the way, you still might be told to go back where you came from. The birthright citizenship guaranteed by the 14th Amendment is “a loophole” for “anchor babies”. Our asylum laws aren’t really laws either, they are “loopholes” for obtaining residency.

Some go so far as to claim that the United States should be an ethnostate for white Christians. Others aren’t willing to put it quite so bluntly, but they casually throw around terms like “real Americans”. Maybe in some technical sense you are a “citizen”. Maybe the law recognizes you as a “voter”. But are you a “real” American?

And how can an election be legitimate if the legal electorate votes differently than the “real” Americans? Wouldn’t it then make sense to discourage the “unreal” Americans, the fake and phony beneficiaries of our empty citizenship rituals, from voting at all? Wouldn’t it make sense to limit their power by packing them into gerrymandered districts and making them wait in long lines to vote? And so the processes of democracy become hollow.

Time for another positive example: This last year, I’ve had a fascinating new window into a living democracy. Deb and I recently moved to Bedford, Massachusetts, the town where we’ve been attending church for the last 25 years. Bedford is a town of about a third the size of Quincy, and it is a direct democracy. We have a professional town manager who runs the executive side of government, and a board of selectman to oversee that manager. But once or twice a year we hold a town meeting that any registered voter can attend. That meeting functions as the town legislature.

And so we, the citizens, wield the political power — not theoretically, by voting for representatives who may or may not do what we want, but directly. If you wonder why the middle school needs a new furnace, or question why we replace police cars as often as we do — you show up and ask, and someone has to answer you. If you want to do things differently, you speak up. And if enough of your neighbors agree with you, it’s changed, right then and there. You don’t have to plead to some higher authority, you just have to persuade your equals.

Typically, a few hundred people show up, and it usually takes a couple evenings to get through the town’s business. The discussions we have are very different from the ones in Congress or the state legislatures. There’s no point in posturing, because you didn’t win an election to gain this power and you don’t need to win another one to keep it. You just show up; it’s your right as a citizen. And while it’s easy to imagine parliamentary maneuvers that would screw the process up, nobody does them. Because we want to get done with our business, and because it’s a small town and we have to live together.

The Unitarian churches I’ve belonged to also work by direct democracy, and in general I’ve observed that the democracy is working best when the process looks terrible. For example, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a contested election for the Board. The challenge is always on the other side: finding enough candidates to fill the slots.

Imagine if the national government worked that way. You’d get a call in the middle of dinner and someone would say, “Do you want to be senator? I know it’s short notice, but Dick and Tammy don’t want to do it any more and we really need somebody.”

Think about why we get away with that kind of process. When a church is working well, the members share a broad consensus about what the church is and what it’s trying to do. When you have that kind of consensus, it almost doesn’t matter who holds the offices. Ancient Athens filled some of its offices by lot, figuring that any random citizen would make more-or-less the same choices.

So now I think I’m ready to start answering some of the questions I posed at the beginning: What does a healthy American democracy look like? What do we need to rebuild once we get through the current crisis? I think we need to renew our allegiance to our unwritten national covenant, to restore our sense of who belongs to that covenant and what binds us together as a people, and regain a shared sense of what America is.

I don’t think we need to invent much to do this. Most of the answers are waiting to be recovered from the American canon.

At the time of the Founders, the problem was to get enough people to come here, not to keep them out. And so we didn’t have immigration laws worth mentioning until after the Civil War. There was no such thing as documented or undocumented. If you showed up, obeyed the laws, and managed to survive a few years, you were in.

We may not want to follow the Founders that far. But as of old, we need to recognize that Americans are united not by race or religion, but by a political creed that is already sitting there in Jefferson’s Declaration: Everyone comes into this world with equal worth and dignity. Everyone has the right to live, to steer their own course through life, and to try to thrive as best they can. The power of government derives not from God or the ancestors or any other external source, but from the consent of the governed.

If you’re here, and you believe those things, and if you’re willing to cast your lot with the rest of us, to defend our lives and our rights the way we defend yours, then I think you’re as American as anybody else.

By the way, you might have wondered why I picked “Stone Soup” for the story. Over the years, America has been described by various metaphors: a city on a hill, a melting pot, a tossed salad, and others. Well, I want to suggest that America is a stone soup.

What each villager has been doing wrong in that story, what the traveler tricks them out of, is imagining that the only food left is their own personal stash. They’ve been looking at each other as more mouths to feed, and not as people who might have something to offer.

That’s been the special magic that has set America apart from the other nations. We have always been open to the possibility that people might have something to offer, even if we can’t see right away what it is. We don’t want to lose that magic.

The creed that unites us also goes a long way to define what America is: a place of liberty and equality, where people have the opportunity to apply their talents and become whatever they have it in themselves to be. And to that I would add one more idea, which I would trace back to George Washington’s Farewell Address: America is a kind and generous member of the community of nations — willing to help, standing with others seeking the same kinds of freedoms we want for ourselves, but not lusting after empire or dominance.

But as I paint that patriotic picture, I can anticipate your objections: How can we Americans square such a positive self-image with our actual history? with the Native American genocide? with slavery and Jim Crow? with the oppression of women, of gays and lesbians, of a long list of groups who in one way or another have been labeled abnormal or unworthy? How do we square it right now with the way we are separating families who come to our border looking for help?

And I answer that the America we envision, the one that commands our highest loyalty, does not live in history. There is no moment we can look back to and say, “That was America. Let us make America great again.” The America we envision is an idea and always has been. We have never lived up to it and we’re not living up to it now.

Who would know better than a black man in the midst of the Great Depression just how far American history has fallen short of the American idea? In 1935, Langston Hughes saw the dream of America as clearly as anyone:

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.

But he also lived the reality. “America,” he wrote, “never was America to me.”

Even so, he did not reject the American dream in scorn. He did not retreat into cynicism. Instead he found his America in the future. Hughes believed that our repeated failures should not invalidate our vision, but instead should only reinforce our conviction that someday we must succeed:

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every [one] is free.
… America has never been America to me,
And yet I swear this oath: “America will be!”

We fulfill the idea of America today in many ways that we fell short two hundred years ago, or fifty years ago, or even ten years ago. Our highest hope is that future generations will be America in ways that we never have been, that they will look back on us not as the good old days, but as an era only slightly less benighted than the ones before it.

And so, we do not need to look backward and whitewash our history, or pretend the continent was empty and the Native Americans were never here, or claim that slavery wasn’t really that bad, or pretend that America has always been a good actor on the world stage, or that our motives for going to war have always been always pure. We don’t need to airbrush the racism and plutocracy that are still here today.

We can acknowledge all that, and yet look ahead with Langston Hughes and say: “America will be!”

I’ve left the hardest question to last, because I don’t have a good answer yet. Given how polarized this country has become, how are we going to renew our covenant? How are we going to reach across our divides and reclaim our loyalty to one another?

“Delight in each other,” John Winthrop said. That seems so distant now. And yet, even here our history must give us hope, because we have been in worse places before. At a darker time than this one, President Lincoln closed his first inaugural address like this:
We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
May that day come soon.


GJacq726 said...

I. Love. This. Stone Soup is a favorite, and yes, a wonderful analogy for the spirit of democracy, of these United States. Indeed, we see it all in a very similar way. Thank you for putting it so eloquently into words.

Billyboy said...

The content of this sermon could be--I believe, should be--the basis of an educational exploration for every UU congregation in the nation. I could be something similar in many communities, whether of faith or other purpose. Thank you, Doug Muder for your ideas.

Billyboy said...

First word in the second sentence should be, "It".

Jeff R. said...

This is a wonderful articulation of and for America; a vision, what "America will be." Living in Virginia, I've been a maniacal canvasser these past several weeks. I would say my most satisfying interactions are reflected in this talk. These may be people who don't agree with "my" positions or plan to vote for "my" candidates. But, we have respectful conversations that typically end with a sense of friendship, a handshake, a smile, and a "thank you" for my service. These encounters don't hollow out, but rather fill up our process. Perhaps these encounters are the most valuable of all.