Wednesday, March 29, 2023

"You Must Have Learned Something in 20 Years": reflections on two decades of blogging

presented at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois
March 26, 2023

When an ostrich buries its head in the sand as danger approaches, it very likely takes the happiest course. - Charles Sanders Peirce

One of the things I learned growing up in Quincy is that news happens somewhere else.

Years later, I heard ESPN anchor Kenny Mayne capture the experience perfectly with a twist on an old sports cliche. On paper, he said, it was obvious who would win the upcoming game. “But football games aren’t played on paper, they’re played inside TV sets.”

That was my experience of the news: It all happened inside a TV. The images on the screen might be of DC or New York or some city on the other side of the world, like Saigon or Tel Aviv. Occasionally they might show a small town somewhere. But almost never this small town. Because news happens somewhere else.

After I left Quincy I lived in a number of places, and then in 1996 I moved to New Hampshire. I got there too late for that year’s presidential primary. But in the 2000 cycle, I began to understand the magic of living in the land where presidential campaigns begin: Big name politicians wander the streets trying to get your attention.

Most of that cycle, I was a day late. I’d read in the local newspaper that Vice President Gore had been shaking hands in a restaurant a few blocks from my apartment. Or Senator Bradley had talked to 15 voters in somebody’s back yard.


But I did manage to see John McCain, because everybody saw John McCain. He was everywhere. No venue was too small and no question too trivial. The man was amazing.

On the night of the primary, the big news was McCain’s landslide victory over Governor Bush, who had spent a lot of money on advertising, but almost never let ordinary people touch him or talk to him.

So I’m watching returns come in on TV, and they cut over to a reporter at the McCain victory party, where excitement was building and the candidate was expected to appear soon. It was in a hotel about three miles away, so I said to Deb, “Let’s go.” And we did. We walked in the door, elbowed our way into the crowd, and got there in time to hear McCain’s victory speech.

Some of you may have been watching that night, and you may have thought that speech was happening inside a TV set. But it wasn’t. I was on the floor, and when I looked up there it was: news.

The next day, all the candidates and cameramen packed up and forgot about us for another three years. But in 2003, the cycle was starting up again. And this time I was determined to do it right. I found the web page where the Manchester Union Leader kept track of which candidates were going to be where, and I decided I was going to see everybody. Best of all, I was going to see them early, when even the front-runners would be begging for attention.

And while I was at it, I thought I’d participate in the latest trend on the internet, and invite my friends to join me on a vicarious journey. Facebook and Twitter didn’t exist yet, but I planned to write up an account of every candidate I saw and email it to anybody I thought might be interested.

My project began on April 3, 20 years ago next week, which I now regard as the anniversary of my blogging career. John Kerry was speaking at the public library in Peterborough, about 45 minutes away. His speech was full of exactly the kinds of information an undecided voter needed: He told us about himself and his qualifications, talked about what he wanted to do as president and how he would be different from President Bush.

And then he opened the floor for questions. I had always wondered whether the questions at events like this are real or planted, and I found out: I got to ask Kerry about his vote for the Patriot Act, which I doubt he wanted to discuss. He gave an answer that I didn’t totally agree with, but I could respect it. And that was the general impression I wrote to my friends: Kerry probably wouldn’t be my first choice, but I could be OK with him as president.

When I had envisioned this project, I thought the only value my emails would add was immediacy: My friends could read about the same events in newspapers, but the accounts would seem more real coming from someone they actually knew. I didn’t expect to see completely different events from the ones that got reported nationally.

But I did.

You see, somewhere in the middle of his talk, Kerry made a quip. The Bush administration had used the phrase “regime change” to describe its goal in Iraq, and Kerry turned that around, saying that we needed some regime change right here in America.

It was a cute line, but there wasn’t much substance to it, so I ignored it. Rush Limbaugh didn’t. Somehow Rush heard that line and told his radio audience how unpatriotic he thought it was. Several Republican congressmen picked up that attack: This decorated Vietnam veteran was unpatriotic because he had characterized an incumbent president losing an election as “regime change”. So now it was on. Kerry had to strike back, saying that he didn’t need lessons in patriotism from the likes of Rush Limbaugh. It went back and forth for days. So if you heard anything about the Peterborough speech, that quip was what you heard. But if you had been in the room, it would have gone right past you.

Then I heard Howard Dean speak in a room above my local brewpub. The media had been describing Dean as the antiwar candidate. And yes, he said a few things against the Iraq War. But mainly he talked about his record as governor of Vermont, with particular emphasis on healthcare and education. The next morning, though, the major newspapers only quoted what he said about the war, as if that had been his whole speech.

It happened again and again: I saw one event, and then I read about a completely different one.

I had trouble wrapping my mind around what I was seeing. I felt like the campaign speeches were being covered badly, but it didn’t match any recognizable model of bad news coverage. The articles weren’t lying. No one was being misquoted. The omissions didn’t seem to favor one candidate over another. But I was coming at these events from the point of view of a voter trying to decide what kind of president these candidates would make. And apparently, that made me different from just about everyone else who was covering the campaign.

My project had started out as a lark, a fun thing to do and share with my friends. But as I got into it, I started to think that it was actually important. And that was my first step towards becoming a blogger.

Now, the theme of this talk, other than me getting nostalgic, is what twenty years of blogging has taught me. And so the first lesson I’ll pick out goes back to that beginning: The media doesn’t have to lie in order to do you a disservice.

Journalists may report what they’re seeing and hearing with perfect accuracy. But if they’re coming to those events with a mindset that isn’t your mindset, and if they’re trying to answer questions that aren’t your questions, then they’re not going to tell you what you really want to know. Nobody has to be a villain in this story, but your interests are not being served. So no matter how many articles you read, and how much time you put into following the issues you care about, you can’t be sure you’re being well informed.

This lesson sits in the background of my Weekly Sift blog every Monday. Because the hardest work I do on the Sift actually is not gathering the information or crafting the text. The hardest work is discernment: I’m trying to be a responsible citizen of a democracy, and I assume the same about my readers. Given that basic mindset, what issues should I — and by projection, you — being paying attention to? And of all the things that were said and done this week relating to those issues, which ones are genuinely important?

From the primary campaign, I branched out. That November, the Massachusetts Supreme Court found that same-sex couples had a right to marry. The news media focused on reactions to the ruling — who was for it or against it — but I wanted to know what the judge had said. I found the text of the opinion, and discovered that it was easier to understand than I had expected. So I wrote about it.

Periodically, I was noticing things about the Iraq War or the War on Terror that weren’t getting the attention I thought they deserved. So I wrote about them too.

Distribution by email turned into a web page anyone could access, and then in 2005 became a blog. I got into the habit of starting each week by posting a list of articles I had found worthwhile the previous week. Later I began adding short comments on those articles, and in 2008, I spun that Monday-morning summary off into its own blog, The Weekly Sift. I’ve posted something there almost every Monday since.

So that’s the second thing to learn from my experience: Once you start something, you never know where it’s going to go. Something that begins as a lark may turn into a project that lasts 20 years.

And when you do something for 20 years, the world changes around you. When I started blogging, the problem I saw was that a dominant media narrative might be out of touch with what ordinary people need to know. And I saw the internet as a tool for fixing that problem.

So along with much better known writers like Ezra Klein, Digby, Josh Marshall, and Amanda Marcotte,  I became part of the movement that made independent blogs more influential. Then came Facebook, Tik Tok, podcasts, and social media as we have come to know it. And now we have the opposite problem, which is arguably worse: people can create echo chambers that responsible journalism never penetrates. And they can support each other in believing whatever they want to believe, independent of the facts.

So today, if you want to believe that your candidate won an election he actually lost by seven million votes, or that a vaccine that has saved millions of lives is part of a sinister plot to control you, you can. Maybe the people trying to save the world from climate change are actually conspiring to enslave us all in a global socialist dictatorship. Who can say? There is no Truth to be reported. There’s only what you want to believe, and how many people you can find who agree with you.

What’s even more disturbing to me is that so much of the rhetoric that justifies that disinformation sounds like what I was saying 20 years ago: You can’t always believe what you’re told. You shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions. You need to look behind the curtain and do your own research.

In some ways I feel like the Clint Eastwood character Dirty Harry. In the first movie, he’s a police detective who refuses to be bound by procedural niceties that let guilty people go free. But in the second, he sees what happens when that attitude goes too far. This time, the villains he has to track down are a cabal of cops who take it on themselves to assassinate anyone they identify as a bad guy. Late in that film Harry says what to me is the most memorable line of the whole series: “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

And so today, as the internet takes away the power of experts in all fields to make us look at truths we’d rather ignore, we all need know our limitations. I can write about anything, but I’m not a universal expert. I’m not a climate scientist or an epidemiologist or a military strategist. My life experience doesn’t tell me much about being Black or female or poor or trans. The world is full of people who know things I don’t. Important things. True things. And so, over the years, the Sift has had to become more balanced: It’s not just about what to doubt, but also who to trust, and what I believe we can rely on.

The final and most important lesson I want to draw this morning centers on an issue that never comes up explicitly in the Sift, but hovers constantly in the background. The roots of this actually go back further than 20 years.

In the spring of 2000, CNN was intensely following several stories that had little to do with my daily life, but that I got hooked on: A court was deciding whether to break up Microsoft. Elian Gonzalez’s mother had drowned bringing him to the United States, and now his father in Cuba wanted him back. There were a couple of other major stories that, truthfully, I can’t even remember now. But following them took up a huge amount of my time, not just watching reports on them, but also arguing in my head with people who took the other side of those issues.

So one day I was walking through a park next to the Nashua River, while in my mind I raged against some wrongheaded person I had just seen on TV. And I was miserable, in that particular way that I get when I’m afraid my side is going to lose an argument that we really deserve to win. (Maybe you know that feeling.)

And then something happened. A theist might say that God’s grace shone down on me for a moment. But whatever caused it, my consciousness suddenly took a step backwards and I got a longer perspective. And I began to laugh at myself. Because here I was on a beautiful spring day, in a lovely spot, at a moment when my life overall was going pretty well, and I was miserable.

I was miserable in that unique way that addicts are miserable. I was filled with anxiety and tension and fear and rage — and a yearning for relief from those feelings. But I was looking for relief in something that was actually going to make it all worse: more news coverage. The latest details on those stories, more talking heads arguing about them — that’s what I felt like I needed. It was crazy.

So I went cold turkey on the news for a couple weeks, and I did indeed get better. I was once again able to experience the ups and downs of life as they came, without an ever-present background anxiety, and a desperate grasping after experiences that would make that anxiety worse.

But of course, ignoring the news is not an answer either, any more than it’s an answer for an alcoholic to live the rest of his life in a rehab center. I am a voting citizen in a democracy, and I live in a society that faces real issues of justice and injustice. Closing my eyes to everything bigger than my personal life might be necessary from time to time, but long term it can’t be the right response.

So there’s one central question that always hangs in the background of The Weekly Sift: What is a right relationship to the news?

Over time, the central mission of the Weekly Sift, at least as I see it, has become modeling that right relationship — staying aware of the news, thinking about it, even reacting emotionally to it at times, but not sliding into a destructive obsession with it, or letting it depress me to the point that I can’t enjoy my personal life.
A lot of that right relationship has to do with pace. And that’s why I stay disciplined about keeping the Sift weekly rather than interrupting your life with updates whenever something happens. Because you ought to think about the news regularly, but you don’t need to be thinking about it all the time. If you are thinking about it all the time, particularly if you’re thinking about it in an anxious, needy way that makes you keep turning on your TV or picking up your phone thinking “What’s new? What’s new? What’s new?” — that’s a sign of addiction. Back up. Go walk in the sunshine. The world can survive without you for a few days.

Even weekly is too frequent for many issues, so you’ll notice that I don’t try to cover every issue every week. I don’t write about racism every week. I don’t write about climate change. It’s not that those issues aren’t important, but they’re playing out over decades, and the struggle against them is a marathon, not a sprint. You need to keep tabs on those issues, and if you think of yourself as an activist, you should probably review your strategy occasionally: Are you doing enough? Is your work effective? What might you do differently?

Having that conversation with yourself several times a year is probably healthy. But if you’re having it several times a day, you’re probably just driving yourself nuts. That’s a pretty good rule of thumb for thinking about the news: Thinking deeply about an issue now and then is generally better than rehashing the same few thoughts over and over.

Once you start thinking about the news as a possible source of addiction, you may begin to notice how that addiction works. One of the main mechanisms for getting us hooked is through speculation. Once you believe that you know what’s going to happen next, good or bad, then you have to keep checking to see whether it has happened. If you anticipate something hopeful, then you are plagued by the fear that it won’t happen. And if you anticipate something fearful, you still keep hoping that it won’t happen. Either way, you feel like you need to know.

The business model of the news media relies on keeping you hooked, so they do their best to feed speculation. Imagine a news anchor saying:“Nothing much happened today, so you can take some time off from the news. Watch a movie, tend your garden, call an old friend. You can check back tomorrow.”

Of course they’re not going to say that. If nothing much happened today, then they need to keep you focused on all the things that might happen soon. Important things. Scary things. Things that might give you the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat. So you should feel about them, yearn for them, fear them.

Getting ahead of the news can make sense if you need to be taking preemptive action or preparing for a quick response. If there’s a bill in the legislature, maybe you need to call your representative about it now, rather than waiting to see if it passes. If a change in government policy might hurt a certain group of people, maybe you should be thinking ahead about how you’ll  help those people.

But most of the speculation we hear isn’t like that. It’s a pure “I want to know what’s going to happen.” And the people telling you what’s going to happen typically don’t know.

Take a Trump indictment, for example. All this past week, the media kept us on edge. It’s going to happen. It’s going to happen. Today — no, not today. Tomorrow then. These are the charges you can expect. Or maybe those. And his supporters will riot. Or they won’t.

And what good has any of that speculating done us? How are we better off than the people who have been withholding their attention until something actually happens? Think about the hours we could have been spending appreciating life.

In conclusion, I want to emphasize that no one else can tell you whether you have a healthy relationship to the news. It’s a matter for your own introspection and discernment. There’s no number of hours you should or shouldn’t be spending. It doesn’t necessarily matter whether or not you can pass some current-events test.

There are really only two questions to focus on. First, what role do you want to be playing in our society and culture? Do you see yourself as an activist, as someone who helps in some way, large or small, in shaping opinion and plotting the course of our democracy? Are you well enough informed to play the role you see for yourself?

Second, how is your experience of the news affecting your experience of life? Does staying informed make you feel more competent and effective? Or is it filling you with anxiety or depression or guilt? If it’s the latter, then I would urge you not to just take those feelings as an unavoidable response to the way things are. Instead, I encourage you to use those feelings to examine how you relate to the news, and to think about whether or how that relationship could change.

The closing words have been attributed to the Sufi poet Hafez, and I think what he’s saying about fear could also apply to anxiety or guilt or depression: “Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I would like to see you living in better conditions.”

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Delight in Each Other: Democracy as a Covenantal Relationship

 a service presented at First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church
in Bedford, Massachusetts
February 19, 2023

Opening Words 

The opening words are from the sermon John Winthrop preached on board the Arbella, to the colonists on their way to found the new town 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."

Time for All Ages: Stone Soup 

One day a traveler came to a village, pulling a cart behind him. In the cart 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 cart, looked in the pot, 
and said, “You don’t seem to have any food with you, so I think you may have 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 anybody who wants one.” 

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 the villagers 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 getting 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. And as they listened to him, their mouths watered and their stomachs growled. 

“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 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 offered. 

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 in a cloth, 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 indeed the most wonderful soup they had ever tasted, and every word the traveler had said about it was perfectly true. 


I’m Doug Muder. As you might guess from my name, I’m of German ancestry. Large numbers of Germans were already coming to the American colonies in the 1700s, and my direct ancestors began arriving in the 1840s. And so, whenever people start debating who is or isn’t a “real” American, my status never comes into question. 

If you are similarly privileged, I recommend this exercise: Page back to the era when people like you first started coming here, and see what was being said about them then. When I did that, I found this letter Benjamin Franklin wrote to Peter Collinson in 1753 about the threat that German immigration posed to the 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 the Assembly, 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. As far back as de Tocqueville, it has been observed that Americans are united more by a set of beliefs than by ethnicity or sect. The canon that defines that so-called American creed has never been codified, but I’ve collected a few texts that I think you will all recognize. 

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 inalienable 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 says a little more about why governments are instituted: “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 … 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.” 

The final reading is by Barack Obama’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, who, when she doesn’t have a job that takes her elsewhere lives in Concord. She may look and sound like a lifelong American, but she is an immigrant. She came from Ireland at the age of 8, and wasn’t naturalized until adulthood. 

In her autobiography The Education of an Idealist 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.” 


As many of you probably know, I write a weekly political blog where the topic of democracy often comes up. 

One downside of looking at the news week-by-week, as I do, or day-by-day, as many cable news shows do, is that it’s easy to focus on the latest threats to democracy, whatever they happen to be: Say, election denial, or a violent attempt to overturn an election (like the one in Brazil last month or here two years ago), or a voter suppression law, or gerrymandering, or an assault on the free press. A short-term view tends to make us reactive: Democracy is under attack. How can we defend? 

But this morning I want to take a longer view and think about the health of democracy. Not who is attacking it and how, but what do we need to shore up and rebuild? Not what is tearing democracy down, but what makes democracy work in the first place? 

Health is often more mysterious than disease, and I believe that’s the case here. Some very important things about democracy aren’t well understood or appreciated, even by people who value it highly, like Unitarian Universalists. 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: holding elections, having a Congress, giving courts the power to uphold human rights.

That kind of thinking has led well-intentioned people astray time and time again, for a very simple reason: If you have military control over someone else’s land, as we did in Iraq and Afghanistan, and as the European powers did in their former colonies, then it’s not hard to impose a process.You can assemble a constitutional convention, guarantee that the first set of votes are counted accurately, and leave behind an elected government operating under a constitution that promises human rights and the rule of law. 

Presto! You’ve created a democracy. 

But again and again, those externally imposed democracies have failed, because the processes of democracy are empty 
unless a Spirit of Democracy animates them. Anyone with enough power can set up a democratic process. But only the people themselves can infuse that process with a democratic spirit. 

That sounds a little mystical, so I should probably 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 criminal case. In the beginning I wasn’t thrilled to be there, and I doubt that my colleagues were either. Who is, really? I doubt many people get the summons and say, “Oh great! 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 weigh the law’s just demands against the defendant’s rights. 

None of us had a personal stake in the outcome. We didn’t know the defendant or anyone else connected with the alleged crime. If we had not caught the spirit, our deliberations might have become a rote performance. We might have listened to the witnesses half-heartedly and then just voted our preconceived opinions about crime or the kind of people who live in that neighborhood. We might have gone along with the majority just to get it over with. 

But we did catch the spirit, and we did our job well. We listened intently, both to the evidence and to each other. We thought hard about the case, and as we discussed it, several of us changed our minds. And even though we voted to convict, if I am ever on trial, I hope I get a jury like us. 

But whether we understand the importance of spirit or not, the people threatening democracy do. It’s striking how many of their attacks leave the processes standing, but hollow out their meaning. Russia, for example, still preserves the form of campaigns and elections, but any opposition leader who gets too popular, if he’s not just killed, may have to choose between exile and prison. Hungary still has the appearance of a free press, but nearly all the major news outlets have been bought by allies of the government. In a gerrymandered state like Wisconsin or North Carolina, voters can cast ballots however they like, but whatever they choose, the party that drew the maps has locked itself into power. 

The worldview that underlies such empty democratic rituals is one of deep cynicism. Justice can’t be blind. Government is always corrupt. Science is fake. News is just propaganda. There is no shame in lying, because everyone lies. 

And none of that 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. Only power is real. 

Having invoked that cynicism, I’ll try to dispel it with a second positive example, this time from one more document out of the American canon, the Mayflower Compact, which bound together the 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 no external power can make you do. The pilgrims “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”, and work towards “the general good of the colony”. 

What they’re are saying, in other words, is that we have decided to be a People together. Rather than submit to some external authority, we commit to govern ourselves. And rather than use that government to exploit each other, we pledge to treat each other as equals and seek the common 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 committed to freedom of the press or one man one vote or trial by jury. All those abstractions only come alive when we are committed to each other, and to all the people who share 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. 

Today I’m mainly talking about American democracy and the American covenant. But an idea I want you to hold in the back of your minds is that this applies to First Parish too. For more than two years, Covid has really been doing a number on our ability to delight in each other. Our democratic processes have continued to function, but we’ve also seen how brittle they can become when they can’t be anchored in a larger consensus formed during coffee hours and potlucks and concerts, or while working together on an auction or a plant fair or a haunted house. 

All that has been restarting lately, and just in time. In a little over two months, the search committee will be introducing us to a candidate to be our senior minister. Then we’ll have decisions to make, and maybe a new era to kick off. It will be an exciting time, and it will also be challenging. 

But if we remember our covenant, stay true to each other, and take advantage of whatever opportunities we can find to delight in each other, then I’m pretty sure we’ll be OK. 

So back to America. If democracy depends on its covenant, then we need to do some hard thinking about the American covenant and how to keep it strong. Fundamentally, a covenant is two things: a group of people, and the commitment they make to each other. And so the health of our democracy depends on finding the right answers to two foundational questions: Who is an American? And what is this “America” that we have come together to form? 

The Samantha Power reading described our ritual of naturalization, through which we induct new people into our covenant. And as she makes clear, that ritual is not empty for the new Americans themselves. It’s also deeply meaningful for the people who preside; I could have offered any number of readings testifying to that. 

But one of the primary avenues of attack on our democracy is to hollow that ritual out. Too often today, we hear people talk about “real Americans”, a group of people different from (and presumably much smaller than) 
American citizens as the law defines them. The definition of a “real American” changes from one speaker to the next. Maybe you have to be white. Maybe you have to be Christian. Maybe you have to be native-born, or speak English with a certain accent. You may become less “real” if you turn out to be gay or trans or socialist. 

Once you accept this notion that some American citizens are not “real”, you are on your way to overthrowing democracy. Because how can an election be legitimate unless the legal voters make the same choice the “real” voters would make? And if they don’t, doesn’t it make sense to suppress the votes of the “unreal” Americans, or gerrymander them into districts that minimize their power, or find some loophole in the process that allows the “real” candidate to take office in spite of getting fewer legal votes? Ultimately, wouldn’t even violence be justified? 

So to defend democracy, we need to stand up for the idea that naturalization is real, the birthright citizenship promised by the 14th Amendment is real, and nothing about your sexual preference or gender identity or political philosophy makes you any less real of an American. We need to hang onto that vision of Samantha Power hugging the Hispanic woman to her left and the Russian man to her right, because “We were all Americans now.” 

To a large extent, that vision is true to our history. At the time of the Founders, the challenge was to get people to come here, not to keep them out. And so we barely had immigration laws at all until after the Civil War. 

Some people like to claim that their ancestors came here “the right way”. But there was no wrong way for my ancestors to come in the 1840s. They just showed up and survived a few years, and then they were Americans. 

What united Americans then, and has continued to unite us through the centuries, was not ethnicity or language or religion, but that vision expressed in Jefferson’s Declaration: Everyone comes to 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. Government power derives not from God or the ancestors or any other external source, but from the consent of the governed. 

As President Washington told the Hebrew Congregation of Newport: “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.” 

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 you’re as American as anybody else. 

Last week, Lisa Maria mentioned some of the metaphors Americans have used to describe this joinable covenant: a melting pot, or (as she prefers) a patchwork quilt, where immigrants keep their prior identities, but (in Samantha Power’s words) “make them American”. In the same vein, I’ve also heard America described as a tossed salad. Personally, though, I see America as a stone soup. 

Think about the mistake the villagers are making at the beginning of that story, the one the traveller tricks them out of. Each of them has a little food, but they all imagine that their own stash is the only one. And so they look at each other as mouths to feed, and not as people who might have something to offer. 

Again and again, immigrants have come to our shores looking like they have nothing. But again and again, that has turned out not to be true. They brought their talents. They brought their culture. They brought their energy. And they made it American. We haven’t always treated our immigrants well. But America at its best has always eventually realized that these aren’t just mouths to feed. These are people with something they can add to our soup. 

That unofficial American creed also goes a long way to answer the second fundamental question, to define the “America” our covenant is trying to form: 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 who defend the same freedoms we want for ourselves, but not seeking empire or dominance. 

But as I paint that patriotic picture, I can already hear the objections rising in your minds: How can we reconcile such a positive vision with the actual history of the United States? 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 reconcile it with the way we treat those who are coming to our border right now, looking for help because they have nowhere else to go? 

Those questions point to the second argument we have to win, if we are going to defend democracy: The America that defines our covenant — we can’t look for it in the past. It is a goal for our future. There is no moment we can look back to and say, “That was America. Let us make America great again.”

The America that defines our covenant is an ideal 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 the America of history has fallen short of the American ideal? 

In 1935, Langston Hughes saw the vision 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.” 

His poem laments not just his own oppression, but all the people America has failed. And yet he does not give in to cynicism, or reject the ideal of America in scorn or disgust. For Hughes, our repeated failures only reinforce his commitment 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 vision of America today in many ways that we fell short two hundred years ago, 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. 

Summing up, to keep our democracy healthy, we need to renew our commitment both to each other and to the ideal America we want to create. But how? Every day, whether you get your news from the Left or the Right, you are reminded how divided we are, how polarized. So how can we renew our covenant, even with people on the other side of the partisan gap? “Delight in each other,” John Winthrop said. That seems so distant now. 

In his recent book The Persuaders, Anand Giridharadas describes the work of a Russian internet troll farm that created countless fake American social media identities in order to influence American politics and culture. Their goal was not to convince us to support Russia, but rather to turn us against one another. 

“The troll farm … had encouraged the view, already on the rise, and not without roots in reality, that the basic activity of democratic life, the changing of minds, had become futile work. … [It] wanted Americans to regard each other as immovable, brainwashed, of bad faith, not worth energy, disloyal, repulsive.” 

That belief is easy to find today on both sides of our political divide: Our opponents are not just wrong, they are irredeemable. But I want to close by pointing out that this hardened attitude violates our Universalist tradition, which refuses to write people off just because they don’t see what we see. 

Leaders may act in bad faith, but many follow them in good faith, believing what they have been told. The solutions they ask for may be misguided, but the problems they see in their lives may still be real, and deserve our compassion. 

I know how hard it can be to look past the name-calling, trolling, and bullying to try to understand the genuine disappointments and hurts fueling that behavior. But no matter how frustrating and annoying such people may be, they are Americans, and we are in covenant with them. 

If we’re going to renew our covenant and preserve our democracy, we need to hold onto our Universalist faith that no one is beyond redemption. And that — no matter how stubborn they are or how many times they have been hoodwinked — no one is completely incapable of seeing Truth. 

Closing Words 

The closing words are by Langston Hughes 

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be

Wednesday, November 02, 2022

Democracy as a Religious Principle

presented at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois
October 30, 2022

Opening words
“We no longer claim that a genuinely religious government can be democratic, but that it cannot be otherwise.” - Abdolkarim Soroush

Responsive reading 

#594 “Principles and Purposes for All of Us”

I thought I’d start by reading you some criticisms of democracy and party politics from other times and places.

The first known usage of the phrase “Vox populi, vox dei” (The voice of the people is the voice of God.) comes from a letter the Saxon scholar Alcuin of York wrote to the Emperor Charlemagne in 800 AD,

“And those people should not be listened to who keep saying the voice of the people is the voice of God, since the tumult of the crowd is always close to madness.’

In Gulliver’s Travels, which Jonathan Swift published in 1726, a Lilliputian explains local politics:

“for about seventy moons past there have been two struggling parties in this empire, under the names of Tramecksan and Slamecksan, from the high and low heels of their shoes, by which they distinguish themselves.

“It is alleged, indeed, that the high heels are most agreeable to our ancient constitution; but, however this be, his majesty has determined to make use only of low heels in the administration of the government, and all offices in the gift of the crown, as you cannot but observe; and particularly that his majesty’s imperial heels are lower at least by a drurr than any of his court… The animosities between these two parties run so high, that they will neither eat, nor drink, nor talk with each other.”

Another Lilliputian political division could not be tolerated at all.

“It is allowed on all hands, that the primitive way of breaking eggs, before we eat them, was upon the larger end; but his present majesty’s grandfather, while he was a boy, going to eat an egg, and breaking it according to the ancient practice, happened to cut one of his fingers. Whereupon the emperor his father published an edict, commanding all his subjects, upon great penalties, to break the smaller end of their eggs.

"The people so highly resented this law, that our histories tell us, there have been six rebellions raised on that account; wherein one emperor lost his life, and another his crown. These civil commotions were constantly fomented by the monarchs of Blefuscu; and when they were quelled, the exiles always fled for refuge to that empire.

“It is computed that eleven thousand persons have at several times suffered death, rather than submit to break their eggs at the smaller end. Many hundred large volumes have been published upon this controversy: but the books of the Big-endians have been long forbidden, and the whole party rendered incapable by law of holding employments.”

Around the turn of the 20th century, journalist Lincoln Steffens toured America’s biggest cities and described the corruption of their political machines in articles that got reprinted in his 1904 book The Shame of the Cities.

“When I set out on my travels, an honest New Yorker told me honestly that I would find that the Irish, the Catholic Irish, were at the bottom of it all everywhere. The first city I went to was St. Louis, a German city. The next was Minneapolis, a Scandinavian city, with a leadership of New Englanders. Then came Pittsburg, Scotch Presbyterian, and that was what my New York friend was. ‘Ah, but they are all foreign populations,’ I heard. The next city was Philadelphia, the purest American community of all, and the most hopeless.”

Steffens found that he could not blame political corruption on any particular group, or even the politicians, who were just businessmen of a sort. The problem was the voters.

“If we would vote in mass on the more promising ticket, or, if the two are equally bad, would throw out the party that is in, and wait till the next election and then throw out the other party that is in — then, I say, the commercial politician would feel a demand for good government and he would supply it.”

But the electorate wouldn’t do that, leading Steffens to this conclusion: “The misgovernment of the American people is misgovernment by the American people.”

An election is coming up, and I’m a political blogger. So you can imagine how much I’m tempted to launch into a rabble-rousing campaign speech. I have opinions, I have a podium 
— it just seems obvious.

But I’m going to try to restrain myself, not because there’s anything wrong with talking politics in church — I’ve certainly done it before —  but because I believe that religious institutions are at their best when they offer us a chance to step back from our habitual arguments and examine issues from a broader perspective. Not just “What are we going to do these next ten days?”, but “What are we doing with our lives and why?”

So today I want to talk not just about this election, but about democracy.

Unitarian Universalism has made a religious principle out of democracy. Our Fifth Principle commits us to “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” The responsive reading we did elaborated on that: “We believe that all people should have a voice and a vote about the things which concern them.”

Such a principle may not be unique among religions. You heard in the opening words that even some Muslims more-or-less agree. But it is unusual.

Most American Christian churches make at least some claim to patriotism, so around the Fourth of July their ministers may praise our democratic system of government. But they see democracy, at best, as a very human system far inferior to living under God’s direct supervision. So the Christians who long for Jesus’ earthly return expect him to rule a Kingdom of Heaven, not ask for your support in a Republic of Heaven. They say “Jesus is Lord”, not “Jesus for President”.

That’s in line with a view of government that goes back to the earliest empires, in which legitimate authority descends from Heaven like a lightning bolt, and hits the highest point: the King, who then transmits authority down the social pyramid.

St. Paul, a Roman citizen, wrote: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.” European kings claimed to rule by the grace of God, and Chinese emperors by the will of heaven. Some rulers, like the Pharaohs, were gods themselves.

Churches have been similarly hierarchical, and many still are. God’s wisdom is revealed to a Pope or Prophet, who transmits it to bishops and priests, who pass it down to the people.

Then Gutenberg happened.

So yes, my local pastor might be one conduit for God’s wisdom to reach me. But if Bibles are cheap enough, and ordinary people can read, then we could also learn from Moses or read the words of Jesus himself. By meditating silently in my own home, I might ask God to inspire me directly, without any middleman.

Before long, Protestant sects were promoting personal communion with God as the ideal, and hearing God’s message from someone else as a second-best alternative. In time, many denominational bureaucracies have become more administrative than spiritual. They publish hymnals, vet ministers, and support missionaries in distant lands, but they don’t mediate between the individual and God.

Hierarchical political models were undermined as well. So the Declaration of Independence says that the Creator endows everyone with rights, and “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”.

In other words, what comes down from Heaven isn’t like a lightning bolt that energizes one specially privileged point, but more like rain that falls everywhere. And from the fertile soil of the People, leadership springs up.

But the down-the-pyramid model of authority has never gone away, even in America, and there’s still one obvious exception to democracy: children. We don’t let children vote, and their parents are allowed to carry them kicking and screaming out of candy stores. The consent of the governed is not required.

That exception may make practical sense. But it also creates a loophole: You can justify ruling people without their consent by arguing that they are like children to you. So slavery and colonialism were justified by the claim that non-white races are childlike, and it is the white man’s burden to look after them. Women were also seen as childlike, requiring the oversight of their fathers or husbands. Monarchy styles itself as a father-and-children relationship, which is why kings are called “sire”.

Because of these competing impulses extending the franchise to new groups of people 
has always been contentious. On the one hand, men without property, or non-whites, or women were clearly being governed, so the government should be seeking their consent. But the powers-that-be always argued that the people in question were insufficiently wise or mature    or educated or committed to the nation or to the common good. So adding them to the decision-making class would produce worse outcomes for everyone.

At times, even Americans have believed that we had taken democracy too far. Way back at the Constitutional Convention, Roger Sherman argued: “The people, immediately, should have as little to do as may be about the government. They lack information and are constantly liable to  be misled.”
Smithsonian curator Jon Grinspan’s recent book The Age of Acrimony describes the late 1800s as a time of crisis and self-doubt for American democracy, full of riots, assassinations, lynchings, corruption, and elections with dubious results. One author he cites from that era is Francis Parkman, a historian so distinguished that the Society of American Historians still awards the Parkman Prize for the best history book of the year. In 1878, not long after the disputed presidential election of 1876 had to be decided by a congressional commission, Parkman wrote an essay called “The Failure of Universal Suffrage”:

“When a man has not sense to comprehend the questions at issue, know a bad candidate from a good one, or see his own true interests — when he cares not a farthing for the general good, and will sell his vote for a dollar — when, by a native instinct, he throws up his cap at the claptrap declamation of some lying knave, and turns with indifference or dislike from the voice of honesty and reason — then his vote becomes a public pest. Somebody uses him, and profits by him.”

Present-day Americans say it with less flourish, but I often hear the same sentiments, sometimes coming out of my own mouth: “How can so many voters be taken in by such an obvious conman? How can they believe such ridiculous claims? Can we really trust our fellow citizens to make decisions that affect us?”

Someone is using them, and profiting by them.

So, understanding those concerns, how can we revere democracy as a religious principle?What does our principle even mean?

Let’s start with what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean that we worship democracy. The voice of the people is not the voice of God. So no matter how big a majority a president or party assembles, those leaders are not infallible.

The Founders were not prophets, and the Constitution is not a holy document. We had to amend it  to abolish slavery and give women the vote. And there are parts I would still like to change.

In short, Democracy in general, and American democracy in particular, is a human institution subject to human failings.
Recognizing that fact is not an indictment of democracy, because the same is true of every form of government. A king or a dictator can be foolish — look at Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. An aristocracy can be corrupt, and is often oblivious to suffering in the lower classes. A board of the most qualified experts can get something wrong and refuse to acknowledge its mistakes.

Unitarians understand that every form of government is fallible. As Winston Churchill said: “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government — except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Democracy has religious significance not because it is perfect, but because the very idea of government presents a moral problem: If some of us are going to make decisions that are binding on the rest of us, that power has to be justified in some way. It’s not enough for the decision-makers to be stronger than everyone else, or to point to a divine command no one else can hear or verify. If government is going to be binding on all of us, then our own voices and our own judgment have to be engaged somehow. “All people should have a voice and a vote about the things which concern them.”

Now, I have to do an aside here, because libertarianism offers an alternative response to the moral problem of government: Maybe all government is immoral, so we should have as little as possible. Libertarians achieve that minimization by shrinking the mission of government to the protection of life and property. And they present that option as if agreeing to the current distribution of wealth and property were not such a big thing to ask.

I’ll just point out one thing: I own no beachfront property, so every beach in the world belongs to someone else. When did I consent to that?

More seriously: Every day, people are born into the world who have no claim on any part of this planet we supposedly share. And yet, they are supposed to respect whatever property the rest of us claim. Why should they?

I believe that if we expect people to respect the property system, we owe them some stake in that system. Many years ago I described that debt to you in more detail, in a talk called “Who Owns the World?” I still don’t see any way to make good on that debt without a government far more extensive than a libertarian would countenance.

So democracy remains the best solution we have to the moral problem of government. That’s how our religious movement has wound up committed to an institutional structure that we know has flaws.

Through our other principles, we’re also committed to the value of each person, to justice, equity, and compassion, and to truth. So we don’t get to deny democracy’s flaws, or to paper over the bad things that get done in the People’s name. When Japanese-Americans are sent to detention camps, or Jim Crow laws force Black children into inferior schools, we don’t get to ignore those injustices. We don’t get to say “All the boxes of democratic process were checked, so too bad for you.”
When confronted with all the ways that democracy can lead to immoral government, our response shouldn’t be “That can’t happen” or “Too bad if it does”, but “Let’s see that it doesn’t.”

In other words — and I consider this the single biggest thing I want you to remember from  this talk — our devotion to democracy commits us to a program far beyond elections and voting. Understanding the ways democracy can fail, we need to do everything we canto make sure that it does not fail.

Some safeguards are already built into the Constitution. Democracy can fail through the tyranny of the majority, when 51% of the people feel empowered to treat the other 49% however they like. The Founders anticipated that problem, so the Constitution limits the powers of government, and the Bill of Rights, at least on paper, protects the smallest minority of all, the individual.

Democracy also fails when the majority is thwarted, when people are prevented from voting or made to jump through unnecessary hoops. Or when their votes are gerrymandered into districts that produce predictable outcomes. Or when places like the District of Columbia or Puerto Rico are denied representation because their voters are the wrong color or speak the wrong language.
Those are not just political issues, they are moral issues.

Democracy fails when large numbers of people feel that they have no stake in the system and no chance to better their lot in life. So let’s see that everyone gets a stake and a chance.  

Democracy fails if the People are ignorant, the problem Francis Parkman pointed to. So let’s see that they aren’t. That’s how our commitment to democracy turns into a commitment to education.

And not just any kind of education. Imagine you lived in a monarchy, and someone had entrusted you with the education of the future king. Would you be content to fill his head with facts, so that he could pass a multiple-choice test? Or would you teach the future sovereign to think clearly, to understand what a fact is and what it really means to know something? To tell the difference between truths supported by evidence and shapes that someone points to in the clouds? Of course you would. And if the People are to be sovereign, then that’s the kind of education we should want for everyone. All of us.

Democracy fails when the People lose faith that their hopes and fears matter or that anything can be done to address them. We can see that now in our young people, who regularly see students just like themselves gunned down in school hallways and are told that nothing can be done. Or when they foresee the potentially devastating effect climate change will have on their future and are told that it’s not a priority.

So we must not be afraid to envision bold projects and we also must not be too proud to accept achievable compromises rather than do nothing. We need to take the steps we can while never losing sight of where we need to go.

Democracy fails when the People become cynical, when they see corruption in high places and think, “That’s just how things are. If we elected someone else it would be no different.” That’s what Lincoln Steffens was pointing to in The Shame of the Cities. Officials were corrupt because their voters aimed no higher, and thought the best they could hope for was to get a share of the spoils.

We see that today, when evidence of crimes is presented in prime time, but many voters shrug, because they have convinced themselves that the other side commits crimes too. So we must always aim high, refuse to spread accusations we know are false, and never be content to wink at wrong-doing because our side benefits. Whether or not our opponents trust us, we should be trustworthy.

And yes, I recognize the temptation to do unto others what we feel has been done to us. But we also need to appreciate that democracy is not a zero-sum game. Every time moral standards slip, the cynics are proven right, and democracy itself suffers.

Finally, and most difficult of all in today’s environment: Democracy fails when the people divide into tribes, when what matters is not “What is true?” or “Who has the best plan?” or “What is our best path forward together?”, but “What side are they on?” Are they white or black? Christian or Jew? Republican or Democrat? Do they wear their heels high or low? Break their eggs from the big or small end?

I don’t mean to trivialize the differences between our political parties, which are real and important. I voted before I left Massachusetts, and all for one party. But it’s also important that our parties not become like the parties of Lilliput, who “will neither eat, nor drink, nor talk with each other”.

That doesn’t mean we have to compromise on what is true or false, right or wrong. It doesn’t mean saying “Maybe you’re right” when we don’t believe it, or ignoring crimes in high places simply to avoid riling the other side. But it does mean that we need to remember our Universalism, and refuse to write people off simply because they don’t see what we see. We need to hold onto our faith that no one is beyond redemption and that — no matter how stubborn they are or how many times they have been hoodwinked — no one is completely incapable of seeing Truth.

Leaders may act in bad faith, but many follow them in good faith, believing what they have been told. The solutions they ask for may be wrong, but the problems they see in their lives may still be real, and deserve our compassion.

I know how hard it can be to look past the name-calling, trolling, and bullying to try to understand the genuine disappointments and hurts fueling that behavior. I’m not always up to that task myself. We all have our limits and must protect ourselves from abuse. But when we close off those connections and harden our boundaries, democracy suffers.

In ten days, we’re going to have an election. It is an important election, and (as much as anyone) I hope that my side wins. But I also hope that we never lose sight of the longer view: that for democracy to succeed, ultimately the People must win.

All of us.

Closing words
“The greatest way to defend democracy is to make it work.” — Tommy Douglas

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Where Christianity Went Wrong

 presented at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois
April 24, 2022

 Listen to the audio.

Opening words: Eugene Debs

Every robber or oppressor in history has wrapped himself in a cloak of patriotism or religion, or both.

Wisdom story

This is a story Jesus told, modernized a little.

A king called some of his subjects to a meeting, and as they came in, the King’s people carefully directed some to one side of the room and some to the other. Then the King turned to the group on his right and said: “I wanted to bring you here to reward you for all the good things you’ve done for me.”

Now, these were ordinary people who seldom had interactions with the King, so one of them said, “Your majesty, it’s wonderful that you’re pleased with us, but what have we done for you?”

And the King said. “Many things. When I had no friends, you sat with me. When I had nothing, you shared with me. When I was being lied about and no one else would defend me, you did. And when bullies had made me afraid, you walked home with me.”

Of course no one interrupted the King while he was saying this. But all the while they were trading looks with each other that said: “Do you know what he’s talking about? I don’t know what he’s talking about.”

So one of them spoke up and said, “Your majesty, when were you ever friendless or poor or undefended or afraid, that we could have done these things for you?”

And the King answered: “Many people in this land are friendless or poor or undefended or afraid. Some of them are so beaten down that they may never be in a position to return the favors you do them. But they are my people, and when you are kind to them, I take it personally, as if you had been kind to me. So when you go through that door, my assistants will reward you in the ways that you deserve.”

While this was happening, the people on the other side of the room were looking at each and whispering, “The King’s in a good mood. This is great.”

But then the King turned to them with an angry expression, and he said, “I brought you here today to call you to account for the ways that you have mistreated me.”

One man was so surprised that he couldn’t restrain himself. So he said. “Your majesty, you’ve got me all wrong. I don’t know about the rest of these people, but I’ve never mistreated you. I’ve got an ‘I Heart the King’ bumpersticker on my truck. When people complain, I tell them that if they don’t appreciate living in the greatest kingdom in the world, they should move somewhere else. Nobody is as good a king’s man as me.”

But the King said, “When I had no friends, you treated me like I was invisible. When I had nothing, you made fun of me. When people spread lies about me, you retweeted them. And when bullies made me afraid, you egged them on.”

And the man said, “But you’re the King. You were never friendless or poor. You were never bullied or lacked for defenders. How could I possibly have done those things to you?”

And the King said, “Even the lowliest people in the kingdom are still my brothers and sisters. When you mistreat them, I take it personally, as if you had mistreated me. So when you go through that other door, my assistants will call you to account for what you have done.”


Like most of Jesus’ stories people interpret this one in different ways. Some think the King is Jesus himself, and that when he comes back to Earth he will be King of the World and deal out justice in exactly that way.

Others think the story is about the afterlife. The King is God, and the two doors are Heaven and Hell.

I also think the King represents God, but I give it a different spin. I think the story is telling us that even the people you least expect have a piece of God inside them. It may be easy to recognize God the King. But I think the story also wants us to recognize God the Immigrant, God the Invalid, and God the Beggar.

If we could do that, and if we could treat everyone accordingly, with respect and consideration, then maybe we wouldn’t have to wait for the end of the world or for the afterlife to experience the Kingdom of God. We could live in the Kingdom of God right here, right now.

Reading from “If God is Love, don’t be a Jerk” by John Pavlovitz

If you want a good laugh, google the phrase, “You had one job.” The results are a hilariously tragic parade of seemingly impossible fails, unfathomably poor planning, and facepalm-inducing human error: a piece of melted cheese on top of a fast-food burger bun, the word “STOP” misspelled on a street crossing, a “Keep to the Right” sign with its arrow facing left, a toilet lid inexplicably installed below the seat itself. …

As a long-time Christian by aspiration (if not always in practice), I often envision an exasperated Jesus coming back, and the first words out of this mouth to his followers as his feet hit the pavement being “You had one job: Love. So, what happened?”


If you devote much of your time to trying to make the world a better place, you’ve probably noticed a paradox. On the one hand, some of your most dedicated co-workers are probably Christians. You may not have realized it right away, because they’re not the kind of Christians who say “Praise the Lord” whenever something good happens. Rather than ask you if you’re saved or try to lead the group in prayer, they just show up and share the work: ladle the soup, stuff the envelopes, hammer the nails, make the phone calls.

Only after you spend some down time talking do you start to understand what motivates them: They think some guy named Jesus had some pretty good ideas about healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and welcoming the stranger.

But at the same time, if you pay attention to the news, it’s hard to escape the idea that Christianity is your enemy. If someone is loudly and obnoxiously working to make the world 
harsher, crueler, and less forgiving, chances are they’re waving the cross. There’s nothing subtle about it. All their rhetoric is about what God wants, what God hates, and the “Christian values” that the law should impose on Christians and non-Christians alike.

And strangest of all, those “Christian values” seldom have anything to do with healing the sick, 
feeding the hungry, or welcoming the stranger. The name of Jesus shows up in every paragraph of their rhetoric; his teachings, not so much.

Now, this talk derives from a blog post I wrote a month or so ago, which goes into a lot of detail about the contrast between the Sermon on the Mount and the issues currently being pushed by the Religious Right. But I think most of you already see that. So I’ll just sum that part up by pointing back to the wisdom story: The King in that story wasn’t interested in people’s sexual activities, or which bathroom they used. He judged people according to who they helped, and especially, how they treated people who had nothing to offer in return.

So how did “Christian values” become a code phrase for being anti-gay, anti-trans, anti-immigrant, anti-public-health, and refusing to fix (or even talk about) the continuing racism in America? How did the teachings of a man who owned nothing, and who often told people to give their possessions away, turn into a “prosperity gospel”, where God is expected to make his followers rich? How did Christian churches become hotbeds of the most malicious and baseless conspiracy theories? How did those churches become the political base for one of the least Christlike leaders this country has ever had?

Now, those are great rhetorical questions. They stir the blood and make us feel righteous just by contrast. But this morning I’m going to try to answer them. How did this happen? What is it about Christian theology, Christian habits of thought, and how Christian history has played out, that has made that faith vulnerable to such a complete reversal?

I’m going to identify seven specific points of vulnerability. But before I do that, I want to give one example that can serve as a paradigm for everything that goes wrong. The Gospel of John quotes Jesus making a very enigmatic statement: “The Father and I are one.” He doesn’t elaborate, so it’s hard to be sure what he meant.

But theologians hate to say “I don’t know.” So that one line has led to centuries and centuries of theorizing about the nature of the Trinity. At times the arguments over those theories have been so bitter that they caused violence. For example, Unitarianism’s most famous martyr, Michael Servetus, was burned at the stake in 1553 for having written a book called “On the Errors of the Trinity”. In short, people got so lost in the mystery of that one line, that they completely lost sight of loving their neighbors.

More generally, Jesus did not leave us tomes of philosophy or political theory or sociology. He never laid out a worldview or a theology. Instead, he told stories. The imagery in those stories looks like it was designed to upend the way his disciples were thinking. But he never told them step-by-step how they should think.

Mustard, for example, was the scourge of Mediterranean gardeners, because once mustard got into your garden you never got rid of it. But in one of Jesus’ stories, the Kingdom of God is a mustard seed, a weed in other words. In another story, an employer paid everyone the same, 
no matter how many hours they worked. A priest and a Levite could be bad neighbors compared to some nameless Samaritan. It was all pretty confusing.

And Jesus hinted that he didn’t expect people to understand right away. The Kingdom of God, he said, is like yeast; it works on you invisibly. His images and stories are supposed to sit in the back of your mind and ferment, not proceed logically from principles to conclusions.

And while that is a fine one-on-one spiritual teaching technique, it leaves an opening for people who do lay out systematic theologies and worldviews, and do tell people what to think. Over the centuries that opening has been exploited. A conservative worldview has built up around Jesus’ teachings and has almost completely sealed them off.

“The Father and I are one” started out as a mystery to meditate on. But eventually it  led to a dogma that people killed for.

So here are my seven weaknesses of conservative Christian theology and practice that have left Christianity vulnerable to the corruption we see today.

The first weakness is the Devil. The Devil may seem Biblical, but he really isn’t. The Bible tells us about the serpent in the Garden, the adversary of Job, the rebel angel, the tempter of Jesus, the chief of the demons Jesus casts out, and the antiChrist of Revelation. But it calls them by different names. Much later, theologians following the dualistic example of the Zoroastrians, unified those diverse characters into one single Prince of Darkness, a being powerful enough to compete with God.

In the current era, that construction has an unfortunate side effect: It makes just about any conspiracy theory plausible. Reasonable people assess a conspiracy theory by asking a series of questions: How many conspirators does the theory require? What motivates them? How did they come together? What keeps them cooperating rather than ratting each other out?

Those questions sink most conspiracy theories. But not if you believe in the Devil. The Devil doesn’t need any ordinary motive; he conspires just for the evilness of it. And the Devil has minions whom he has beguiled into fervent loyalty. They also do evil for its own sake.

Once you’ve imagined a cast of characters like that, motivated by nothing more than the desire to do evil, there is no conspiracy theory that you can’t make work. And since a well-selected conspiracy theory can explain or explain away just about anything, you’ve given yourself license to believe whatever you want.

The second weakness is Hell. Universalism envisions a unitary afterlife: We’re all going to Heaven. Various Eastern religions picture a unique afterlife for each being: You might reincarnate as anything from an insect to a god.

But the dualistic afterlife of Heaven and Hell is much more problematic than either of those alternatives for two main reasons: First, it encourages us-and-them thinking, Humanity isn’t all in the same boat. We’re in two boats one headed for Heaven and the other for Hell. 

And second, Hell makes punishment an end in itself. In the usual vision of Hell, the suffering of the damned serves no reforming purpose. Damnation is eternal, so no matter what you may learn, or how you might change, you’re never getting out. It’s punishment for punishment’s sake.  

No wonder, then, that conservative Christians offer the same solution for every social problem: Identify the bad people and punish them, preferably with extreme harshness.

The third weakness is the End Times. Polls have shown that 3/4ths of Evangelicals believe we’re living in the End Times, the period just before Jesus’ second coming at the end of the world.

Sometimes I wish the Romans had invented polling, because I suspect that if we had the data, it would show that some very large percentage of Christians have always believed they were living in the End Times. Two millennia ago, the Book of Revelation ended by quoting Jesus saying “Yes, I am coming soon.”

At its root, believing that we live in the End Times is a way of puffing ourselves up, of making our era seem uniquely important. Great stories are written about the days when the prophecies are finally fulfilled. Nobody wants to believe that they belong to one of those hundreds and hundreds of forgotten generations that pass between the prophecy and its fulfillment.

The big downside of belief in the End Times is that it justifies suspending normal reasoning processes. And this again feeds conspiracy theories. Most of us discount interpretations of events that depend on wild coincidences. But End Times believers approach the news the way the rest of us approach the final chapters of a novel. They expect diverse plot threads to start coming together. Wild coincidences are almost required.

What’s more, as the final battle of Good versus Evil approaches, the two sides should become easier to identify. So of course there’s an international conspiracy of blood-drinking pedophiles. How could there not be?

The fourth weakness is individual judgment. Supposedly, on Judgment Day, each of us will each stand alone, to meet our up or down fate according to our individual actions and beliefs. These individual rewards and punishments are supposed to right the scales of justice, once and for all.

It’s a short leap from that vision to the belief that evil is fundamentally individual. So an idea like systemic racism, or any kind of systemic injustice, has no place to take root. For believers in individual judgment, any discussion of injustice is always going to raise the question: Who is the bad person in this situation, and how should they be punished?

That’s why it’s almost impossible to have a reasonable discussion of racial justice or gender justice or oligarchy. Because the only thing Evangelicals will hear is that you want to punish White people or men or the rich. Similarly, discussions of the social roots of crime go astray, because all they hear is that you want rapists and murderers to escape punishment.

The fifth weakness is tradition. This one is not unique to Christianity. All over the world, 
traditional religion is more about tradition than about religion. Over time, the local religion (whatever it is) gets coopted to defend the privileges of the powerful, and to justify the local customs (whatever they are): We do what we do because God wants us to, and the people on top are there because God favors them. The old time religion inevitably becomes the religion that fights change.

In American history, slave owners quoted the Bible to protect their right to own other humans. Men used it to keep women in their traditional places. The lower-court judge who upheld Virginia’s law against interracial marriage wrote that the Lord God created the races and intended them to stay separate.

Today, people say “Christian values” when they really mean “traditional values”. White supremacy, male privilege, persecuting gays, insisting on binary gender roles — those are very traditional in America. But they’re not Christian, at least not if Christianity is defined by the teachings of Jesus.

The sixth weakness is autocracy. Jesus never wrote down his political theory, and we’re still arguing over what he meant by “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” But Christianity is full of royal imagery. God is King of the Universe, and when Jesus returns he will be King of the World. Jesus’ disciples imagined that he would restore the Kingdom of David, and they argued about who would get the top jobs.

Democracy and human rights are not part of that vision. They are human institutions that will be swept away in the next world. So why not sweep them away sooner? God knows better than any human being, so why shouldn’t we all be ruled by men who know what God wants?

The seventh weakness is denial. Christianity and science had been skirmishing for centuries. But by the beginning of the 20th century, many Christians thought the situation was dire. Geology had discovered that the world was far older than Genesis implied, and evolution directly contradicted the Genesis account of God shaping Adam from dust.

It was time to draw a line in the sand, and that line was fundamentalism: The Bible was literally true in every detail, and any evidence otherwise had to dismissed somehow.

But there’s a problem with that strategy: Genesis really is wrong, and the more you study the scientific evidence, the more obvious it becomes. There’s no way to defend Genesis as a literal account of scientific facts while maintaining your intellectual integrity.

So fundamentalism jettisoned its integrity. I saw this first-hand growing up at St. James and for years afterwards. I’m still seeing it today. The most absurd pseudo-scientific arguments have been written into pamphlets and textbooks, and if they come to the “right” conclusion — that Genesis is true — fundamentalists are supposed to believe them.

When people compromise their integrity, they rarely think they’re setting a precedent, but they usually are. Here, the precedent was that Christians could support each other in believing something blatantly false if they wanted to believe it badly enough. It’s OK to twist facts and logic any way you need to in order to reach the desired result.

Now, I want to point out that this kind of denial is different from having faith in events that don’t fit inside a scientific model, like Jesus walking on water. The problem here isn’t that fundamentalists believe in something that science can’t explain. It’s that science actually explains the situation quite well, but fundamentalists don’t want to believe it.

Once you make that OK, you’ve built a hole into your reasoning processes. And it’s naive to think that you’re going to control what passes through it.

A hundred years later, we can see the results. Intellectual and political hucksters and flim-flam artists of all sorts have taken advantage of fundamentalists, often in ways that have little to do with the Jesus or the Bible. Fundamentalist churches have become centers of climate-change denial and Covid denial, as well as hotbeds of Q-anon conspiracy thinking.

Right here in Quincy, over on Broadway, a billboard says that a fetus has a heartbeat at 18 days. No it doesn’t, and it’s not at all Christian to lie like that.
Rose-colored views of American history — where the Founders are latter-day prophets, slavery wasn’t really so bad, and the Native American genocide shouldn’t be examined too closely — have become articles of faith among White Evangelicals. None of it stands up to scrutiny, but they want to believe it, so they do.

The last time I spoke to this group, I told you that Unitarians are precisely the people who can’t believe whatever they want. This is what I meant. Like all humans, we are tempted by motivated reasoning and fooled by confirmation bias. But we don’t get to deny science and logic outright, and we don’t get to patch the holes in our beliefs by making up conspiracy theories.

When you hear a list of vulnerabilities like the one I just gave, you might wonder why we’re talking about Christianity at all. What good can come from it? Maybe we should just write the whole religion off, and close our minds whenever someone mentions Jesus or the Bible.

But then I come back to the kinds of Christians I mentioned at the beginning, the ones who find in Christianity the motivation to keep doing the work, like Jimmy Carter still pounding nails for Habitat well into his 90s.

I’m not entirely sure how that motivation works, but I suspect it has little to do with Heaven and Hell, or the end of the world, or tradition, or the idea that Genesis teaches good science.

When I try to find something motivating or inspiring in the faith I was raised in, I keep coming back to that enigmatic phrase: the kingdom of God.

I don’t think all the odd things Jesus said about the kingdom of God explain anything, but they are evocative, at least to me. What they evoke is not hope for some future theocracy, or for a better life after death, but for a different kind of common sense here and now.

The metaphor I use is the sound barrier. Air flows differently on the other side of the sound barrier. There’s nothing magical about it, it’s just that the air-flow equations have a second solution, one we hadn’t known about before.

Maybe common sense also has a second solution, one that doesn’t revolve around scarcity, anxiety, and conflict. Maybe it could be common sense to treat each other with respect and kindness, to offer help freely, and to trust that help will be there when we need it. Maybe that second realm of common sense exists wherever two or more people decide to deal with each other according to its odd logic. Maybe that realm could become much, much larger.

And that possibility, I find, really is like yeast. If you let it sit in the back of your mind, who knows what might rise?


Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Renewing My Unitarian Universalism

 presented in a Zoom session of the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois
January 23, 2022

First Reading

In his 1915 novel Of Human Bondage, William Somerset Maugham wrote: 

A Unitarian very earnestly disbelieves in almost everything that anybody else believes. And he has a very lively sustaining faith in he doesn’t quite know what.

Second Reading

In 2012,  April Fools Day fell on a Sunday. So Rev. Erika Hewitt preached a sermon on UU jokes. She started out by telling a few:

Each religion has its own Holy Book: Judaism has the Torah, Islam has the Koran, Christianity has the Bible, and Unitarian Universalism has Roberts' Rules of Order.

But eventually she raises the same issue Maugham had poked at almost a century before:

Our tolerance – or penchant – for ambiguous theology intersects with what I believe is the most egregious UU stereotype: that we are a faith with no core religious message.

When it comes to defining who we are as an Association and what we believe as individuals, our answers rarely satisfy.

Question: What happens when you cross a UU with a Jehovah's Witness?
Answer: They knock on your door, but they have no idea why!

We’re even mocked on “The Simpsons.” On one episode, the Simpson family attends a church ice cream social, where Lisa is impressed by the choice of ice cream available. “Wow,” she raves, “look at all these flavors! Blessed Virgin Berry, Command-Mint, Bible Gum....”
“Or,” Reverend Lovejoy says, “if you prefer, we also have Unitarian ice cream.” He hands Lisa an empty bowl. “There’s nothing here,” says Lisa. “Exactly,” says Lovejoy.

But by the end of her sermon, Hewitt isn’t laughing any more:

There comes a point, for me, at which jokes like these cease to be funny by virtue of their volume and ubiquity — and the truth that they hold. Isn’t it so, after all, that we continue to define ourselves by who we aren’t rather than who we are? Isn’t it true we’re rendered tongue-tied when friends or co-workers ask us, “What do UU’s believe?” …

I don’t want our distinguished liberal religious movement to be portrayed as an empty bowl. … I don’t want to belong to a faith where you can believe anything you want, and change your mind anytime you need to. Our beliefs will change throughout our lives; we’re never “done” learning. But religious faith is not disposable. I don’t want to be laughed at; I want to co-create a faith that garners respect.

Third Reading

One sign of old age is when you start using your own writings as readings. It’s an admission that your past has become so distant that your own memory of it should no longer be trusted. If you wrote something down at the time, that’s probably more accurate.

This reading is taken from a column I wrote for UU World called “At My Mother’s Funeral”. My mother died in 2011. The funeral was at Hansen-Spear, and I came back to Quincy for it. Mom had chosen all the elements of the service herself, so it reflected her Christian belief that death is just the beginning of eternal life in Heaven. I had trouble relating to that.

Here’s what I wrote afterwards:

Whether anyone else in the room was harboring secret doubts or not, I felt alone in facing the possibility that death is final, that I will never see my mother again, that our interrupted conversations will never be finished, and that all the things we didn’t understand about each other will never be understood.

Somewhere in the middle of those reflections, I almost laughed at myself: “Wait a minute,” I thought. “I’m the Unitarian Universalist in the room. I’m supposed to be the one who can believe whatever he wants!”

Over the years I’ve probably heard a dozen UU ministers’ explanations of why the old saw “Unitarian Universalists can believe whatever they want” isn’t quite right. But until that moment at Mom’s funeral, I had never grasped how exactly backwards it is. Unitarian Universalists are precisely the people who can’t believe whatever they want.

The image of Mom in heaven — young and vibrant again, seeing everything, hearing everything, skipping gaily about on two perfect legs — how could anyone not want to believe that?

The vision of heaven itself — a perfect place where all loved ones will reunite, and all pains and doubts and disagreements will be revealed as the illusions they always were: I don’t want to reject it, I just can’t sustain it. Like a multistory house of cards, it always collapses before I can get it finished. …

The old religious authorities taught … [that] people needed someone or something to keep their beliefs in line. Otherwise they’d believe all kinds of frivolous, self-serving, and wish-fulfilling things.

But is frivolity, self-service, and wish fulfillment what Unitarian Universalism is about? Is that what I was doing at the funeral?

No, quite the opposite. Today’s Unitarian Universalists continue to be free of external discipline, but the point is to be self-disciplined, not un-disciplined. We’re the people who take responsibility for disciplining our own beliefs.

Like any other responsibility, religious responsibility is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, my beliefs feel more straightforward and authentic because I haven’t twisted them to fit some external authority’s template. But on the other, I am cut off from the comforts of frivolous, self-serving, and wish-fulfilling beliefs, because no one can authorize them for me.


Coming of Age. Every year, if we have enough interested kids of the right ages, my church (First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts), offers a "Coming of Age" class. Starting in September, our teens explore what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist. They learn UU history, do service projects, hear what famous UUs have said about the big questions, and interview members of the congregation. And then in May, the program culminates in a service that turns the traditional Protestant confirmation ritual upside-down.

When I was confirmed at St. James in 1970, my classmates and I had to demonstrate that we understood the teachings of the Lutheran church, and in the spring we solemnly affirmed to the whole congregation that we agreed with them.

A UU coming-of-age service, by contrast, focuses on the young people’s beliefs, not the congregation’s. One by one, they stand in the pulpit and present a personal credo. In other words, they preach to us about their deepest convictions.

It’s always an engaging service, largely because there’s no predicting what you’ll hear. One of the teens might believe in reincarnation, another is inspired by Zen, and a third is a hard-core rationalist. Some are optimists and others pessimists. Some think the purpose of life is to pursue happiness, while others focus on serving others. Some want to create beauty; others want to acquire knowledge and solve problems.

My Lutheran confirmation was about pledging to remain steadfast in the common faith, a promise that I was unable to keep. If anyone had realized at the time how much my beliefs would change in the next few years, and keep changing for decades after, I imagine that thought would have depressed them. It would have undermined the meaning of the whole ritual.

But the adults who attend our UU coming-of-age service look back on our own religious journeys, and anticipate that the beliefs we’re hearing will change. Ten years down the road, the young man who tells us about reincarnation may not remember why he said that. The young woman who intends to center her life on pursuing happiness may someday come to a place where happiness seems impossible. She may need to find inside herself a grit and determination that has little to do with happiness, but that will see her through to a time when happiness once again becomes a viable goal.

But anticipating those changes doesn’t make the service any less moving or inspiring, because we understand the commitment that the young people are really making. They aren’t pledging to believe these things for the rest of their lives, a promise they would almost certainly break. Rather, they’re committing to take responsibility for their beliefs.

Alone up there in the pulpit, they can’t hide behind their parents or the church or a creed or a holy book or even God. They are announcing: “At this moment, this is how I choose to approach my life. And if those choices have consequences, they’re on me.” 

It’s a brave thing to do.

Watching young people construct their own version of Unitarian Universalism always makes me want to reconstruct mine. And that’s what I want to talk about today: How my own beliefs have had to change, not just until I became a UU, but since I became a UU.

Freedom and responsibility. Probably the most significant thing I’ve had to reevaluate about my faith is the centrality of freedom. Our Fourth Principle affirms “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning”. But when I was becoming a UU in the 1980s, freedom got way more emphasis than responsibility. The most important feature of UUism then wasn’t a presence, it was an absence: No one would tell you what you had to think. (That’s why we might have appeared from the outside to have a lively, sustaining faith in we know not what.)

That emphasis made sense for the kind of world I grew up in, where my family, my church, the teachers at St. James school, and American culture itself were all trying to imprint Christianity on me. To me, the outside world seemed like a unified oppressive force trying to squelch my capacity for independent thought.

Saying “no” to that, saying “I am going to live by the faith I actually have, rather than the faith everyone tells me I ought to have” was a revolutionary act. And I saw that revolution as a precondition for everything else. Until I had staked out and defended my spiritual and intellectual independence, it didn’t even matter what I believed in my heart of hearts. Because if I’m going to spend my life reciting the Apostles Creed, and pretending to believe it, who even cares what I really think?

But the kids in our coming of age classes don’t live in that world. And while some young people do still grow up in oppressive religious environments, that’s no longer the general experience of American society.

Yes, conservative Christians still aspire to dominance, and try to make laws that impose their faith on the rest of us. But that effort gets increasingly desperate every year. They need the power of government now, and especially the power of unelected judges, because they lost the battle for the larger culture long ago.

For most young Americans today, and particularly for those who have grown up UU, the outside world does not feel like a monolithic force trying to control their minds. It’s more like a desert or even a vacuum. The threat outside the walls of the church is not that some Eye of Sauron will dominate them, it’s that they will wander out there and get lost in the trackless waste where nothing is true and nothing is known and nothing is more important than anything else. When you find yourself in a trackless waste, no one needs to remind you that you are free to go any direction you want. What needs to be affirmed is that there are places worth going, and some hope of getting there.

In the current environment, it can actually be dangerous to tell people that they can believe whatever they want, because look around — lots of people are doing precisely that, to an extent that the UUs of the 1980s never imagined.

Do you want to believe that your candidate won the election when every method of counting the votes says that he lost? Go for it. Do you want to believe that Covid is a global conspiracy? Why not? Do you want to believe that your political opponents are blood-drinking, child-abusing Satanists? Or reptilian aliens? It’s up to you. There are no facts, just “I want to believe this and you want to believe that.”

That kind of freedom isn’t what Unitarian Universalism is about, or has ever been about. When our kids consider what they mean by the word “God”, and discuss whether such a God exists, they’re doing something very different from the QAnon folks who assure each other that JFK Jr. is going to return from his apparent death and lead them in a bloody counter-revolution.

The difference is in the responsible part of our free and responsible search. Our beliefs aren’t just for our own entertainment. If we hold our beliefs responsibly, they change how we live. And if we live actively, the effects of those beliefs go out into the world, benefiting some people and perhaps harming others. And we’re responsible for those benefits and harms. It’s on us.

Wanting to believe. Think about climate change. Do I want to believe that the planet is getting warmer, and that rising temperatures will have devastating effects unless we all make serious changes? Of course not. If I could snap my fingers and make that not be true, I would. You all would.

Am I free to deny global warming? I suppose so. If I say it’s all a hoax, and start living as if burning fossil fuels isn’t a problem, nobody’s going to punish me. But I’m not just free, I’m responsible. Living that way has consequences, and I have to take those consequences seriously.

Or think about privilege. I benefit from a long list of privileges. I’m White, male, heterosexual, cisgender, native born, neurotypical, English speaking, and professional class. I’m not just educated, I got my education at a time when it was cheaper, so I didn’t have to pile up student debt.

Do I want to acknowledge all those unearned advantages? Not at all. I want to say that everything I have comes entirely from my own talent and hard work. And I’m free to say that. But to the extent that I promote the myth that the world is already just, the continuing injustice becomes my responsibility.

In a world dominated by oppressive belief systems, the most important thing about Unitarian Universalism is the freedom it offers to develop your own conscience and pursue your own goals. But in American society as I see it today, the most important thing to emphasize is the responsibility of our search.

By contrast, much of what passes for religion in America today enables irresponsibility. Too many churches are like money-laundering banks. They shield their members from the ugly consequences of self-serving beliefs.

Imagine, for example, that I am a young man looking for a wife. If I tell the women I meet that I intend to dominate, and that after we are married, I will decide what she can and can’t do with her life, I sound like a jerk.

But suppose I say instead that my church believes in the traditional family. God has a plan for us all, and that plan has separate lanes for men and women. The content and consequence of those beliefs are exactly the same, but my responsibility for them vanishes. Now I’m not a jerk, I’m a man of faith. And if being dominated doesn’t make you happy, don’t blame me, blame God.

Or suppose that I want to persecute gays and lesbians, or maintain White supremacy. I don’t have to account for damage those ideas do. I can find a church that holds those beliefs for me, one that emphasizes the parts of the Bible I like, and interprets them in ways that please me. And suddenly I am no longer hateful, I’m just devout. I make the choices, but God bears the responsibility.

Unitarian Universalism doesn’t provide that service. It won’t launder the dirty consequences of your ideas and leave you spotless. If your beliefs cause harm in the world, that’s on you. It’s not the church or some prophet or priest. It’s not a creed or a holy book, and it’s certainly not God. It’s you. This is a faith for people who take responsibility.

On the elevator. One of the exercises we always have the coming-of-age students do is to write an elevator speech. The idea is that you’re on an elevator when someone asks you what your religion is all about. What can you manage to say about UUism before the doors open and you go your separate ways?

UUs are particularly bad at this exercise, because we always want to include a few more caveats and nuances. In all the times I’ve been involved with coming of age, I’ve never come up with an elevator speech I liked.

Until now. Here it is: 

Unitarian Universalists take responsibility for disciplining our own beliefs so that they are factual, reasonable, just, and kind. We will not stop learning, growing, and changing until we become the people the world needs.

Credo. Having come this far, I might as well close by completing the coming-of-age exercises and presenting my credo. So far I’ve mainly talked about how UUs believe, and haven’t said much about the content of my personal beliefs.

So here it goes: This what I believe.

I believe that the Universe is far bigger and more intricate than human minds can grasp, and that we deal with that deficiency by telling stories. But the Universe is not a story, so we will never get it completely right. Nonetheless, I constantly try to improve my stories by testing them against observable facts, and changing them when they conflict.

I judge right and wrong by human standards. Things are good or bad according to how they affect people and other conscious beings, and not because some book or institution says so.

I give precedence to the things I know, rather than the things I merely imagine. So while I sometimes have intuitions about higher intelligences or what might happen after death, I hold those beliefs so lightly that they have little effect on my actions.   

I believe meaning is something that stories have, and so I look for a meaningful life by striving to tell a meaningful life story. A meaningful story has to be credible, which is why integrity is so important; I believe in trying to be the person I say I am.

A good story evokes awe and wonder, so it is important that I find and create beauty in my life. The variety of beauty I personally resonate with most is the beauty of knowledge and ideas, which is why I put so much effort into understanding what is happening around me. Other people resonate primarily with other forms of beauty, and that’s fine. We don’t all need to be the same.

A story is more convincing when it is shared, when many people tell similar stories about similar things. And so it is important that I not be the only significant character in my story. I want to share my life with others, and to live in a community of people who care about and appreciate each other. 

Nothing undoes the beauty of a story quite so effectively as a sense of hidden evil, of questions that we dare not ask and doors that we dare not open, lest all that hidden ugliness spill out. And so I believe in justice. I believe in looking squarely at the evil in the world and trying to fix it, rather than hiding it away and pretending it’s not there.

And finally, I believe I’m going to die, probably at some unpredictable moment, and that everyone I care about will die someday as well. Any organizations I might join will someday fail. Cultures will change. Civilizations will collapse. And ultimately the Universe itself will go cold. So the satisfaction invoked by my life story can’t depend on a happy ending.

Fortunately, it doesn’t need to. I don’t need a story that lasts forever, I only need one I that stays meaningful until I die, and that is not undone by the prospect of my death. In other words, I need my story to be part of a larger story that will continue past my death in the stories of others, in the story of my community, and in the larger story of the struggle to understand the world and achieve justice. That is the kind of life I am trying to live and the story I am trying to tell.

And you? That’s me. But this is Unitarian Universalism, so you are free to disagree with any of that. Nonetheless I invite and encourage all of you to examine your own lives, your own stories, and your own beliefs.

Deciding who you’re going to be is not just a job for teen-agers. Periodically throughout our lives, I think, we need to renew our sense of who we are, how we’re going to live, and what we think about the world we live in.

I wish you well in your free and responsible search for truth and meaning.