Preaching Politics


It was 1917, and America was at war. Most Unitarians were for it, including the moderator of the American Unitarian Association, former U.S. president William Howard Taft. But some were not, and this minority included John Haynes Holmes, minister of one of our most prominent churches of the time. “War,” said the Rev. Holmes, “is never justifiable under any circumstances. And this means . . . for me—and for myself only can I speak—that never will I take up arms against a foe. And if, because of cowardice or madness, I do this awful thing, may God in his anger strike me dead, ere I strike dead some brother from another land!”

This was his anti-war activism. 100% anti. And he feared it would cost him his job, in his church where the majority was politically conservative. But he preached it from the pulpit nevertheless. On the Sunday morning he did that, the response was stunned silence. Could’ve heard a pin drop. He left the pulpit, thinking he’d never be able to return. The next day President Woodrow Wilson requested from Congress a declaration of war on Germany. That very evening the board of John Haynes Holmes’ church met to respond to their minister’s anti-war stance. They took two votes. One was to unanimously condemn his position, declaring it dangerous, “wrong-headed,” even treasonous. The other, also unanimous, was that, wrong-headed or not, their minister, John Haynes Holmes, had the obligation and the right to speak his mind. He was their minister, and their minister he would remain.

This is a beautiful moment in our history, a great example of our 500+ year old tradition of the freedom of the pulpit and the freedom of the pew.

It’s also a moment of high tension, suggestive of the many risks in preaching politics.

And not just in situations of the minister preaching to congregants, but also in situations of congregant-to-congregant-and-back-again preaching. You don’t have to be a minister to have something to say, for example, about the time He Who Shall Not Be Named tweeted, “It’s freezing outside, where the [heck] is global warming??” (Which is like saying, “I ate today, where the [heck] is world hunger??”)

Whoever is doing the preaching, when politics are at issue, it’s risky. That’s what I want to talk about today. And I trust that the reasons are already clear why we would take the risk to begin with. Despite the fact that politics for many people is a less popular topic than root canals or head lice, we take the risk and plunge headfirst because politics has to do with how communities give abstract concepts like freedom and justice concrete expression, in the form of practices and laws. The French writer Charles Peguy once said, “Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics.” And it ought to be so. We can preach “inherent worth and dignity” mysticism all day long, for example, but if we aren’t addressing things like the Georgia Legislature’s recent so-called Liberty Bill (which was really an attempt to legalize discrimination against people who are LGBTQ), well, what good are we? “Justice is what love looks like in public,” says Cornel West. If we’re going to be Love people, we have to be Justice people.

So we take the risks in preaching politics.

Therefore, let us be wise. Forces are unleashed through political speech that is activist, aspirational, and individualist. Patterns are triggered, and if we are unaware of what’s going on, we can get sucked into something ugly.

Start with political speech that is activist. In the larger world we hear pro vs. anti- ways of framing things all the time. Pro stances are activist visions of where we want to go; whereas anti- stances are activist visions of what we want to abolish, visions of oppressive things that are preventing us from getting to a better place.

We hear both kinds of visions in political speech, and we can also hear a decided preference for one over the other, as in this quote from no less a figure than Mother Theresa: “I was once asked why I don’t participate in anti-war demonstrations. I said that I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I’ll be there.” Anti- feels negative and therefore unhelpful. Focus on the anti- and the fear is that what comes back to you is just more anti-. But pro- gives us a path forward, a strategy, a plan.

This is the sort of argument another 20th century saint heard all the time. I’m referring to Dr. King. He speaks to this at length in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. “I must confess,” he writes, “that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White citizens’ ‘Councilor’ or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.’”

Dr. King was decidedly anti-racist. He saw his anti-racist activism as “a positive peace which is the presence of justice,” and he argued for it against what he describes variously as “a devotion to order” and a “preference for a negative peace which is the absence of tension.” Clearly, Dr. King felt that an exclusively pro-position was vastly unhelpful and incomplete—“negative,” in fact.

But why?

Because it makes him an invisible man. Nothing of the real things he struggles with as a black person are included in the so-called pro- position which the white moderates favor. Just read the long passage that precedes his expression of frustration toward those white moderates. In that long passage, he itemizes all sorts of bad things that white people never experience but black people experience all the time. He says, “When you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tip-toe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’ – then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over.”

Dr. King was anti-racist because he wanted his political activism to reflect his real experience in the world, the bad things that he very definitely wanted to abolish and, unless he did so, he’d stay stuck in the mud and the muck and simply not be capable of stepping forward into a better life. This is the difference between his activism and that of the white moderates, for whom an exclusive pro- vision made perfect sense because (where racism is concerned) their lives were untouched, they weren’t the ones suffocating, they weren’t the ones being crushed.

But some things have to stop in order for other things to go.

And some of us know this more intimately and completely than others.

Unless we acknowledge this diversity in the room, the very same people that good-intentioned whites want to help will feel left out or talked down to. They will be rendered invisible—and this by the very folks who are supposed to be their friends! It’s a horrible pattern to get sucked into, and it creates ugliness everywhere it happens.

When someone’s activism is anti-, it’s helpful to assume that there’s a real story behind it. Pro- is of course important, but not everyone can take the same path to it. Yes to Mother Theresa. But let’s also remember Dr. King and his Letter from Birmingham Jail.

Oh, it’s risky preaching politics. Forces are unleashed, patterns are triggered.

Consider a second way of preaching politics. Here, the speech is not so much activist as aspirational. The speech is about being “a city on a hill” or “a light among nations.” Do you recognize such language? It’s what America has always said about itself. We have a special destiny to fulfill in the world. We are exceptional.

Which is why political writer E. J. Dionne says, “Fear of decline is one of the oldest American impulses.” It’s imposter syndrome fear. It’s everywhere around us, in this election season. Millions of people are wearing hats that say, “Make America Great Again.” Millions of people feel the country has fallen and they are rallying around that call to action.

Political speech that is aspirational has this shadow effect, and not just in the nation. The shadow can settle upon religious communities like ours as well, since we are deeply American in our aspirations.

I was reminded of the shadow effect several years ago at a Unitarian Universalist General Assembly. During the opening plenary, outgoing UUA President Bill Sinkford (this was a while ago!) reviewed the highlights of his administration’s achievements, and part of this included a recitation of injustice after injustice in the world, which he enjoined the Unitarian Universalist community to address. Then, during the opening worship that followed, he spoke of truth and reconciliation and formally apologized to representatives of local Indian tribes for what we did in the 19th century: our complicity (bumbling though it was) in the U. S. government’s initiative to “civilize” the indigenous tribes of Utah and elsewhere.

Now by no means do I think that such an apology was unnecessary. By no means do I think that the evils of the world should go unchecked. But something happened for me in that moment. The whole thing suddenly struck me as overly solemn, as overly earnest, as going overboard in the direction of self-critique and a sense of responsibility.

The fear, constantly, is that we are falling short and we must do more, we must do everything. It is America’s fear, and it is our fear as a deeply American faith.

So we must be overachievers, in the lead attacking every social ill. Theologically, it’s not enough to become familiar with one world religious tradition—we’ve got to know them all, in addition to every liberal art and every science. Our dreams have got to be the biggest.

And if we are going to do “diversity,” well, then, we’re going to do Noah’s Ark diversity. We’re going to gather two of every possible kind within our walls—two mosquitoes, two polar bears, two jellyfish, two alligators—and when we look around and see something missing, well, we self-flagellate. How bad we are! Fact is, we are aspiring to do something only a God could do. Only a God could gather two mosquitoes, two polar bears, two jellyfish, two alligators, and two of every other kind of thing in one place and make it work. This God I’m talking about is exactly the sort of God that most of us don’t even believe in. Yet, unconsciously, in all our aspirationalism, we are demanding that mere mortals like ourselves step up and perform like Him.

Now maybe this is my unpopular John Haynes Holmes message for the day. Yet every time I hear a key Unitarian Universalist voice reciting a litany of all the evils in the world, together with the message that we’ve just got to DO something, I feel the weight of what I want to call the Unitarian Universalist superego, which, ironically, can reduce our enthusiasm for bringing healing to the world rather than inspire it. Its effect can be counter-productive. Is does not help. It casts a shadow over our real desires to be a Justice people.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. That’s what I really want to say. Just bring awareness to it. The fear of falling short manifests when we are trying to do too many things. The imposter syndrome fear manifests when folks pick our Beloved Community apart and don’t see that the good things outnumber the bad 100 to 1.

I love this faith. We ARE a “city on a hill” religion, a “light among nations” religion. And I also believe, fervently, that we can be all this and still pace ourselves and still enjoy. I go back, again and again, to the surly waitress image that my colleague the Rev. Meg Barnhouse summons up, as a reminder to pick your battles: “In my life,” she says, “I have certain things to take care of: my children, my relationships, my work, myself, and one or two causes. That’s it. Other things are not my table. I would go nuts if I tried to take care of everyone, if I tried to make everybody do the right thing. If I went through my life without ever learning to say, ‘Sorry, that’s not my table, Hon,’ I would burn out and be no good to anybody. I need to have a surly waitress inside myself that I can call on when it seems that everyone in the world is waving an empty coffee cup in my direction. My Inner Waitress looks over at them, keeping her six plates balanced and her feet moving, and says, ‘Sorry, Hon, not my table.’”

How healing, to hear this. Makes for a saner way. Political speech that is aspirational can encourage hyper self-criticism and fear of failure, and the shadow pattern can emerge here in our midst. Patterns in the larger world are patterns here.

And now, a third and last pattern to be mindful of. Political speech that is individualistic, as in “Don’t tread on me.” Now this is language from a Revolutionary War flag, and it reflects an individualistic mentality that doesn’t want to feel the burden of other people’s opinions and other people’s needs. The mentality is “I go my way, and you go yours.”

It’s why Americans typically prefer to complain anonymously to police when troubled by neighbors rather than risk face-to-face confrontation. Face-to-face confrontation implies taking a superior attitude which breaks the 11th Commandment which is Thou Shalt Not Judge. But political conversations break the 11th Commandment all the time. Someone says something political, and if we disagree, the instant response is to feel tread upon. Or we may agree but imagine our neighbor’s disagreement, and the mere imagination of that makes us feel terribly uncomfortable….

If I have ever said something politics-related in this pulpit, and you felt I was being too pointed, too in-your-face….

If this congregation has ever tried to take a collective stand about something, and you felt that doing so was way out of line with Unitarian Universalism’s emphasis on freedom of individual conscience….

If so, then you are in touch with the libertarian “don’t tread on me” instinct that is deep in America and deep in our American faith.

Which is why I can’t possible say that your feelings are wrong. Can’t do that.

But what is fair to say is that to be an American is to live within the tension of competing impulses. On the one hand is “don’t tread on me”; on the other hand is “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” On the one hand is individualism; on the other hand is community. From the very beginning of this nation and of our own faith, values of individuality and community have both been in play—and in creative tension with each other.

Bill Clinton memorably illustrated this by asking people to take a penny out of their pocket. “On one side,” he’d say, “next to Lincoln’s portrait is a single word: “Liberty. On the other side is our national motto. It says ‘E Pluribus Unum’—‘Out of Many, One.’ It does not say ‘Every man for himself.’”

That’s the coin of our American realm, and it’s the coin of this Beloved Community realm as well. It means that as a country and as a faith tradition, we have to give “don’t tread on me” its due, and we also have to understand that that’s not the whole story. A competing value is equally important. Democracy. Our Fifth Principle as Unitarian Universalists.

That is why, in America, we form political parties, we form interest groups, we compromise on little things to get to the big things, no one gets their own way. That is why, in this congregation, we discuss and debate, we strive to hear different points of view and express our own, we take stands. Democracy is how we get things done as a people. And we get what we work for. As individuals, if we hang back, stay in our “don’t tread on me” shells and refuse to be a part of the process, well, it’s just like the situation with Obama’s choice for the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland. It’s shameful. The whole system is jammed because some people don’t want to play by the rules of democratic governance.

I’m preaching politics today. We are preaching politics to each other. Doesn’t matter that root canals or head lice can be more popular topics. Justice is what Love looks like in public. We are a love and justice people. And America is in our blood. We Unitarian Universalists did not invent the language of pro- and anti- or “a city on a hill” or “don’t tread on me,” but they nevertheless affect us deeply and we must be careful.

The story of John Haynes Holmes, despite being intense, ended sweetly, and we want the same for ourselves.