In Democracy We Trust
October 3, 2004
Jane A. Page
Earlier this year, our distinguished program chair, Al Raulerson, and I were discussing possible programs for the upcoming year. I shared with him that for at least a couple of my sermons I might continue the series that I had begun last year – focusing on our shared UU principles. And since this was an election year, I suggested that I might do something on the 5th principle – the one about democracy on this particular Sunday.
I must tell you that several times I thought about calling Al and suggesting that we substitute another topic or perhaps even get someone else to speak today. And I even changed the title from “Our 5th Principle” to “In Democracy we Trust?” – with a question mark. I shared my hesitation with Greg. He responded with a quote from Winston Churchill. “(D)emocracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
SO, I disciplined myself to continue my reading and writing and I stand before you today with a message on our 5th principle.
Too late to back out now.
The beginning was easy – simply restate the principle. And here it is.
Unitarian Universalist’s 5th Principle states that we covenant to affirm and promote –
The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.
Now UU’s promotion of the right of conscience seems a “given” to me. As UU minister Jane Thickston notes, “Conscience is the part of us we trust to guide us right, to guide us to do right. As Unitarian Universalists we trust the individual conscience above all other authority in (not only) determining religious truth, . . . but in all walks of life.” Thickston goes on to say that the conscience “could be called the voice of reason, the voice of God, that ‘still small voice’ that can be hard to hear if we fill our lives with too much noise.”
And most of us realize that we not only need to listen to our own “still small voice” but to the still small voices of others as well. And perhaps that is where the democratic process comes in. But isn’t the democratic process just a man-made form of governance? Should it be a spiritual principle?
As I began to explore and read more about democracy, I became even more ambivalent. The ongoing world events did not help me in my quest either. As I was preparing for this sermon, we passed the 1000 mark in troups dead in their quest to “bring democracy” to Iraq. Something was wrong here.
And what about the whole process of elections! Our last Presidential election left a bad taste in my mouth. And the current campaigns haven’t been very appealing to me. Isn’t this a very flawed way of determining our leaders? Listen to what others, past and present, have to say about this?
Essayist Agnes Repplier said:
“Democracy forever teases us with the contrast between its ideals and its realitites, between its heroic possibilities and its sorry achievements.”
From the Australian social scientist Alex Carey:
“. . . the 20th century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance: The growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.”
Newspaper Editor and Social Critic M. L. Menchken:
“Democracy is only a dream: it should be put in the same category as Arcadia, Santa Claus, and Heaven.”
Menchken also remarked:
“Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.”
But then – Economic Philosopher and Writer Stuart Chase believed:
(quote) – “Democracy, as has been said of Christianity, has never really been tried.”
And Thomas Jefferson said:
“A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine.”
One of our members said something similar to me a couple of weeks ago during our refreshment break after hearing that my next sermon would be on democracy. He pointed out that with our two party system, the winner is supreme victor – even if only winning by a small percentage. There is no accountability to the voices of the minority (or the majority in the case of the last election).
Perhaps that possibility led to our “forefathers” quickly adding the Bill of Rights to the Constitution.
Some of those same forefathers were Unitarians or Universalists who had developed a faith in the authority of individuals through the democratic process in their churches. Alice Blair Wesley provides the following account of our ancestry.
Our Puritan ancestors left England for New England not because they disagreed with the Church of England – or other Protestants in Europe – over theology or anthropology. That is, over the nature of God or of humankind. They left because they disagreed over the theology of organization, over the question of how churches ought to be organized in the spirit of mutual love, over who should have the authority and why – in churches rooted in that spirit. Two hundred years later, in the early 1800s, when the Unitarians separated from more conservative churches of the Standing Order, it was because we did disagree over the nature of God and humankind. We unanimously kept – and have kept to this day – the covenantal congregational polity set by our 17th century ancestors, for the same theological reason. :Covenantal polity is rooted in the spirit of mutual love.
Wesley’s words show how important Congregational Polity – rooted in the democratic process – was for our UU ancestors and still is today. Here at UUFS, you as members elect the board and approve the budget and other major decisions. All members’ votes count the same, regardless of how much money they pledge or how many friends they may have in high places. But do we need a Bill of Rights to make sure the majority listens to the concerns and needs of the minority? Hopefully, since we do affirm the inherent worth and dignity of all – we will heed the voices of all. For example, we put in a sound system because a very small minority of individuals had hearing problems. And we are now researching wiring a speaker into the kitchen for the very small minority of individuals who sometimes have to leave the service because their babies are crying or young ones need them nearby for additional security. If we do disagree, we have the process of voting to determine our actions. We may not always make the best choices, but we have a democratic system, as messy as it may be. And it can be messy. Molly Irvins said, “The thing about democracy, beloveds, is that it is not neat, orderly, or quiet. It requires a certain relish for confusion.”
Here’s a UU joke I found about congregational democracy in action.
Once upon a time, the theistic minister in one of the older New England churches was arguing with the church board. The minister wanted to take a particular course of action, but the board was dead set against it. Finally, in exasperation, the minister said, “Look, it isn’t just me who wants it this way. This is what God wants!” The skeptical board members were unconvinced so the minister began praying for a sign from God. Immediately, a lighting bolt struck the room and incinerated all the chairs except for the one the minister sat in. No one was harmed.
Certain now that his wishes would be followed, the minister said, “Well?”
The board president answered, “You still lose the vote, 9 to 2.”
Some have suggested that the reason the UU democracy principle is linked to the right of conscience is because of the problems that may result from majority rule. We constantly have to be listening for the “still small voice” – that voice of reason – some say “that voice of God” – so that we can ameliorate the problems that arise from majority rule.
If democracy is to have any meaning as a spiritual principle, then we must think of it in a more spiritual way – not just as a method of governance. That’s tough for me. Sometimes I need some inspiration.
Often when I need inspiration – I turn to some thing or some one that inspires me. Now there is a man who has been very inspirational to me. In fact – and Greg doesn’t know this – I’m somewhat in love with this man. At the very least I have an intense crush on him. But don’t worry Greg. You’ve still got the edge. Mainly because – this man is dead.
I first came to know John Dewey when I was an undergraduate. I don’t remember reading any of his work then – but my professors were constantly talking about him and encouraging us to use progressive teaching approaches encouraged by Dewey. I first read some of Dewey’s work when I was in graduate school and was always amazed at how relevant it was – even though much of it was written in the early part of the century. Because Dewey lived so long and was so prolific, I’m still reading his work — sort of like love letters from the dead. I knew that Dewey had written on Democracy in regards to education. But later in his life – he began to write about subjects from a more general, philosophic perspective. And while I was preparing for this sermon, I discovered a work that served my needs for inspiration well.
When Dewey was approaching 80, he wrote a document titled, “Creative Democracy – The Task Before Us.” I don’t think that I had read this document before. But then, I check out movies from the video store thinking that I haven’t seen them and then start remembering them half way through the movie. In any case, it seemed new to me. And like many of Dewey’s other works, it seemed so relevant – even though it was written in 1939.
I normally don’t like to quote heavily from one person during a sermon, so I hope you’ll forgive me this time. Because I think what Dewey has to say to us today is important.
After sharing some about the beginnings of our nation – including the open frontier and vast physical resources – and after praising our forefathers as men “extraordinarily gifted in political inventiveness,” Dewey turns his attention to the present day and says:
At the present time, the frontier is moral, not physical. The period of free lands that seemed boundless in extent has vanished. Unused resources are now human rather than material. They are found in the waste of grown men and women who are without the chance to work, and in the young men and young women who find doors closed where there was once opportunity. The crisis that one hundred and fifty years ago called out social and political inventiveness is with us in a form which puts a heavier demand on human creativeness.
At all events this is what I mean when I say that we now have to re-create by deliberate and determined endeavor the kind of democracy which in its origin one hundred and fifty years ago was largely the product of a fortunate combination of men and circumstances. We have lived for a long time upon the heritage that came to us from the happy conjunction of men and events in an earlier day. The present state of the world is more than a reminder that we have now to put forth every energy of our own to prove worthy of our heritage. It is a challenge to do for the critical and complex conditions of today what the men of an earlier day did for simpler conditions.
Dewey goes on to say:
If I emphasize that the task can be accomplished only by inventive effort and creative activity, it is in part because the depth of the present crisis is due in considerable part to the fact that for a long period we acted as if our democracy were something that perpetuated itself automatically; as if our ancestors had succeeded in setting up a machine that solved the problem of perpetual motion in politics. We acted as if democracy were something that took place mainly at Washington and Albany- or some other state capital-under the impetus of what happened when men and women went to the polls once a year or so-which is a some-what extreme way of saying that we have had the habit of thinking of democracy as a kind of political mechanism that will work as long as citizens were reasonably faithful in performing political duties.
Not so – Dewey says:
Democracy is a way of life controlled by a working faith in the possibilities of human nature.. . . The democratic faith in human equality is belief that every human being, independent of the quantity or range of his personal endowment, has the right to equal opportunity with every other person for development of whatever gifts he has.
Dewey’s remarks regarding peace are reminiscent of our conversation with Viki Hurst last week. He says:
A genuinely democratic faith in peace is faith in the possibility of conducting disputes, controversies and conflicts as cooperative undertakings in which both parties learn by giving the other a chance to express itself, instead of having one party conquer by forceful suppression of the other. To cooperate by giving differences a chance to show themselves because of the belief that the expression of difference is not only a right of the other persons but is a means of enriching one’s own life-experience, is inherent in the democratic personal way of life.
Dewey realizes that he’s moved beyond politics and into morality and he confirms this by saying.
If what has been said is charged with being a set of moral commonplaces, my only reply is that that is just the point in saying them. For to get rid of the habit of thinking of democracy as something institutional and external and to acquire the habit of treating it as a way of personal life is to realize that democracy is a moral ideal and so far as it becomes a fact is a moral fact. It is to realize that democracy is a reality only as it is indeed a commonplace of living.
(T)he task of democracy is forever that of creation of a freer and more humane experience in which all share and to which all contribute.
Well, Amen my friend Dewey – and if that is what democracy is all about – the yes, it should be one of our Unitarian Universalist principles!
Walt Whitman had similar ideas. He said.
Did you, too, O friend, suppose democracy was only for elections, for politics, and for a party name? I say democracy is only of use there that it may pass on and come to its flower and fruit in manners, in the highest forms of interaction between [people], and their beliefs — in religion, literature, colleges and schools — democracy in all public and private life….
Now I do not believe that John Dewey and Walt Whitman thought we should not pay special attention to that technical procedure which democracy implies – and that is VOTING!!
There are some that say that method of decision-making is outdated and that we should work – especially in our organizations and institutions — to come to consensus rather than vote. I do believe some of the consensus techniques that small groups are using may be helpful and I think we should study these to see if our own fellowship may be able to use them. However, using consensus techniques are also problematic and we can discuss this further in talk back if you are interested
In any case, we are not going to be able to go to the polls and come to consensus on November 2. But we will be able to go and participate in a process – flawed though it may be – a process that represents the democratic spirit acknowledged in our 5th principle. So I will be there. And not only will I be there – I shall take my religion to the ballot box with me. You may say — WHOA Jane – don’t you know that politics and religion don’t mix!! And aren’t we constantly criticizing folks on the right for bringing their religion into political discourse.
WELL – you know – we may have something to learn from the folks on the right. If, indeed, your religion is what binds you to that which you believe is ultimate and sacred, then it’s not something you just put aside very easily. It’s who you are. Now that doesn’t mean that I’m going to use one specific issue as a litmus test in determining how I vote. For example, Unitarian Universalists have been very vocal in their support of gay marriage. But I’m not going to let that one issue determine which candidates I vote for. (Actually I probably wouldn’t have anyone to vote for if that were my litmus test!!) But I will select the candidates and issues based on the principles that I hold high. And many of those ARE the same as the principles affirmed by other Unitarian Universalists. And you know what else I think I’ll do? I think I may just wear my UU t-shirt to the polls. It might spark some interesting conversations while I wait in line.
Some say my vote won’t count – especially in the presidential election in Georgia. But it certainly won’t count if I don’t go. It helps to boycott some things – but elections are not one of them.
We must go. And we must listen to that voice of conscience, that voice of reason, some say that voice of God
For whether we are among those who have enjoyed lives of privilege or those who have suffered great oppression, we all must at least strive to do as Langston Hughes encouraged his readers to do in his poem entitled, “Let America Be America Again.” He said:
Let America be America again. Let it be the dream it used to be. Let it be the pioneer on the plain Seeking a home where he himself is free. (America never was America to me.) Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed-- Let it be that great strong land of love Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme That any man be crushed by one above. (It never was America to me.) O, let my land be a land where Liberty Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath, But opportunity is real, and life is free, Equality is in the air we breathe. (There's never been equality for me, Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.") Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark? And who are you that draws your veil across the stars? I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart, I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars. I am the red man driven from the land, I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek-- And finding only the same old stupid plan Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak. I am the young man, full of strength and hope, Tangled in that ancient endless chain Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land! Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need! Of work the men! Of take the pay! Of owning everything for one's own greed! I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil. I am the worker sold to the machine. I am the Negro, servant to you all. I am the people, humble, hungry, mean-- Hungry yet today despite the dream. Beaten yet today--O, Pioneers! I am the man who never got ahead, The poorest worker bartered through the years. Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream In the Old World while still a serf of kings, Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true, That even yet its mighty daring sings In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned That's made America the land it has become. O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas In search of what I meant to be my home-- For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore, And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea, And torn from Black Africa's strand I came To build a "homeland of the free." The free? Who said the free? Not me? Surely not me? The millions on relief today? The millions shot down when we strike? The millions who have nothing for our pay? For all the dreams we've dreamed And all the songs we've sung And all the hopes we've held And all the flags we've hung, The millions who have nothing for our pay-- Except the dream that's almost dead today. O, let America be America again-- The land that never has been yet-- And yet must be--the land where every man is free. The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME-- Who made America, Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain, Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain, Must bring back our mighty dream again. Sure, call me any ugly name you choose-- The steel of freedom does not stain. From those who live like leeches on the people's lives, We must take back our land again, America! O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath-- America will be! Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death, The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies, We, the people, must redeem The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers. The mountains and the endless plain-- All, all the stretch of these great green states--
And make America again!
Amen , Blessed Be, and don’t forget to vote!
© 2004 Jane A. Page, Statesboro, GA.
All rights reserved.