One Nation - Potentially Divisible

September 30, 2001
JAN VICKERY KNOST
THE FIRST PARISH IN NORWELL


"One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
-from the Pledge of Allegiance

In the days following the assassination of President Kennedy, it is reported that religious and political extremists of both the right and the left proclaimed their dissident beliefs. Those who held an unmitigated hatred of the new President (simply because he was a Roman Catholic) justified the tragedy as God's fitting punishment. Soon after, however, a Methodist minister in Dallas commented publicly in a sermon that such a "gospel of hate" had been there in Dallas for a very long time.

Then, following the death of Lee Harvey Oswald at the hands of Jack Ruby, a crowd assembled across the street from the Dallas City Hall to cheer the news. Numerous television interviews indicated that many Dallas residents roundly approved of Jack Ruby's action in shooting Oswald right there in City Hall. The prevailing sentiment might almost have been stated with a slightly revised (and ancient) admonition. "Give us an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and never mind the cumbersome machinery we call justice...". One woman was actually said to have proclaimed that it was "jes good ol' Texas tradition to take the law into our own hands...".
(Walker, The Christian Fright Peddlers Doubleday, 1964)

On the other hand, another minister said of that same jeering crowd that in their repudiation of the American system of justice they had created the most chilling sounds of all those dreadful four days. That was in 1963. And yet, back in 1839, the French writer and essayist, Alexis de Tocqueville, had sensed something of the same dangerous irreverence when he wrote:

"In the United States, religion exercises but little influence upon the details of public opinion; but it directs the customs of the community and, by regulating domestic life, it regulates the state....".
(de Tocqueville, Alexis, Democracy in America I, 1839)

Considering what we've just been through - and what we're going through - with the Trade Tower Tragedy and other ancillary events, I have the fear that each day that passes is bringing our nation closer and closer to the place where politics and religion will inevitably collide in a spate of hatred and violence.

Consider, for instance, the stunning words of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson which they made during the September 13th edition of the "700 Club". They were beyond contempt. Unimaginable challenges lay ahead. As the days and the candlelight vigils and funerals continued, America struggled to cope with the monumental horror of September 11th. We were desperately working to come together in the spirit of community. Then the words of these two men are put over national television in an effort to "skapegoat" the blame and to shamelessly manipulate the American people. Here's a brief portion of that exchange:

(Jerry Falwell) "(They've been) throwing God out of the schools successfully with the help of the federal court system; the abortionists have got to bear some of the burden for this...and when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For The American Way – all of them who have tried to secularize America – I point my finger in their face and say "you helped this happen."

(Pat Robertson) "Well, I totally concur..."

So I would make my first point this morning. To act out of prejudice and rage and blindly blame represents an ominous possibility in our world today and we have to work to overcome it. Such a message should be soundly condemned by all who struggle to heal the pain of our nation.

We must understand, however, that while we are besieged by unnamed terrorists around the world that the Constitution of the United States is also under attack. Local communities have passed guidelines regarding acceptable religious holiday displays; states have passed laws limiting a person's right to choose in the matter of abortion; religious lobbyists press constantly for a constitutional convention in order to re-write the First Amendment. This would lead to making prayer a mandate in our public schools. In sector after sector the matter of religion has a been under siege to the point where one wonders whether anyone understands what the founders of our country meant when they spoke of the doctrine of separation of church and state.

In his book, The Democratization of American Christianity, Dr. Nathan O. Hatch has created a study of the ways in which American Christianity and the American Revolution blended to create the country we have today. According to Hatch, the wave of popular religious movements which broke upon this country in the fifty years following its struggle for independence - Methodists, Baptists, black churches, Mormons, Universalists and Unitarians - did more to "Christianize" American society than anything before or since. The rate of growth of these American departures from Puritanism, Calvinism and Anglicanism was incredible.

I am sure we all will agree that religious populism has often been an agent of change in the modern era. With the advent of such figures as Billy Sunday, Amy Semple MacPherson, Norman Vincent Peale, Billy Graham and Reverend Ike those same undercurrents of democratic Christianity were at work in the late 19th and early-to-mid 20th century America. To quote Professor Hatch:

"...American Protestantism has been skewed away from central ecclesiastical institutions and high culture; it has been pushed and pulled into its present shape by a democratic or populist orientation. At the very time that British clergy were confounded by their own gentility in trying to influence working-class culture, America exalted religious leaders (who were) short on social graces, family connections, and literary education. These religious activists pitched theirmessages to the unschooled and unsophisticated. Their movements offered the humble a marvelous sense of individual potential and of collective aspiration."
Hatch, The Democratization of America, Yale Univ. Press, 1989

Historically, then, the American Revolution and all that followed created an atmosphere in which ordinary people felt empowered. They had a new vision of what democracy meant. No longer did they need to feel subservient to an elite, educated clerical minority. Religious leaders began to emerge from the common citizenry. Religion became down-to-earth, attainable and understandable.

John Gutenberg's printed the Holy Bible. This did more to popularize it than all the priests and prelates who had come before. It suddenly had meaning for the masses. The American Revolution did the same thing. It brought what Hatch calls a "democratization" in the American religious world. To quote de Tocqueville once more:

"In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom marching in the opposite direction. But in America I found they were intimately united and they reigned in common over the same country."
Op. Cit. de Tocqueville ,Democracy in America

My second point then, is that, though it is disturbing to many of the mainline liberal Protestant communities, including Unitarian Universalists, the fact is that for decades the price of religion has been brought to the lowest common denominator for the masses. Unhappily, they seem even today to accept what one of my colleagues called "bad religion" with little or no criticism or concern for its accuracy or its ultimate goals.

On another level we also need to note that at this same time of religious ferment few blacks, free or slave, considered themselves Christian. But in the three decades following the Civil War thousands of African-Americans turned to the gospel. This, again, was due to the populism given license in the preaching of young firebrands warmed by American democratic fervor. Dr. Hatch again:

"The emergence of black religious leaders was related to a fundamental paradox within evangelical Protestantism: its egalitarian character and its racism. The initial enthusiasm of Baptist and Methodist communions to welcome black church members and preachers was countered by increasing white discomfort with integrated worship and by mounting opposition to any hint that blacks would exercise authority in the church."
Op. cit. Hatch, p.106

Over the past two decades there have been a spate of books and articles regarding the fact that mainline faiths in America were losing ground. The reason seems to have been that the conservative churches were supplying an ingredient that seemed lacking in the lives of most people. A pessimistic church won't attract folks. The simple answers to questions of whether Jesus loves one give many the sense that they are, indeed, cared for by someone. That if not in this life, at least in the next they can attain that visionary existence in the cumulo-nimbus kingdom above.

My third point would be this. If history teaches, we can learn that the church today, if it is to have any redeeming social value, must be as a generator of optimism in the lives of its people. Now I know that such hope can be brought about by using self-deception, self-indulgence and cynicism. And we Unitarian Universalists do spend a lot of time popping other people's "religious balloons", so to speak. However. What we need to be creating is a clearer vision of the church's mission so that in our daily living a pattern of spiritual life will emerge in each of us. A pattern of spiritual life that is grounded in freedom, evidenced in reason and practiced in tolerance.

I often wonder the direction American religion will take given the outrages of such panderers as Falwell and Robertson. Perhaps a reaction will come to all efforts to politicize religion. For example, the present Roman Catholic Pope reflects a stolid and unchanging order with his ministry. It flies in the face of Pope John the 23rd and the liberalizing elements that were Vatican II. The current trend today in many avenues of American Catholicism is to turn away from such ecclesiastical power. In fact, the cries for the right of priests to marry and of the recognition of women in the priesthood, not to mention the widespread use of birth control has put American Catholicism at odds with much of what Catholic hierarchy proclaims from Vatican City.

On the other hand religious voices may continue to sound shrill and insistent in the face of the terrorist threat. Already among the liberal elements of some of our colleges and universities the sounds of a new kind of peace movement has begun to show itself.

In the meantime, I see a tremendous opportunity for the liberal church to emphasize that same optimism early populists offered as a living hope. Our commitment to tolerance, to the finding of unity amid diversity, to the use of reason in religion and political live provides us with a radical but central motif not out of keeping with the visions of Tom Jefferson, Ben Franklin and John Adams.

A former president of the American Unitarian Association by the name of Dr. Frederick May Eliot once wrote that:

"The test of one's liberalism is one's refusal to employ . . . coercion upon others, especially the more subtle forms of coercion... Above all, we are resolved that in the realms of the mind and of the soul there shall be no compulsion so far as it can be prevented; and we believe that the best way to promote this end is to create and maintain such institutions . . . For such a company to adopt anything in the nature of a creed - theological, philosophical, political or economic - would be to betray the very heart and soul of liberalism which it exists to exemplify and promote."
--Beattie, Paul, from a sermon titled "Politics has become religion and religion has become politicized", 1985.

Speaking, then, as your Interim Minister, with the happy anticipation of the arrival of your new spiritual leader sometime next fall, I would suggest that the quality of our dialogue and our ability to persuade others outside our faith remain the most important aspects of our way in religion.

Let me conclude with the story of a preacher named William Smythe Babcock who was a populist spokesperson of the early 17th century. Originally a Baptist, he became convinced of the truth of the doctrine of universal salvation and thus became a Universalist. In one nine-month stretch in 1802-03 he traveled an estimated 1500 miles in New England preaching 297 sermons as an itinerant minister in the hill country of New Hampshire and Vermont. History may well have forgotten him but for a journal he kept of his travels and preaching. For in it he proclaimed a message that revolved around the issues of bondage and liberty - not just of slave and free, but of religiously enslaved and religiously free. His sentiments were aptly summarized by a poem that a nine-year-old girl wrote after hearing him preach:

Know then that every soul is free
To choose his life and what he'll be;
For this eternal truth giv'n,
That god will force no one to heav'n.

He'll draw, persuade, direct him right;
Bless him with wisdom, love and light;
In nameless ways be good and kind,
But never force the human mind.

Following the terrorist attacks, my colleague, Dr. Forrest Church, senior minister of All Souls Church in New York City stood during one of the candlelight vigils held there and said to his congregation:

"Every one of us has been changed and will continue to be changed by the decisions we make. We can decide to be angry, vengeful, hateful, becoming like our enemies and poisoning the one well. We can also decide that we can't do anything – that the world is hopeless – and go back to our trivial pursuits as if tomorrow were no different than the day before yesterday. Or we can rise to the challenge and pledge our hearts to a higher calling. We can answer to the better angels of our nature and join in a shared struggle, not only against our foes – but also on behalf of our friends and neighbors. We can listen more attentively for the voice of God within us than ever before. We can heed its urgings with acts of kindness and deeds of love."

May we join together with hands and hearts and rekindle that affirming flame that is the strength, the inspiration and the challenge of this, our liberal faith.

One nation, indivisible, with liberty . . . justice . . . and religious tolerance . . . for all!!

Amen.