“Founders and Freedom” by Mark W. Harris – January 20, 2008
“Founders and Freedom” by Mark W. Harris
January 20, 2008 – First Parish of Watertown, MA
Opening Words from Walt Whitman, “Song of the Open Road” (Section 5)
From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master total and absolute,
Listening to others considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.
I inhale great draughts of space,
The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine.
I am larger, better than I thought,
I did not know I held so much goodness.
All seems beautiful to me,
I can repeat over to men and women You have done such good to me
I would do the same to you,
I will recruit for myself and you as I go,
I will scatter myself among men and women as I go,
I will toss a new gladness and roughness among them,
Whoever denies me it shall not trouble me,
Whoever accepts me he or she shall be blessed and shall bless me.
Readings – from “The Time for Freedom Has Come” by Martin Luther King, Jr.
Many liberals, of the north as well as the South, when they list the unprecedented programs of the past few years, yearn for a “cooling off “ period; not too fast, they say, we may lose all that we have gained if we push faster than the violent ones can be persuaded to yield.
This view, though understandable, is a misreading of the goals of the young Negroes . . . theirs is a revolt against the whole system of Jim Crow and they are prepared to sit-in, kneel-in, wade-in, and stand-in until every waiting room, rest room, theater and other facility throughout the nation that is supposedly open to the public is in fact open to Negroes, Mexicans, Indians, Jews or what have you. Theirs is a total commitment to this goal of equality and dignity. And for this achievement they are prepared to pay the costs – whatever they are – in suffering and hardship as long as may be necessary.
Indeed, these students are not struggling for themselves alone. They are seeking to save the soul of america. They are taking our whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. In sitting down at the lunch counters, they are in reality standing up for the best in the American dream. They courageously go to the jails of the South in order to get America out of the dilemma in which she finds herself as a result of the continued existence of segregation. One day historians will record this student movement as one of the most significant epics of our heritage. . .
In an effort to understand the students and to help them understand themselves, I asked one student I know to find a quotation expressing his feeling of our struggle. He was an inarticulate young man, athletically expert and far more poetic with a basketball than with words, but few would have found the quotation he typed on a card and left on my desk early one morning: “I sought my soul, but my soul I could not see, I sought my God, but he eluded me,
I sought my brother, and I found all three.”
“Let America Be America Again” by Langston Hughes
Sermon – “Founders and Freedom” by Mark W. Harris
Every time I hear “God Bless America,” I involuntarily cringe. It is a kind of visceral liberal reaction to mixing God with politics. I feel like it is yet another attempt by conservative forces to convince us that we are a nation that is especially favored by God. The song seems like pure schmaltz bellowed out by some matronly figure, reminding us how smug we should be because of our innate goodness. I had this reaction again recently when I attended the Watertown inaugural ceremony at the Commander’s Mansion. I am sure I thought, why do we have to bring God into this?. The song was vivified by the experience of September 11, as it become a rallying cry of a beleaguered nation calling for a blessing. Now every baseball game on the major league level features it as well. While the emotional reaction is to distrust the motive, I have discovered that I should look deeper. “God Bless America,” was actually written as a peace song. It does unite faith and freedom, but it really asks us not to affirm that we are favored, but that we are in need of greater guidance. I am rethinking my cringing.
If a Unitarian Universalist were to hear the words State and Religion juxtaposed with the words Freedom and Liberty, it would be the latter two that you would expect the liberal to espouse, while he or she might flee from the authoritarian implications of the others. It might shock you to know that this has not always been true. If you go back nearly three centuries to the 1630’s you may not be surprised that those conservative Puritans brought a state church from old England, and set it up here, so while they had freedom from the old church to establish their new church, the new version allowed even less dissent than the old. Then as the 1600’s passed into 1700’s and 1800’s more and more dissenters argued that they should have the freedom to worship as they wished. Eventually most were given the right to form their own churches, but in certain towns, churches of various denominations were susceptible to being declared illegitimate by the authorities, and forced to battle legally for their right to exist. The Universalists in Gloucester took the Parish Church to court to win this right. What is perhaps most astounding about all this is that while a wing of liberal thought developed within the Congregational Church here in Massachusetts, saying that the faith they espoused should be ethical and non dogmatic, giving each person the right of private judgment about beliefs, there was no corresponding effort among those same liberal Congregationalists to disestablish the state church. We are the children of that church. Years ago I read about the Baptists in my home town of New Salem having property seized, and threatened with jail for failure to pay Minister’s Rates, and then had an epiphany when I recognized that same phrasing still existing on our First Parish endowments as, “The Ministerial Fund.” This is the Parish Church that was established for the entire town to follow without exception, and even as we began to develop our Unitarian, non dogmatic faith that welcomed a broad spectrum of thought, we continued to argue that we should exist as the arm of the state that brings civic morality and religion to the whole community. How did our Unitarian ancestors reconcile freedom and authority? How do you? What are the implications for the full expression of freedom in the creation of the beloved community? Do we feel an internal conflict as Unitarian Universalists that we are uncertain how to reconcile with our lives?
Many of you may have seen the cover story of the most recent Unitarian Universalist World magazine. Called “Divine Order and Sacred Liberty,” the article by Forrest Church looks at how the founders of our nation developed competing visions for they what they hoped would ultimately redeem the nation’s soul. Despite his slave holding, Thomas Jefferson, is often depicted as the champion of those who advocated the wall of separation between church and state. Feeling that religious choice is a very private matter, Jefferson argued that a state should make no law regarding the establishment of religion. He counted this belief and its subsequent embodiment as the statute for religious freedom of his home state of Virginia among his most precious accomplishments. Several different religious groups followed his strong advocacy of separation, including our own Universalists, whom Forrest Church curiously ignores in the article. Drawing on their faith in Gospel liberty, the Universalists eventually became the group here in Massachusetts who filed the law to end the state church system. Jefferson and his political followers believed God, as discerned by these founders in the divine order of nature, had endowed all of us with certain rights, recalled immemorially as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” If the natural order of things is that we should not be subject to any tyranny of body, mind or soul, then any establishment of religion is wrong. We should remember that “the wall” was designed to separate church from state, and not religion from politics. They are different.
I would guess that most of us probably resonate strongly with this idea of sacred liberty. We feel we cannot find true happiness in life unless we are free to pursue our own faith, ideals and chosen vocation. We want to do and be and have what is most meaningful to us. Yet this provided only half of the battleground for America’s soul. The other half was articulated by Jefferson’s opponents in the famous election of 1800. Jefferson was viciously attacked for being an atheist and infidel who would destroy the values of the young republic. Seen as a firm supporter of the French Revolution where reason had supplanted Christianity, the opposition foresaw a government established under the dictates of a potential reign of terror that could bring chaos, violence and unbelief to America. This was the same fear that had driven Joseph Priestley from his native England to the shores of America. The chemist and Unitarian minister established the earliest Unitarian churches in Pennsylvania, but liberals in New England were slow to claim any connection whatsoever. Priestley had a completely human understanding of Jesus, and like his friend Jefferson, advocated a total separation of church and state. Liberals here in New England did not want to embrace Priestley because both his politics and his religion were too radical for them. This meant that freedom and liberty were on one side of the political and religious divide while order and public morality were on the other.
To us public morality sounds like evangelicals trying to force their views of private religious issues upon the society at large, but that is an extreme reaction, and ultimately it would mean we fail to understand the public role of religion in our nation’s life. Evangelicals today might wrongly try to convince you that the founders of our nation were committed Christians, who established a Christian nation. All of the founders, including Jefferson, certainly believed that there was a public religious element to the moral virtues we aspire to as a nation, but the important aspect to his party was that there be no establishment of any particular sect. In their private faith, many of the founders were what we would called Deists. They believed in a God who created the universe, like a clockmaker setting it in motion with certain laws to govern it, but this was also a God who was not active in the world’s day to day affairs. The establishing and keeping of the divine intent of justice and equality were in human hands. Keeping the general religious purpose of a just society was something we should all play a part of in our political lives. Privately this meant that no one should be forced to follow a specific faith. When the United States negotiated a treaty with Tripoli in the 1790’s, the document says that the United States was not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion, and thus it had no character of enmity against Islamic nations, laws or the religion. This would have been in keeping with the intent of the wall of separation, and so even atheists would be protected religiously, but what about the public role of religion?
A few weeks back our own Michael Collins wanted to have a discussion in the wake of the Mitt Romney speech about the role of his Mormon faith in the presidential campaign. Because he professes a faith that has some unusual, shall we say, odd precepts, the Romney campaign feared that people would vote against him based on his private religious faith which some called a cult. Romney tried to exhibit his faithful religious credentials to conservatives who are weighing his worthiness. Candidates have to be pretty open about their faith these days, and for much of the public it cannot be a private affair. This shows how courageous it was for UU Pete Stark from California to declare his avowed atheism. To this point no such professed candidate could ever be elected President. One of the great problems in any campaign is not so much how much pandering they do to extol their religious positions, but that they more often seem willing to abandon any religious conviction if its means they will be elected. Some would sell out God and their mother if it meant victory. Can Romney be a good Mormon and a good President if it means he has to impose Mormon morality on all of us? That might be the end of alcohol, and passionate kissing, but it could also mean the return of polygamy in the long run, if there are any men out there who desire multiple wives. These kinds of litmus tests are medieval, and we would end up like England when it was bouncing back and forth between Catholic and Anglican in the 1500’s, and they were still burning people at the stake. It is a good thing if our candidates are inspired by religious values, but they cannot be the specific tenets of each faith, but the more general public religious values that Jefferson first voiced with a calling for justice and equality. If God is telling them certain things that they want to apply to all of us, then we need to know what those things are. I think it is fine for a candidate to say he accepts Jesus as his savior, but if he wants us all to believe that, then there is an issue. This was an inherent problem with Romney’s speech. He spoke of religion and freedom and freedom and religion as if they were divinely ordained partners, but then he left atheists out of his multi layered religious equation, and equated them with the failed secular approach of all of Europe. He wants people who will get down on their knees and pray.
It was a public element of religious faith that lay behind the Congregationalists in Massachusetts who affirmed the state church. Today we might see it as our freedom being sacrificed to the establishment of authority. This is what we ultimately fear when candidates begin to talk about how far they will go to implement their religious values. In New England the ministers of Parish churches such as ours were called public teachers of piety, religion and morality for the town. In a sense this was distinguished from their role as minister of the church, where they baptized babies, married and buried and converted new members to the faith. It is really the role I take on when I coordinate a Martin Luther King breakfast. I am trying, if you will to bring public religious values to the community consciousness. Part of my colleague Mike Clark’s job description over at the Methodist Church is to minister to the groups who use St. John’s building. In a way it is public ministry of affirmation, healing, values, and support. We may be calling the community to aspire to their better selves, take care of one another in their needs or respect one another in their differences so that they might listen to one another and find common ground. The affirmation of public religious values for a community might strike fear in the hearts of those who would see it as an infringement upon their liberty, to insinuate that there is something public about religion. For the nation, public religion means calling us to a higher purpose, common dream or vision of our larger selves in the world. In fact, I have always believed that part of my role in serving a church is to perform a public function in the community to help us work together toward some common good, calling us all to our better, more communicative, peaceful selves. John Portz was telling me that one of our conservative pundits in town considered it a crossing of church and state boundaries when the Helen Robinson Wright Fund gave money to the Lowell School to help pay for a mediator in a continuing parent battle, but it seems to me that this is precisely where a religious voice needs to be heard, in helping a community see its larger vision of creating empathy and understanding. Obviously Watertown has a way to go before achieving this goal.
Times have changed. While we once seemed authoritarian because we wanted to preserve public religious values in the form of a state church, I believe we need to reconsider not the form, but the value of affirming a larger community of faith. We have, if anything, become extreme supporters of the values inherent in sacred liberty. While freedom has its virtue in the form of self-expression and fulfillment, it has also been the preferred formula for Unitarian salvation ever since the disestablishment of the state church. What can I do to achieve salvation, became the formula for individual success in life, so that the best job and the best education resulted in the affirmation that achieving these were signs that you had fulfilled the holy purpose of your life. Because we were a faith grounded not in one overriding theological foundation or formula for salvation, but in the individual expression of the ever growing, ever improving self, there was less need to invoke a community connection to a larger whole. All we needed to do was live a good individual life. Coupled with this emphasis on individual achievement as a sign of salvation was an inherent antiauthoritarianism. Our clergy were already called forth from the people in Puritan congregational polity, and thus there was no setting apart of an authority figure as providing some means of salvation, and there was no dogma for them to impart. You can see it as a kind of do it yourself, personal faith. I see hope in the principles of Universalists, who were part of the sacred liberty supporters long ago, but nevertheless envisioned salvation in the creation of
the beloved community, where everybody was affirmed by God equally, and all were saved. This faith helped them become early supporters of women’s rights because it was a theology of equality, but it also points us towards deeper public issues.
Most Unitarian Universalist these days are strong advocates of sacred liberty. We believe everybody should have a chance and everybody is equal. Yet these ideas of access and equality are not congruent with the realities of the lives of many Americans. There was an interesting book published last year called The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality by Walter Michaels. His thesis is that affirming diversity leads us away from the true social inequalities that grip our nation, and perplex each one of us. He says liberals have tended to embrace diversity where it means individual freedom or liberty for those who have embraced identity politics. He writes, “A society free not only of racism, but of sexism and of heterosexism is a neoliberal utopia where all the irrelevant grounds for inequality (your identity) have been eliminated and whatever inequalities are left are therefore legitimated.” So multiculturalism becomes a corporate management tool, and as long as we feel liberated in our identity then we have achieved salvation. We are ostensibly fully accepted and affirmed by the society in its current socioeconomic stratification. As long as we succeed and are accepted, do the have nots really matter any more? Further, as long as you don’t display ill will towards the poor and homeless, then there are never any grounds for attacking capitalism. It is a non issue. While the affirmation of individuals and their freedom to be who they are has been wonderful and liberating it has only been so for those groups centered upon identity, and thus socioeconomic class has nothing to do with the liberation or justice for all we could have been fighting for.
Here is our critical internal conflict. We are free to be individual successes, but that makes us the privileged ones, too. How can we challenge an order that seems at once unfair, but has been a boon to us as well?
We liberals have been afraid of public religion, but in fact, it could be an expression of our vision, or our dream of who we could all be as a people, not just the fragmented groups we have been affirming. One thing about public religion is that it means that those in authority are not afraid to express their religiosity. Historically this overt expression of faith has frightened us. Yet a greater expression of our faith to each other means that we will have deeper relationships. We will trust the people. Instead of avoiding these deeper responses to each other in the service of respecting every person’s freedom, we could seek a larger vision for Unitarian Universalism beyond the expression of everyone has their own private spot on the pluralistic smorgasbord. Is there room for a unified common faith that merges these individual expressions into a religion for a one world, as Kenneth Patton once described it. This might also lead us closer to expressing a common faith for all of America that would echo the visions of Dr. King and Langston Hughes so that America could be America again. We could find our soul in deeper relationships with those who are different from us. It is one of the beautiful applications of our faith that I often see here in Watertown – rich and poor, renters and owners all together supporting one another in the faith. There is one spirit of love that resides in each heart, and it is meant not to reflect a dog eat dog winner, or crushing the weak, but an America where we lift each other up in common bonds, and we truly reflect on our economic inequities and live in more compassionate ways. Our public religious expression is not about how right we are, but is a living embodiment of the story of the Good Samaritan, where Jesus tells about a Jew who is stripped and robbed by thieves, and then his own kin will not help. This is not an uncommon reality in our world. The response in the story, and hopefully in our very souls calls us to have a relationship, to help this stranger, and come to know him. Become Samaritans. It echoes Dr. King’s story of the inarticulate student. He couldn‘t find his soul. He couldn’t find God, but then he sought his brother,who may well have been lying in a ditch like the Jew in Jesus’ famous story. And he found all three. May we revive a common religious vision that does the same.
Closing Words – Response: “How Long?”
from Martin Luther King, Jr. “Our God is Marching On”
We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself,
a society that can live with its conscience . . .
I know you are asking today, “How long will it take? I come to say to you . . .
however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long because truth pressed to earth will rise again.
(and you ask)How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever.
How long? Not long, because you still reap what you sow.
How long? Not long, because the arm of the moral universe is long but it
bends toward justice,
How long? Not long, ‘cause mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord, trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored, and (Truth) is marching on.