"Democracy Matters"


Excerpts from Democracy Matters, Cornel West
"Let's Remake America Great Again," RIchard Blanco


Last weekend I spent a full three minutes standing in the middle of an un-busy street, staring in awe at a huge tree in the Park Street cemetery that I have seen hundreds of times before. A FedEx truck pulled up at the corner. The driver must have thought I was mad. I was merely, briefly, in a kind of trance – induced by the tree’s fall majesty and the morning’s beauty.

Every part of me marveling at the late October splendor around us rebelled against thinking or talking about the state of our democracy. I didn’t want to go there.

I was speaking recently with a friend. She’s almost young enough to be my daughter. We were talking about the war in Vietnam and how her father had avoided military service by staying in school. She said, “I’m not sure these times now are worse than in the past – there are big problems now, and there were big problems then.”

I didn’t want to talk about the state of our democracy.

A week ago Peg Noonan, a Republican columnist for the Wall Street Journal who is not a Trump fan, wrote: “Impeachment of course will happen. The House will ultimately support whatever charges are ultimately introduced because most Democrats think the President is not fully sane and at least somewhat criminal.”

Hers is a measured summation of my own feelings – I suspect many of you share them. But I just didn’t want to go there.

I was thinking about her kids. I said, “Things aren’t worse now than they were 50 years ago? What about climate change?” |

“Oh, yeah,” she said. “You’re probably right. I don’t like to think about that.”

Nor do most people. But we need to. At least some of the time. And we need to think about what is happening in our democracy today.

But what makes democracy a religious concern, and in particular an explicit religious concern of Unitarian Universalists?

One answer lies in our Puritan heritage which gave us a democratic system of congregational governance But underlying that structural explanation we can discover theological and philosophical beliefs – ones that are expressed in part, in our principles.

From early in the 19th century through the middle of the 20th, the Unitarians and Universalists were in separate denominations on the liberal end of the American Protestant tradition. Both were small – tiny in comparison with, say, the Baptists or Episcopalians or most other mainline churches. From time to time, over the course of a century and a half, they flirted with the idea of merging. The merger finally happened in 1961, and the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations was born.

Merger discussions included conversation about what principles both groups (or at least a majority of the representatives of both groups) – could agree on. What tenets were fundamental to our shared faith?

The first version of the principles survived until 1984, by which time there was a strong movement to modify their language for gender inclusivity and to acknowledge our responsibility for the planet. As you have heard, there is currently an effort to introduce an 8th principle, calling for a commitment to anti-racism and the creation of Beloved Community.

These are our current seven principles – as they appear in the by-laws of our national association.

We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;[50]
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;[51]
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;[52]
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;[53]
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;[54]
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;[55]
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part

Again, why is democracy in there?

Cornel West speaks of “crucial traditions” that are part of our democratic heritage, traditions that have deep roots.

The first comes from the Greeks: “A commitment to questioning—questioning of ourselves, of authority, of dogma, of parochialism, and of fundamentalism.

As Unitarian Universalists we don’t subscribe to any dogma or creed. We believe in intellectual freedom – the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. We covenant to affirm and promote the worth and dignity of every person – valuing their integrity, their right to self-determination.

The second tradition West cites is the “prophetic commitment to justice—for all peoples.”

A commitment to justice for all peoples is foundational to the notion of democracy. A right of all people to fairness, to an even playing field, to dignity and self-determination.

West quotes Ralph Ellison, who said, “Democracy is, or should be, the most disinterested form of love.”

Last week’s Sunday NY Times included a front page article with the title: “Mean Machine of GOP Routs Democrats on Web.”

On any given day, the Trump campaign is plastering ads all over Facebook, YouTube and the millions of sites served by Google, hitting the kind of incendiary themes – immigrant invaders, the corrupt media – that play best on platforms where algorithms favor outrage and political campaigns are free to disregard facts.

They stir outrage and racism, selling “make America great again” as if, as Richard Blanco imagines, we should somehow go back to a mythological 1950s tv show world (with all people of color removed).

But you know all this. A few Sundays ago we recited the Serenity Prayer.

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
The courage and will to change what I can
The wisdom to know the difference.

There are many reasons to prefer enjoying a late fall day in the woods, or listening to favorite music over turning up NPR news, or checking Facebook and your other feeds. Serenity isn’t granted by magic. Spiritual practice helps. A regular habit of quiet, a deliberate emptying of the mind – letting its whirlpool of chatter and worry go still, and clear. Recitation, chanting, prayer.

Spiritual practice can foster serenity, and will or courage, and wisdom. And it can help us monitor and check our own impulses to become full of vitriol and anger in reaction to the outrageous claims and behaviors on the other side.

On its own, however, it does not have the power to reshape the political landscape. I can’t change the deliberate tactics of misinformation and hate-mongering that the right-wing regime and its current supporters are using. I can work on myself.

This past week about 20 of us participated in a workshop on de-escalation, in collaboration with our friends at Edwards Church. Most of the attendees are part of our new security team. How do we respond when someone is angry, acting out, upset and disturbed? How do we help, rather than confront? How do we regulate our own reactions? Step one, the facilitator told us, is to take a deep breath. Breathing helps regulate the part of our nervous system that’s triggered by threats. Step two – summon compassion for the person who seems to be a threat, or whose anger makes me want to lash out in return.

At General Assembly last June the UUA President Susan Frederick-Gray declared that the upcoming 2020 presidential election is critical, and exhorted everyone to “UU the vote.” There are about 150,000 members of UU congregations across the country. (That is a very small number.) But those 150,000 UUs might, organized and working with local organizations across the country, be able to reach half a million voters – through voter education, registration drives, and efforts to encourage turnout.  

Conservative and right-wing groups have been working for over 50 years in a systematic and concerted effort to influence elections, beginning at the local level with changing local and congressional districts to, among other goals, dilute the voting power of minorities and poor people.

In September I participated in a call with other UUs and UUA staff to hear about how UUs can work together to “UU the Vote.” If you are interested, you can participate in a quick online survey that is aimed at gathering people’s ideas about what they feel called to do and what resources and support they feel they need. And – one of the call participants reminded us – while the 2020 election is critical, the work is ongoing and will not end regardless of what happens next November.

Everywhere, including here in liberal Massachusetts, important work happens at local and state levels. Nancy Sardeson gave an informative talk here last month about the Voting Rights Act, about how voting rights, especially for minorities and poor people, and especially in the south, have been seriously threatened. She talked about what could be done to again give the act its enforcement power.

I hope, as the primary season draws near, and in the months beyond, that many of us will find ways to get involved. Where? In Springfield, Massachusetts and other cities that need help registering new voters. In key states within driving distance - New Hampshire, Maine, even Pennsylvania. Ground roots groups are organizing and will continue to mobilize as we move closer to primary season. I know that some of you have canvassed in New Hampshire and upstate New York in past election seasons. And some of you have participated in phone banks reaching out to people in other states.

We recited the serenity prayer a few weeks ago. I’m reminded of something else that was also written by Reinhold Neibuhr –

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope, and
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.

Let’s commit to doing what we can, together. BECAUSE

Democracy is, or should be, the most disinterested form of love.—
And because our dream and commitment must be to make room under the umbrella for everyone.