Defending Democracy: ” . . . Living out Unitarian Universalism’s Fifth Principle in the Age of Trump.”

Suggested Readings:

  • On Tyranny, by Timothy Snyder
  • Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning by Timothy Snyder
  • The Retreat of Western Liberalism by Edward Luce

Let me start with an anecdote. It’s a story some of you have heard it before. But its symbolism is so spot-on that it’s worth repeating.

I woke up the morning after the 2016 election knowing that in all likelihood Donald Trump had won.  Yet, still, when I heard the NPR announcer utter the words “President-Elect Trump,” they were profoundly disorienting.

I went about my day, overtired from staying up to listen to the results and from having a hard time getting to sleep.

At one point in the early afternoon, I turned to go into my office, and bonked my forehead on the metal door frame. Blood trickled from above my eyebrow. A welt swelled. When the doctor asked me to walk in a line, I faltered. With an assist from The Donald and James Comey, I had managed to give myself a concussion.

I was now, officially, physically, as well as figuratively, disoriented. Many of my friends without concussions were psychologically disoriented. We had not expected this from America. Some folks said it straight away, others felt it: America was not the country we thought it was.

Eight years before America had showed me in no uncertain terms that it was better than the country I thought it was, electing a black man to be leader of the free world by a hefty margin. Four years later, when some of his shine had worn off, and the horrid memory of Bush had faded, Obama was still re-elected. What had happened since then?

My concussion doctor prescribed 48 hours with no screens, no books, no news. When the concussion protocol was done, I started digging. It soon became clear that Trump was more a symptom than a cause. And that it was not just America that was not as I thought it was. I needed to revise my thinking on several counts.

The West is not what I thought it was. The impulses that had led to fascism, long repressed, were rearing their heads again. The second biggest party in the Netherlands is now headed by Geert Wilders, who proposes banning the Koran, banning the construction of new mosques, and banning immigration from Muslim countries. The runner-up in this year’s French presidential election was Jean-Marie Le Pen, a far right ethno-nationalist, whose party advocates economic protectionism, zero tolerance on law and order issues, and an end to free migration.  In Austria, the far-right Freedom Party, which was originally founded by a former Nazi and SS officer, finished second in last year’s presidential election and now is set to become a coalition partner in the new government.  The weekend before last in Poland, 60,000 nationalists marched on Independence day, some chanting “White Europe” and “White Poland.”

The underlying causes include an ailing economy. Europe has still not recovered from the financial crisis of 2008. In American, real wages for middle-income Americans have not risen in 30 years, the situation for those without a college degree is bleak, and there is an ever-widening chasm between rich and poor. Part of the underlying cause is also a society that feels under siege. In Europe, migrants and refugees stream in from Syria and Africa. In the United States, they come from Latin America. They come legally and illegally, unceasingly, despite massive efforts to stop them. Climate change will only multiply the numbers of migrants. Our television sets and psyches are filled with images of gunmen, and bombers, and people weaponizing trucks and driving them into crowds. The other is to be feared.

Fear, economic malaise, demographic and cultural change, insecurity and widening income inequality are a potent combination that will try the fabric of democracy, in the United States and across the West.

I was a history major in college, so I started reading history about when democracy has frayed in the past, and I found that history is also not quite what I thought it was. Check this out: Hitler drew his inspiration from the United States of America. And I don’t mean that just because he kept a framed photo of Henry Ford on his office wall. Hitler, while in prison, wrote that he considered as “his Bible” a work by American author and eugenicist Madison Grant called “The Passing of the Great Race.” Grant assisted in passing the Immigration Act of 1924, designed to limit immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe. It also severely limited immigration from Africa and banned immigration from Asian. Grant also helped pass the anti-race-mixing laws in Virginia. Nazis were clear in saying that their race laws were based on American race laws. Even more fundamentally, Hitler based his entire historical project on what he saw as the United States’ path to power and greatness.

Hitler saw the United States as Germany’s main rival. He believed the United States became so powerful because the United States had expanded to give itself the land and resources to allow its citizens a higher standard of living and to support a potent military. Hitler developed his doctrine of Lebensraum, literally room to live, so that Germans would acquire the land for them to spread out and live and cultivate and become powerful just like the United States had done. And how did Hitler propose to do this? He would do it just as the United States had done: the Germans should take the land from others by force and exterminate the inferior race that stood in their way just as the Americans had done to the Native Americans. Looking at history that way is enough to ruin your Thanksgiving dinner.

But the United States is not Nazi Germany. Our ideals tell us that all people are created equal, and, over time, our nation has moved fitfully but steadily toward living out what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the true meaning of its creed.”

I have subscribed to King’s phrase, lifted it appears from Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I still believe this, but now with an important caveat. It is true in the context of democracy. It is not at all clear that dictatorships and totalitarian regimes will tend toward justice over time.

And now, in the last ten years, around the globe, what had appeared to be an inexorable march toward the eventual triumph of democracy no longer appears so inexorable. Democracy appears more and more as a relatively fragile construction that needs our constant tending in or to survive.

And so we come to the Unitarian Universalist fifth principle and our role in living in accordance with that principle in our world today, or as the title of this sermon says “Defending Democracy in the Age of Trump.”

The fifth principle is. . . Who knows what the fifth principle says anyway? A show of hands? Most UUs tend to know the first principle: the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. But the fifth?

The fifth principle is: The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.

The fifth principle is the first principle put into practice in the political sphere. Democracy, by recognizing in its processes the inherent worth and dignity of every human being, is the most spiritually and morally just form of government.

This link between the first principle and the fifth principle was quite explicit in earlier versions of our official UU list of principles. In the 1974 version, one of the UU principles was to: “Affirm, defend, and promote the supreme worth and dignity of every human personality, and the use of the democratic method in human relationships.” In this formulation, the use of the democratic method follows directly from the affirmation of the worth and dignity of every human being. Democracy respects and affirms that worth. Everyone is entitled to a say. Everyone is valued and, in some sense, equal.

Now, the first principle has been set out on its own. Democracy is part the fifth principle and it is linked to the right of conscience. For us as Unitarian Universalists, freedom of conscience is at the heart of our humanity. Without the freedom to think and believe what we choose, and to act on those beliefs, our lives would be without meaning. By raising up “right of conscience” the fifth principle is laying out the freedom that gives value to existence.

And this is linked to democracy because democracy represents the ability to act based on conscience. History has shown that freedom of conscience does not last long under authoritarian forms of government. Sooner or later, the powers that be perceive the freedom of conscience to be a threat to the perpetuation of their own power, and they squelch that freedom.

When I was growing up in a small town in New Hampshire, democracy seemed an unremarkable part of the landscape. Like the granite bedrock beneath the mountains. One night every spring, there was a town meeting in the high school gym where hundreds of citizens argued and voted on the town budget and other local matters. Every four years, the candidates for president would come by, trying to make a strong showing in the New Hampshire primary. The license plate displayed the state motto “Live Free or Die,” but that seemed something of a joke. We would of course live free, and no dying would be necessary to assure that.

Now that complacency is no longer justified. Even before the last election, American democracy looked broken at the national level. Congress cannot not get anything done. There is a gaping ideological chasm in our politics. Washington seems to most people like nothing but gridlock, ruled by special interests and lobbyists. One poll found 15 percent of Americans, about one in six people, think it would be a good thing if the Army ran the country.

After the election, there was another thought, not always articulated clearly, but whispered and disturbing the peace: Is democracy to be trusted? My brother sent out an email reminding us that Hitler had been elected.

This brings us to the first step in defending democracy: being clear in one’s own belief that democracy is worth defending. Democracy requires faith in one’s fellow human beings. Not faith that they will always agree with you or that they will always make the right decision, but faith that they can be trusted with the decision-making. That over time, their collective decisions will serve us well and that freedom will be preserved.

Democracy is not perfect. It never has been. Democracy needs to be defended, and defended vigorously, even when it is not working well. Perhaps especially when it is not working well. Winston Churchill, who probably did as much to defend democracy in a crisis as anyone ever has, famously said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried from time to time.” We defend democracy not because its outcomes are always virtuous. We defend democracy because the alternatives are so loathsome.

There are some who feel powerless and oppressed in the United States who may rightly wonder what democracy has ever done for them. Native Americans have watched as the whites have taken their land, ignored treaties and even ignored the U.S. Supreme Court. African-Americans endured the political compromises that perpetuated slavery, and then they saw the laws twisted to prevent them from voting or participating fully in our society. Democracy, practiced in a white supremacist society, according to this view, acted as an instrument of oppression.

But remember that it is only within the context of a democracy that the Civil Rights movement was possible. Try to imagine Martin Luther King Jr. sitting in the Birmingham jail under Nazi rule. Instead of writing a letter that was later published for all to read, King would not have been allowed to write or send the letter, the letter would never have been published, he would not have been released from jail, he would have quite likely died in prison, and there would have been no free press to allow anyone to even learn his fate. It is only within the context of a democracy that Martin Luther King Jr. and his colleagues in the Civil Rights movement could succeed.

Trump through his behavior threatens democracy and freedom. He suggests revoking the licences of television channels who report unflattering news about him. He wants to change the libel laws to go after the media. He fires the FBI director who is investigating the Trump campaign. He advocates throwing his political opponent in jail and calls for the FBI to investigate her. He attacks football players who are exercising their right to free speech. He falsely says that millions of illegal immigrants voted in the last election, and he appoints a commission to investigate how to keep people from voting. He praises dictators. He pardons a xenophobic bully. He stokes division and racial animosity. One poll showed 40 percent of Republicans thought it would be a good idea to postpone the next presidential election until the concerns Trump has spouted about alleged voter fraud can be addressed. Perhaps worst of all, Trump sends a signal to the world that democracy is a failure. If we elected Trump, how good can democracy be?

Defending democracy will not be easy. Democracy is not easy. It will require not just effort and intelligence, but spiritual work as well.

To begin with, it will start with listening. Part of what happened in the election is that thousands of people in each small, rural county in Pennsylvania who voted twice for Barack Obama turned around and voted for Donald Trump. Why? I don’t know. The fact that they voted for Obama twice makes me suspect that they may not all have been ignorant, dyed-in-the-wool racists. Perhaps to find out what is on their minds, we should go and listen to them. To my knowledge, the Clinton campaign never did, and I don’t know of any effort by Democrats or the left, with the possible exception of Bernie Sanders, who has been reaching out to such folks. Listening, truly listening to people that you disagree with, is hard, will be hard. But that is part of the spiritual work that we have to do. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Understanding is love’s other name.” The Civil Rights movement, especially in its early days, was driven by religiously minded activists, who upheld non-violence as more than a tactic, as a way of life, as a way of living out God’s calling. Rev. James Bevel was a Civil Rights leader, organizer, and adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King. During training sessions, he would teach the song “I Love Everybody.” He was fond of saying that it was the easiest song you would ever learn, but the hardest song that you will ever sing. The entire lyrics were: “I love everybody. I love everybody. I love everybody in my heart.”

In loving everybody, in living out our first principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every human being, we can work against the rising sense of tribalism that is a mortal threat to democracy. Fascism, at root, is the embrace and glorification of tribalism in the modern world. Tribalism has powerful roots in human nature and part of the peril that Trump poses is that he feeds the impulse toward tribalism.

As Unitarian Universalists who seek to be welcoming to all, we can be a shining light in the effort to transcend tribalism. But to really make a difference and defend democracy, we have to reach beyond our own tribalism. Look around our church today, or the halls of General Assembly, and you will see that we UUs are our own tribe. We are a bunch of college-educated, intellectual, professional, middle-class liberals. We must get out, outside our church, outside our tribe, and interact with the world.

Another way we defend democracy is by working to defend democratic norms and institutions. Timothy Snyder, in his recent book On Tyranny points out that would-be tyrants claim exceptional circumstances as a reason to do away with the rules and norms of democracy and freedom.

When Hitler became Chancellor in 1933, the Nazis were the largest party in parliament, but not the majority party. They could still be held in check. The decisive move came when there was a fire at the Reichstag, or parliament building, after Hitler had been Chancellor for less than a month. Hitler blamed the fire on Communists, claimed that this required an exception to the previous rules and freedoms, and succeeded in getting an emergency decree approved. With the powers of this decree, Hitler banned and jailed Communists, including the communist members of parliament. With the communists gone from parliament, the Nazis were now a majority and could do as they pleased. The rest is horrific history.

With this cautionary tale in mind, let us consider what our work looks like in these challenging times. After the election, some people on the left tried to persuade electoral college Trump electors not to vote for Trump. He was obviously unqualified. He was dangerous. He was a sexual predator.  Although the Constitution allows electors to vote for the candidate of their choice, our commonly agreed-upon practice, and some state laws, dictate that the electors vote to reflect the winner of the popular vote in their state. What some of our friends on the left were advocating was that we break from our democratic traditions because this was an exceptional situation. Sound familiar?

We must be wary of this. I fear that these efforts have already done damage. The message that Trump voters heard was that some elite leftists were trying to take away their democratic voice because the elitists thought they knew better. It is exactly the kind of move that smacks of undemocratic, elitist arrogance to many in small towns across the land.

Now some on the left want to impeach Trump. Why? The reasons are legion, but being an impulsive narcissist, a bigot, a liar, a jerk, an embarrassment, a very bad president, and a rude, tasteless Twitterer are not grounds for impeachment. Be very careful about advocating steps such as impeachment without proper cause. Trump is doing plenty to undermine democracy. Let us not help him.

Democracy requires us to be involved in the democratic process. The democratic response to election outcomes that we don’t like isn’t to try to overturn the election, or declare the victor illegitime. It is to go back out and work hard to win the next time round. In 2008, many people from this congregation volunteered in the campaign of Barack Obama. We knocked on the doors of McMansions in exurban Virginia and on doors in the poor, Appalachian sections of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I can remember election day, getting up before 5 a.m. to help send vans of volunteers to Hampton Roads and Richmond, and then going off to knock on doors in Leesburg. The local campaign office there was overstuffed with volunteers. You could feel history in the air. I still clearly recall, knocking on doors in townhouse complexes until the polls closed, and driving back with then-UUCSS member Kathy Wallens. I almost put my hands through the roof of Kathy’s car when the radio reported the results from Virginia.

Last year I watched the election returns at a local Asian restaurant with some friends. My family had gone to Hershey, Pennsylvania to knock on doors the Saturday before the election, but neither we nor our church buddies had busted our gut like we had in 2008.

It is only through hard and sustained work, through listening and compromising, through valuing every person, through overcoming the impulse toward tribalism, through defending our norms and values, that democracy will survive. Upon exiting the Constitutional Convention, Ben Franklin reportedly was asked what kind of government the new country would have, and he replied: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Obama, who was fond of quoting King’s phrase, added an important element of his own:  “The arc of the universe may bend toward justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own,” Obama said.  We have to bend it.

Trump’s election can serve as a bell of mindfulness, awakening us to the current situation and impelling us toward action. May we listen to the bell.