This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained many extemporaneous remarks and improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2008 Daniel Harper.
The first reading comes from the BBC Web site, from a piece titled “From Our Own Correspondent: The greatest political show on earth,” by Justin Webb, dated Saturday, 1 November 2008. Reflecting on the importance of this U.S. political campaign as Election Day approached, Webb told an anecdote from August when he was in Denver, at the Democratic national convention, and he saw a motorcade begin to form…
“Suddenly, in front of me there is activity. Men in grey suits are talking into their sleeves. Huge, sleek cars are being revved. Motorbikes are getting into formation.
“It is not [Barack Obama], it is his family.
“As the SUVs pass — including several with the doors and back windows open, men with large automatic weapons looking out with keen hard glares — I catch just a glimpse of the children, of 10-year-old Malia and seven-year-old Sasha peering out. I think their mother was sitting in the middle.
“This is the true revolution.
“There have been, after all, prominent black politicians for decades now, men and women afforded the full protection and respect that the nation can muster.
“But seeing little black children gathered up into the arms of the secret service, surrounded by people who would die rather than let them die, is to see something that must truly make the racists of Americas past revolve in their graves.
“I do not think Barack Obama will win or lose [the election] because of his race, but if he does win, the real moment you will know that America has changed is not when he takes the oath, but when we see pictures of tiny people padding along the White House corridors — a black First Family — representing America and American-ness.”
The second reading was a responsive reading from the Unitarian Universalist hymnal, #584 “A Network of Mutuality,” adapted from a passage by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. which begins as follows:
“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny….”
I have been planning to do a sermon for the 300th anniversary of our church, a sermon on how our church has used covenants as the central principle of our religious community, but somehow it seems that every time I schedule such a sermon, the outside world intervenes. Last time I planned to preach a sermon on covenants in our church, there was a global financial crisis. And this week, there was a historic election which seemed to me to require extended reflection in a sermon. However, Fred Gifun pointed something out to me — even though we will end our official celebration of our church’s 300th anniversary at the end of this calendar year, really our church was established in June of 1708, which means that we can keep on talking about our 300th anniversary for a full year thereafter. After all, a 300th anniversary is a big event, and it seems a shame to stop the celebration early. So I promise I will get to that sermon on covenant before next June….
But this morning I would like to speak with you about the recently concluded election. It feels as though this past week’s election represents something of a change in the popular consciousness or mythology of the United States. When I say it represents something of a change in the popular consciousness of the United States, I do not mean to imply that the election was some kind of “victory” for the Democratic party. I have no interest in preaching about how some political party has achieved some kind of “victory” over another political party, because from a religious point of view such partisan “victories” are pretty much meaningless; from a religious point of view, I don’t care about one party “winning” and another party “losing.” No, I’m not much interested in political parties, but I believe we are seeing a change in the American popular mythology, and this is a legitimate topic to contemplate in a sermon.
I believe we are witnessing at least three changes in our collective popular mythology:– First, we now have a president-elect who is black and who is the son of an immigrant, and that is a big change in the evolving American mythology of who is a “real American.” Second, I believe we are witnessing a shift away from selfishness as the highest value, and that represents a change in the evolving mythology of American individualism. Third, I believe we have witnessed the ascendancy of pragmatism over eye ideology, that is, a change from the American mythology of the past few years that ignored facts if the facts weren’t matching up to one’s ideas.
1. Let me begin by talking about Barack Obama. I’m not going to talk about his politics, nor am I going to talk about his political party. Even though the not-yet-official election of Obama to the presidency of this country has given great joy to the Democratic party faithful, as I said before I’m not particularly interested in partisan politics, so I don’t particularly care one way or the other that there will be a Democrat in the White House. But I do care that the president-elect is black, that he is the son of an immigrant; and I also care that he comes out of the non-profit world.
I will begin with the fact the Barack Obama is black, and perhaps more importantly that his family is black. The family of the president has taken on a peculiar role in the popular consciousness of this country. Long before I was born, there was Franklin Roosevelt’s wife Eleanor Roosevelt, who with her prominent leadership in promoting the New Deal and her advocacy of civil rights for African Americans created a myth of a strong, altruistic American woman. Then in the early 1960s — I’m too young to remember it — I’ve seen the photographs of the glamourous wife and small children of John F. Kennedy, and I’ve read about how the White House of those days was referred to as the mythical Camelot. Then there Chelsea Clinton, who was twelve years old when her father was elected president, and who had to endure all the publicity surrounding her father’s much-publicized affair with a young White House intern, and made us think about what happens to children when their parents misbehave. And then, heaven help them, there were the poor teenaged twins Jenna and Barbara Bush, who had the misfortune to get busted for underage drinking when their father was president, which certainly played into all kinds of mythical ideas about American teenagers. For most of us, the mention of these things brings up powerful images in our mind’s eye; and I think these images we have reveal very little about the flesh-and-blood people who have lived in the White House, but a great deal about our myths surrounding American families.
As of January 20, 2009, we’ll have another set of images to add to the popular mythology of the American family. I’ll bet we are going to be seeing a good many images of Mahlia and Sasha Obama. I don’t think Barack Obama is going to change people’s consciousnesses as much as Mahlia and Sasha Obama are going to change people’s consciousnesses. Mahlia and Sasha’s father said he is going to give them a puppy when they move into the White House, and if you don’t think that we’re going to be inundated with pictures of those two children playing with a puppy, then you’re crazy. And those super-cute pictures of two cute black children playing with a cute little puppy in the White House are going to work their mythical magic on our popular consciousness in ways that we can’t even imagine right now.
We have an American myth that anyone can make it in America, that even a new immigrant can become rich and powerful. But we have had another, more complicated, myth about who it is we regard as a “real American,” and this second more complicated myth gives us different levels of American realness. The realest Americans (or is that the most real Americans? — what is the comparative of an absolute?) — the realest Americans are the white people who came over on the Mayflower. This group has shifting boundaries, though — I was allegedly a member of this group until a few years ago when the Society of Mayflower Descendants fortuitously decided that it was flawed genealogical evidence by which my family could have claimed a link to someone who came over on the Mayflower;– which means, I suppose, I am no longer quite as real an American as I once was. Curiously, Mayflower descendants somehow seem to have more American realness than descendants of the original Indian nations that have existed in America for thousands of years, but maybe that’s because the Indians fought and killed settlers and cowboys and weren’t white. No one said this is rational.
There used to be many gradations of whiteness, with Mayflowerites and old Virginia families being the most white; and in the last presidential election, George W. Bush and John Kerry were both Mayflower descendants, and therefore tenth cousins. It gets progressively less white and less real from there, so that my Pennsylvania Dutch ancestors were not so white and therefore not so much “real Americans,” especially during the First World War when they had to stop speaking German. It’s so confusing, isn’t it? It’s not just the color of your skin, it’s what your name sounds like, it’s your accent and the language you or your parents speak or spoke, it’s your religion, and it’s the country where your parents or ancestors came from.
This myth of who constitutes a “real American” keeps changing. That’s what myths do: they are a peculiar kind of truth that changes over time. And right now, the myth of American realness is changing real fast. Now that Barack Hussein Obama is president-elect, he’s clearly a real American, just as real as you can get. Yet he has this funny-sounding name, his father came from Kenya, he’s black, his wife and kids are black, he attended a somewhat questionable liberal church and his father was a Muslim, and when he was a kid he lived in places where they didn’t always speak English. Wait, didn’t all those things used to mean that you weren’t really a real American? But if Barack Obama is now president-elect, that means he’s a real American, which means the myth has changed.
This is all about myth, so it has no relation to politics. But just because it’s myth and not politics, don’t think it’s any less real. When it comes to myths, it doesn’t matter what political views Obama holds or does not hold. It does matter that he is black, and that his family is black. It does matter that he is the son of an immigrant, and his grandmother still lives in Kenya. It does matter that he considers himself bi-racial and multicultural. And it does matter that he has two really cute daughters who will soon be photographed and videotaped playing with their new puppy in the White House — and those photographs will probably do more to change the myth of what constitutes a real American than anything else.
So this is the first change we’re seeing in American mythology — a change in how we define a “real American.”
2. Now let us turn to the myth of selfishness and self-interest, another myth which this election has shown to be changing.
On October 23, Alan Greenspan, former chair of the Federal Reserve, appeared before Congress to answer questions about the financial meltdown. Here’s how the New York Times business section reported his appearance:
“On Thursday, almost three years after stepping down as chairman of the Federal Reserve, a humbled Mr. Greenspan admitted that he had put too much faith in the self-correcting power of free markets and had failed to anticipate the self-destructive power of wanton mortgage lending.
“ ‘Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief,’ he told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.” ["Greenspan Concedes Error on Regulation," Edmund L. Andrews, New York Times, October 24, 2008, p. B1]
So wrote the New York Times.
I don’t want to get into a long discussion of Alan Greenspan’s economic policies, nor am I qualified to do so. But I do want to spend a little bit of time analyzing that quote by Greenspan, where he talks about self-interest. We have had a persistent myth within United States mythology in which self-interest assumes the god-like status of a sacred creed that will solve all our problems. ((Again, no one said this is rational.) According to this persistent myth, the highest virtue is looking out for yourself, and the highest form of individual is the kind of person who is completely self-sufficient. This view is summed up in something written by Ayn Rand, who was one of Alan Greenspan’s idols — Rand wrote, “I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” Remember, I said this is a myth, and obviously it’s not rational because it’s obviously utter nonsense. Biologically speaking, a young homo sapiens is utterly dependent on its parents for quite a number of years, which means at minimum the survival of the species requires us to live for the sake of babies and children (in this context, I find it significant that Ayn Rand never had children of her own). Evolutionally speaking, homo sapiens evolved not as solitary animals like tigers, but as social animals like monkeys. Ethically and morally speaking, the theory of radical self-interest has been never been a mainstream ethical or moral theory.
I believe the recent election represents a partial repudiation of the virtue of selfishness in the American mythology. This partial repudiation was quite evident in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, where Question One was defeated. Only thirty percent of the electorate voted in favor of doing away with the state income tax; seventy percent of us realized that our self-interest is well-served by paying taxes to be administered by the Commonwealth.
This myth of self-interest offers a challenge to us Unitarian Universalists. Because we aren’t tied up with creeds and dogmas, we make a virtue of freedom of thought. Some people, including some Unitarian Universalists, interpret our freedom of thought as a form of ultra-individualism. It goes like this: the lack of creeds and dogmas gets interpreted to mean that “we can believe anything we want,” and that in turn gets interpreted to mean each individual in one of our churches can do anything he or she wants. But this is a misinterpretation of what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist. The mistake comes when you start by saying we have no creed or dogma, which is a negative definition of who we are;– whereas what’s truly important about us comes out in a positive definition: we are a people bound together by covenant, that is, bound together by the promises we make to one another voluntarily; and we are a people who affirm the essential goodness of humanity, which includes the many supporting social structures which help us stay good in the face of temptation.
I like to think that our religious ideals can lead (and sometimes do lead) to balance between, on the one hand, valuing each person, including ourselves, as an end in themselves, rather as means to someone else’s end; and on the other hand, recognizing the value of the community that supports each individual, recognizing the “inescapable network of mutuality” which binds us together. So it is that we balance individuals as ends in themselves, with the network of mutuality. And so it is that we hope that American mythology is moving away from the excessive selfishness of the past couple of decades towards something better
3. Finally, let us turn to the myth that ideology should run our nation. In mythological terms, ideology is opposed to pragmatism. The general myth of tells people to stick to their ideas no matter what; don’t get confused by the facts; our country, right or wrong; if the facts contradict ideas, then ignore the facts.
I’m not a political scientist; my area of expertise is philosophy and theology. I may not be qualified to speak on political matters, but when I look at the behavior of the executive branch of the federal government over the past few years, it is quite clear to me that the executive branch of the government has been dominated by ideologues who don’t want to be confused by facts. I say this knowing too that that the current administration holds weekly Bible studies in the White House,– and we’re not talking about the kind of Bible studies we have here in our church, we’re talking about conservative Christian Bible studies that don’t allow you to question what’s in the Bible. It seems to me that the two go hand in hand: unquestioning Bible study, and unquestioning adherence to certain political ideologies.
And what is the political ideology that has been blindly followed by the executive branch of the federal government? It seems to me that the current Bush administration adheres to the ideology that government is essentially a bad thing, whereas selfishness is a good thing; this goes back to what we were talking about earlier, an ideology that proclaims the virtue of selfishness, in opposition to the notion that government is an exercise in selflessness. It also seems to me that the current Bush administration represents an attempt to impose the ideology of a certain brand of evangelical, conservative Christianity on an entire nation, a form of Christianity that is opposes abortion, that is anti-gay, and above all that doesn’t believe in providing help or charity to poor people.
Let me expand on that last point. If you have been watching conservative Christianity over the past few decades, you will have noticed that something called “prosperity Christianity” has dominance. Prosperity Christianity teaches that God wants you to be prosperous, and that if you will just believe in the right kind of God and pray hard, you too will become rich. One scholar of religion defines it this way: “Prosperity Christianity may… be interpreted as a psychological reaction to theological pessimism combined with a willingness to embrace the benefits of rampant American capitalism.” [New Religions: A Guide ed. Christopher Partridge [Oxford, 2004], p. 91] It’s a very convenient kind of religion, because you don’t have to give any of your own money to poor people, you just have to tell them to come to your church, believe in your God, and then they will become rich — and if they don’t come to your church, well I suppose then they deserve their poverty. I’m sure you will notice that prosperity Christianity celebrates the virtue of selfishness.
The opposite of rigid ideology is pragmatism. Whereas the ideologue believes in ignoring facts and sticking to ideology, the pragmatist believes that when facts contradict a hypothesis, you change the hypothesis in order to take into account the facts. In the world of religion, the ideologues include the fundamentalists who deny the fact of evolution because it doesn’t match their ideology, it doesn’t match their creed. In the world of religion, we Unitarian Universalists would count ourselves among the pragmatists; we were among the first religious movements to acknowledge that Charles Darwin’s theories were correct, and to modify our religious beliefs accordingly. In politics, the ideologues are the dogmatic ones who hold to their political beliefs the way the fundamentalists hold on to their religious beliefs. The political pragmatists, on the other hand, do have high ideals but they recognize the need to modify their behavior when circumstances dictate. From my vantage point, both major presidential candidates were more pragmatic than ideological. Both John McCain and Barack Obama have showed their willingness to change their opinions over time in the face of facts; and neither one of them seemed blind to the realities of the world around them.
I have hopes that this means our country is moving away from the myth that a rigid ideology is good. We have not been served well by the ideologues. Our current failure in Iraq seems to me to have resulted from our country’s inability to face the facts. The current global financial meltdown seems to me to have resulted from our country’s insistence on a rigid ideology of self-interest and selfishness, in the face of lots of evidence that that ideology was not effective. The real strength of American thinking has always been our reliance on pragmatism; and I have hopes that we are now turning away from ideology and towards pragmatism.
Thus, in conclusion, I believe this election has been a historic election — at least, it has been historic insofar as it represents a change in our national mythos. We have witnessed at least three changes in our collective popular mythology:–
First, as of January 20, we will have a president who is black, a president who is the son of an immigrant; we will have a black family living in the White House, a family that has historically provided images that help to shape our image of what it means to be an American. This is the biggest and most immediate change, a positive change in the evolving American mythology of who is a “real American.”
Second, I believe we are witnessing a shift away from selfishness as the highest value. While we Unitarian Universalists value individual freedom, we also know that selfishness isn’t necessary for freedom, and we have been skeptical of the ultimate virtue of selfishness. Thus we welcome what appears to be a change in the evolving mythology of American individualism — a change away from mere individualistic selfishness, and towards individualism within an inescapable network of mutuality.
Third, I believe we have witnessed the triumph of pragmatism over ideology. This movement away from blind obedience to a set of ideas will return us to our great strength as Americans, the strength of pragmatism.
May all three of these changes lead us all further along the path of goodness and justice.