I talked about the election last week, and I want to talk about the election again this week - - just one more week, and then we’ll get back to more mundane, more explicitly religious topics.
But first a few preliminaries about why I want to talk about this again and about why I think this indeed a religious topic and so appropriate for me to talk about this morning.
As a Unitarian Universalist, I believe that the purpose of our lives is to grow spiritually, and I believe that growing spiritually involves us learning to live with ever greater compassion and connection, awe and gratitude, forgiveness and acceptance, as well as hope and commitment to worthy goals.
So if we take this task of growing spiritually seriously, it will never be enough for us to be navel-gazing bliss ninnies, focusing on a purely private path of spiritual growth. If we take this task seriously, the task of growing our own souls will naturally lead us to care about and be involved in the public life as well as the political life of our communities, our state, our nation, and the world.
Having said that, let me also say that there is no one way that any Unitarian Universalist should be expected to feel about last week’s election. One can be a good Unitarian Universalist and prefer either the Democratic Party or the Republican Party or a third party. I myself did not vote a straight ticket in last Tuesday’s election. I made one grand old choice when I voted. Being a religious liberal does not mean being a Democrat who prays. One can be also be a good Unitarian Universalist and not stick to one particular position on social issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion, and gun control.
As Unitarian Universalists, we may agree together on the end of creating a more compassionate and just world, but we may disagree with one another in good conscience about the specifics of what a more compassionate and just world looks like as well as how to get there from here. In dealing with those whose religious or political beliefs are different than ours, our ideals call us to practice humility towards our own beliefs, tolerance of those whose beliefs are different than ours, and even openness to ideas that are different from ours. Regarding this, let me say that as a congregation, I think we are doing better than we have in the past, but still have work to do. The humility part seems especially difficult for many of us.
Having said that, I also know, if only from the bumper stickers on the cars in the parking lot, that the majority of Unitarian Universalists, both within this congregation and nationwide, are not only religiously liberal but are also rather politically liberal and are rather tickled with the outcome of last week’s election. In fact, a few of you seemed so giddy on Wednesday that I was afraid you had forgotten that Initiative 502 doesn’t go into effect until December.
With these preliminaries out of the way, let me offer some reflections on this past week’s election, reflections I offer from a liberal religious perspective.
First off, I am so happy about the approval of Referendum 74, which will now allow same-sex marriage in Washington State. I expect by the end of this year, I will be able to legally sign a marriage license for a same-sex couple in this sanctuary. But beyond the positive effect our state’s new law will have on people I know and care about, I think the approval of Referendum 74 reminds us of some important things.
There is now a rug in the Oval Office of the White House with a quotation inscribed on it. “The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice.” The quotation is attributed to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. However, the phrase originated with Theodore Parker, the 19th century Unitarian minister, whom King greatly admired. Parker spent much of his ministerial career as an abolitionist, working tirelessly to end the evil of slavery. However, he died at the age of 49 in 1860 before slavery was abolished.
I so admire Parker, but I also know it’s hard to follow in his footsteps. As someone who cares about compassion and justice in our society, it is sometimes so easy to despair. It is sometimes so easy to overestimate the powers of ignorance, fear, intolerance, of misguided religious piety. It is sometimes so easy to think that the world will never change, at least within our lifetimes.
Yet the approval of Referendum 74 reminds us of something important. I was born in June of 1969. The Stonewall Riots, the beginning of the gay rights movement, started in New York City about a week after my birth. I am now 43 years old. In the course of those 43 years, our GLBT brothers and sisters have gone from being marginalized, feared, despised, scapegoats for our society’s problems to being respected members of our society who have come very close to enjoying legal equality. The approval of Referendum 74 reminds us that while the moral arc of the universe is indeed sometimes long, it’s sometimes not quite as long as we think.
My hope is that in the coming days, months, and years, all of us will remember this past’s week’s victory. My hope is that in the future when we are tempted to despair, we will not give into despair, but remember that change can even happen within our own lifetimes. My hope is that we will remember that the forces of ignorance, fear, intolerance, and misguided piety are not as powerful strong as we think. I hope especially that the youngest among us today - - perhaps some of those in this congregation - - will realize that some political or social ideal that seems like a true impossibility today may be possible to achieve within your lifetimes.
The approval of Referendum 74 reminds us of something else too. In some ways, the approval of Referendum 74 is a mere symbolic victory. In 2009, Washington State approved our “everything-but-marriage act,” creating civil unions that gave same-sex couples all of the same rights as different-sex couples. To the best of my understanding, Referendum 74 gives same sex couples in Washington State nothing new, except, that is, dignity, which is perhaps the most important thing of all.
Jesus said that we as human beings do not live by bread alone, meaning that we have spiritual needs as well as material needs. In Francis Fukuyama’s book The End of History, he argues that the human yearning for dignity is in fact the driving force in human history. In my own thinking, though, it’s easy for me to forget how important something as intangible as dignity is, but upon reflection, I realize how many of the conflicts that still exist on this planet are about the struggle for human dignity - - from Washington State to the Middle East. Upon reflection, I realize that we will never truly live in peace on this planet until every human can look at every other human being and say, “You are my moral equal. You have as much worth and dignity as I do.” Referendum 74 is one more step in that direction.
One more comment about Referendum 74. The United States of America has a long history of having a demonized other, of having a scapegoat, of having somebody to conveniently point at for the woes of our country. In the 1940s, it was the Jews; in the 1950s, Communists; in the 1960s; African-Americans; in the 1970s, feminists; since the 1980s, gays; since September 11, Muslims; more recently immigrants - - at least until Tuesday night when pundits start looking at the impact of the Hispanic vote. I am so glad that our GLBT brothers and sisters are finally being treated with more dignity. My only worry is this: Have we as a nation finally reached the point where we will deal with the real causes of our problems, the real threats to our children, our families, and our communities, or will we soon choose yet another demonized other, another scapegoat. Who might be next?
I think there are several other things to be happy about as a result of last week’s election, not all of them so obvious.
For example, despite Super PACs and the $6 billion dollars spent on campaigns for federal offices, big money didn’t always win. I think this is a good sign for our democracy.
Young people and racial minorities voted in larger than expected numbers. I think this is a good sign for our democracy.
From January 20 out of the 100 U.S. Senators will be women, a record number. I think this is a good sign for our democracy.
For the first time ever, a Buddhist will serve in the U.S. Senate and a Hindu in congress. I think these are good signs for our democracy.
Of course, President Obama was re-elected. I’m not assuming that all of us are happy about this, but as I said, I know many of us are. Personally speaking, more than anything else, I’m relieved. I think I’m relieved most of all because it now looks like our new healthcare law will at least stay in place, that millions of people without healthcare may soon have healthcare.
Yet while I’m relieved, I’m not terribly optimistic about what may or may not happen during the next four years. In many ways, despite all the hullabaloo of the election, despite the $6 billion that was spent, we still have a Democratic president, a Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate, a Republican majority in the U.S. House, as well as a deeply divided, polarized country.
Do you know what I would like to happen?
Let me share a story.
As you know, this past summer, I spent three weeks in Japan. Japan is always very hot and humid in August. Japanese summers are even hotter and more humid than those I remember growing up in the Midwest. But something made this past summer even more trying.
As most of you know, in March of 2011, there was big earthquake and tsunami in northeast Japan. As a result of that disaster, some of Japan’s nuclear reactors were severely damaged and many others were shutdown out of safety concerns about what could happen during another natural disaster. Many of them are still shutdown. Only two out of the country’s 50 reactors are now online. Many Japanese are hoping that these nuclear reactors will never start up again. So the entire nation is engaged in making drastic changes to save energy.
When I was in Japan this summer, though it was in the 90s everyday, my mother-in-law and father-in-law tried to use their air conditioning as little as possible. We took cool showers before going to bed at night and often went to sleep with ice pillows, but to tell the truth, for three weeks I never quite stopped sweating.
When I visited places like movie theaters and shopping malls, there was air conditioning, but these places had their thermostats set at about 82 degrees, which wasn’t very cool. It offered a momentary respite after walking inside a building from the hot street, but soon started to feel fairly warm. I learned that even in the executive suites of Japanese largest corporations - - where the Japanese 1 percent spend their time - - the thermostats were set at about 82 degrees. Japanes salarymen even started wearing Hawaiian shirts in place of suits, shirts, and ties - - which is an incredible change.
This is all to say that when I was in Japan this summer, I witnessed and even experienced a sense of national unity, of shared purpose, and even shared sacrifice - - sacrifice by the powerful and the not powerful, by the elite and the ordinary, by the rich and by the poor.
What I would like to happen is for the United States to be able to be able to work together with the same sense of unity, shared purpose, and shared sacrifice on our common problems as Japan is doing with one of its common problems.
But to tell the truth, I can’t imagine what’s now happening in Japan happening in the U.S. now or anytime soon. Can you?
Why? As an American, as a citizen of the United States, I have never experienced that sense of national unity, shared purpose, and especially shared sacrifice. I didn’t experience it after 9/11 - - which was so quickly politicized. I don’t remember Neil Armstrong landing on the moon. I’d venture to say that most Americans probably haven’t experienced what I’m talking about - - this sense of national unity, shared purpose, and shared sacrifice - - since World War II.
This makes me sad. I have to say I’m almost a little envious of my wife who is a Japanese citizen.
Washington State now can lay claim to being the most socially liberal state in the United States. With the legalization of same-sex marriage, marijuana, and assisted suicide, as a state, we are now more socially liberal than either Oregon or California. Personally speaking, I’m glad to live here.
But on the other hand, I’m tired of feeling so cut off from large parts of the rest of the country. I’m tired of feeling we are living not just in different states, but on different planets, or more accurately, like we are living in alternate moral universes.
Steven Spielberg’s biopic of Lincoln has just come out in theaters, and I’m looking forward to seeing it, but when I look at the divisions on the latest electoral map, I’m tired of occasionally wondering if Lincoln’s efforts to save the union were worth it. I’m tired of feeling that in this country we have way too much e pluribus and not quite enough unum.
I know I’m not the only one that feels this way. When I was driving out to Port Towsend a few weeks ago, I was listening to NPR, and I listened to an interview with a woman at a café in Idaho. This woman was on the opposite side of the political spectrum as I am, but I remember her speaking of a similar yearning for a sense of national unity.
In addition to making me sad, our country’s divisiveness and polarization worry me. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that I think our country’s biggest challenge during these next four years - - more important than the fiscal cliff, more important than the economy, more important than immigration reform, is somehow regaining that national sense of “us.”
How do we rediscover, how do we re-create “us”? How do we re-create a nation that is capable of feeling national unity, acting with shared purpose, and is capable of shared sacrifice?
I stand before you this morning with no easy answers. I could mutter platitudes about not demonizing one another, about affirming that those who differ from us politically are decent human beings and love their country just as much as we do. I could talk about the importance of seeking common ground despite our differences.
Yet somehow, all of this seems vague and inadequate, especially when even now, less than a week after the election, the headlines I see in newspaper scream “gridlock,” “stalemate,” and “paralysis” in big bold words.
So here I stand before you. Joyous about Referendum 74. Relieved about the presidential election, but not optimistic about the next four years, and yet hopeful. I can’t help but being hopeful.
Sometimes when we see a problem before us, a clear solution is obvious. But sometimes it isn’t. I’m pretty sure that when Theodore Parker was trying to abolish slavery, he couldn’t even imagine a day when the country would re-elect its first African-American president, never mind how that might happen. I’m pretty sure that when those Stonewall protesters took to the street in New York City, they couldn’t even imagine a day when same-sex marriage would be legal in several states, never mind how that might happen.
Sometimes all we can do is lift up our hope. Or in the words of Raplph Helverson in our reading this morning, sometimes the only answer is to do all that we can, and then in confidence entrust ourselves to the life that is larger than ourselves.
That’s what I’m doing this morning, lifting up my hope that once again our nation will discover the oneness amidst our many differences and be able to work together again for the common good of the world we share.
So may it be. Amen.