Walking with the Wind: A Sermon on Our Fragile Democracy

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, NJ

In June of this year, a bipartisan group of over 100 individuals with backgrounds that include two former governors, senior political campaigners, prominent journalists, social movement leaders, experts on national security, election law, and more, came together over three days to test the integrity of our democracy. 

They explored four possible scenarios:

·      a win for the incumbent by Electoral College, but not by popular vote (like last cycle);

·      a clear win for the challenger;

·      a narrow win for the challenger; and

·      an outcome too close to confirm a winner the morning after Election Day.

The purpose was not to predict winner or loser, but to identify weak spots in our democracy with an eye toward mitigation now.  As many of us fear, it turns out our democracy is more fragile than we would like.

Earlier this month, they issued a report that revealed alarming (their word) insights, including that the concept of “election night” is both no longer accurate and dangerous AND that we must anticipate a rocky transition period should there be a change in the presidency. Writer David Frum described the conclusions in the following way:

The bottom line: There do exist outer legal boundaries to the mischief that can be done by even the most corrupt president. The bad news is that there is A LOT of mischief that can be done within the legal boundaries by a determined president, especially with the compliance of the attorney general and enough political allies in the state capitals.

It’s sobering. So sobering.

~~~

The last words that John Lewis – 17-term Congressman from Georgia; long-time civil rights leader who was on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on Bloody Sunday; who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom — wrote to our nation are ones that were published on the day of his funeral, July 30, not even a month ago. It is a moving piece and if you have not yet read it, I commend it to you.

In it he said that democracy is not a state, it is an act.

In it he said that each generation must do its part to help build Beloved Community.

In it he invited us all to walk with the wind.

Like many others, has also invited us to remember that no matter who occupies the White House, threats to our democracy are rooted deep within our nation’s origins for, as Ta-Naheisi Coates reminds us, it was not only the genocide of Native peoples but also the erection of a slave society, which created the economic foundation for America’s great experiment in democracy.

this is the opening story at the beginning of the worship service. it comes from the prologue to John Lewis’ memoir.

It is the end of August. One political party’s convention has just ended and another’s is about to take place. In some ways, this sermon is a follow up to one I gave last November: Healing the Heart of Democracy.

I am preaching to you about this now because there is still time to do something.  Though not much time. 

I am preaching to you about this now because Unitarian Universalism is guided by our Seven Principles and the Fifth one affirms democratic processes not only in our congregations, but in society at large. 

I am preaching to you about this now because the 671 mail sorting machines that were taken off line so far this year – 150% more than last year and 400% more than the year before that – by the USPS were strategically and not coincidentally from those states that will decide both the presidential race and key Senate seats.[i]

I am preaching to you about this now, because as overwhelmed with the pandemic and our own personal lives as we may be, we cannot pay attention to this state of affairs just by watching television and social media, shouting at the pundits or the latest news, and then sinking back into to our demanding lives. We cannot let the terror some of us are feeling – many of you have shared it with me – that we are losing our democracy in front of our eyes – we cannot let the state of terror or rage be our only response. We must act.

In our Time For All Ages story, John Lewis referenced the parallels between this summer and the summers of the late 1960s, when there were also uprisings in the face of structural racial inequity in the nation.  In the report from the Transitions Integrity Project, they note that our nation’s closest experience to the contention of this election cycle was the 1876 election.  The TIP report describes it as

a time of extreme partisanship and rampant disenfranchisement, where multiple states proffered competing slates of electors, and the election was only resolved through a grand political bargain days before Inauguration—one that traded an end to Reconstruction for electoral peace and resulted in a century of Jim Crow, leaving deep wounds that are far from healed today.

~~~

That same TIP report tells us that the risks they identify can be mitigated.  It states that the worst-case scenarios that played out in their three-day experience need not come to fruition.  That they explored the possibilities and raised their clarion call to “spur all stakeholders to action.”  In their words:

Our legal rules and political norms don’t work unless people are prepared to defend them and to speak out when others violate them.

Spur all stakeholders to action.  ALL STAKEHOLDERS.  That’ us, right? Don’t we all hold a stake in the integrity of our democracy?  Isn’t this a call for each of us to act?

If you are already taking action in this arena, I welcome the chance to those hopeful stories. Actions beyond posting on social media.  Perhaps you have found a group that resonates with your sense of politics and are phone-banking or text-banking or writing postcards.  Perhaps you are attending local NAACP meetings where they are strategizing about how to ensure the widest access to voting.  Perhaps you have written letters or signed petitions to save the integrity of the United States Postal Service, given the shift to mail-in ballots, given the risks posed in areas where there will be Covid hot spots come early November.

Donating as part of this morning’s Be The Change is an act of supporting the re-enfranchisement of people in Florida, particularly when they are facing obstacles placed in front of their right to vote by the state legislature after the people voted to return the right to vote to citizens returning home from prison

How else can we live into our Fifth Principle?  As I raised to you last November, I want to raise to you again the organized efforts by our faith movement called UU the Vote. As part of our UU General Assembly this past June, UU the Vote made 117,000 calls to voters in Texas to help them overcome voter suppression. There continue to be many ways, small and large, that each of you, or small groups of you, can enter into strengthening the resilience of our nation’s democracy. 

For instance, there are phone banking opportunities to help get the vote out in Florida, including one THIS Tuesday night that you can register to take part in. There are other dates, other states, all in the next two plus months. Or postcard and letter writing efforts done together over zoom to provide fellowship and a sense of community.  Or efforts that focus just next door, in Pennsylvania. Put “uu the vote” into any search engine and explore. Get a couple of other TUSians together on Zoom and help our congregation live into our values and principles!

~~~

Let me close with these words from John Lewis’ final message to us:

Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.

Let us clasp our metaphorical hands together and move towards that corner of our collective house that is weakest, bringing the weight of our presence as a saving act – one of many saving acts that save our democracy and, as Mr. John Lewis says, redeems the soul of our nation.

May it be so. Amen.

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