a sermon by the Rev. J. Mark Worth
In the 1950s Rev. A. Powell Davies, who served All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C., opposed McCarthyism and called himself “an unrepentant liberal.” In the decades since, liberalism has been criticized to the point that some liberals won’t admit to being liberal. What does it mean to be a political or religious liberal? What are the values our nation needs today?
- From George Washington, Letter to Roman Catholics in the United States, March 15, 1790:
“As mankind become more liberal, they will be more apt to allow that all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the community are equally entitled to the protections of civil government. I hope ever to see America among the foremost nations in examples of justice and liberality.”
- From Forrest Church, God and Other Famous Liberals, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1991:
“Who is the most famous liberal of all time? It simply has to be God. No one is more generous, bounteous, or misunderstood. Not to mention profligate. Take a look at creation. God is a lavish and indiscriminate host. There is too much of everything: creatures, cultures, languages, stars; more galaxies than we can count; more asteroids in the heavens than grains of sand on the earth. … Every word I conjure for God is a synonym for liberal. God is munificent and open handed. The creation is exuberant, lavish, even prodigal. … Liberal images such as these … also characterize the spirit, if not always the letter, of the Bible, which teaches us that God is love.”
Some wit has pointed out that there are two types of people in the world: those who divide the world into two types of people, and those who don’t!
And Rabbi Michael Lerner, in his book, The Left Hand of God, says that the world has been dominated by two world-views. On the one hand is the voice of fear that says that there are only so many resources to go around, so you should get your slice of the pie now. The voice of fear says that someone, maybe Mexicans, maybe Muslims – maybe a dark-skinned man with the middle name Hussein – is coming to take your guns away and destroy all we hold dear. The voice of fear says God is judgmental, and you must follow the rules, accept certain dogmas, and then you can be one of God’s chosen. Rabbi Lerner calls this view, “the Right Hand of God.”
But the voice of fear is not the only religious voice. There is another world-view. It’s the voice of hope. The voice of hope is what Rabbi Lerner calls “the Left Hand of God.” In Judaism and Christianity, the voice of hope begins with the first chapter of the Bible, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). Yes, there are bad things in the world, there is anger and violence, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Evil can be overcome and that we need not live in fear.
Whether or not the word “God” works for you, we Unitarian Universalists emphasize the voice of hope over the voice of fear. We see hope in every sunrise and in the birth of every baby. We see awe and wonder in the colors of the changing seasons. Unitarian Universalism calls us to appreciate the past and yet not be stuck in it; to see miracles in the natural and the everyday; to broaden our horizons by learning from science, sociology, philosophy, and the world’s religions.
What is liberalism?
There is an old New England tradition of preachers delivering election sermons. And as we approach election day, I’ve taken my sermon title, “The Faith of an Unrepentant Liberal,” from the late Rev. A. Powell Davies, who served All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington D.C. during the “Red Scare” and blacklisting days of the 1950s. Davies was both defiant and hopeful at a time when Senator Joe McCarthy was telling us to fear Communist conspiracies in the government, in Hollywood, in our schools and churches. Rev. Davies rejected McCarthyism and its scare tactics, and he proclaimed himself an “unrepentant liberal.”
In recent decades the word “liberal” has been under such unrelenting attack that some liberals
don’t like to admit being liberals. And yet liberalism is a great American tradition – it’s the tradition of Founding Fathers like Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and James Madison. It’s the tradition of political visionaries like Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. It is the tradition of the abolitionists, the suffragists, and gay rights activists: Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, William Lloyd Garrison, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Rosa Parks, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Bayard Rustin, Harry Hay, Morris Kight, Harvey Milk, and others.
But what is liberalism? The word “liberal” is closely related to the word “liberty.” Liberalism, therefore, holds liberty and freedom dear. According to the dictionary, liberal means broad-minded, favoring proposals for reform, free from bigotry, not authoritarian or orthodox; not strict or literal; generous, ample. Liberalism is rooted in hope for a better future.
The Declaration of Independence, which says that “all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” including the rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” is one of the sacred scriptures of political liberalism.
Liberalism promotes representative democracy: the rule of law and equality under the law; free elections; freedom of assembly, speech, press, and religion; limitations on government power; an independent judiciary; tolerance of difference; and the right of working men and women to organize unions to gain a living wage and safe working conditions.
What is the fruit of liberalism? Liberals gave us the Bill of Rights, and extended the vote to men who did not own property, to people of color, and to women. Liberals abolished slavery, fought against racial segregation, gave us a public school system, national parks, the interstate highway system, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act. Conservatives said “no” to many, and perhaps most, of these reforms.
Liberalism and religion ~
Our nation needs both liberals and conservatives, just as a car needs both an accelerator and brakes. We need to keep talking, and listening, to one another. Over the years I believe my liberalism has been influenced and improved by listening to conservatives.
In my teens and twenties I went through a period where I rejected the Bible, the flag, and the family, symbols of all that I thought was wrong with America. But not today. Now I agree with my late colleague, Rev. Forrest Church, who said that he would not cede the powerful symbols of faith, flag, and family over to the Religious Right. They belong to us as much as they do to the right, maybe more. And if we say we are against faith, that we are not patriots, and that we don’t care about the family, then we have already lost the struggle for the heart and soul of this nation.
In fact, we are for the flag. We liberals love this nation and the good that it stands for and can be and do. We want our nation to be prosperous and safe at home, to be smart in our foreign policy – not stingy at home and stupidly aggressive abroad.
We are for faith. Reasonable faith, religious freedom and religious diversity, are vital to us; we support a hopeful religion of compassion, ethical living, service, and justice – not a fearful and closed- minded religion of dogma and distrust.
And we are for family. We know that the “Leave It to Beaver” family of 1950s television – straight, white, a mother and father, two and a half children and a dog – was never representative of most families. There are many kinds of families, and we affirm that diversity.
We are for the right to marry. Marriage promotes commitment, fidelity, family stability, and it provides a place for the nurturing of children. These values are good for straight couples and they are good for same-sex couples. We support marriage so much we think gay people should have the same opportunity to marry that straight people have. It’s not us, but the right-wingers, who are fearful of letting adults get married to the person they love.
We support family values. In our families, everyone is valued. Women are valued as well as men. Black, white, gay, straight, transgender – all should be valued and respected. And so yes, I’m for flag, faith, and family! Liberalism is good Americanism!
What is liberal religion?
Liberal religion is a religious tradition that embraces theological diversity, rather than following a single creed. Liberal religion is about how we live our lives; it’s not about doctrine or “theological correctness.” Liberal religion builds on the past, yet is open to new truths. Liberal religion is optimistic: we find hope in the ultimate abundance of the universe. Liberal religion affirms our moral obligation to work toward a just, inclusive, and loving society.
When we study Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Islam, we learn to appreciate their differences and similarities, and the wisdom of these various faiths, how they sometimes disagree, and sometimes compliment one another.
We use our reason when studying any religious text, whether it’s the Torah, the New Testament, the Qur’an, the Tao te Ching, or the Buddhist Sutras. The Bible is a great religious classic, the foundational library of Judaism and Christianity, written by many human authors, written in ancient languages and in various literary styles. The Bible is a conversation about God. Religious liberals like to continue the conversation.
And this might not be how you get to liberalism, but I get there through my understanding that Jesus was a liberal. What can we say about him? Well, Jesus never read the New Testament – it hadn’t been written yet. He never preached about Original Sin, never mentioned the Rapture, and never explained the Doctrine of the Trinity. He never said anything about abortion. He didn’t preach against same-sex relationships.
But he did say, “Let the one without sin cast the first stone” [John 8:7], “Judge not, so that you will not be judged” [Matt. 7:1], and “Take the log out of your own eye before you try to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye ” [Luke 6:41].
He broke the Sabbath laws, healing the sick and gathering food on the Sabbath [Mark 2:23-27]. He respected women, taught women, and women traveled with his entourage [Luke 8:13]. He hung out with society’s outsiders, including tax collectors and drunks [Matt. 11:19]. He rejected greed, the glorification of power, and the amassing of wealth without social justice.
He taught that God has a preference for poor people. He said, “Blessed are you who are poor … and woe to you who are rich” [Luke 6:20-26]. And, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” [Matt. 19:24].
He taught peace, saying, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” [Matt. 5:9] and “Put away your sword, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” [Matt. 26:52].
In the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew he gave his only description of the Last Judgment. On that day, he said, there will be only one issue: Whether you fed the hungry, clothed the naked, gave drink to the thirsty, comforted the sick, visited those in prison, welcomed the stranger [Matt. 25:31-46]. It’s not about what doctrines you believe, it’s not about the church you go to, and it’s not about what party you vote for. It’s about how you live your life.
That’s why I say Jesus was a liberal. Not a modern man or a modern liberal, but liberal for his time and place in history.
I’m the son of a Methodist minister, and grew up with these images of Jesus, this liberal Jesus. Since my childhood I’ve learned much from science, philosophy, sociology, and world religions. I have rejected many dogmas and the trappings of my childhood religion that no longer make sense. Yet the basis of my faith remains the liberal ethic taught by my favorite philosopher, the rabbi Jesus of Nazareth – the essence of his religion – an ethic of kindness, compassion, service, and justice that I learned from my Methodist family and Sunday school.
And that’s why I favor a government that acts with compassion and generosity. Okay, conservatives point out, correctly, that Jesus never actually said that the government should be compassionate. That’s true. But Jesus didn’t live in the United States. He lived in the Roman Empire.
Do you remember who won the election for President of the Roman Empire in 30 A.D.? Nobody. They didn’t elect presidents. It was a military dictatorship!
But we have a representative government. We can and should have a government that reflects our values, one that provides good schools, that works to alleviate poverty and cares for children, that cares for people who are sick, elderly, homeless. To love your neighbor as yourself means that your neighbor matters. His health care matters. Her Social Security matters.
So I believe we must be a nation where the Statue of Liberty still welcomes immigrants hoping to find a better life, and refugees desperately fleeing war and oppression. We must protect religious liberty, especially the liberty of religious minorities such as our Muslim neighbors. We must be a nation that works in cooperation with international agencies, faces the challenges climate change, promotes international peace, respects the rights of our indigenous peoples, and keeps its promises to our veterans – a nation that reflects our compassion and our hopes for the future.
This election year has been more tense, more stressful, more anxiety-ridden than normal. The top four candidates all seem to have major flaws. In particular, we have a candidate who says that if he is elected he will remove judges, silence the press, and jail his opponent. He crosses over the line of morally acceptable behavior with his comments about women, his mocking of people with disabilities, disrespecting our POWs, fear-mongering about immigrants, Muslims, and refugees, and his insults directed against any and all who disagree with him. This is not acceptable behavior, and certainly not from one who wants to lead our nation.
We have seen this election eroding social trust. And I confess to you that I have been concerned about my own anger with those who make excuses for what I consider to be morally unacceptable behavior. Our faith must be big enough to hold the anger, doubt, and anxiety and not be overcome by it. We Americans are better that this year’s political campaign. We must be a voice of reason, and a voice of hope, and most of all a voice of love. Love heals.
I recommend that if you are feeling stress, be the change you want to see. Smile at someone. Welcome a stranger. Show compassion. Keep hope alive. And please vote.