The Moral Arc of the Universe

a sermon by Rev. J. Mark Worth


Five times in the history of the United States the voters have chosen one candidate for president, but the Electoral College, or in one case the U.S. House of Representatives, has chosen someone else. As we ponder the results of this fifth time the voters have chosen one candidate, and the Electoral College will choose a different person to be president, what gives us hope for the future?


  1. From Rev. Theodore Parker, from a sermon, “Of Justice and the Conscience,” published in 1853. “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice. Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just.”
  2. From Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968). I don’t know the source of this quote: “We must accept finite disappointment but never lose infinite hope.”


Five times in the history of the United States the voters have chosen one candidate for president, but the Electoral College, or in one case the U.S. House of Representatives, has chosen someone else.

In 1824 Andrew Jackson won the support of the largest number of voters in a four-way race, but with no winner in the Electoral College, the House of Representatives chose John Quincy Adams to be president. In 1876 Samuel J. Tilden won the popular vote, but Rutherford B. Hayes won the Electoral vote and became president. In 1888 Grover Cleveland won the popular vote, but Benjamin Harrison won the Electoral College. In 2000 Al Gore won the most votes, but George W. Bush won the Electoral College. And now in 2016 Hillary Clinton had the support of the largest number of voters, but Donald Trump is slated to win the Electoral College.

Now, I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy theorist here, but there’s something Andrew Jackson, Samuel Tilden, Grover Cleveland, Al Gore, and Hillary Clinton all have in common besides the fact that each of them won the popular vote and someone else became president. It is that every one of them was a Democrat.

So let’s put it this way. Yes, Donald Trump is right about at least one thing. The system is rigged. It was rigged in Trump’s favor when he was born white, male, heterosexual, and incredibly wealthy. It was rigged in his favor every time his father bailed out one of his business failures. It was rigged every time his wealth and power allowed him to get away with his sexually abusive behavior. The system has been rigged in Donald Trump’s favor all of his life in so many ways that I won’t bore you with the details. And yes, this year our dysfunctional election process rigged the system to favor Donald Trump.

Why do we even have an Electoral College? Remember, when we wrote our Constitution, this was something no one had ever done before! How would we organize this new thing, a representative government? We decided to have a House of Representatives, elected by the people, which meant white men who in some states also had to be property owners.

And we decided to have a Senate elected, not by the people, but by state legislatures. And it remained that way for about 100 years before we decided to let the people elect their Senators.
And what will we call our king who will not be a king? We decided that he is the one who presides so he will be the president. And in his wisdom, George Washington said he did not want to be called, “Your Highness,” or “Your Majesty.” “Mr. President” will do just fine.

Then how should we elect the president? Certainly we can’t just let the people vote! The people, even an all male electorate, were thought to be a rabble. Maybe Congress should elect him, the Founding Fathers said. But Congress might be too political, and may contain special interests and factions, so a second Congress was created, and it was called the Electoral College. And it has only
one job, electing a president.

And how would we elect the Electoral College? It was to be elected, like the Senate, by state legislatures. They would elect proper gentlemen to be Electors, and the Electors would elect a most proper gentleman to be president. So when George Washington was elected, there was no national election as we know it. The state legislatures selected their Electors, and the Electors selected George Washington. It was later that, state by state, we started letting the voters elect the Electoral College. And the Electoral College, by its nature, gave extra weight to white voters in the slave states, because slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person but could not vote. And after the Civil War it again favored the whites in the Southern states, because black people were disenfranchised, but were counted toward the Electoral College votes. And it still favors more rural and conservative states today. So many people don’t want to change the system, and it is difficult to change, so we haven’t done it.

This year the voters selected Hillary Clinton by a very narrow margin. I take solace and strength from that. It was close, but more people voted for Hillary than any other candidate. In any other nation in the world, that would be a win. However, the Electoral College will choose Donald Trump to be the next president of the United States. We can complain that the system is rigged, but that isn’t going to change the fact that Mr. Trump will be our next president.

I say it was planned by a woman named Kay (Que). “Que sera, sera. What will be will be.” So, what now? I know that many of us are disappointed. I’m disappointed. Trump’s Electoral College victory seems to legitimize anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim prejudice. It gives encouragement to conspiracy theorists, crazy “birthers,” racists of all kinds, and the most vile kind of sexism. It puts the power of the presidency into the hands of a con artist, someone who has never served his country or sacrificed in any way up until now, who has no governmental experience, who has only a passing knowledge of world affairs, and seems to either not know the difference between truth and a lie, or does not care. And still – I hope he surprises us and turns out to be a good president, or at least one who does not do too much damage.

The other day Hillary Clinton said, “We must accept this result and then look to the future. Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.”
President Obama called on Americans to move forward with the presumption of good faith in our fellow citizens. “Sometimes you lose an argument, sometimes you lose an election. But the path this country has taken has never been a straight line. We zig and zag,” said Obama.

Finite disappointment ~

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who faced disappointment time after time, said, “We must accept finite disappointment but must never lose infinite hope.” Let’s say that again: “We must accept finite disappointment but must never lose infinite hope.”

What did he mean? He was saying that we cannot lose hope because disappointment is not forever. We have infinite hope because justice will come some day. Infinite hope, especially for those with religious convictions, is the antidote to overcoming temporary disappointment and hindrances to one’s important goals. Rev. Dr. King’s infinite hope, based on his religious beliefs, was not merely an emotional “pie in the sky” hope. King was a preacher, a liberal Christian, and had faith that somehow some day God would guide historical events to bring about justice in this world. And so he held to infinite hope for an eventual successful outcome for the Civil Rights Movement, despite the many temporary setbacks.

During the struggle to end racial Apartheid in South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu frequently told those in power, “We have already won! You think you are in charge, but you are not. You can delay justice for a while, but we have already won. And because our victory is real, the best thing you can do is to join the struggle now for a new South Africa.”

Archbishop Tutu and Rev. Dr. King had faith in the inevitability of God’s justice, but they also had faith in the ultimate justice of the people. People’s rights cannot be denied forever. Eventually
people will agitate for freedom and for justice, and will build a movement that will prevail.
Of course, there are competing visions of justice. White Southerners in the United States, and white South Africans, often had a different idea of what they thought was just. In the modern era we have seen very long and very difficult struggles to achieve the vote for women, to end slavery and racial segregation, and for anti-discrimination protections and the freedom to marry for gays and lesbians, to name a few. We Americans often disagree with one another. And, amidst many disappointments, justice doesn’t always seem inevitable.

The moral arc ~

In our long national struggle to end slavery, Rev. Theodore Parker, a Unitarian minister who served in West Roxbury and then in Boston, was one of the outstanding abolitionists of his time. Parker led public demonstrations that were nearly riots, protesting the Fugitive Slave Act that mandated the arrest and return to slavery of black men and women who had freed themselves and had moved to the North. Parker’s direct public actions, his organization of public protests, were so effective that Massachusetts stopped trying to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act.v

In a sermon published in 1853, Theodore Parker said, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

Years later someone anonymously made the statement more concise, rephrasing it as, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King repeated this phrase many times, sometimes putting it in quotation marks, sometimes attributing it to Theodore Parker. But the phrase became associated with Rev. King, and it is now on the carpet in President Obama’s Oval Office, where Rev. Parker’s words are attributed to Rev. King.

The road ahead ~

Yes, the moral arc of the universe is a long one. Can we make it bend toward justice? We will have to speak clearly to the incoming Trump Administration. Because, as religious liberals, we are convinced that women’s rights are human rights; gay rights are human rights. Black Americans who are stopped by the police have human rights that must be respected. Immigrants and refugees have human rights that we must respect. Religious freedom, including the freedom of our Muslim neighbors, is a human right that must be protected and respected.

And again, as religious liberals, we believe that human rights are natural rights. That is not to say that they rely on some particular creed or dogma, but that the only way that we can credibly assert human rights is with the assumption that human nature is moral and spiritual. We, as human beings, whether male or female, poor or rich, straight or gay, immigrant or native-born, have reached a stage where our moral and spiritual nature requires freedom and fairness; and in order for each person to exercise such freedom society must guarantee it. Because wherever this assumption is rejected it becomes clear that only might becomes right.

And so we must stand together. Sen. Bernie Sanders said the other day, “To the degree that Mr. Trump is serious about pursuing policies that improve the lives of working families in this country, I and other progressives are prepared to work with him. … [But] to the degree that he pursues racist, sexist, xenophobic and anti-environment policies, we will vigorously oppose him.”

I agree with Sen. Sanders. And I agree with Theodore Parker – the moral arc of the universe is long. Like him, I can’t see the end. But, as it was with Theodore Parker, Martin Luther King, and Desmond Tutu, I have faith that, using our hands and hearts and feet, we can put enough weight on that arc that we will bend it toward justice.