A sermon by Rev. J. Mark Worth Harvard Unitarian Universalist Church, Harvard, MA, May 29, 2016
READINGS: 1. From Mortimer J. Adler, We Hold These Truths: Understanding the Ideas and Ideals of the Constitution, 1987, Collier Books/MacMillan Publishing, New York NY:
Most Americans, I fear, do not know or appreciate the fact that citizenship is the primary political office under a constitutional government. In a republic, the citizens are the ruling class. They are the permanent and principle rulers. All other offices that are set up by the constitution are secondary.
- From Jon Meacham, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation, 2006, Random House, New York, NY:
Driven by a sense of providence and an acute appreciation of the fallibility of humankind, [the Founders] created a nation in which religion should not be singled out for special help or particular harm…. Faith and freedom are inextricably linked: It is not for priests or pastors or kings to compel belief, for to do so would trespass on our God-given liberty of mind and heart.
THE SERMON What does it mean for America to be great? Do we need to “make America great again”? On this Memorial Day weekend we remember and honor those died serving in the armed forces of the United States – going all the way back to the American Revolution. We honor those who have given their lives for our nation, its principles, and its liberties.
Our soldiers do not start the wars, nor do they choose the wars. Politicians decide when or where to go to war. We may disagree with those political decisions – in a democratic republic, we have a duty to discuss and debate such issues, and protest if we think it necessary. But whatever we might think of a particular war, we honor our soldiers, those who serve, especially those who have sacrificed their very lives for home, for country, for liberty.
This may bring to mind the slogan, “My country right or wrong!” It was first stated as a toast by Stephen Decatur, who actually said, “Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right, but right or wrong, our country!”
Yet I prefer the reply that came from Carl Schurz, who was a Union general in the American Civil War, and later served as U.S. Senator from Missouri. Schurz said, “My country right or wrong: When right to be kept right. When wrong, to be put right!”
In an 1859 speech on “The True Americanism,” Schurz talked about what makes our country great. He said that our nation “should not swagger about among the nations of the world with a chip on its shoulder, shaking its fist in everybody’s face… It should be slow to take offense. In its dealings with others it should have scrupulous regard, not only for their rights, but also for their self-respect. With all its latent resources for war, it should be the great power of peace in the world… It should seek to influence mankind, not by heavy artillery, but by good example and wise counsel. It should see its highest glory, not in battles won, but in wars prevented. It should be so invariably just and fair, so trustworthy, so good tempered, so conciliatory, that other nations would instinctively turn to it as their mutual friend and the natural adjuster of their differences, thus making it the greatest preserver of the world’s peace…” He went on, “Is this not good Americanism? It is surely today the Americanism of those who love their country most. And I fervently hope it will be and forever remain the Americanism of our children and our children’s children.”
Carl Schurz, a German immigrant, understood patriotism and Americanism better than most Americans do today. And on this Memorial Day weekend, in an election year, we ponder again what it
means for America to be a great nation.
Jefferson and liberty ~
Adopted on July 4, 1776, our Declaration of Independence declared, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”
These words, written by Thomas Jefferson, are the summation of our American creed. We Unitarian Universalists sometimes note that, toward the end of his life, Jefferson said that he believed that Unitarianism would soon become the general religion of the United States. He was a bit overly optimistic! And he wrote that, because there was not a Unitarian church close enough for him to join, he would be a Unitarian by himself. And so, although he never officially signed a membership book, Thomas Jefferson declared himself to be a Unitarian.
But let us also be cautious in our pride. Jefferson wrote brilliantly about liberty, and yet was a slaveholder all his life. He understood that slavery was the one issue that could potentially tear the nation apart. But he could not bring himself to come to terms with his own participation in the great injustice of slavery.
Fulfilling the promise of America ~
The Declaration of Independence says that “all men are created equal,” and yet in the early days of the republic, African-Americans could not vote, slaves could not vote, women could not vote, Native American Indians – the peoples of the “First Nations” – could not vote. In some states even white men could not vote if they were not property owners. Many of our Founding Fathers wanted to restrict the vote to well-educated white men – they feared that “mob rule” would result if just anybody could vote.
Abraham Lincoln understood that we had not lived up to the promise of the Declaration of Independence – we had not lived up to the statement that “all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…” And so Lincoln rightly opposed slavery – but even he struggled with the idea of full equality for African Americans.
After the Civil War many black and white Americans spoke eloquently for the rights of all men, regardless of color. But it took decades to give women the right to vote. Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Harriet Tubman did not live long enough to vote. And it wasn’t until 100 years after the Civil War that we passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, finally getting rid of the poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses that gave the illusion of being racially neutral, but had been deliberately designed, and had the result, to keep people of color from voting.
And the struggle is never over, because in recent years the Supreme Court has suspended parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and is once again allowing states to pass laws that give the illusion of racial neutrality, like voter I.D. laws, but are really designed to make it harder for Black people, brown people, poor people, and students, to vote.
Now, we’ve been talking about inalienable rights largely in terms of the right to vote. The right to vote is critical, but of course the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” cover much more than that.
There is still much to do to fulfill the promises of our founding documents. We have not yet achieved racial justice, including justice for the Native Americans. And we have failed to deal with the status of people who are sometimes referred to as “undocumented workers,” and by others are called “illegal aliens.”
Now, one presidential candidate – (Who here has read Harry Potter? Do you remember who “he-who-must-not be-named” is? Yes, Lord Voldemort) – “he-who-must-not-be-named says Mexican immigrants “have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with them. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” And this
candidate has even proposed a ban based on religion – to keep out all foreign Muslims, he says, until some vague indefinite point, “until our representatives can figure out what is going on,” he says, whatever that means.
Let’s contrast that with people who actually did make America great. In 1784, George Washington wrote that he didn’t care about the country of origin or the religion of workers he hired at Mount Vernon. “If they be good workmen, they may be of Asia, Africa, or Europe. They may be Mahometans [Muslims], Jews, or Christians of any Sect, or they may be Atheists.”
And Thomas Jefferson wrote that the Virginia Act for Religious Freedom, which he authored, was intended to protect the rights of “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mohammedan [Muslim], the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.” That is the message of our Founding Fathers: we are a land of religious liberty. We do not ban an entire religion. That suggestion is completely un-American.
The laws of nature and nature’s God ~
Jefferson, Washington, Madison, Franklin, Adams, all believed in God. The folks on the Religious Right are correct when they remind us of this fact. At the same time, they were not what today we would call Evangelical Christians. Most of our Founding Fathers were Deists, dissenters, or religious liberals of one sort or another, by the standards of their time.
We have mentioned that Jefferson, a Deist, declared himself to be a Unitarian. John Adams was a member of a church that became clearly Unitarian during his lifetime, and he is buried in that church, the First Parish Unitarian Universalist in Quincy – as is his wife, First Lady Abigail Adams, and his son, President John Quincy Adams, and his wife, First Lady Louisa Catherine Adams. Two presidents and two first ladies all buried in a Unitarian Universalist Church – and no other church in the United States can say that.
Likewise, Washington, Franklin and Madison also held Deist views. They believed in God. But they often preferred terms like “providence,” or the term Jefferson used in the Declaration of Independence, “the laws of nature and nature’s God.” That is not a biblical phrase, you won’t find it in the Bible; it is a Deist phrase. Deists, like Ethan Allen in his book, Reason, The Only Oracle of Man, argued that the Bible was unnecessary because we can find all we need to know about God by looking at nature and using our reason.
Our Founding Fathers did not want a test of faith to be required to hold political office. The Constitution makes this clear. They did not want a national religion – the Bill of Rights forbids Congress from establishing any religion.
And then there is the Treaty of Tripoli. That treaty was negotiated during the Washington Administration, signed by President John Adams, and ratified unanimously and without controversy by the Senate. It was a treaty with an Islamic principality. And in it our nation’s Founders stated that the United States has no prejudice against Muslims because “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” I don’t think it’s possible to get any clearer statement of the intent of our Founding Fathers – they intended this to be a land of religious liberty and tolerance.
We owe a great debt to our Founders. They were great people, but not gods. They were not without self-contradictions. They believed in the importance of religion as a force for social stability, but most had unconventional faiths. They believed in virtue, but many lived very complex private lives. They supported religious liberty and toleration, and yet allowed states like Massachusetts to have established churches (we were the established church in this town from our founding in 1733 until 1834, and our parson was paid by the Town of Harvard). They believed in liberty, but many kept slaves.
These complex people laid the groundwork for much good. They made America great. We hold these truths to be self evident, that all women and men are created equal; that the laws of nature and
nature’s God have given all of us inalienable rights. Our nation is great when we, the people – as citizens, the actual rulers of this country – have the wisdom to live up to the promise of the Founders, to maintain the blessings of liberty, justice, peace, equality under the law, and religious freedom – keeping America great, and whole.
May we have the wisdom, compassion, and strength to preserve these blessings, and pass them on to future generations.