In the first few days after the November elections, the idea of wearing a safety pin made the rounds. A supply was distributed at the Friday night gathering we had at the church that week. The pins made a statement: Things may get rougher, and I hereby declare myself an ally of anyone being harassed or bullied. By wearing one, I intended to declare myself safe for women and minorities — immigrants, people of color, the LGBT and gender nonconforming community…and for Republicans and Trump supporters who felt they were unfairly being demonized.
But things were — and still are — so polarized I quickly feared that my safety pin would be seen as a symbol of only one of the poles, so I stopped wearing it. I mention that as a prelude to my sermon today. Unitarian Universalism’s first principle is to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. And my Buddhist practice calls on me to listen compassionately to all sentient beings. I consider this sanctuary a safe place, where we accept and honor differing views.
So I want to be clear that I consider all welcome here. I’ve chosen what seems like a controversial subject for my sermon: Trumpism and what it can teach us about Unitarian Universalism. While I will speak my truths, they don’t have to be yours. If you agree with everything you hear from the UU pulpit week after week, then probably you are in the wrong church.
Much has been written and said about Trumpism. For me, the story is not so much about the man. It’s what so many of us failed to see about the nation we live in. Perhaps some here today voted for Trump and understand his appeal. I hope that’s the case, because most of us live in that left-leaning, NPR-listening, UU-church-going bubble that missed something. We didn’t understand how close to half of the voters could have elected a person who campaigned against the very values that we see as defining America. And, what’s worse, he now seems to be governing, or attempting to govern, from the worst of his campaign promises.
Well, what values do define our nation? I grew up in a Jewish immigrant neighborhood after the Second World War. For me, nothing defined America better than the Statue of Liberty, which had greeted my father in 1921, with Emma Lazarus’s words: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore…” Some of my adult neighbors, who hadn’t been fortunate enough to leave their homes in the Old Country as early as my father did, had those serial numbers on their arms showing that they had been concentration camp inmates. My country and its allies had defeated the Nazis and liberated the concentration camps.
The word “lansman” is Yiddish for someone who comes from the same region as you in the Old Country. I was born here in the U.S.A. in 1946. Could so many of my new-country lansmen today have a totally different sense of our common culture?
A New York Times op-ed article by conservative columnist Ross Douthat helped me understand what I was missing. I and many of my liberal and progressive friends see our national common bond as purely a propositional one — a nation of immigrants and minorities, created equal, a nation that welcomes newcomers and defends liberty.
But there is also a settler aspect to our common culture. The settler culture demands assimilation to its norms, as did the Jamestown folks, the Pilgrims, and the pioneers who led the westward expansion of our nation. And, I must admit, there was some of that in my own Jewish tradition. If you’ve ever tried to buy or sell a diamond on West 47th Street in New York City, you know what I mean.
Douthat wasn’t suggesting that we abandon the idea of multiculturalism, just that we liberals and progressives needed to find a way to honor the settler tradition as we perhaps build a new, broader narrative for what it means to be an American. While some Americans see a melting pot in which we all blend, other see a melting pot where the newcomers are absorbed slowly into the dominant brew.
To take it from another angle, as you and I know, when we think about our shared national heritage as one of democratic processes, equality, freedom, and diversity, we are cherry-picking those parts of our history that feel good to us today. It’s a process that author and columnist Masha Gessen calls “aspirational hypocrisy,” which she sees as a good and necessary thing, a norm that Donald Trump is violating.
Let’s take a moment to let that sink in. Our nation’s mostly European and Protestant leaders
- decimated the indigenous peoples,
- enslaved the Africans,
- founded a republic in which only land-owning males could vote,
- terrorized both Native Americans and African-Americans,
- ripped Japanese-Americans from their homes,
- and even spent the first years after the Second World War turning away the homeless inmates of the Nazi concentration camps that we had helped liberate.
But we who aspire to be better engage in a sort of collective denial — a shared lie. According to Gessen, who is a citizen of both Russia and the United States, Trump is assaulting that shared lie, the aspirational hypocrisy that we are better.
If you think I’m exaggerating some of the negatives, consider this about my own ethnic group. The quotes are from the handwritten journal of General George Patton, who was handling the problem of Displaced Persons in 1945, and they come from an article by journalist and author Eric Lichtblau:
Those making the case for the concentration camp survivors “believe that the Displaced Person is a human being, which he is not, and this applies particularly to the Jews who are lower than animals.” Patton describes going on Yom Kippur to a synagogue, “which was packed with the greatest stinking mass of humanity I have ever seen. Of course, I have seen them from the beginning and marveled that beings alleged to be made in the form of God can look the way they do or act the way they do.”
What are we to make of our past national leaders who said and did such terrible things? Christians talk about turning the other cheek. Buddhists talk about equanimity. Earlier, I used words about equanimity from Buddhist author Jack Kornfield in our reflection. Having lived 70 years, half of them with some degree of Buddhist practice, I believe that I can handle George Patton’s words with equanimity. But I know that receiving others’ hate is not easy, and I can also handle the words of people whose impulse is to resist such threats to human decency.
While I agree with Masha Gessen that aspirational hypocrisy has a role, I also think we need a way to acknowledge and understand the brutal parts of our nation’s history rather than simply ignoring them, and I think our failure to do so is one reason why Trumpism seems to be thriving.
Our nation has never come to terms with its real history. Those of us who hold up the proposition that all are created equal tend to gloss over the elitism of so many of our forefathers. We are proud of what Thomas Jefferson wrote but embarrassed by how he lived. Those who embrace the settler theme admire the leadership qualities of George Washington but forget that he had little use for his church.
I believe that the tensions in the United States since the Second World War have deepened the divide between those two visions of America and opened a chasm for Trumpism to fill.
And that gets me wondering about what a truth and reconciliation process might look like for the U.S. You may have heard about truth and reconciliation processes in South Africa and in Rwanda, but they have been used in more than 20 countries over the last 35 years. They are usually carried out by an officially appointed panel, empowered to subpoena witnesses, and they often involve a degree of amnesty for truthful testimony. I see them as a way for all sides of a deeply divided culture to gain some closure that doesn’t necessarily involve blame and punishment. Our nation is badly in need of closure, or at least partial closure, on its deepest wounds.
I don’t know what a process like that would look like in the United States, but I like the work being done by Van Jones with his Love Army and his Messy Truth videos.
Well, what does all this have to do with Unitarian Universalism? Just as we asked before what values define our nation, let’s consider what values define our religion. We have no creed but instead support each other’s free and responsible search for truth and meaning. That’s what makes us a liberal religion. In his service here two weeks ago, Eric Groo focused on this statement of purpose from the Unitarian Universalist Church of Loudoun’s bylaws:
…we are united in the search for truth and in devotion to universal fellowship. We regard as essential the freedom to express individual beliefs and the practice of democratic processes in human relations. Through the sharing of thoughts and ideas, we strive for a growing philosophy, strength of character, new opportunities for service, and a richer life for ourselves, our children and all humanity.
What makes us different from other religions is our spiritual liberalism, and for many of us that fits in with a political liberalism. But there is nothing in that statement of purpose that demands a political liberalism. In fact, in 1990, a third of us nationwide — 33% — were Republicans. In 2008, the proportion was down to about 8%, and I’m sure it’s much lower today. That’s not a healthy trend for a religion that upholds the “sharing of thoughts and ideas” and the “inherent worth and dignity of every person.”
My fear is that Trumpism will drive us further into our left-leaning, NPR-listening, UU-church-going bubble. At a recent welcoming event for newcomers to this church, a guest expressed surprise to learn there are some conservatives and some Trump supporters who are Unitarian Universalists. You see, I believe that we can agree on our spiritual values but be divided on the best way to achieve them. And it helps us all to listen to each other as we search for a path to “a richer life for ourselves, our children and all humanity.”
There’s a line about this that’s been quoted so many times no one is sure who invented it: We need not think alike to love alike.
Let me tell you about a friend of mine, someone I’ve known for more than 25 years. He’s a dedicated Unitarian Universalist and a dedicated fiscal conservative. Both he and his wife have been president of their UU church, and he has served on his UU district board. He voted for Trump and tries hard to remind other UUs that there are more people like him among us. Through the magic of Facebook I can read you verbatim a dialogue between the two of us from just a few days ago:
Him: It is economic growth that helps the poorest of us and helps alleviate income inequality. 2% growth as it has been under Bush/Obama has caused the Trump revolution. Our poorest citizens are falling further and further behind while the elite advance. This is not ok by me, nor the millions of working class and union households that want better…
Me: I fail to see how anything he stands for would increase economic growth. His history as a businessman is one of leverage and failure at anything but getting his name on buildings.
Him: Keep watching this space. All signs are pointing upward, despite the Dems/Press efforts to dampen expectations. Economic growth is dependent on attitudes. American attitudes are good and getting better.
I understand that some of you want to scream right now. You want to shout, “But what about…?” For me, that question belongs in the political realm as long as we trust that the other wants what we do: the best, most compassionate outcome for the most people. That’s the spiritual realm, where we “love alike.”
And we UUs engage in our own aspirational hypocrisy. John Quincy Adams was a Unitarian we like to remember; he fought against slavery. We tend to forget about Millard Fillmore, also a Unitarian, who signed the Fugitive Slave Act. We honor the Rev. Theodore Parker, who in 1841 called slavery “the great national sin,” but we forget that he was reviled by many of his Unitarian peers. We remember the Rev. James Reeb, who lost his life in Selma in 1965, but we seldom refer to the picket line at our faith’s General Assembly in 1993, whose planners asked the participants to attend a…Jeffersonian costume ball. (What would the African-Americans among us wear?) There’s much more, but I’ll let it go at that. You get the idea.
No past is smooth, and no history is without blemish. Yet I fear that the rise of Trumpism will make our faith even less safe for political conservatives who share our values and need a religious home. That, in my opinion, would be the end of Unitarian Universalism as a liberal spiritual entity.
In the face of Trumpism, some feel called spiritually as well as politically to resist, resist, resist. I understand that, and I struggle myself with the right balance between resistance and equanimity. But in our beloved church community, the mantra needs to be accept, accept, accept. We can do that if our heart is in a holy place, which happens to be the name of our final hymn.
— Mel Pine (Urgyen Jigme)
Copyright 2017 © Mel Harkrader Pine