Church as a Public Interest Group (March 11, 2012 )

posted Sep 3, 2009, 12:30 PM by Neal Jones   [ updated Apr 5, 2012, 7:36 PM ]

        Now that I've become an expert on Unitarian Universalist history, you've probably noticed that I'm throwing around a lot of famous UU names, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Whitney Bellows, James Freeman Clarke, and Cher.  That's right, Cher, as in Sonny and Cher, is a Unitarian.  Today I'd like to refer to a Unitarian who is one of the preeminent liberal theologians of the 20th century, and you've probably never heard of him -- James Luther Adams.  By the way, I've discovered that with the exception of Cher, you have to have three names in order to be a famous Unitarian Universalist.  James Luther Adams taught at two of our UU schools for preachers, Harvard Divinity School and Meadville Lombard Theological School, while simultaneously serving as a parish minister.  I can appreciate that he was a busy man.  In his early years, Adams spent considerable time in Germany, where he befriended several religious leaders who were active the in the underground resistance to the Nazis, including Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, and Albert Schweitzer. 

          In 1927, he happened to be in Nuremberg on a Sunday when the Nazis were holding a mass rally and parade.  Thousands of young Nazis descended on Nuremberg from all over Germany to demonstrate their manly hyper-patriotism (I would call it "nationalism") in the four-hour event punctuated with flags and banners, trumpets and drums.  It was the first time Adams had seen the swastika, and he naively asked some of the participants to explain its meaning.  Before long, he found himself engaged in a heated argument.  Then, suddenly, someone seized him from behind and pulled him out of the crowd by his elbows.  He was forced down a side street and into a dead-end alley when his uninvited host swung him around and shouted at him, "You fool.  Don't you know?  In Germany today when you are watching a parade, you either keep you mouth shut or you get your head bashed in." 

          Adams was expecting his head to get bashed in then and there when the stranger's face formed a friendly smile and said, "If you had continued that argument for five more minutes, those fellows would have beaten you up."  It turned out that the man, an anti-Nazi, had spent quite a bit of time in New York City as a sailor in the German merchant marine.  He had appreciated the hospitality of Americans and was delighted to have a chance to repay that hospitality.  The man invited Adams back to his apartment for a Sunday dinner with his family, where Adams learned that the man was an unemployed trade union worker and that the Nazis were targeting the trade unions and any other organization that opposed them. 

          Adams observes that this is a characteristic strategy of totalitarians -- to abolish freedom of speech and freedom of association.  "Keep you mouth shut and conform, or get your head bashed in."  He notes that McCarthyism was an American incarnation of this impulse.  Freedom of association may be the most fundamental cornerstone of democracy because it's through the exercise of freedom of association that the consent of the governed becomes more than a platitude; it becomes an actuality.  It is only through the exercise of freedom of association that citizens in a democracy can participate in the process that gives shape to public awareness, public opinion, and public policy.  Freedom of association may be more indispensable to democratic government than freedom of speech.  After all, talk is cheap, but the ability to freely associate with other individuals to form a group or institution translates talk into action.  Standing alone, the individual can make only a whimper.  Standing together, individuals in an organization or institution can make a mighty roar that will be heard. 

          Adams points out that the voluntary association came about in Western society as a result of the Protestant Reformation, particularly the left wing of the Reformation, which insisted on the separation of church and state so that individuals would be free to form their own churches, call their own ministers, and run their own affairs.  This is what gave rise to congregational polity.  When the Religious Right today do all that they can to tear down the wall of separation, they are not doing religious institutions any favors.  They are endangering religious liberty and inviting political interference in what should be protected matters of conscience. 

          I think it would be nearly impossible to calculate the influence that congregationalism had on the development of American democracy.  Those small, autonomous congregations were laboratories in the experiment with democracy at a time in history when few had faith that the experiment could succeed.  Those self-governing churches afforded common people the opportunity to learn the skills of democratic citizenship -- how to think and speak for themselves, how to organize themselves, how to administer their own affairs.  The skills they learned and practiced within the walls of the church would be put to use outside those walls in the building of a democratic government. 

          Alexis de Tocqueville, that keen French observer of the budding American republic, noted that Americans are "a nation of joiners."  In no country in the world has the principle of association been more successfully used, or applied to a greater multitude of objects, than in America….  Wherever, at the head of some new undertaking, you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.  De Tocqueville mentions associations for libraries, hospitals, fire prevention, for political and philanthropic purposes, and churches.

          An keen observer of modern American culture, David Brooks, notes that we are ceasing to be a nation of joiners.

          A few generations ago, most people affiliated with one of the major parties.  But now more people consider themselves independent than either Republican or Democrat.  A few generations ago, many people worked for large corporations and were members of a labor union.  But now lifetime employment is down and union membership has plummeted.

          A few generations ago, teenagers went steady.  But over the past decades, the dating relationship has been replaced by a more amorphous hook-up culture.  A few generations ago, most people belonged to a major religious denomination.  Today, the fastest-growing religious category is “unaffiliated.”

          The trend is pretty clear.  Fifty years ago, America was groupy.  People were more likely to be enmeshed in stable, dense and obligatory relationships.  They were more defined by permanent social roles: mother, father, deacon.  Today, individuals have more freedom.  They move between more diverse, loosely structured and flexible networks of relationships.

          I would observe that while our growing individualism grants us more apparent freedom, it comes with a price.  We are less rooted and have less connections, and the connections we do have strike me as being more tenuous and superficial.  The more isolated we become, the more lonely, depressed, and anxious we become, as well.  As I said the other Sunday, human progress is ironic because with every step we take forward, we leave something precious behind.  I say that our individualism grants us more apparent freedom because I'm not sure how free solitary individuals who must increasingly fend for themselves and face the trials of life on their own can truly be.  In the animal kingdom, individuals that become separated from the herd die on the own.  I'm not sure how well we can survive on our own without the emotional support of community and the material support of society. 

          There are basically two types of voluntary associations, those that organize for their own private interests and those that promote the public interest.  Adams asserts that private interest groups are "judged by their capacity to ring up money on the cash register of the member."  I don't have to convince anyone here of the power of special interest groups to tilt the mechanisms of government at every level in their favor so that they may  ring up their cash registers all the more.  Henry Demarest Lloyd, the Progressive journalist and activist of the 19th century, observed that the great concentration of corporate wealth and the resulting concentration of political power of their special interest groups had changed the meaning of USA to "the United Syndicates of America." 

          Lloyd would be appalled to see just how much the top one percent have accumulated in our day -- they control nearly half of the wealth in this country.  With that kind of wealth, you can buy politicians to do your bidding in the White House, the Congress, and the Statehouse.  With that kind of wealth, you can make sure that your government gives you subsidies for your business to succeed and bailouts when your business fails.  With that kind of wealth, you can make sure that your government gives you extensions to pay your debts, while others have to pay theirs or receive penalties.  With that kind of wealth, you can make sure that your government gives you immunities and exemptions from certain laws that you don’t want to observe but that others have to.  With that kind of wealth, you can make sure that your government gives you tax breaks while giving everyone else service cuts.  With that kind of wealth, you can eviscerate the social safety net because you don't need it, while for some of us, that net is a matter of life and death.  With that kind of wealth, you can afford the best government money can buy.  Unfortunately for the rest of us, that government ceases to be a democracy and becomes an oligarchy.  Or as Justice Brandeis once put it, "We can have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both."

          Let me give you an example of just one special interest group that goes by the name of ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council.  ALEC was founded in 1973 by Paul Weyrich, who also founded the right- wing think tank Heritage Foundation and, along with Jerry Falwell, founded the Moral Majority.  ALEC is an organization of state legislators and corporate sponsors that writes, introduces, and guides legislation through state legislatures around the country to benefit these corporate sponsors, though ALEC doesn't state its purpose that bluntly.  It says that its policies benefit free markets, limited government, and individual liberty.  Don't you love the way special interest groups portray themselves as advocates for the public interest?  Some of ALEC's corporate sponsors are Altria/Phillip Morris, Bayer, Corrections Corporation of America, ExxonMobil, GlaxoSmithKline, Humana, Johnson & Johnson, Reynolds Tobacco Company, State Farm, United Healthcare, Wal-Mart, and Koch Industries (as in the infamous Koch brothers). 

          ALEC's influence on state governments is enormous.  It is responsible for passing at least 200 pieces of legislation into law each year in legislatures around the country in the areas of civil justice, commerce, insurance, economic development, communications and technology, education, energy, environment, agriculture, health and human services, international relations, public safety, elections, and tax and fiscal policy.  Some of ALEC's recent legislation are the voter photo ID laws and laws requiring women to have a sonogram before getting an abortion, laws with which we are familiar here in South Cackalacky.  ALEC secures laws favoring corporate interests by (1) organizing corporate lobbyists and conservative legislators to write friendly legislation, (2) organizing corporations to donate money to friendly legislators to help them win their elections, and (3) encouraging legislators to file and pass the bills drafted by their corporate counterparts.  It's a formula that works for corporate profits to the detriment of workers' safety, wages, and benefits, environmental protection, public education, public health, and public services in general.  It's a formula that works because the wheels of government are greased with cash, lots of cash.  Over the last 20 years, ALEC has spent half a billion dollars in campaign contributions.  You can buy a lot of politicians and a lot of legislation for half a billion dollars.  Some politicians from South Carolina with ties to ALEC that you may recognize are Jim Harrison, Joan Brady, and my old buddy, Jimmy Bales.

          In contrast to private interest groups, public interest groups are voluntary associations organized, not to work for personal gain, but to promote the general welfare.  Many of you belong to such groups and our congregation shares half its cash collection with such groups:  Meals on Wheels, Transitions Homeless Shelter, Affordable Housing Resources, NAACP, ACLU, Progressive Network, Christian Action Council, SC Equality, P-FLAG, AIDS Life Support Services, NAMI, League of Women Voters, Planned Parenthood, National Organization for Women, Sierra Club, Conservation Voters, People for the American Way, and Americans United for Separation of Church & State, to mention just a few.  It can be argued that the very health of our democracy depends upon the capacity of such public interest groups to nurture the commonwealth and protect it from the corrosive influence of private wealth. 

          It can also be argued that congregations may be the most numerous and influential public interest groups of all.  Throughout history, there has been no greater advocate for the disenfranchised and the marginalized, those whom Jesus called “the least of these,” than those institutions founded upon the ethical teachings and example of Jesus and the righteous indignation of the Hebrew prophets.  In addition to our Judeo-Christian heritage, we UUs have the distinguished heritage of our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors, like William Ellery Channing, Theodore Parker, and William Lloyd Garrison, who were abolitionists; like Margaret Fuller, Julia Ward Howe, and Susan B. Anthony, who were suffragists; like Henry David Thoreau, John Haynes Holmes, and Clarence Skinner, who opposed war; like Horace Mann, who agitated for public education; and Charles Spear, who agitated against the death penalty; like James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo, who were martyrs for civil rights.  You and I have an obligation to the courage and vision of our Unitarian, Universalist, Christian, and Jewish forebears and to the welfare and dignity of those without a voice to speak truth to power.  

          Benjamin Franklin said there are two certainties in life -- death and taxes.  I would add a third -- that the powerful and privileged will have a voice.  The Koch brothers have the resources to defeat laws to protect the environment so that they may continue to maximize their profits.  The banks and investment firms have the clout to prevent the regulation of Wall Street.  The pharmaceutical and insurance companies have the funds to throttle universal health care.  The oil companies have the influence to inhibit the development of renewable energy sources.  Employers have the lobbyists to deny a livable minimum wage.  The powerful and privileged will be heard.  They always have and they always will.  But who will lobby on behalf of the  powerless and the underprivileged?  Who will put the public interest ahead of private interests?  You and I.  You and I must be the voice for the voiceless because no one else wants to and no one else will.

          Congregations can be the most numerous and influential public interest groups of all.  That is our heritage and that is our mission.  I hasten to point out, however, that we can be a prophetic public interest group.  It's not a given.  A congregation can be a private interest group to the extent that it become self-focused and self-absorbed and forget that there is a world beyond its stained glass windows.  A congregation can become preoccupied with remaining comfortable and complacent, and it might even succeed at increasing its membership and its budget because people like to be comfortable and complacent.  But such a congregation fails miserably to honor its heritage and fulfill its mission.  Such a congregation is nothing more than a country club with lower membership dues.  I am proud, immensely proud, to belong to a religious movement that has always tied personal salvation with social salvation, and I am proud, immensely proud, to belong to a congregation, this congregation, that strives to be a public interest group and not a private club.

          As you know, we are in the midst of our pledge drive in which we are being invited to pledge our resources to the support and nurture of this congregation.  Last week, I gave you three reasons why this congregation deserves your support.  It is a community where you and I can experience acceptance and be healed of our shame.  It is a community where you and I can develop our capacity for empathy.  It is a community where you and I can find meaning outside ourselves.  Let me give you another reason to support this congregation.  It is a community that provides you with an opportunity to have a positive impact on the common good.  You may be a good person with good intentions, but unless your efforts are organized and multiplied by an institution, your impact on society will be negligible and your goodness will be for naught.  You will be, in other words, good for nothing.       

        As the ancient Greeks used the word, you would be an "idiot."  The ancient Greeks, the first to begin the grand human experiment with democracy, viewed a person who is disinterested in participating in public life, who is more concerned with his or her personal affairs than with the good of society, as selfish, short-sighted, and stupid, an "idiot" in Greek.  That's because they recognized that the boundary between the personal and the political is artificial.  What happens to our society happens to you, or as Martin Luther King said more eloquently, "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny." 

          In a democratic society, the nonparticipant is nonexistent.  You are invisible and inaudible.  In a democratic society, the nonparticipating citizen bashes his or her own head in.  A congregation, this congregation, gives you a chance to be seen and heard; it provides you with an opportunity to make a difference.

                                                                                                                                                            Rev. Dr. Neal Jones