First Unitarian Church of Worcester

Sermons, Memos and other writings from the newsletter and worship services of the First Unitarian Church of Worcester. The First Unitarian Church is located at 90 Main Street, Worcester, MA 01608. Our phone is 508-757-2708 and our webpage is A audio CD is produced for almost every one of our regular services. Call our office or send a note to the office at our website to request that one be shipped to you.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Polarized Politics and Celebrity Candidates -- A sermon by Rev. Tom Schade

Polarized Politics and Celebrity Candidates

Sermon October 7, 2007

Tom Schade First Unitarian Church.

I am going to talk about politics today.

OK I am not going to talk about politics today; I am going to talk about how we talk about politics these days.

Let’s start here: politics is very polarized these days. The two parties used to be broad coalitions and are now becoming more ideologically unified bodies. Almost all Democrats across the country are more liberal that almost all of the Republicans and almost all Republicans are more conservative than almost all of the Democrats.

Why is this happening? We could talk about that for a long time. It’s been a long chain reaction. When African Americans migrated North and became voters, they ended up as part of the urban Democratic party. The Democrats became the champions of African Americans and allies in the civil rights struggle that brought voting to the Southern blacks. Southern whites then became Republicans. And now, New England and Northeastern Republicans are disaffiliating with the Republican Party and slowly becoming Democrats. So the parties are becoming more ideological. My point is that the polarization of politics is a historical process and not just a breakdown in manners and civility.

Despite the polarization of our politics, almost everyone agrees that the nation is in a moment of crisis. The Conservatives think that we involved in a global struggle against Islamic Radicalism, a new world war that will last for decades, and which requires extraordinary levels of governmental activity and vigilance to protect us. And yet, conservatives worry that the country as a whole does not support the struggle and want to go wobbly and throw in the towel. If you Accept the conservative’s premises, the fate of the nation is hanging in the balance.

According to the Liberals, this administration is systematically violating the Constitution, and is moving us toward an authoritarian state that bears no resemblance to the constitutional democratic republic that the United States used to be. We are becoming what we are fighting against. And so, if you accept these liberal premises, the fate of the nation is hanging in the balance.

And according to some of those who avoid being liberal or conservatives, the political life of the nation has degenerated into such a polarized partisan battleground that the extremes of both left and right dominate the scene, the center does not hold anymore, and the country is becoming ungovernable. Accepting these centrist premises, the fate of the nation hangs in the balance.

So if so much is at stake, isn’t it fair to ask whether our national political discussion – the information and analysis that is being supplied to us – reflects the seriousness of the situation?

On a personal level, where you and I live, though to be interested in politics, even a little, comes down to one thing. People who are interested in politics consume information about current and political events. This is what the daily work of citizenship comes down to: reading the paper, reading magazines, listening to the radio, reading books, following websites that talk about politics. This is where it starts. And then, based on the information that they gather from information suppliers, they are then are perhaps moved into more political activity, contributing money, getting involved in campaigns and ultimately voting.

Are we getting the information we need? Are all the forms of media helping us sort out what is going on and determining what is called for at this hour of national crisis.

I don’t like it when people talk about “the media.” That is because there are lots of ways that political information is being communicated and each of them seems to have different rules and create a different response.

I divide the information providers into two general groups who engage in two different kinds of talk, or dialogue, or conversation.

First of all, I think that there is a private sphere of talk and public sphere of talk. And the difference is who the imagined audience of the information is, are they individuals? Or are they a imagine broad national audience?

What do mean by private individual audience? I read a political websites on my computer, this is a private and individual experience. I am by myself when I consume this information. I am in private. I don’t share what I am reading with others and get their opinion on what is being said while I am getting the information.

I think that talk radio is a similar kind of experience. Where do people listen to the radio? The most common place where people listen to the radio is their car. You commute, you listen to the radio. Likewise is a usually private, personal experience.

It’s my observation that political talk in this private sphere can be very partisan, and is often extreme, and loud. Conservatives call liberals appeasers, unpatriotic and appeasers. Liberals say that the administration is an authoritarian criminal gang and a personality cult around the great leader George W. Bush. When you consume this information, you don’t have to think about the fact that others might disagree with your position.. There are forms of media that are like private rooms where you can talk trash about the people who disagree with you, rather than talk with them. The big three for this kind of political talk are websites, talk radio and books. You must have noticed the huge market for sharply partisan books. You read a book by yourself. I think that cable TV is more private than broadcast TV.

I say this cautiously, and I want people to hear exactly what I am saying. This kind of political talk is pornographic. Not because it is about sex; it is not about sex. But because it designed to be consumed in private and to stimulate very strong and powerful emotions that don’t have to be balanced with other concerns.

A lot of people worry about this, all this bile and vitriol and uncompromising political talk and information going on. And many a sermon has been preached on this coarsening of our political discussion.

But I am more concerned about what is happening in the other sphere of political talk: the public sphere. I am including in what I call the public sphere, The major newspapers, including the famous OP Ed pages columnists, Time and Newsweek, the broadcast news organizations, NPR, and PBS, all of those institutions which imagine themselves as speaking to the nation as a whole, and who aspire to be objective, non-partisan and unbiased. I am alert to the expectations of this kind of talk about political events because as a minister, this is where I am supposed to be; this is the space that I am supposed to occupy, when I mount this pulpit.

In a polarizing political environment, the media in this public sphere is under a constant critique of its bias. The left thinks that it biased toward the right; the right thinks it’s biased toward the left.

So the problem for the public sphere is “How are you supposed to talk about the fate of the nation in a non-partisan, objective manner in a thoroughly polarized political environment? I think that it is an impossible task.

The solution to this problem that has been adopted by our national media has been to move out of the line of fire by focusing their political coverage on the personalities of political figures, especially the candidates for President.

For quite a while, it was a common saying that one ought to “vote for the candidate, and not the party” especially among the more middle-class and educated voters. It is the watchword of the independent voter, or to put it more succinctly, the unaffiliated voter. One of the features of this polarized political opinion is that while the number of unaffiliated voters continues to climb, the number of voters who are actually undecided about the major issues of the day is very small. Not many people haven’t come to a conclusion about the war in Iraq, for example.

In order to seem neutral and non-partisan, the big public media have separated issues from politics and candidates.

On the one hand, we get articles about “the issues” which usually imply that none of the candidates are addressing them with any seriousness. And on the other hand, we get articles and stories about the personalities of the candidates. What we don’t get is substantive articles that explore the positions that candidates take on the issues, whether they are based on a true analysis of the situation, and what the probable results of their policy would be. Much of the media simply does not have the expertise to make that analysis. In fact, they don’t seem to have the expertise to analyze the competence of the experts that they bring in to talk about more complicated matters.

In fact, the public sphere media has generally concluded that it does not much matter what a candidate says or advocates about the issues. By the time they win the Presidential election and try to get a proposal through Congress, they are not going to actually implement what they advocate during the campaign, but some compromise. So what actually matters is the character of the candidate.

So the Big media tries to tell us about the character of political candidates, and to do this they rely on the “telling anecdote.” They look for some incident or observation about a candidate that supposedly reveals his or her personality and character. John Edwards spent $400 on some haircuts. Fred Thompson wore Gucci loafers to the Iowa State Fair. Rudy Guiliani said that people who own ferrets have a mental problem, Hillary Clinton wore a blouse that exposed a little cleavage on the Senate floor, and she sometimes laughs loudly. Barack Obama doesn’t wear an American flag lapel pin, Mitt Romney transported his dog in a carrier on the roof of his car, George Bush, Sr. asked a waitress in a New Hampshire truck stop for “another splash of coffee”, Al Gore said that ‘he invented the internet.”, Ronald Reagan ate jelly beans and George H.W. Bush ate pork rinds and on and on and on and on.

There is a word for this kind of talk. It’s gossip. And gossip is the main currency of political reporting in the big mainstream media these days. Everything gets reduced to gossip, and to people’s reactions to the gossip. I recall watching one of the Democratic Debates in which the first question to John Edwards was whether the fact that he spent money on a haircut undercut his concern with poverty. It wasn’t a question about poverty, or why he thought it is a crucial issue, or what he would do about it, it was a question about what he thought other people might think about what he thought about poverty now that they know that he has money for expensive haircuts. Somehow his haircut is a telling anecdote which reveals his character. No one cares how much Fred Thompson or Mitt Romney spend on their hair; their hair doesn’t reveal their character in the eyes of the reporters with them.

The gossip becomes the basis of the analysis of the political situation. Candidates are reduced to caricatures of themselves. Late night comedians recycle joke after joke about the candidates that is based on this gossip. Like Chevy Chase endlessly pratfalling while impersonating Gerald Ford.

The problem, of course, is that while it would be considered bias to say Candidates’ A proposals on health care is better than Candidate B’s, it is not bias to endlessly repeat stories that say that candidate C is a hypocrite, or a bore, or a prima donna, or is vain, or lazy.

And once the caricature is set, it is easy to find more telling anecdotes that confirm the original story line. Look at what happened to Dan Quayle. No matter what he did or said, every time he said something poorly, or was mistaken about something, it was another telling anecdote that confirmed the caricature of Dan Quayle, a stupid Vice-President. The media is doing the same thing to George W. Bush. The media looks for incidents that confirm what they have already decided is his most important attribute.

Candidates become celebrities and then they become like contestants on a long running Reality Show that is our political process.

We are all complicit in this. We trade in the gossip and the caricatures ourselves. We love Maureen Dowd when she gossips about politicians we don’t like and turn the page when she mocks someone we do. We talk in this shorthand among ourselves and it saves the trouble of looking more deeply.

I am asking you to examine your heart and conscience, regarding your practice as a citizen. Are you giving the state of the nation, and our political process the kind of careful and thoughtful consideration it deserves? Are you just going along with the caricatures of candidates that come to you from Jay Leno and David Letterman? Are you content with bouncing along with jokes and the gossip that dominates our political life?

We come into this sanctuary each week and worship. As we worship, we step back from our lives, from what we say and what we do, and how we spend our time and money and where we place our attention. We ask ourselves, am I living my life, conducting my business in harmony with my highest ideals and the requirements of God, Truth or Ultimate Reality? It is hoped that we are called back to our best selves as we sit here.

God is On My TV Again! Sermon by Rev. Tom Schade

from Psalm 91

You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.’

Because you have made the Lord your refuge,
the Most High your dwelling-place,
no evil shall befall you,
no scourge come near your tent.

For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
You will tread on the lion and the adder,
the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.

Those who love me, I will deliver;
I will protect those who know my name.
When they call to me, I will answer them;
I will be with them in trouble,
I will rescue them and honour them.
With long life I will satisfy them,
and show them my salvation.

God’s On My TV, Again!
Rev. Tom Schade
September 30, 2007

Grace Anadarko is a detective for the Oklahoma City Police force. Not really, she is a fictional character, the protogonist of a TV drama on TNT called “Sav-ing Grace.” She is played by Holly Hunter and Grace Anadarko is a wild woman. She drives an old Porsche, she drinks way too much, she is having an affair with her partner, who is a married man. Not surprisingly, she has other one-night stands with cute guys she meets in pool rooms, and a co-worker who is grieving the death of his pet cat, and she has apparently slept with most of the other male characters in the show at one time or another. She takes no criticism and gets into shouting arguments and fights with people who are try-ing to help her. She is so infuriating that you can hardly watch her.
And let us say that if you think that this is the kind of girl you can take home to meet your mother, your mama twenr’t much like my mama.

One night, driving home in her old-beatup Porsche and probably over the legal blood alcohol limit, Grace hits a pedestrian and kills him. Kneeling over the body on the side of the road, Grace cries out, “Oh God, Please Help Me Now!.”

And with that anguished cry from the terrified and broken heart of a helpless sinner, Earl shows up and asks, what can he do to help? Earl is an angel; Earl looks like a middle-aged cowboy and chews tobacco, but he is an angel. He unfurls his wings on command, and can take Grace into his arms and deliver a jolt of spiritual ecstasy that is completely convincing to her. He is the real deal, a last-chance angel, sent by his boss, who is God, to answer the pleas for help from those who are the straight path to hell and are desperate enough to seek help.

God is On My TV Again. God, angels, Satan, and the souls of the dead or ghosts, are all over my TV and in the movies and in popular literature. There seems to be an endless market for speculative literature and drama about who God is, and what God is like, and how does God affect what is going on here on Earth, and how God use angels to work His will, and what is the path that the soul follows when it leaves the body and enters the life beyond the horizon of what we can see and know. And evil, satanic evil is also on my TV?

All of this writing and thinking is speculative and playful. So all kinds of ideas and theories can be offered and thought about. And it is a rich vein of material.

Everybody has seen “It’s Wonderful Life” the Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed movie, in which an angel appears to show a desperate man the real meaning of his life and save him from despair and suicide.

One of my favorites in this genre was a great movie by Albert Brooks called Defending Your Life, in which the souls of the departed undergo a trial, where they have to defend their life in at a hearing, where they have their entire life of a kind of heavenly video. If you can show the judges enough moments of your life when you acted courageously and selflessly, well then you get to move on, otherwise, it’s back to Earth for another round of learning.

And just on Monday night, the Monday Night at the Church group watched a film with Jon Voigt, called “The Five People You Meet in Heaven.” The film is an elaboration on It’s A Wonderful Life, in that it speculates that the five people who will meet in heaven will reveal to you the whole truth about your life, and all the people who shaped your life and whose life you shaped for good and ill. You learn some of the awful consequences of some your actions, and you learn why some of the people who hurt you acted in the way that they did, and somehow this process of learning the whole truth of your life brings you to a greater compassion, self-acceptance, forgiveness and redemption. You are saved.

So not only is God on my TV, again, but there is a theme to these movies and TV shows about God. What we specifically want to think about it is how is God going to evaluate each of our messy and imperfect lives.

Most of the popular literary and dramatic theological speculation is about what academic theologians call “Soteriology” or theories of salvation.

And I think that there is two reasons for this: one is that it is personal – what is going to happen to me? Who doesn’t think about that?

And the other reason is that of all the teachings of the Christian tradition, this is the one that has been hardest to understand and explain. The church has said from the time of the apostles on that “Jesus died for our sins, and through his death, we have been saved.” That is quite a statement, and so people ask: Well, how does that work? He died on the cross two thousand years ago, and so I am saved from the sin that I committed just last week. His death didn’t seem to stop me from sinning. Will I not be punished for that sin? Explain it to me. What does that mean for what I think, what I do, how I live my life?”

I think that the Christian tradition has never been able to be completely convincing on this subject, and that is why there are liberal churches like ours, and why so many of the mainline Protestant churches are trying to desperately re-formulate the doctrine, and why so many people have voted with feet to leave the Christian tradition behind and become unchurched, or “spiritual without being religious.”

And because the Christian tradition has trouble really answering the question of how God evaluates our lives, popular literature and drama have taken up the challenge of trying to sort it out. Nothing new here. People have been working on this for a long time: I mean, after all, what was Dante doing when he wrote the Divine Comedy? He was trying to explain the process of salvation, what God wants of Us, of what we are to do to meet Gods approval, and how God was going to deal with our souls to bring us into salvation. How is God going to deal with our many shortcomings, imperfections, mistakes and sins.

These are not unimportant questions. In fact, I think that these questions are even more pressing than ever today for many people. Here’s why. We live now in a very permissive culture. There is a lot less hard and fast rules and a lot less social sanctions for all kinds of behavior. It is assumed that young adults are going to drink and party through their late teen years and early twenties. There is some concern about high schoolers, but for college age kids, it is assumed. It is assumed that young adults are going to be sexually active before marriage. Crime and violence, likewise, are behaviors that we expect from the young; we don’t approve, but assume in some sort of way. We count on a “live and learn” process to bring people to maturity.

I am not trying to start up a new morality crusade when I say this. What I want us to recognize is that many, many people they reach a point in their life when they are carrying around a lot of memories and baggage from their earlier ex-periences. They remember nights when they drank too much and made fools of themselves; they remember sexual encounters which were ill-considered, or disrespectful, or regrettable in some way. They remember making big mis-takes, some which were costly and people got hurt. They remember reckless actions which resulted in accidents and suffering. They remember outbursts of anger and violence in which they hurt others. Consequently, they feel guilty and even ashamed of themselves.

It stands to reason that a culture which allows people the freedom to make their own mistakes will produce a lot of people who are trying to live with their misakes, and to draw a line under them, and move on from them.

Conventionally, theologians would call these mistakes and missteps “sins”, but we resist that language today. Frankly, it seems simple-minded, as though the whole system of salvation is a simple matter of rules, and breaking the rules, and being punished for breaking the rules. Think about it for a minute. If a parent took their 5 year old child to a kindegarten or dayschool, and the teacher explained that their philosophy was that they told the kids the rules, and if the kids break one of the rules, then they are going to get smited, unless they beg for forgiveness, and then even, they might still get smitten.

Surely, if we can expect a kindegarten teacher to be more sophisticated in dealing with children’s behaviorial issues, we ought to expect God to be at least that sophisticated and nuanced in dealing with us.

So, how does Earl, the last chance angel work with this wild child of God, Grace Anadarko? Well, its kind of hard to tell. Earl doesn’t seem to do much of anything except challenge Grace. He says that he would like it if she just went a day or two without lying all the time. But he is not smiting her. But somehow, he is leading her through a process by which she will see the truth of her life, and the fact that it is, to use Kathleen Norris’s words – a road not wide enough to sustain her life; it is sufficient only as a way leading to death.”

Occasionally, when she doubts him or gives him a hard time, he shows her a bit of religious and spiritual ecstasy.

And one more thing, Earl does not seem to be too involved with the good vs evil struggle on Earth. He is also, it turns out to be, also the last chance angel for some of the gangbangers, drug dealers and criminals that Grace and the OKC police are up against.

And it is also true, as it is universally across popular culture whenever God shows up on your TV, that Earl and God are not interested in where people go to Church, or even go to church at all, or what they believe about religion.

Earl is patient and Earl, the last chance angel of the Lord, seems to be content to just be around while Grace loosens all the knots that have bound her to the self-destructive life that she is living. Earl lets her work this stuff out.

In popular culture, salvation is mostly a process of healing, it is a therapeutic process. In contrast, it often appears that more churchly understandings of sin and salvation are more judicial. The sinner has broken the rules, is convicted and sentenced to die, and then at the last moment, the highest judge might ex-tend mercy.

No, popular culture imagines a much more personal process, a process in which Grace confronts all the particular traumas of her life, and learns to put down the baggage that she has been carrying, and moves toward a healed life.

God on my TV works his grace in a much more particular, personal and indi-vidual way, letting each person work through all their experiences and letting them see their lives whole.

It is a remarkable understanding of grace, and one that I think reflects what we know is the truth about human beings and how we/they grow and change. And whatever is true is of God. It is all quite remarkable. It means that the process of overcoming our sins and shortcomings is as personal as each life and as unique as a fingerprint. That each of us in on our own spiritual journey, and that the great powers of benevolence at the heart of creation is at work in our most individual experiences. Amazing.

But why shouldn’t grace be amazing?