chalice with rainbow flame
First Unitarian Universalist Church of Essex County

"The Church of Whatever Works."

by Rev. Darrell Berger
The First Unitarian Universalist Church of Essex County. Orange, NJ
October 19, 2008

In the traditional Unitarian Universalist election sermon, it is wise to indicate the limits of what churches may do as political advocates. A church may not advocate for a particular candidate or party. It can advocate positions. The UUA has a long record in supporting gay marriage and women's reproductive freedom, for instance.

I, as an individual, even as a minister, may publicly advocate for a party or candidate, as long as I make it clear I am not advocating that others do as I do. I remember when UU churches included a much wider array of political beliefs than now. It is the same in other denominations.

For instance, Bill Moyers and Jimmie Carter are no longer really part of the Southern Baptist denomination because it has moved too far right. UU has become more exclusively liberal. All our nation's organizations have become more polarized. It is harder to find people within your own affinity groups who disagree with you than it would have been twenty or thirty years ago. Society is poorer for this.

That being said, my candidate for president is Barack Obama. I'm sure this is a huge surprise to everyone. I also say that if this is not your choice, I equally support your right to be here as a member of our congregation or as a visitor.

"The Church of Whatever Works" was a term I first heard a few weeks ago on National Public Radio, while discussing Treasury Secretary Paulson. As the bailout was being developed, the commentator said that Paulson, long-time ideologue in favor of unfettered free markets, had recently become "a convert to the Church of Whatever Works."

That must be a fast-growing congregation! I recall that Unitarian Universalist congregations, with their tendency to follow religious fads, were once called, after a church parody by comedian Flip Wilson, "The Church of What's Happening Now."

The Church of Whatever Works sounds to me like a useful approach for us, both practically and theologically. We are not tied to dogmas, but to a practical spirituality that works in the daily life of people.

"Whatever Works" for too long now has not referred to the federal government. The broken levees of Hurricane Katrina were a kind of Old Testament plague. They were a warning that the people were not being served. That the levees didn't hold did not surprise people. They had long been allowed to deteriorate.

But this plague didn't harden Pharaoh's heart so much as it hardened his head. It did not change his behavior. It did not make the government more responsive. Paulson had been at his Treasury job for a long time before the levees of Wall Street broke. Their weaknesses were well known. But again, God hardened Pharaoh's head.

This time the response to the break was different. Billions of dollars were sent to Wall Street. For this administration, a plague on Wall St. was like a plague destroying its first born.

As members of The Church of Whatever Works, we really don't know what will work, in the long run. Everybody is in this together, a vast experiment in economic salvation.

We don't know what will work, and we don't know what to call it, either. Some call it socialism. I love Barney Frank's comment that he will be watching closely to make sure that the Bush administration doesn't become too socialist!

However, there is socialism and socialism. What Paulson has been doing is not a the-people-own-the-means-of-production socialism. It is the merger of government with corporate interest. This is called National Socialism. It is the textbook definition of fascism.

Yet is it unfair to tag these efforts with explosive terms from history. We don't know what kind of economic system is to come, and it certainly doesn't have a name yet. I do think that history will say that, while Reagan's arms race bankrupted and brought down the Soviet Union, it unleashed deficits and market forces that also bankrupted the United States twenty later. Remember the last time the stock market was so enervated? It was at the end of the last two-term Republican president.

While our economic system appears to be at the beginning of profound adjustment and, we hope, rejuvenation, there are a few words that have been conspicuously absent from the political process this election year.

Hunger. At least twenty thousand children die of hunger around the world every day, and don't have to. If they died all in one place this would be seen for the monumental tragedy it is. But because of who they are and where they die, they remain invisible to the people who should be working to prevent it.

Poverty. I remember when there was a war on poverty. We even won some major battles, thanks to Medicare and Medicaid. But I'm talking not only about U.S. poverty but world poverty, a billion people living on less than two dollars a day. How does one even grasp this? What can possibly be a solution?

What would I have to give up so a person living on two dollars a day might live on five or ten? How different would their life be? I don't know. Would I need to have only two or three pairs of shoes in my closet so somebody else could have one? I don't know. Would I be willing to give up basic cable for world hunger? My automobile? My house? I don't know. I've never been asked. What is the price of economic justice?

Union. There is a whole generation of workers who don't really know what unions are. They think unions are like dial telephones or Morse code, something we used a long time ago when we didn't have anything better. I'm reminded of unions this week because Joe the Plumber lives near where I grew up, outside Toledo, Ohio. Of course, you know that Joe the Plumber isn't really a plumber, but he plays one on TV. He is not a licensed plumber. He's had no apprenticeship, no training. What he is, you don't hear much anymore. He's a scab.

He does plumbing under the auspices of the guy who owns the company. He made forty thousand dollars last year and is worried, if by some unknown means he is able to buy the company, his taxes might go up! That's what scabs do. They identify with, and do the bidding of, the bosses.

Illegal abortion. Two words you haven't heard together much lately. And important to hear, especially for those who do not remember when abortions were illegal. It's not the idea of the religious right to send a woman to jail who has an abortion, oh no! Only those who perform them. I remember that! When you had to go out of town or state, under cover of darkness, go to a doctor who risked his professional standing or had already lost it. I saw John McCain scoffing at the term "health of the mother" and putting it in air quotes. Air quotes!

Separate but equal. How amazing for Joe Biden to look directly into the camera and support gay and lesbian rights. I'd never seen that before! This shamed the woman next to him to agree, going against the platform of her party!. But even Obama-Biden play a funny, sneaky game here. They are for complete rights, but no, not "marriage." That's why somebody needs to say "separate but equal." Hey, Plessy v. Ferguson. Hello!

Read the constitution! The right to gay marriage is already settled law! Separate is inherently unequal. Thurgood Marshall won that battle in 1954.

Though these words are absent in this election, racism is not.

When John Lewis compared the rabble-rousing of Sarah Palin and John McCain to George Wallace's language, he was both right and wrong. He was right in that inciting to violence can be done without raising a weapon or delivering a blow. He was wrong in that this kind of racism is now more sophisticated, coded and elusive. Nobody would ever call for "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever" as Wallace did in his inaugural speech as governor of Alabama in 1963. Yet the meaning is equally clear. To express indignation for Lewis' pointing this out to them is to be narcissistically wounded in a way available only to the blindly privileged.

The attacks on ACORN are racist, too. Probably some of us have worked with them. They do a lot of work in poor neighborhoods in New Jersey. They register voters. They help with fair housing. They help with living wage. They help poor people find the help they need. It is racist to be totally ignorant of what goes on in Black communities yet still have the arrogance to judge them.

You want to know the first instance of ACORN being accused of voter fraud? In Nevada, four states' attorneys general refused to prosecute ACORN for voter fraud because they didn't think they had a case. Those were the first attorneys that Alberto Gonzales fired in his attempt to politicize the Justice Department.

Jeremiah Wright. He is called racist for saying "God damn America" because the white folks who were the racists are made uncomfortable! He's the racist? Goddamn America is contemporary vernacular for "what a nation does has consequences." It was said in a longer form more than a century ago: "Yet, if God wills [that the war] continue, until all the wealth piled by the bondman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.'"

It was a Republican that said that.

Barack Obama's minister was Rev. Wright. I've learned over the years dealing with people of faith across the political and religious spectrum that it is more useful to judge a person by his actions than his words. If Obama was mentored by Rev. Wright, I conclude that Rev. Wright has been doing something right!

Yet, I am all too ready to be wrong. The first vote I cast was for George McGovern. I thought would win! At one time, I thought the candidate who received the most votes would win. Another time, I thought that intentional voter suppression would not decide an American presidential election. I am ready to be wrong because I have been so wrong in the past.

I did not think an American major political party would nominate a Black person for president in my lifetime. I did not think a Black person would be elected president in my lifetime. In this, too, I am willing and prepared to be wrong. We have heard much about the Bradley affect, where people tell pollsters they will be voting for a Black candidate but do otherwise.

Having grown up in the land of Joe the Plumber, I think there may be a reverse Bradley effect: white people who live in racist communities who don't tell that they are voting for the Black guy. I knew many in North Carolina, Ohio, and Tennessee.

My daughter is now a senior in college. She is a history major. I remember when she was still in high school; I asked her if she ever thought the pendulum would swing back to a more liberal era. She had no question that it would. I thank her for those encouraging words then, and her foresight and wisdom. She gave me hope when I needed some.

My mother had a saying, "We don't know what the future will bring. And it's a good thing we don't." She had that good, solid, mid-western pessimism, which Kathleen knows that I have inherited. The danger, if Obama wins, is that people might think that racism is over. The danger if he loses, is the fear that it never will be. In fact, whatever happens this election day, the work will have just begun.