Authentic Patriotism

Rev. Bob Throne

Sunday, May 24 – 2015

(We were honored by the presence of an Iraq vet – Erica Stephens – Eileen’s daughter.)

I love this country .. ‘America’, or more properly – the United States of America.  I am proud to be an American, and equally proud of the disproportionate  degree to which my Unitarian Universalist faith has contributed to our ideals and values. We are  an “exceptional” nation  .. but that exceptional ism is more that jingoism.  This Memorial Day weekend, I thank and salute Charlie – who is an Air Force vet – and anyone else who is a vet or has a vet in their family.  I include Diane’s Dad, who was also an Air Force veteran.

I do not want, however, to make this a ‘brag’ piece, pointing to prominent UU’s as is often over done, that too often becomes a substitute for deeper understanding, commitment and action.   Instead, I want to encourage a proud, authentic and still vital patriotism and loyalty to our country – and our faith.

One of my earliest childhood memories – maybe 6 or 7 years old – is crossing the school playground kitty-corner from my home – by myself – and standing a bit in awe as a small contingent of veterans and citizens played taps and offered a gun salute before the small marker for WWI and WWII veterans.  About this time our little settlement – there were no houses on the first block of our street when we moved to Fairmount, and only seven on the second block – about this time, the ‘Greatest Generation” began building homes, and the first new one on my street was just across from mine and down two lots.   Burt Theis and his family moved in.   Having met them, my Dad and Mom told me, in what have to be described as admiring, and even reverent tones, that ‘Mr. Theis’ had been a bombardier on a B-17 and had been shot down over Germany and spent more than a year in a German P.O.W. Camp.  I also had an uncle – Uncle Maurice, my mother’s oldest brother – who was veteran of WWI;  and my favorite uncle – Uncle Chuck – was a marine vet.  I know the first verse of the Marine hymn to this day .. and as a youngster I knew the Army, Navy, and Air Force hymns.  And they were “hymns”; sung with reverence and respect.

As it happens, I also remember that the Pledge of Allegiance once didn’t include the phrase “under God”.  That was added in the 50’s, after a long brainwashing campaign by conservative Christians.  But that is a story for another time perhaps. Because my intent this morning is to deepen our patriotism, not diminish it.

For a deep, authentic, understanding of patriotism we have to go back to the beginning, even before the Declaration of Independence, to when our land was first settled.  Before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock they wrote out the “Mayflower Compact”, a covenant promising to support one another and maintain deep, respectful relationships.  Mutuality was baked in to the fabric of the community.  And implicitly, this may be understood as a carrying forward of

English common law, usually exemplified by the Magna Carta.  From this tradition of mutual respect and care came the governance of early settlement parishes, under covenants of their own. In turn, eventually came the constitutions of the various colonies.  And then protest and war, and our own establishment as a republic of 13 colonies under the Articles of Confederation.  Note that the idea of “democracy” initially applied only to male landholders.  It took the Constitution AND the addition of the Bill of Rights, the first ten Amendments to the Constitution, to focus upon the rights of individuals .. and even then, it referred only to men .. and slaves, not at all – although slaves were counted as 3/5’s for the census.

Mutuality and “rights” were deeply woven into the fabric of law and civic life .. but not to the degree that we understand them today.  Slavery was – is – indeed our ‘original sin’.

And of course women weren’t quite as equal as men.  It took the Abolitionist movement and a horrible, bloody Civil War – and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address – to shape the idea of real democracy.  In that brief eloquence of genius Lincoln knowingly shifted the idea of America from a “republic” to a “democracy”.

It is no coincidence that this shift in thinking, in the understanding of what it means to be human, occurred in an era when Enlightenment ideas of individualism were crossing the Atlantic and infecting thinking in this country.

Likewise, it is no coincidence that the 19th century also saw the spreading rejection of Calvinist and Catholic views of humanity as inherently “sinful”   …  to be replaced by Universalist and Unitarian understandings of humanity as reflections of divine possibility and perfectibility.  To a fair extent,  it was the influence of Enlightenment thinking and “liberal” religion that reshaped the self-concept of humanity and the character of this nation.

Moreover,  among no group of people was this trans-formative notion more poignant than among the millions of African Americans who were brought to this continent in chains, families and culture torn asunder.   In point of fact, in 1865 former Black slaves started Memorial Day in America.  This occurred in Charleston, SC to honor 257 dead Union Soldiers who had been buried in a mass grave in a Confederate prison camp. They dug up the bodies and worked for 2 weeks to give them a proper burial as gratitude for fighting for their freedom. Together with teachers and missionaries, Black residents of Charleston organized a May Day ceremony that year which was covered by the New York Tribune and other national papers. The freedmen cleaned up and landscaped the burial ground, building an enclosure and an arch labeled, “Martyrs of the Race Course.” Nearly ten thousand people, mostly freedmen, gathered on May 1 to commemorate the war dead.

Today most of us assume intellectually at least, that persons of any skin color or ethnic origin are fully human.   To be sure, there are those who still cling to the ideal of “white supremacy”, but it is politically incorrect to say that aloud in most quarters.  More persistently common, however, is an implicit attitude of “white privilege” that permit the ravages of “The New Jim Crow” to persist.    But the seeds of genuine equality have taken root, and it is this trans-formative power of the “dignity of all persons”, raised up by Lincoln  (and made the focus of our UU covenant)  that makes us an exceptional nation.  It took another half century for the Woman’s Suffrage Movement to get the 19th Amendment passed.

It is not that, even today,  we have fully achieved the ideal of equality and democracy, but that we believe that it is possible that makes us an exceptional nation.  And around the world it is this civic – this deeply UU religious value – that is admired and emulated.   And in some case better expressed.   To quote Bill Moyers –    “In one way or another this is the oldest story in America: the struggle to determine whether ‘We the People’ is a moral compact embedded in a political contract  …. or merely masquerading as piety .. and manipulated by the powerful and privileged to sustain their own way of life    at the expense of others.” 

In one way or another this is the oldest story in America: the struggle to determine whether ‘We the People’ is a moral compact .. a moral compact .. embedded in a political contract  …. or merely masquerading as piety .. and manipulated by the powerful and privileged.”

To be sure, America has become the envy of the world because of the vast natural resources on this continent.  Resources that we have – if we are honest with ourselves –   have taken from the Native Americans.  And resources that we continue to consume in excess, placing the very survival of our planet and the futures of our children – and all children – in peril.  But these resources have also help “save the world for democracy”, and however imperfect, that is not to be forgotten.    In my own lifetime 14 million people – half of them Jews – were exterminated by a “civilized”, “Christian” nation.  My Dad had a half dozen fraternity brothers … all of them are buried in France.  My patriotism is not abstract.  I count a high school classmate – Howard; a life long friend – Don Raab, a work colleague – Ron; and other personal friends who have served – at risk of life and limb.  And were it not for a blood disease, I had done the paperwork for the Air Force myself.

I am also keenly aware that we have also inherited not only the heritage of common law and moral compact, but also, paradoxically, a “colonial privilege” which persisted well into my life time.  It is by no means clear to what extent our economic and military  power is used to make the world safe and open other people to freedom and prosperity .. verses used to perpetuate our own well-being and sense of superiority.   I do not pretend to have either the intellectual capacity nor the moral stamina to solve these persistent dilemma’s .. but I read widely and give a lot of thought to who I vote for … and it isn’t necessarily a straight ticket.   I know, however,  that our capacity to see the humanity and dignity in all people – all people, is the core heritage of this exceptional country. 

And with a reverence for “the Interdependent Web of All Existence”, I embrace our  Unitarian Univesalist faith. A faith for all people. A faith for one planet.

I chose the hymns for this morning with particular care.  It isn’t possible to lay out a complete exposition of how our country came to be .. flaws and all .. to fully explicate the perfectibility of human nature.  Nor can I illustrate the many influences of our Universalist and Unitarian fore-bearers who have contributed to this possibility .. and given us such a profound Universalist faith . My hope is that with a “pilgrims song”, “Morning So Fair to See”,  we opened with a genuine reverence for the natural world – and the miracle of the day before us. I’ll bet we are among the few .. maybe the only .. congregation to sing this African American spiritual today.  But is not the idea to let my people go” the very essence of America.    And is it not an ironic truth that this deep reflection of American character is so powerfully expressed by those people for whom it has been the most denied ?  And we will close with “America the Beautiful”  .. which really would be a more fitting national anthem .. because, in it’s ideal, as well as it’s natural blessings, America IS beautiful.  (Think “ultimate source” when “god” is sung, if you prefer.  Do alternately substitute “sister hood” for “brother hood”.)  Like our nation, the lyrics can grow with us, and reach for ever more inclusive truth.

We ARE an exceptional country, notwithstanding our tragic sins of the past,  and our still imperfect expression of our values.   We who live here have abundant blessings, not the least of which are the ideals we aspire to and the possibilities we might yet achieve .. and especially how we might, with humility, open ourselves to a world that embraces “the dignity of all people” and reverence for “the Interdependent Web of All Exisistence, of which we are a part”.

Like most of you, I abhor war.   But though I wish it were possible, I am not a pure pacifist.  We are “perfectible” but not “perfect” beings.  Self-interest and tribalism and hubris are buried in our genes and culture, even as the “Better Angels of Human Nature” are gradually but persistently prevailing in our makeup and our culture.  The blessings of   empathy, self-control, of a moral sensibility,   and of reason    are emerging from our genetic tendencies and cultural inheritance.  And documented by science .. not an ancient, “revealed” myth.  (See Steven Pinker – “The Better Angels of Human Nature”.)  It was a profound application of our Better Angels, fully aware of our short comings, that left those schoolmates of my father buried in France .. that yielded the self-sacrifice that Lincoln solemnized at Gettysburg.   I honor those that lost blood and lives  ..  I honor the ‘Rosie-the-Rivitors” – and the millions that planted victory gardens .. I honor those who have served even – maybe especially – in the tragedies of  Viet Nam or Iraq ..  for at least the more noble American ideals.

Do not be ashamed of our country.  Like any of us,  it is imperfect and still maturing.  With our eyes wide open, let us be proud of our ideals, proud of how far we have come, and even more committed to voting, participating, protesting, proclaiming our deepest values ..   freedom –    democracy –     one planet.   And likewise, let us be proud of our Unitarian Universalist faith.  My those lives lost, and lifetimes of struggle,  be made worthy by our commitment and struggle to make a more perfect union.

With Abraham Lincoln .. “As labor is the common burden of our race, so the effort of some to shift their share of the burden on to the shoulders of others is the great durable curse or the race.  As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.  This expresses the idea of democracy …  

In other words “LET   MY  PEOPLE  GO !”

 “Let us have faith  that  ‘right’  makes  might,  and in  that  faith, let  us, to  the  end,  dare  to  do  our duty  as  we understand  it.”


Blessed Be


RPT – 2015