What Leads Us: An Election Sermon

This was giving at the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in Norwell, MA in 2008 by the Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein (“PeaceBang”) I note today, on October 16, 2016, that candidate Donald Trump possesses none of the attributes of leadership enumerated in this sermon. 

The Election Sermon has been a tradition is an old and venerable tradition in this country — I believe the first on record in New England was 1633, far before the separation of church and state, but the tradition has lasted well into our times. And that’s a good thing, I think. By now we’ve watched the debates, we’ve seen dozens of ads, we’ve read the editorials, the blogs, the magazine articles, we’ve watched the talking heads discuss the candidates. And now we come to church to think about the coming election from the perspective of that thing called faith – which, for today, we can define as having confidence that there is more meaning to the events of our shared lives than the random occurrence of events.

We do not go to the polls as machines tallying up numbers and factoids – neither do we go as brute creatures struggling to survive in a wilderness we don’t understand — we are human beings; and the values, hopes and dreams we bring to our civic life have a tremendous impact on our present and future. Whatever decisions we make around our selection of a candidate will be decisions we’ve ideally made from not only a practical and reasoned perspective, but an emotionally and spiritually engaged one as well. Before we go to fill in little circles or to pull levers, we should be sure that we have brought the dignity of our full attention to the decision-making process — in other words, make sure we’re not pulling levers or pushing buttons as a response to having had our buttons pushed.


In the Election Sermon, it has always been traditional for the minister to bring to the attention of his or her flock the major issues facing the nation. I feel I hardly need to do that. You know what the issues are. Unless you’ve been living on a very happy planet far from this one, you know that the economy is a major area of concern, to put it mildly.   We have been fighting a war in Iraq for five years; that is another challenge facing the next administration. International diplomacy and policy; our relationship as a nation with other nations. Central to our nation’s future. Some other issues: The Supreme Court and how it and the Oval Office interpret the Constitution. Questions of leaders–who might come along as a team with the elected President and Vice President, what kind of Congress they will be working with. Taxes. Education. Civil and human rights. What are we going to do to address the health care crisis in this country? The role religion plays in policy-making. The role and scope of the federal government.

That’s a long and serious list of responsibilities and concerns. I don’t have to tell you.

I think to myself, “Who on Earth could genuinely want these jobs!?”   Stepping aside from politics for a moment, we have to know as compassionate people that no matter what promises the candidates make, the fact is that they are taking on impossible jobs, really. Whoever achieves the highest office in the land will be bitterly complained about, mercilessly lampooned, accused of being a failed messiah by disappointed supporters and derided by certain heads of state no matter what they do, no matter how hard they work, and no matter how fine and upstanding a human being they may be. The President of the United States, whoever holds the office, is a personage of so much power that we forget he (and someday, she) is also a figure to be pitied. I hate to be a killjoy, but no one is going to “win” this election. This isn’t a game one wins or loses. It is a most solemn mantle of responsibility one assumes, and it comes with, in the words of the old hymn, immediate and unavoidable “dangers, toils and snares.”


Winston Churchill once defined leadership as ‘going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm,” and we must assume that those who make the expensive and exhausting run for President and VP do it because they love it and have a calling for it. And I see that in all four of the candidates. No matter what we may think of them individually, there is no doubt that they are excited about, and believe themselves fully ready, willing and able to be the best leaders for this country at this moment in our history. When I watch Sarah, Joe, John and Barack, that’s what I look for: what kind of leader is this? What are his or her ultimate values around leadership itself?

Peter Senge is a guru of organizational change, whose book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization has been a real treasure-trove for me. Based on Senge’s work, I offer for your reflection ten qualities that I agree with Senge make for an effective leader in our culture and for this specific time in history:

  1. We all look for leaders to have a sense of purpose, but I think we should also look for a quality of non-certainty. Only a fanatic is certain that he or she is right. “Genuine commitment, on the other hand, always co-exists with some element of questioning and uncertainty.” (334)
  2. All leadership involves change, but the mature leader also looks at what is important to conserve. While leaders, collectively and individually, work to bring about “a different order of things,” they must also be stewards for something they intend to conserve.
  3. Strong leaders understand that their lives require sacrifice and service, but wise leaders balance their service with time for reflection and renewal. I was very gratified myself when I learned that Winston Churchill took a nap every day.
  4. I believe that leaders must seek solutions to problems that are sustainable. This may mean taking more time to craft a response to a crisis, and it may mean refraining from heroic measures that contribute to a feeling of being in control and having power, which is a very American way to lead. In this era, our political leaders must consider: can we afford this? What kind of resources do we really have to do things this way? Are we making false promises to preserve the status quo? Can we really work this way over the long term?

My next point is related, which is …

  1. A good leader has the ability to see systemic issues. The old proverb, If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day. If you teach him to fish, he eats for a lifetime” is a perfect example of this.   Leadership requires having a broad view, seeing the interconnectedness of things. In five years from now, will the government still be sending billions of dollars of aid to the hurricane-battered Gulf Coast, or will we have figured out systemic, interrelated issues of poverty and climate change are contributing to a chronic problem there? The sixth point is also related, and it is
  2. That a leader must be willing to say the unpopular thing. Yes, everyone loves a great orator, but we also need people in office who can give us the straight dope. Remember Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech of 1979, when the economy was in serious trouble, we had hostages in Iran, unemployment was at 7%, gasoline prices soared, and the prime lending rate stood at 15%? Carter had intended to speak about the energy crisis, but he spoke instead about American’s fall from grace. “Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning.” “In other words,” — and I get this from Andrew Bacevich’s book The Limits of Power, “the spreading American crisis of confidence was an outward manifestation of an underlying crisis of values.” (33)

Of course, no one wanted to hear this, and Carter lost the 1980 election in a landslide to Ronald Reagan. I expect my national leaders to have their own take on the national situation, and I don’t mind – in fact, I appreciate it – when they are able to move beyond spin (if their handlers will let them) to speak earnestly about it.

  1. Which brings me to the seventh quality I look for in a leader: the ability to hold a vision while able to honestly confront current reality. I don’t mean a campaigning slogan, I mean a real vision, which is something that leaders develop in conversation with their constituents, and with other trusted sources – and not just people who share all their opinions or party loyalties, either.
  2. A good leader considers him or herself part of a team, and is a coalition-builder. “Reinhold Niebuhr once described the essence of statecraft as ‘locating the point of concurrence between the parochial and the general interest, between the national and the international common good.’” (Bacevich, 174) My vote on Nov. 4th will go to a flawed human being, (both of the candidates are flawed human beings), but it will go to the candidate I believe will build the strongest team around him, and will be the best representative of Team USA, if you will, in the work of international coalition-building.
  3. Leaders are not naturally exceptional in many cases: they are people who work hard and who make a habit of life-long learning and personal growth. I have a great admiration for leaders who are not afraid to change their minds based on new knowledge or understanding.
  4. And there is that final quality that we all look for in a good leader. I call it integrity, and by that I mean wholeness of being, a person with weaknesses and flaws but who is not compartmentalized, not hiding a secret life – someone who knows who he or she is and works hard with what they have in the service of their vision. You can’t buy that quality, and you can’t fake it.

Two Tuesdays from now, this country will elect a new president. I know that you will make your choices carefully and according to your deepest values and feelings. As your minister, I am going to ask one thing of you as you prepare to go to the polls, and it is an unusual request. In your own fashion, I ask that you pray for these candidates, and for this country. For whoever it is that is inaugurated in January of 2009, he has a truly Herculean task ahead of him – and neither John McCain nor Barack Obama can save America. We are not electing a superhero, we are electing a human being. To quote the Unitarian politician Adlai Stevenson, “Who leads us is less important than what leads us — what convictions, what courage, what faith — win or lose.”

Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the living of these days, for the living of these days.

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Contagious Theism And Reason To Rejoice

Reading my UU World over coffee this morning, I read two articles back to back that begged a response, and I am grateful to both the authors for the passion they ignited in me to be in conversation. I don’t know either of them, Kris Wilcox or the Rev. Dr. David Breeden. While I am responding to them specifically, I am also responding to prevalence of their arguments within Unitarian Universalism. In other words, I have heard similar stories many, many times but had the time and inclination to respond to these this morning.

In Kris Wilcox’s article about why she does not participate in UU congregational life despite having loyalty to the tradition from having been raised UU, she shares her theological evolution from humanist to Christian and finally to firm atheism. I know as well as anyone the limits of short form essays to describe long and complicated journeys through theological identities. However, the anecdote Wilcox highlights in order to explain her atheism is typical, and deserves a closer look. She writes,

My cheerfully unexamined faith did fine through my twenties, with no major stress tests. But later, after I had children, and my 5-year-old asked, “Mommy, is God real?” I knew she wasn’t asking me about the Spirit of Life and Love. She was asking if God is an actual, sandal-wearing guy in the sky, the way her paternal grandparents and some of her friends insisted. I knew also, looking into her eyes, that I was an atheist and always had been.

As I have written and preached (you can watch me address the subject with a head cold here), an ethical atheism is, to me, a far more honorable and healthy theological position than uncritical, exclusivist orthodoxy. I was raised by one spiritual atheist and one existentialist atheist and I turned out alright  –except that I became a Christian, which some UUs consider a failure of parenting or of reason.

It is entirely age appropriate for a five year old to first conceptualize God in concrete terms! Unitarian Universalist religious educators know this and, in the good programs, we addresses that with love and curiosity. We must better teach parents how to do so, too. Too many parents go theologically paralyzed in the face of their children’s questions about God, being triggered, as we say now, by either their own religious traumas or their discomfort of not knowing how they themselves feel. “I’m a grown-up! I should be able to answer this but I don’t know what to say!”

It is entirely possible to offer to an inquiring child a God-concept that is not the “sandal-wearing guy in the sky,” but Wilcox seems not to have considered that, deciding that a five year old’s age peers and one set of grandparents are the final arbiters of how to define God, and also cause to reject God altogether. But there’s more to the story, and it is not really fair to conclude that this mom really relied on five year olds or her in-laws to circumscribe religious reality for her daughter.

The “more to the story,” as it true for most couples, is that her spouse is almost fatally allergic to God, Jesus and traditional expressions of religious faith.

The author’s husband has such a toxic experience with traditional religion that, “[he] would sooner take [the children] on the highway without a seatbelt than give them unshielded exposure to even the most liberal Christianity.” Later in her article, Wilcox describes her little daughter proclaiming, “‘People who believe in God are crazy,’ to which Scott nodded approval.”

Oh, boy. I’m so sorry. I really am. Whatever they did to this man as a kid, it was sick and soul-damaging and wrong. I am so sorry that whatever happened to him hardened into a conviction that anyone who believes in God must be crazy. I am really, really tired of hearing ministers use the line, “I’m sure I don’t believe in that God, either,” because it insults the author’s husband and my intelligence and diminishes the profundity of both our experiences.

Unitarian Universalism attracts a lot of Scotts, and we need more than one now-ancient religious education curriculum (“The Haunting Church”) to minister to them. Any thinking person who reacts with such uncritical hostility and disgust to Theism or Christianity badly needs pastoral care (although are unlikely to want to get it through a church’s ministry).  But individuals who come to UU churches looking for what Kris Wilcox calls the “detox experience, “whose primary function is to bar the door and heal the wounds of bad religious experiences” must have it clearly and caringly communicated to them that Unitarian Universalism has outgrown its identity as the hospital for the religiously wounded. We tried it, we built a marketing campaign around it, and it didn’t work. It didn’t work in terms of growth because as Wilcox herself expresses it, a religion based on not being religious and defining itself by “This is What We Do Not Believe” has no core integrity or sustaining purpose. It didn’t work institutionally, as religiously wounded people who join religious communities and emphatically insist on their right to remain wounded  — and who participate in community from a place of suspicion and fear, angrily counting Jesus mentions on Christmas Eve  — do not build healthy systems.  They build, at best, social clubs of UU fundamentalists as toxic as conservative Christian fundamentalists.

The healthy people who seek spiritual growth just leave these congregations, if they ever stay longer than a couple of weeks.

“I’m concerned my children will pick up theism along with the Seven Principles.”

Continue reading

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Urban Decay’s “Razor Sharp” Ad

Urban Decay, a make-up company I adore and have written about many times in positive terms, produced this ad [click to enlarge]:

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Rightly called out for going over the edge of their self-description as a brand that sells “make-up with an edge,” UD Tweeted a baloney explanation about how they always use swatches on the arm.

I’m not buying it. Someone being paid good money decided to pair a single female arm in corpse-hued nail polish with razor cuts reminiscent of self-harming next to the product and approved that copy. These decisions are not arbitrary: advertising costs a lot of money and needs to generate a lot of money. It could have been handled differently.  Take a look at how, because every single one of the images I will share come from UD’s own Instagram account. which someone is also being paid to manage.

They could have used a neutral background with no human arm, as they did in these two cases:

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They could have shown several arms in relaxed or even fun hand formations. They’ve done it before:

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They could have shown the wrist only: an image much less evocative of cutting one’s wrists. They could have shown an open hand.

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They could have swatched the colors farther apart and gone way down the arm as they did here. In fact, the swatches would have been easier to see that way.

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They could have shown their product on actual eyes. They don’t always use the swatch design in their promos. I know. I’m a super loyal customer.

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The image they did use is a lone female’s arm in a pose that is nothing but evocative of wrist-cutting.  The position of the hand, the length and placement of the swatches  — it’s wrist-cutting. The coy, “edgy” copy for the ad confirms it.

It’s wrong, and Urban Decay should stop explaining and start apologizing.

As I said, I’m not buying their apology. As to whether I’ll be buying their make-up again, that remains to be seen.

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