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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