© Dr. Chris Schriner 2006
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
December 3, 2006

I'll start by thanking you for coming to this service even though we're going to talk about ... politics. Political issues can be complicated, messy, irritating, and intimidating. But Unitarian Universalism is about being faithful to our values, and if we don't apply our values in the larger world, there are plenty of other people who will be happy to run the world for us.

My sermon is about American democracy, and the several factors that have undermined democracy in this country. People are busier than ever. Where do we find time to be conscientious citizens? Political campaigns depend on big money more than ever. Special interests manipulate election results through last-minute attack ads and other dirty tactics. And in California we deal with bloated ballot propositions so complex and technical that even experienced legislators with staff assistance have a hard time understanding them.

If we listen for spiritual guidance about how to strengthen democracy, what do we hear? What does God, or your higher self, your conscience, or your deepest intuition tell you about what our nation needs today? I'll share what my heart is telling me, to stimulate your thinking, and each of you will respond to these ideas in your own way.

I have been hearing since the 1960s that the United States is either on its way to fascism or has already drifted into a sort of friendly fascism, despotism with a photogenic face. Until recently I thought that was nonsense. But for the first time in my life, I can imagine losing our most basic liberties.

Laurence W. Britt has listed 14 characteristics of fascist or semi-fascist political systems, and I want to list all 14 points:

  1. Powerful and continuing expressions of nationalism. ... usually coupled with a suspicion of [foreigners].
  2. Disdain for the importance of human rights. ...
  3. Identification of enemies/scapegoats... to divert the people's attention from other problems ... [Scapegoats might include] communists, socialists, liberals, Jews, ethnic and racial minorities, traditional national enemies, members of other religions, secularists, homosexuals, and "terrorists." ...
  4. The supremacy of the military ... A disproportionate share of national resources was allocated to the military, even when domestic needs were acute. ...
  5. Rampant sexism. [and homophobia] ...
  6. A controlled mass media. ... [through] the control of licensing and access to resources, economic pressure, appeals to patriotism, and implied threats. ...
  7. Obsession with national security. ...
  8. Religion and ruling elite tied together. ... most of the regimes ... chose to portray themselves as militant defenders of ... religion. The fact that the ruling elite's behavior was incompatible with the precepts of the religion was generally swept under the rug. ...
  9. Power of corporations protected. ... Members of the economic elite were often pampered by the political elite to ensure a continued mutuality of interests, especially in the repression of "have-not" citizens.
  10. Power of labor suppressed or eliminated. ...
  11. Disdain and suppression of intellectuals and the arts. ...
  12. Obsession with crime and punishment. ... huge prison populations. ...
  13. Rampant cronyism and corruption. ... the power elite would receive financial gifts and property from the economic elite, who in turn would gain the benefit of government favoritism. ...
  14. Fraudulent elections. ... [through] control of the election machinery, intimidating and disenfranchising opposition voters, destroying or disallowing legal votes, and, as a last resort, turning to a judiciary beholden to the power elite."

OK, let's stop and take a deep breath. That's a scary list. Not all of Britt's criteria fit this country. For example, you can find cronyism and corruption just about anywhere. As Jared Diamond has pointed out, most societies are kleptocracies, meaning government by thieves, and today's thievery may not be any worse than usual. But I do see disdain for human rights, scapegoating foreigners, obsession with security (sometimes for good reason), identifying the government with one type of religion, corporate power, supression of labor and intellectuals, and questionable elections.

Even though I am skeptical of conspiracy theories, I worry about computer fraud at the ballot box. There were still lots of serious problems in the November elections. For instance, in Florida's 13th Congressional District, 18,000 ballots showed no vote for any congressional candidate, even though these same ballots showed votes for candidates in other public offices. We can't just write that off as a statistical fluke.

I am especially appalled by the loss of civil liberties. The latest outrage is the revelation last week that the government keeps an anti-terrorism database of all Americans who have traveled abroad since 2002, a database that can be shared with government agencies and even private employers. But we cannot know what the database says about us, or challenge its accuracy! Everyone from Patrick Leahy to Rush Limbaugh is angry about this high-handed policy. All in all, fascism with a smiley face is a very real threat today.

I do not blame creeping fascism on the Republican party. Many Democrats have also voted for policies that move us closer to dictatorship. Fortunately, those who are currently leading us in the wrong direction are both incompetent and unlucky. And many of their blunders result from fundamental ethical and spiritual mistakes. These people need to go to church and get religion. But I mean real religion, not a docile gospel that gives them an easy conscience about their crimes.

Real religion teaches humility, but our leaders have been smug and arrogant, throwing their weight around at home and abroad. All great religions command us to share with the needy, but these folks have fattened the rich. Spirituality requires admitting when we are wrong. Usually they are too proud for that. A spiritual person tries to tell the truth. These people led us into war with lies. True spirituality supports cooperation and collaboration, but they have tried to go it alone. Now their blunders have put them in such a bind that they have had to ask for help from "old Europe," and may even need to go to Iran, hat in hand, for assistance in calming Middle Eastern turmoil.

One reason spiritual principles are important is that the world works better when we follow them.

Let's consider the war in Iraq, which had strong bi-partisan support, since this is the classic example of our government's spiritual and practical incompetence. As usual, the roots of our failure go back for decades. In both Republican and Democratic administrations, we have played Lone Ranger, anointing ourselves as the super-hero defender of freedom. If a bad government wants to get nuclear weapons, this is a job for Captain America. But strength comes from cooperation, not from domination. The world community should have reached an agreement long ago about how to deal with those who want atomic weapons.

Some people say we should let any country have H-bombs. Personally, I think this would guarantee an absolutely nightmarish future for the whole planet. But it should not be up to the U.S. to decide this matter. The United Nations should establish criteria for which kinds of nations would not be allowed to build such weapons, and what the world community should do to stop them. No administration, Republican or Democratic, has taken the lead to establish such internationally accepted ground rules. We just figure that if a country we don't like wants the Bomb, we'll go stop them like Superman swooping down to seize an evildoer. And no administration has suggested that we might destroy our weapons of mass destruction. I'm a long-time student of nuclear weapons policy, and I think it may actually be practical today to scrap all or almost all of our nuclear arms, particularly if Russia and China did the same. These days our non-nuclear forces have tremendous power to punish anyone who dared to attack us. How can we tell other nations not to build the Bomb, when our government is making nuclear weapons more important in U.S. military strategy rather than less?

There was some reason for believing Saddam Hussein might be trying to make atomic bombs. In response, the U.N. was putting pressure on Iraq. But our leaders were dead set on taking over that country, even though Hussein was following U.N. orders to dismantle prohibited weapons at the very time that we started bombing them. And in their ignorance and arrogance, our leaders sent in a fraction of the troops that were needed to provide security after the invasion.

President Bush's father did not occupy Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, because, in his words, "An occupation of Iraq would have incurred incalculable human and political costs ... There was no viable exit strategy." (Quoted in Doonesbury, 3/14/03; from Bush and Scowcroft, A World Transformed, Knopf, 1998) The son thought he was smarter than the father, and the result of his invasion is a heartbreaking civil war, with over 3000 deaths per month. Tom Friedman expresses the situation starkly: "There are so many people killing so many other people for so many different reasons - religion, crime, politics - that all the proposals for how to settle this problem seem laughable. ... We need to face real choices in Iraq: 10 months or 10 years. Either we get out of Iraq ... over 10 months, ... or we ... start over and rebuild it, which would take 10 years [and many more troops]

I am also troubled by the way we recruit soldiers for this conflict. Democracy in America is still strong enough so that people would not happily accept a military draft. So when recruiters had trouble getting enough volunteers to feed this war, they did two absolutely despicable things to fill their quotas. First, they have lied to potential soldiers. I witnessed this lying on videotapes made by ABC News. After learning of complaints about unethical recruiting tactics, ABC sent students equipped with hidden cameras to 10 recruiting stations, and they caught people telling these kids the most astonishing whoppers. For example, if you don't like the army, it's easy to get out. (Oh, sure!) One claimed that it's as dangerous to drive a car as to be stationed in Iraq. Another actually said, with a straight face: "We're not at war. War ended a long time ago. ... we're bringing people back."

I believe in supporting our troops, which is not necessarily the same as supporting our government. And the most fundamental way to support our troops is to tell potential soldiers the truth about military service.

Not only do recruiters lie, they also have lowered admission standards dangerously. ABC videotaped recruiters telling admitted drug users that if they failed a drug test they could keep getting re-tested till they passed. So drug testing for recruits is a sham. Even worse, according to Scott Barfield, "Recruiters are knowingly allowing neo-Nazis and white supremacists to join ..." After Barfield blew the whistle on this problem, he resigned from the Department of Defense, under pressure. And according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, some soldiers "openly advertise their violent tendencies and radical views on the Internet in photos replete with Nazi symbols and weapons." Many of them "advocate race war and the overthrow of the U.S. government." You and I are paying these young thugs to receive top-notch instruction in military tactics, weapons use, and explosives, giving them "skills they could one day turn on U.S. citizens." (Southern Poverty Law Center Report, September 2006) So in order to fight a war that is supposedly against terrorism in Iraq, we are training aspiring domestic terrorists.

If we were truly a fascist state, ABC would not have been allowed to catch those lying recruiters, and the Southern Poverty Law Center could not have exposed neo-Nazis in the military. We need to keep our democracy, because running the country is too important to be left to the rich and the powerful. But being democratic or fascistic is not an either-or proposition. It's a matter of degree. Frances Moore Lappe makes this point in the Fall edition of UU World magazine. "Like most Americans," she writes, "I grew up with the notion that democracy boiled down to two things: elected government and a market economy. Since we have both, there wasn't much to do except show up at the polls and ... shop." She later realized that America's extreme concentration of wealth undermines the possibility of government by the people. So she now calls our form of government "Thin Democracy" - a sort of "democracy lite," which Lappe contrasts with Living Democracy. She writes that "Living Democracy is not a set system but a set of system characteristics, ever evolving and driven by human values that span all great wisdom and religious traditions. Among them are inclusion, fairness, and mutual accountability." Read her article for details about examples she gives of Living Democracy, such as restorative justice, democratic schools, fair trade products, the global cooperative movement, socially responsible investment (which now totals two trillion dollars of assets), and new methods of voting that give small political parties a fighting chance.

She concludes by saying, "the challenge of our time is not simply defending democracy. It is creating democracy." And I would add that making democracy "thicker" is an excellent way to fight fascism.

American democracy is in danger today. If this were a ship, and we were the crew, the message would be just four words: "ALL HANDS ON DECK!" We need for everyone to help so the ship doesn't sink. If you mostly ignore politics, it's time to at least get your toe in the water. All those who believe in love, respect, compassion, and cooperation must influence the political process. If you are already involved in social issues, it's time to increase your involvement. All of us can do more. It's simply a matter of changing our habits so that we spend additional time on citizenship, or spend the same amount of time more effectively. And join with others at Mission Peak. Come to meetings of our Ecology Committee, the Racial Awareness and Diversity Task Force, or our Welcoming Congregation Committee which meets this Tuesday night. Help with our family-oriented service projects. Social justice work is good spiritual work.

Our democracy has been threatened before, but when the chips were down we have always chosen liberty rather than a seemingly benevolent tyranny. Even though the 2006 election is over, we "vote" for our vision of the future in lots of ways, every single day. How will you cast your ballot - friendly fascism, or Living Democracy?

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