© Dr. Chris Schriner 2004
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
October 17, 2004

Talking about politics tends to be rather heavy and serious, so let's start with a little lightness from the comic strip, Frank and Ernest. The two lead characters are working in a shoe store, and Frank remarks, "Ernie, the key to success in this business is giving customers the right shoes for their needs. What would you suggest for a guy who just announced his candidacy [for public office]?

Ernest: Running shoes, of course.
Frank: Good. How about the policy wonk who loves discussing the issues?
E: Platforms!
F: The politician who loves to spin?
E: Ballet slippers would be perfect.
F: And what about somebody who is always changing positions?
E: Flip flops.
F: That leaves pollsters ... I never know what to recommend.
E: That's easy, Frank. Anything canvas." (Frank & Ernest, June 27, 2004)

The heaviness of politics tends to clash with the experience one is looking for on Sunday morning. When I come to a service, I want to feel serene, fulfilled, inspired, united with all beings. Talking politics often makes people agitated instead of calm, frustrated instead of fulfilled, discouraged instead of inspired, and divided instead of unified. The political arena is hard to talk about. But that is one of the reasons to gather as a caring community, to deal with hard things together.

Actually, election season gives us a fine opportunity to deepen spirituality because it prods us to focus on our own values. We need to take our values into the voting booth. And when we sit down to read that stack of election materials, it doesn't hurt to actually pause for prayer or meditation, opening up to the wisdom we need to cast our ballot in accordance with the highest values we know.

This morning I want to look at the overall direction of our nation today, in two main areas - financial security and homeland security. People need financial security for food, shelter, and health care, and they need to feel safe in their homes in our nervous new world of color-coded terror alerts.

So first, is our nation giving its citizens more economic security, or less? I want to start by quoting one of the prophets of our time, Bill Moyers. I don't always agree with Bill, but I always appreciate the way he explores moral issues about public policy. Bill started a recent speech by saying,

"It is important from time to time to remember that some things are worth getting mad about....

"Nothing seems to embarrass the political class in Washington today. Not the fact that ... millions of workers are actually making less money today in real dollars than they did twenty years ago... not the fact that while we have the most advanced medical care in the world, nearly 44 million Americans ... are uninsured ...

"... no one in official Washington seems embarrassed by the fact that the gap between rich and poor is greater than it's been in 50 years -- the worst inequality among all western nations....

"For years now a small fraction of American households have been garnering an extreme concentration of wealth and income.... In 1960, the gap in terms of wealth between the top 20% and the bottom 20% was 30 fold. Four decades later it is more than 75 fold.

"... a profound transformation is occurring in America:... By design. Deliberately...." (From Moyers' Lecture "This Is the Fight of Our Lives")

You and I can ask ourselves, "How would a higher wisdom evaluate the economic direction of our country today?" Using traditional theological language, "What is the judgment of God about this nation?" Or we can ask, "If a great and compassionate intelligence thought about the American economy, what might it say to us?"

Time magazine's respected journalists Donald Bartlett and James Steele concluded last year that America now has "government for the few at the expense of the many." They wrote, "When powerful interests shower Washington with millions in campaign contributions, they often get what they want. But it's ordinary citizens and firms that pay the price.... You pick up a disproportionate share of America's tax bill. You pay higher prices for ... products from peanuts to prescriptions. You pay taxes that others in a similar situation have been excused from paying.... In contrast, the fortunate few who contribute to the right politicians and hire the right lobbyists enjoy all the benefits of their special status. Make a bad business deal; the government bails them out. If they want to hire workers at below market wages, the government provides the means to do so. If they want more time to pay their debts, the government gives them an extension. If they want immunity from certain laws, the government gives it. If they want to ignore rules their competition must comply with, the government gives its approval. If they want to kill legislation that is intended for the public, it gets killed." (Moyers again)

Bill Moyers quotes a "political strategist, [named] Grover Norquist, [who] wants the federal government to run up bigger and bigger budget deficits. Eventually the national debt will pile up so high that we will be forced to drastically reduce federal spending. Norquist says his goal is to 'starve the beast' -- with trillions of dollars in deficits resulting from trillions of dollars in tax cuts."

A lot of people would agree that government is a ravenous beast that comes into our homes and eats up our money. By contrast, Philosopher George Lakoff says that paying our taxes "is an issue of patriotism! Are you paying your dues, or are you trying to get something for free at the expense of your country?" (From "Framing the issues: UC Berkeley professor George Lakoff tells how conservatives use language to dominate politics")

Some people don't like government and taxes because they feel that Washington is inefficient and wastes money. When that is true, we should do something about it. But some of the people who don't who want to pay their dues to society would destroy government rather than improve it. As Norquist says, "I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub." **Keillor says that people like Norquist are "hoping to lead us into a box canyon of debt that will render government impotent." And Bill Moyers agrees in the essay I quoted earlier: "they have saddled our nation, our states, and our cities and counties with structural deficits that will last until our children's children are ready for retirement, and they are systematically stripping government of all its functions except rewarding the rich and waging war." (Quoted by Garrison Keillor in "We're Not in Lake Wobegon Anymore")

Last week we talked about the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism, and the principle of justice, equity, and compassion in human relations" certainly relates to the way we distribute the wealth of this nation. If we took this principle into the voting booth, would that make a difference?

Of course, UUs apply the Seven Principles in many ways. I can't tell you how many times I've heard someone state a supposedly non-controversial UU position, and another good Unitarian stands up and says, "I don't agree." Nevertheless if one listens to Bill Moyers' comments in the light of our Principles, some alarm bells may start to go off.

I've been talking about financial security, giving people access to basic necessities such as medical care and a comfortable retirement. I agree with Moyers that many of our leaders (in both major parties) do not act as if they care about these concerns. So now let's turn to another kind of security, homeland security. This electoral season is a good time to look back on how our government has responded to the threat of terrorism since 9/11. I'll share my opinions as food for thought, realizing that every person here will see things somewhat differently. Basically, I think we have had bad leadership and good luck. We have had good luck, in that evidently there are very few highly competent and dedicated 9/11-style terrorists in the United States. Even a small number of such individuals could have kept us in a state of nervous agitation, with little risk of getting caught. And it's a good thing that the internal threat from terrorism is evidently small, because I am not impressed with the strategies of our leaders.

After 9/11 our leaders should have started with a blank sheet of paper, outlining new responses to a new kind of threat. Instead, they dragged out a boatload of projects they had been unable to implement in the past, and used 9/11 as an excuse to push them through - cutting back civil liberties and invading Iraq.

Often when our government wants to use military force, there are three storylines going on. First, there is the story they tell us to justify going to war. Second, there is the line they give us later when people see that the original story was baloney. And finally, there is the real story, their real reasons for making war. The government told us that we were invading to protect ourselves from weapons of mass destruction. At the time I actually thought there was a good chance that Iraq was trying to acquire such weapons. Even so, I thought that the U.N. inspections were working. In fact, shortly before we invaded, the inspectors found some delivery systems that they thought were inappropriate for Iraq to possess, and Iraq started destroying those weapons, in compliance. They didn't even have a chance to finish before our bombs started falling a few days later. I agree with the government's stated policy of using war only as a last resort, but few of our Democratic and Republican leaders seem to follow that moral principle.

Now that it is obvious that Iraq had no major nuclear program, we hear their backup story: It's great that we invaded because Saddam was a bad ruler. But when there are so many other governments with terrible rulers, why did we happen to select this one? Yesterday I read a report about how we are supporting so-called antiterrorist efforts in Uzbekistan, whose leaders may be as despicable as Saddam. (Financial Times, October 16, 2004, p. 6.) Some of you remember the days of fighting Communism by backing anti-Communist dictatorships. Franklin Roosevelt said of the brutal Nicaraguan tyrant Somoza, "He may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he's our son-of-a-bitch."

So why attack Iraq? Well, starting a foreign war can be a marvelous distraction from domestic troubles, or a way of venting one's frustrations. A song circulated on the Internet [to the tune of, "If You're Happy and You Know It] starts out,

"If you cannot find Osama, bomb Iraq. If the stock market hurts your mama, bomb Iraq. If the terrorists are Saudi, And the bank takes back your Audi, and the TV shows are bawdy, bomb Iraq."

But there's more to it than that, and I think government officials sometimes just tell us the real reasons for their actions. They spill the beans in an unguarded moment due to jet lag or one too many martinis. At a meeting in Singapore last year Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz was "asked why a nuclear power such as North Korea was being treated differently from Iraq, where hardly any weapons of mass destruction had been found." He replied, "Let's look at it simply. The most important difference between North Korea and Iraq is that economically, we just had no choice in Iraq. The country swims on a sea of oil." (George Wright, The Guardian, June 4, 2003, from the Web.)

These comments follow his widely reported statement from an interview in Vanity Fair last month, in which he said that "for reasons that have a lot to do with the US government bureaucracy, we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on: weapons of mass destruction."

Has invading Iraq made us more secure? "More than two-thirds of the people living in Australia, Britain and Italy - three countries allied with the United States in the Iraq war - believe the war has increased the threat of terrorism.... [Even] in the United States, 52 percent, believe the ... war has increased the threat of terrorism." (The Argus, 10/12/04, News, p. 4.)

One problem is that we typically are much more effective in preparing for war than preparing to win the peace after the war, partly because many of our leaders are ignorant and insensitive about other cultures. I remember when our ambassadors to Latin American countries often knew little more Spanish than "¿Mas cerveza por favor!" Our first ambassador to Iraq is John Negroponte, who knows little of Arab language or culture, and in fact "was one of the key figures in the Iran-Contra scandal," secretly selling American arms to Iran to use in war against Iraq. "So our first ambassador will be a man who armed Iraq's enemy during that war." (Funny Times, June 2004, p. 18.) In addition, "...Afghanistan, may be about to implode. With US presidential elections looming, experts on the ground warn that security in the country is deteriorating rapidly. Violent clashes between rival militias have increased, fighters for a resurgent Taliban are killing aid and election workers each week - and the booming drug trade provides a ready source of revenue for the warlords and Islamists to finance their activities. Moreover, the central government, with its tiny national army and fledgling police force, has failed to establish control anywhere outside Kabul." (Financial Times, 9/30/04) That's how we win Iraqi hearts and minds? (Even those who favored the war are often critical of how we have handled the aftermath. "It's beyond pitiful, it's beyond embarrassing, it's now in the zone of dangerous," said Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb, referring to figures showing only about 6 percent of the reconstruction money approved by Congress last year has been spent. "We are in deep trouble." (Source: unidentified newspaper clipping, which I have retained. John Kerry also quoted Hagel's statement during the presidential debates.)

When people say we should not have invaded Iraq, our leaders tell us to keep quiet because this will make our soldiers feel bad. But are we supposed to lie to our troops? I respect people who risk their lives in the service of this country, and being honest with them is part of giving them respect. And listen to these words from the 19th century Unitarian, William Ellery Channing:

"The cry has been that when war is declared, all opposition should therefore be hushed. A sentiment more unworthy of a free country could hardly be propagated. If the doctrine be admitted, rulers have only to declare war and they are screened at once from scrutiny... In war, then as in peace, assert the freedom of speech and of the press. Cling to this as the bulwark of all our rights and privileges."

Should we stay in Iraq or leave? Well, if a surgeon opens someone up and says, "Oops, we shouldn't have operated," it would be irresponsible to just walk away and go play golf. On the other hand, some people argue persuasively that we are so bad at dealing with Iraq that it would be better for them if we just got out. I'm not convinced, but it's a challenging moral dilemma.

I have been sharing these ideas because Mission Peak is one place where we can look at the big-picture issues facing this world, in an ethical and spiritual context. I do not expect everyone to agree with everything I have said, and in fact I would think it very strange if all of you did. But I hope you do agree that these issues deserve careful reflection. I hope you also agree that this country is facing enough serious problems so that more bright and caring people need to get involved. We have plenty of alternatives. We could join and support advocacy groups. We could contact our leaders more often. We could write to newspapers and call in to talk shows. We could have more conversations with people about how they are going to vote. Those of us who are Republicans could help that party overcome the influence of intolerant fundamentalism. Those of us who are Republicans or Democrats could help these parties overcome the influence of big money. Here at Mission Peak we could work with Social Concerns Associates. We could support other UU programs such as the UU Service Committee and our wonderful new California UU Legislative Ministry. And we can take our values into the voting booth. We don't all need to do the same thing, as long as most of us do something.

I will end by quoting concluding statements from two of the essays I cited earlier this morning. First, Garrison Keillor's conclusion of a piece he wrote on American politics: "Dante said that the hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who in time of crisis remain neutral, so I have spoken my piece." And Bill Moyers ended his talk on economic inequality by saying: "Get mad, yes - there's plenty to be mad about. Then get organized and get busy. This is the fight of our lives."

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