In a letter to her husband, John, who was in Philadelphia, helping to give birth to a new nation in 1775, Abigail Adams wrote, “In the new code of laws which you will make I desire you to remember the Ladies. Do not put unlimited power in the hands of the husbands. Remember all men would be tyrants if they could.”
A year later the Declaration of Independence was used like a surgical knife to cut the umbilical cord from mother England, and a new nation was birthed on a bed of freedom.
Indeed, that’s the word which best characterizes the meaning of America — freedom.
What emerged on July 4, 1776 was an infant nation; a new nation, full of promise, full of hope. But, still, an infant. John and the others did not remember the Ladies, as his wife had wisely urged. That would take 144 years of growth and development maturation, if you will. Democracy isn’t born fully matured-it takes time, experience and experimentation.
Four score and seven years after the signing of that famous Declaration, Lincoln stood on the bloody battlefield at Gettysburg in the midst of the greatest trauma this nation has known; in the midst of a war that was testing whether this nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the radical proposition that all are created equal, could long endure.
Lincoln’s address that day followed the two-hour speech by Edward Everett, a former senator from Massachusetts, the President of Harvard and perhaps most relevant for us, he was a Unitarian minister; Unitarian ministers were accustomed to speaking for two hours in those days.
Lincoln spoke for about two minutes in carefully-crafted language that made him sound like a Biblical prophet. He was criticized — his address was called a failure. But Edward Everett knew better. When Lincoln sat down beside him Everett said, “Ah, Mr. President, how gladly would I give my hundred pages to be the author of your twenty lines.”
Lincoln’s Gettysburg address occupies a special, unique place in what might be called the sacred literature in our secular society. It’s the closest thing we have to a national creed. Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg took on a religious quality: read it aloud for yourself.
“Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation: conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
“Now we are engaged in a great civil war.testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated. can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war.
“We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
“But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate.we cannot consecrate.we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.
“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us.that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.and that government of the people.by the people.and for the people.shall not perish from the earth.” November 19, 1863
I want to thank your Associate DRE, Janet Luongo, for bringing the PBS Freedom: A History of US, display, which you are invited to see following the service.
Joy Hakim, author of the PBS series, says, “Freedom is an exciting, even dangerous idea. It means independence. Freedom requires risk taking, courage and a willingness to struggle for the possibility of a better future. Freedom is one of the founding principles of the United States.at the same time, many Americans have been denied freedom. Freedom should not be taken for granted.”
Janet introduced me to the film Uncovered: the Whole Truth about the Iraq War. One of the astounding things about this documentary is the openly expressed views of dozens of CIA, Pentagon and foreign service officers who speak out about the distortion of intelligence that became the justification for President Bush’s preemptive, unilateral attack.
Another justification for this war is the expressed desire of our President and his advisors to bring freedom and democracy to a country that has been dominated by a dictator who tells lies to his own people.
Frederick Douglas said it well: “The life of the nation is secure only while the nation is honest, truthful and virtuous.”
No wonder we feel so insecure today!
In 1776 Abigail’s husband, John, did not remember the Ladies. The founders declared freedom from the English monarchy, but did not grant freedom to most of the inhabitants of the colonies.
Only a small minority were granted to right to vote. Not women. Not men without property. Not Native Americans or African Americans. Democracy would come slowly, only as the new nation came of age, and not without struggle and even a catastrophic Civil War.
Our two parent denominations, the Unitarians and the Universalists, were among the first children born out of the Revolution. Each was conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all people are children of the same Creator, and all are equal in that sense.
You may remember that Unitarianism was the prodigal son of fourth century Trinitarian Christianity. Bishop Arius and his followers insisted that Jesus was fully human-not Divine. Arius, who was called a heretic, said that God is One, not three; thus the name, Unitarian, meaning ‘One.”
Thomas Jefferson, who became a Unitarian by declaring himself one, said, “I believe every young man in America today will die a Unitarian.” He saw the direct connection between the ideals of the new nation, and the basic pillars of Unitarianism: freedom, reason and tolerance. He saw that there is a religious dimension to America, but it is at the foundation of the country – it is at the foundation of the human experience – it’s not about creedal religion which so often tends to separate us from our essential self, to say nothing of how it separates us from one another.
Universalism, the elder brother of Unitarianism, was brought to these shores by John Murray in 1770. Murray emigrated from England, carrying the teachings of John Relly, for which he was labeled heretic. Murray was determined never to step into another pulpit-he had decided to cast off religion altogether. But he was persuaded to preach his gospel of universal salvation, and he was amazed that it was so widely accepted-that he could speak freely.
He was given a commission in George Washington’s army, and his Universalism provided an antidote to the poisonous preaching of the Puritans with their hellfire and damnation. John Murray said, “Give them not hell, but hope and courage.”
The Universalists rejected the idea of eternal hell, asserting that all souls are eventually saved, or returned to God–the doctrine of universal salvation–which is why some of our congregations carry the named ‘all souls.’
Abraham Lincoln didn’t belong to any church, but some Unitarians like to claim him because things he said about religion fit so well with our approach, or so we hope.
During his presidential campaign he was asked by the mother of a friend why he didn’t go to church he said, so plainly and so honestly and without having to be defensive:
“Because I find difficulty without mental reservation in giving my assent to their long and complicated creeds.” He said, “When any church inscribes on its altar, as a qualification for membership, the Savior’s statement of the substance of the law and the Gospel ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind.and the neighbor as thyself-that church will I gladly join.”
Prior to the Civil War the term ‘United States’ was plural. Following the Civil War it became singular-the United States of America. One nation.
Lincoln reminds us that this nation was conceived in liberty. The conception-the idea-was put onto paper by Thomas Jefferson. In his Declaration of Independence he said;
“We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Abigail Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglas, John Murray, and so many others, are some of the faces of freedom that are carved into the mountain we call America. Their voices ring across the years; they have a religious tone, a spiritual tone, a quality that goes to the very core of our lives, not only as Americans struggling to maintain dedication to what Lincoln called, “.the unfinished work.the great task remaining before us,” but these words touch the core of what it means to be human.
Having reminded you of these faces of freedom, let me now ask you an important question, which you can answer in the hours, days and remaining years of your life:
Do you feel appropriately or adequately engaged in the process of bringing this nation of ours closer to our stated ideals, the ideals of freedom and justice for all?
Are you, as I am, concerned about the so-called Patriot Act? (Why did they give it such an insidious name, as if it’s patriotic to sacrifice the liberties we hold sacred, as if its patriotic to be quiet, to go along!)
We are in a particularly vulnerable time, now. I do not mean to suggest that I have all the right answers, but I certainly have some very big questions, and I believe that one of the most patriotic things any of us can and must do is to persistently ask the big questions.
We must be vigilant; we must not take our freedom for granted. One of the functions of this free pulpit is to re-mind myself, and you, of the highest responsibilities we share.
No reasonable person would suggest that we should have the freedom to carry a gun on an airplane, or anything that could be turned into a weapon-though it’s astonishing just what can be easily turned into a weapon.
I believe that our basic freedom is threatened in very subtle ways; it is threatened by the misuse of power in Washington. Shall I say it? Our freedom is threatened by the pre-emptive, unilateral invasion of Iraq with its consequent erosion of trust, since the so-called justification for this war is clearly called into question. It is clear that there were lies told and repeated by the highest of our elected and appointed officials.
Shall we assume that our highest elected officials did not know that they were repeating information that was fabricated for them, to serve their own ends? I, for one, do not believe it. I believe that they told lies, pure and simple. Let the politicians use euphemisms if they must, but a lie is a lie. Period.
The words of Frederick Douglas ring in our ears: “The life of the nation is secure only while the nation is honest, truthful and virtuous.”
There is a climate of mistrust today that far exceeds anything in my lifetime, including the difficult time we call the ‘Vietnam era.’
Without basic trust, what does freedom mean?
Freedom in America is threatened today by our elected and appointed officials, but it is also threatened in other ways. Freedom in America is threatened by the misuse of corporate power-a free enterprise system is secure only while the CEO’s are honest, truthful and virtuous. Our economic success depends on something more than the bottom line, more than sales, more than the gross national product.
Our economic stability is threatened by shameless and blatant greed-a greed so great that it deserves a word that is not so innocuous as that old word, greed. It’s easy to say that everybody is greedy, everybody wants more. But the outrageous greed of corporate executives in recent years borders on something more insidious and insane than simple, old-fashioned greed.
Freedom in America is threatened by radical religious fundamentalism that would impose itself in every aspect of our lives-by limiting a woman’s right to reproductive freedom; by limiting stem cell research that promises hope for those suffering from spinal cord injuries; by promoting a not-so-subtle form of anti-Semitism with films like Mel Gibson’s The Passion, and statements from the likes of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell that God sent the planes into the twin towers in response to the sin of homosexuality.
Thomas Jefferson built a wall of separation between church and state-religion and politics. That wall is being systematically dismantled. Chief Justice Roy Moore was willing to destroy the wall of separation by erecting a monument on which were carved his own version of the Ten Commandments. He was willing to undermine the foundation on which we rest. Abigail warned ‘all men would be tyrants if they could.’
Freedom is threatened by the fear of unemployment in a bottom-line mentality that is willing to put profits before people. Freedom is threatened when so many people become indentured servants to the credit card industry. A person who lives with financial insecurity is not truly free.
Freedom is threatened by the lack of a responsible environmental policy. What kind of world are we going to leave to our grandchildren and great-grandchildren?
“Now.we are testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated.can long endure.”
We are determining how it will endure, and we’re not doing a very good job of it, when the disparity between the pay of corporate executives at the top and full time workers at the bottom is 300 or more to one.
Listen again to Lincoln’s challenge to us, summarized so strongly in the final paragraph of his address at Gettysburg, with which I’ll close:
“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us.that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.and that government of the people.by the people.and for the people.shall not perish from the earth.”