Readings — from The People, Yes, by Carl Sandburg:
“So you want to divide all the money there is
and give every man his share?”
“that’s it. Put it all in one big pile and split
it even for everybody.”
“and the land, the gold, silver, oil, copper, you want
that divided up?”
“Sure — an even whack for all of us.”
“Do you mean that to go for horses and cows”
“Sure — why not?”
“And how about pigs?”
“Oh to hell with you — you know I got a couple of
“I’m holding my own,”
said more than one pioneer.
“I didn’t have anything
when I landed here
and I ain’t got anything now
but I got some hope left.
I ain’t lost hope yet.
I’m a wanter and a hoper.”
In his book, The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope, Andrew Delbanco writes:
We must imagine some end to life that transcends our own tiny allotment of days and hours if we are to keep at bay the dim, back-of-the-mind suspicion that one may be adrift in an absurd world.
This feeling of being adrift Delbanco refers to as melancholy or depression.
Referring to Alexis de Tocqueville’s well-known book, Democracy in America Delbanco writes:
Tocqueville says that that envy and longing were built into American life: that Americans suffered from the illusion that equality could eradicate their envy and prosperity could quench their yearning for happiness.
The indispensable insight of Democracy in America is that democracy thrives only if it sees to the universal distribution of hope. In the America Tocqueville visited, hope stopped at the color line. For too many Americans it still does.
Delbanco quotes Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman, and Lincoln — names that are woven into the fabric of American history — all of whom did a great deal to promote the American Dream.
The lesson of Lincoln’s life — the life he lived, and the life that endures in our national memory — is that the quest for prosperity is no remedy for melancholy, but that a passion to secure justice by erasing the line that divides those with hope from those without hope can be.
What can be a ‘remedy for melancholy?’ “…a passion to secure justice by erasing the line that divides those with hope from those without hope…”
This is what we mean when we say in our statement of affirmation ‘service is its law.’
What makes this a religious community, rather than just a social club?
We don’t have a stated theology to which everyone is expected to agree, but we do have an implicit theological ideal. The essence of that ideal is that we can and must see beyond ourselves, that we can have a ‘passion to secure justice’ for those who do not now have justice in America.
Delbanco quotes Whitman as saying, “At the core of democracy is the religious sentiment.”
That’s a statement too easily glossed over. Think about it: at the core of democracy — the essential ingredient of our democratic way of life in America — is the religious sentiment. At the heart of religion, in a generic sense, is concern for others — concern beyond the self, only. This does not preclude concern for one’s own well being, of course. But the religious sentiment has to do with a sense of being involved with, or connected to others. It has to do with a sense of being involved in this ecological life-system on planet earth-to feel the Divine in Nature.
Emerson, Whitman and Thoreau — who make up the closest to a Unitarian trinity we have (the most quoted at least!) are first and foremost individualists.
In his essay on self-reliance, Emerson says: “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.”
Shunning conformity, Emerson said, “If I know your sect I anticipate your argument.”
In Leaves of Grass Whitman’s signature poem, Song of Myself opens: “I celebrate myself and sing myself…”
Henry David Thoreau, in the essay on Civil Disobedience, which inspired the likes of Gandhi, writes, “Any (one) more right than his neighbor constitutes a majority of one.”
Thoreau opens his book Walden: “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.”
He says, “I never found the companion that was quite so companionable as solitude.”
Individualism is at the heart of the American ideal.
It is folly, however, to stop there. Individualism by itself is empty. It’s a dead end.
Remember Rabbi Hillel’s words: “If I’m not for myself, who will be? If I’m only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
The heart of our Unitarian Universalist faith, if there is any such thing as a Unitarian Universalist faith — and I know there is — is found in this duality of rugged individualism on the one hand, and a commitment to the welfare of others, on the other.
Delbanco concludes the American Dream, his essay on hope, with a line from Emerson: “Let us do what we can to rekindle the smouldering nigh quenched fire on the altar.”
Sometimes a dream is a wild fancy or fantasy? But always dream is an aspiration: it is hope; it seems feasible… do-able… practical.
First we have to conceive of it, to imagine it.
Let’s look again at the American Dream. What was it… way back when? What is it, now? How has the dream changed?
On the one hand, the American Dream is simple: it’s the quest for the biggest piece of the pie you can get. It’s “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.”
This aspect of American Dream — and it’s a real, honest-to-God part of the dream — was recently made embarrassingly visible in the fiasco, “Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire.”
It’s easy to shoot these values down… they are sitting ducks. But we’re in deep denial if we deny that aspect of the American Dream… the dream of getting rich.
Wealth is security — it’s food, clothes and shelter; it’s freedom to choose. It’s easy to shoot at, to put down from the high-but-distant pulpit.
Of course it’s even better if you accumulate that wealth the Horatio Alger way. You remember Horatio Alger. He was born near Boston, in Revere, Massachusetts in 1832, when Emerson was minister of Second Unitarian Church in Boston.
Horatio Alger was educated at Harvard College and went on to Harvard Divinity School. In 1864 he was ordained a Unitarian minister, and two years later he became chaplain of a lodging house for newsboys in New York City in 1866.
He wrote more than 100 novels about underprivileged kids who worked hard, who were honest and hard-working and became wealthy by pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps.
Horatio Alger isn’t read much today, but the show Who Wants to be a Millionaire is the most popular show on television, just as his stories were once as popular.
Do you remember Abraham Malow, the humanistic psychologist? He used a pyramid to illustrate what he called the hierarchy of needs.
Maslow developed a theory of motivation describing the individual’s progression from basic needs to the highest need — what he called self-actualization — the fulfillment of one’s greatest human potential.
The American Dream is like that pyramid. At the base of the pyramid are the essentials: food, clothes, and shelter. Higher up the pyramid are social needs — the need for love, affection… acceptance… the need to be known, to be respected, and so forth. At the tip of the pyramid, the hierarchy of needs, is the need for self-actualization.
The quest for money — through work, the lottery, or trying to be a contestant on Who Wants to be a Millionaire — is at the base of the pyramid. Money is security — that’s the practical part of the American Dream, and, of course, it’s not unique to America. None of what we call the American Dream is unique to our country, but we’re here, and we want to understand who and what we are.
To state the obvious, which I sometimes fail to do because I assume it’s obvious and I don’t have to say it, since you already know it, we live in a wonderful country. We are fortunate.
But, like any fortune, we must assume the responsibilities that go with the territory.
Not everyone in America has a fair shot at the American Dream. Prejudice and discrimination abound. Justice too often stops at the color line, or some other line — like gender or sexual orientation.
Part of the responsibility we assume is to work at erasing the color line, and the other lines of injustice. An essential ingredient in the American Dream is precisely that: that we can work together to erase the line that divides those who have a fair share, a fair shake — those who have justice — from those who don’t.
We see the progress we’ve made in recent decades, but seeing that progress makes the flaws that remain all the more glaring!
We have a responsibility to mend the flaws, as the song America the Beautiful says: “O beautiful for pilgrim feet, whose stern impassioned stress, a thoroughfare for freedom beat across the wilderness! America, America, God mend thine every flaw, confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.”
That song was not included in our new hymnal. Why do you suppose?
In the 70’s and 80’s it was politically incorrect for religious liberals to sing patriotic songs. The other guys sing them with gusto: the Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells… so we shy away, and it’s a great loss for us.
I understand why the hymnal commission left them out, but I wish we could put them back!
The American Dream was soured in the ’60’s with the war in Vietnam, and it was soured in the 70’s and 80’s with the illegal, immoral war we waged in Central America.
But remember, Thoreau wrote Civil Disobedience when he was disgusted with the war against Mexico, when we took the land that’s now Texas… and he criticized the government and was put in jail for refusing to pay the poll tax that was helping to pay for that war.
Too often we have allowed those at the far right to take some of the best things from us: our patriotism, our open love of our country, in spite of its flaws.
We allowed them to take the religion of Jesus from us for fear that we’d sound like narrow-minded Christians, forgetting that Jesus himself was not a Christian, but a practicing Jew who wanted to universalize religion — not to be the property of a so-called chosen few, or chosen people, but anyone who ‘loved his neighbor as himself.’
Religion can sour the American Dream. It can taste sour when we focus on the greed, consumerism, entitlement and so forth in our acquisitive society.
Yes, we need to criticize, to point to the flaws, but we live in a great nation, and if we fail to appreciate it we lose the dream.
Does that mean we don’t understand the flaws? Does it mean we deny what happened in those terrible years after Columbus? No, not at all.
But we need to put it into an appropriate context — including the largest context, which is the substance of Jared Diamond’s thoughtful book Guns, Germs and Steel. Diamond traces the history of civilization — at least as far as we’ve gotten into that process we call ‘civilization.’
In terms of the American Dream, truth be told, we’re very fortunate. We’re fortunate to be living in this country, we’re fortunate to have the freedoms and the opportunities that come with it. We have a responsibility to give something back. Without that sense of responsibility the American Dream is perverted into a bad show, like Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?
Giving something back is an essential part of the American Dream, because it is in giving something back that we increase our sense of self-esteem, that we preserve a sense of dignity and self-respect. Giving something back isn’t simply a form of charity — it’s a contribution to justice making; it’s a way of giving direction to that ‘passion to secure justice by erasing the line that divides those with hope from those without hope,’ as Lincoln put it.
I want to read a poem I wrote in 1976 for the bi-centennial:
I am America —
Take me away and you’ve removed a dream
You’ve taken hope away —
A vision and a promise.
I am not the country.
The country is carefully curled up in me.
I am America, the dream that gave birth to a nation,
To become a country among the nations of the world.
America: big, bold, tall, sturdy, and compassionate.
I’m coming of age — a dream taking shape
Creating a land of opportunity, equality and justice for all.
I was born in a revolutionary struggle in ’76,
My ancestors came over on the Mayflower.
They had a vision and a dream in Jamestown and Massachusetts Bay, a
vision that brought them to battlefields in Lexington and Concord with
painful birth contractions measured by Minutemen marching to Bunker
Hill, determined to be self-sufficient, independent.
I arrived full of hope, full of determination.
I am America — I mark well the birth in a log cabin
In Kentucky on February 12, 1809.
They tried to kill me at Gettysburg.
They killed my son in the Ford theater.
They killed another in Dallas,
Another in Memphis, but they haven’t killed me,
They haven’t killed the dream.
I rise up out of the ashes again and again,
I am tenacious, they can’t throw me off,
They can’t shake me loose, I can hold on!
My dream digs deep into the soul of the nation —
I embody dreams. They won’t go away.
They are persistent.
I am America: I occupy the land, I spread myself out
Gazing up at the stars, outward at the future, the dream.
My head is in the Arctic, my feet in the Pacific Islands.
I bulge with mountains and stretch with long prairies,
The rocky Maine coast is at one shoulder,
The peaceful Pacific rolls onto the other.
Minerals, forests, and a bountiful harvest provide an Abundance that
makes me a prize among the nations.
I am America, a vision and a hope of democracy.
I share power with the people.
I share wealth and the abundance with the people.
I am America, a country-in-the-making.
I am not perfect. I have my faults,
I’ve had my failures.
The vision has sometimes seemed to slip away,
The dream turned soar with greed, prejudice and hatred.
But I awake and shake off the dark night of the soul.
I promise much and I keep my promises in my own time.
I’ll deliver yet. Hang around. You’ll see.
There are great cities in my heart, working,
Circulating the life blood from shore to shore,
North to south.
The marrow of my bones comes from the indigenous peoples — from hundreds
of tribes of Native Americans; and from African peoples, and people from
England, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Russia — from Scandinavia, South
America — from the Semitic peoples — Jews, Palestinians and from people of
the rising sun — Orientals from China, Japan, Korea… from India… from every
corner of the globe.
Always hope was in the hearts of those who arrived at my shores — as the early travelers had hope
for religious and political freedom, for economic opportunity.
I am America. I am alive and well. I am substantial.
I’ve died a thousand deaths, but my soul survives,
Incarnated over and over again
From Washington to Lincoln to Jefferson;
Reinterpreted by Emerson, Thoreau and Lincoln;
Sung in the lusty songs of Whitman;
Sweetly sung again in the songs of Sandburg and Frost.
Then exemplified by Rosa Parks who sat still,
Articulated by the dream of Martin Luther King.
I am America: I’ve been betrayed by some;
Misunderstood, cheated and violated by others.
I am America, a youth among the older nations
I stand tall and proud in the assembly of nations
Strong, determined to correct the flaws,
The mistakes my statesmen made in my youth
Determined to keep the dream alive,
To bring it to full fruition.
I am America, I’ve traveled the long journey,
I’m marching the freedom march, the road is long.
I can change, adapt, reverse myself, modify and reform.
I am alterable.
The central vision that creates me remains permanent,
I don’t need help from those who try to protect me from criticism — these
friends are more difficult than those who have announced their open
hostility — I can resist the attacks of those who are hostile;
the others eat away at my core, the friends who have lost faith, or
didn’t understand me to begin with.
But I am strong. Put me to the test. I am resilient.
I can withstand the shock.
I am America, the dream-in-the-making
I travel the long journey,
I arrive again and again;
I take up residence in the hearts of dreamers
and lovers of freedom, lovers of peace and democracy,
lovers of life…
I am America. I’m knocking on your door. Let me in!