“In music, in the sea, in a flower, in a leaf, in an act of kindness…I see what people call God in all these things.”
This sermon was prompted by my response to reading Al Gore’s latest book, The Assault on Reason. It goes nicely with the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes.
The direction the sermon took was influenced by the presidential primaries, and more specifically by Thursday night’s debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. I was surprised at how moved I was…how relieved I felt to have an African American man and a woman as viable candidates to the presidency of the United States of America.
Reading Al Gore’s latest book had stirred up my anxiety about what has happened to our country in the past seven years; more specifically, what has happened since the attacks of 9/11.
In Paul’s letter to the Philippians (4:8) he writes: “Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue and if there be any praise, think on these things.”
My original plan was to talk about our Unitarian Universalist commitment to freedom, reason and tolerance. ‘Life is what you do while you’re making other plans.’ The sermon that comes out isn’t necessarily the sermon that was planned.
The original plan was to talk about the relationship between religion and reason; to assert that it is possible to have religion – a religious ingredient in life – without giving up on the use of reason…to marry science and religion…to have religion without revelation; which is to say, without claiming to know anything about God, except insofar as that aspect of God revealed in Nature or the natural world.
But you already know that. Then along comes the little boy who says, quite innocently, “The Emperor has no clothes.”
Robert Frost said that a poem that knows where it’s going to end up before it begins is no poem at all, or it’s a ‘trick poem.’ He said, “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader; no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”
The little boy in the story is a reminder of our lost innocence. Jesus said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. He added, ‘Unless you become as a child you cannot enter the kingdom.”
There’s very little innocence in the world of politics and commerce, money and power. So Paul reminds us that virtue is found in truth, honesty, justice, beauty and goodness.
Vice is simply the lack of virtue. It is characterized by dishonesty, injustice, lying – the ugly side of the coin of the realm. That’s what struck me about Al Gore’s book, The Assault on Reason. But as I re-read the book I realized that he dug deeper into the truth, and the heart rejoices to hear the truth spoken with courage.
The outrageous attack on America six and a half years ago was the epitome of evil. Our initial reaction was horror; our initial response was, of course, a fierce determination to protect the nation against further attacks, to punish the accomplices, and to try to better understand the root causes that led up to the September 11 attack and those that preceded it.
The reaction was, understandably, visceral – an instinctive and natural anger. Our task, however, was to respond in a rational, logical, analytical, intelligent manner. Don’t panic!
Unfortunately, much of the response to the attack by those in authority, was more reactionary than a rational response — it was an assault on reason.
Al Gore has been writing honest books about the environmental crisis. Earth in the Balance was an honest book, warning us about the danger of throwing the climate off balance; he followed it with another book, An Inconvenient Truth, about the worsening climate crisis. That one was made into a movie, for which he won an Oscar.
This latest book, The Assault on Reason, is, first and foremost, a powerful indictment of the Bush administration’s handling of the crisis; he traces, step by step, the damage that was done to our nation’s moral standing in the world as a result of the unprovoked, unnecessary and ill-planned invasion of Iraq and the consequent use of torture — the shame of Abu Ghraib. It’s about the uses and misuses of fear by our own government, following 9/11, with help from the media whose motto is ‘if it bleeds it leads.’
The Assault on Reason is about harm perpetrated not from terrorists, not from those who attacked our country, but it’s about the damage that has been done to our nation from within; it’s a warning about the serious threat to the very foundation on which the United States of America has been built and on which it’s continued life depends – the Bill of Rights. Gore tells us what we already know: we are in the midst of a moral crisis.
The moral crisis, and the appeal to virtue, is what qualifies what I have to say today as a sermon and not an inappropriate partisan political statement. It’s not about partisan politics.
Gore makes frequent reference to the founders and moral leaders of the nation, like Jefferson who said, “Man, once surrendering his reason, has no remaining guard against absurdities the most monstrous, and like a ship without rudder, is the sport of every wind.”
Jefferson said, “Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because if there be one, He must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear.”
Reason is assaulted by the use of fear; it is assaulted by misinformation and disinformation…dishonesty and manipulation. Reason relies on honesty – reason is assaulted when the government uses fear and misinformation to justify its policies and to cover up its mistakes.
A democracy is only as strong as the honesty and integrity of its leaders, its government. It can function successfully only to the extent that the people are well-educated and well-informed.
Al Gore asserts that intelligent debate — the use of reason by an informed citizenry — was and is America’s cornerstone. He argues that our nation is in danger from a variety of forces, some from the outside by terrorists determined to destroy us, of course, but more especially and more insidiously he writes about the attack carried out by the ‘assault on reason,’ an assault from within, whose major weapon is fear, and whose allies include the misuse of religion, and a planned program of misinforma-tion, disinformation and downright lying.
The Assault on Reason is about the destruction of the human environment — the damage to democracy – when the people are misled, as we were about the rationale for war in Iraq, or when fear is used as a justification for abandoning the Geneva conventions against the use of torture; when the government condones breaking our own laws by spying on its citizens; when the president puts his signature on a law passed by the legislative branch and attaching a so-called ‘signing statement’ that repudiates the law he just signed, listing reasons why he will not obey that law, undermining the essence of our democracy, that says we are a nation of laws, not men.
The Emperor has no clothes, and it’s not a pretty picture. We’ve been witnessing what Gore calls ‘the assault on reason.’
While Gore’s book is a cutting critique of the Bush administra-tion, it’s more than that, it’s more than a critique of one man or one administration, it’s a critique of the manipulation of the democratic process, the thing most Americans say we hold so dear, so sacred: ‘a government of all the people, by all the people, and for all the people,’ which was the actual phrase first used in a sermon by the abolitionist Unitarian minister in Boston, Theodore Parker.
In addition to the way fear has been used and misused, and the way religion has inserted itself, jumping the wall of separation, Gore writes about the distractions of our entertainment culture; he writes about the use of raw power, concentrated in the executive branch of government and the wealthy national media, and the weakening of the legislative branch of government.
In an internet interview he talks about the crisis he sees, as well as his vision for the solution. He refers to the Chinese ideogram for the word ‘crisis,’ which combines symbols for the two words ‘danger and opportunity.’
He said, “I’ve dedicated my book, The Assault on Reason, to my father, Senator Albert Gore Sr., the bravest politician I’ve ever known. In the 1970 mid-term elections, President Richard Nixon relied on a campaign of fear to consolidate his power. I was in the military at the time, on my way to Vietnam as an army journalist, and I watched as my father was accused of being unpatriotic because he was steadfast in his opposition to the War–and as he was labeled an atheist because he dared to oppose a constitutional amendment to foster government-sponsored prayer in the public schools. The 1970 campaign is now regarded by political historians as a watershed, marking a sharp decline in the tone of our national discourse–a decline that has only worsened in recent years as fear has become a more powerful political tool than trust, public consumption of entertainment has dramatically surpassed that of serious news, and blind faith has proven more potent than truth.
“We are at a pivotal moment in American democracy. The persistent and sustained reliance on falsehoods as the basis of policy, even in the face of evidence to the contrary, has reached levels that were previously unimaginable. It’s too easy and too partisan to simply place the blame on the policies of President George W. Bush. We are all responsible for the decisions our country makes.
“Reasoned, focused discourse is vital to our democracy to ensure a well-informed citizenry. But this is difficult in an environment in which we are experiencing a new pattern of serial obsessions that periodically take over the airwaves for weeks at a time–from the O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson trials to Paris Hilton and Anna Nicole Smith.
“Never has it been more vital for us to face the reality of our long-term challenges, from the climate crisis to the war in Iraq to the deficits and health and social welfare. Today, reason is under assault by forces using sophisticated techniques such as propaganda, psychology, and electronic mass media. Yet, democracy’s advocates are beginning to use their own sophisticated techniques: the Internet, online organizing, blogs, and wikies. Although the challenges we face are great, I am more confident than ever before that democracy will prevail and that the American people are rising to the challenge of reinvigorating self-government. It is my great hope that those who read my book will choose to become part of a new movement to rekindle the true spirit of America.”
What Gore refers to as ‘the true spirit of America,’ is also the ‘true spirit of Unitarian Universalism.’ We, too, rely on the democratic process, requiring a well-informed membership, and the three that form the foundation of our faith: freedom, reason and tolerance: the freedom of each person to think for him or herself; the use of the rational mind to balance emotion-driven decisions; and a genuine tolerance – a sincere respect for and acceptance of other religions.
It’s important to remind ourselves that those three things can be pushed to unacceptable extremes: freedom becomes license or chaos; reason without humility becomes idolatrous; and tolerance without limits is irresponsible.
Our Unitarian Universalist approach to religion rests on three solid pillars: freedom, reason and tolerance. Each of them must be well-balanced: freedom needs to be balanced with a sense of responsibility; reason must be balanced by compassion; and tolerance must be balanced by appropriate limits – there are certain things that must not be tolerated – lines must be drawn.
We Unitarian Universalists don’t have a monopoly on any of those three things. Mainstream religion in America – the Jewish, Catholic and Protestant branches – affirm freedom of religion, the use of reason and religious tolerance.
We live in the most religiously diverse nation that has ever existed on the face of the earth.
It is no coincidence that both Unitarianism and Universalism emerged in America during and immediately following the American Revolution.
Yes, of course we see, hear and read about aspects of religion that don’t trust individual freedom, that sometimes seem devoid of the use of reason, and that are intolerant. But mainline religion in America respects individual freedom; the ecumenical spirit grew into an interfaith spirit with respect for the diversity.
Al Gore is a committed Christian who believes that it is possible to have a religious or spiritual life that is balanced by reason and rationality.
William Ellery Channing summarized it: “I call that mind free which masters the senses…which jealously guards its intellectual rights and powers…which opens itself to light whencesoever it may come, which receives new truth as an angel from heaven…which has cast off all fear but that of wrongdoing, and which no menace or peril can enthrall.”
When reason is assaulted by fear, good people become capable of doing bad things, making matters worse. People in Hitler’s Germany lived in fear and many became his accomplices.
When Edward R. Murrow was attacked by Joseph McCarthy he responded by saying, “We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason.”
Gore points out that ‘almost three-quarters of all Americans were led to believe that Saddam Hussein was personally responsible for the attacks of September 11, 2001,’ and many Americans still believe it in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
‘Emotion has much more power to affect reason than reason does to affect emotions – particularly the emotion of fear.’
Al Gore goes into detail about the emotional life of the mind – about the ways that traumatic events in a person’s life are stored in the memory and get activated in a way that tears the time-tag from the mind and causes the trauma to feel like it’s happening in the present, not something from the past.
He also writes about ‘vicarious traumatization,’ the phenomenon of taking on another’s pain, sharing their trauma.
He says, “Research shows that television can produce ‘vicarious traumatization’ for millions. Survey findings after the attacks of September 11 showed that people who had frequently watched television exhibited more symptoms of traumatization than less frequent TV viewers.”
He goes into these things to show how we were manipulated into the war in Iraq.
In his state of the union message leading to the war in Iraq our president used frightening imagery in his phrase about the danger of a ‘mushroom cloud over an American,’ then to push the point he said, “imagine with me this new fear.’
This was a form of terrorism, since terrorism ‘relies on the stimulation of fear for political ends.’
“This principle was so well established that in 1797 the U.S. Senate unanimously approved, and President John Adams signed, a treaty that contained the following declaration: “The United States is not a Christian nation any more than it is a Jewish or Mohammedan Nation.”
“The separation of church and state was thus based not only on the Founders’ insights into fear, faith, and reason, but also on their new awareness of the nature of power. They understood that the love of power can become so intoxicating that it overwhelms reason.”
Gore reminds us that: “Fear is the most powerful enemy of reason. Both fear and reason are essential to human survival, but the relationship between them is unbalanced…fear frequently shuts down reason.”
He quotes Edmund Burke who wrote in England twenty years before the American Revolution, “No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.”
“…fear can trigger the temptation to surrender freedom to a demagogue promising strength and security in return.”
Justice Louis D. Brandeis wrote, “Men feared witches and burnt women.”
“Where fear is present, wisdom cannot be.” Lactantius, Roman philosopher
Edward R. Murrow, who was assaulted by Joseph McCarthy, said, “We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason.”
Closing words, from Pablo Casals: “In music, in the sea, in a flower, in a leaf, in an act of kindness…I see what people call God in all these things.”
For those reading this sermon, who have not read Gore’s book, I include some passages, below, which are referenced previously and are worth reading as he wrote them. Gore talks about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder:
“Normally, when an experience is translated into memory, it’s given a sort of ‘time tag,’ a mechanism that gives us the ability when we recall those experiences to sense how long ago the events we recall occurred and a rough understanding of their temporal sequence. You can sense that the remembered experience was before this and after that. Or that it was ten weeks ago (or ten years ago.) However, when traumatic events – those involving anxiety or pain – are stored in memory, the process is different. All bets are off… the memory is coded and stored differently. In effect, the ‘time tag’ is removed – so that when the traumatic experiences are later recalled, they feel ‘present.’ And the memory has the ability to activate the fear response in the present moment – even though the trauma being remembered was a long time ago – because the intensity of the memory causes part of the brain to react as if the trauma were happening again right now. PTSD is the constant intrusion into the mind of traumatic memories and re-experiencing of the events as if the event had just happened….it is this preoccupation with the trauma that can be so disabling.”
“A closely related phenomenon is ‘vicarious traumatization.’ If someone, such as a family member or an individual with whom we identify has experienced trauma, that person’ feelings can be communicated to us even though we didn’t directly experience the traumatic event.”
“Research shows that television can produce ‘vicarious traumatization’ for millions. Survey finds after the attacks of September 11 showed that people who had frequently watched television exhibited more symptoms of traumatization than less frequent TV views.”
“Because our nation had been subjected to the horrors of 9/11, when our president said, ‘imagine with me this new fear…imagine a mushroom cloud over an American city,’ it was easy enough to bypass the reasoning process that might otherwise have led people to ask, ‘Wait a minute, Mr. President, where’s your evidence?”
“Terrorism relies on the stimulation of fear for political ends.”
“Ironically, President Bush’s response to the terrorist attack of September 11 was, in effect, to further distort America’s political reality by creating a new fear of Iraq that was hugely disproportionate to the actual danger Iraq was capable of posing.”