We Hold These Truths To Be Self-Evident

Sermon by Zach Wahls
July 26, 2020

The sermon text is available below the video.

Meditation 

This past week, our nation mourned the loss of the late Congressman John Lewis, the son of a sharecropper, an organizer, a moral leader. I thought I would share some words from his 1963 speech at the March on Washington: 

John Lewis
“To those who have said, ‘Be patient and wait,’ we have long said that we cannot be patient. We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now! We are tired. We are tired of being beaten by policemen. We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again. And then you holler, ‘Be patient.’ How long can we be patient? We want our freedom, and we want it now. We do not want to go to jail.  But we will go to jail if this is the price we must pay for love, brotherhood, and true peace.” 

Sermon Part 1

Good morning. I’ve been asked to speak to you today on the topic of “trust in government” – not an easy topic, especially these days. We’re exploring “trust” this summer because our religious community at UUS is in a time of transition – I will do my best to keep this speech as non-partisan as possible, so I will simply say that it is my hope our government is soon in a time of transition as well. 

I think it is especially appropriate that we chose this topic for this moment of transition because there should be no doubt that our nation, and indeed our world, are in a moment of transition as well. The murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers has launched a renewed dialogue on race in America. 

The words printed at the top of today’s order of service are from Marshall Ganz, a professor of social movements and organizing, and he observes: “Charity asks, ‘What is wrong, and how can I help?’ Justice asks, ‘Why is this happening, and how can I fix it?’” 

Many of us feel, and I feel it to be palpable, that this moment, this conversation, this transformation around race is different. I certainly feel that to be the case. And I believe that sense comes from a growing shift among white Americans—a transition—from a perspective of charity to a perspective of justice. And justice asks, “Why is this happening?” And in order to understand, we must re-examine many of the truths that we have been taught and some that we believe to be self-evident.

Today, we’ll talk about how our understanding of the Declaration of Independence changed because of the Gettysburg Address, we’ll talk about revisiting the past and learning more about events we thought we knew, and the Broadway musical “Hamilton.” I am going to do my best to make this not feel like a history lesson or a political speech—but, no promises. We’ll discuss the urgent need for us to reconsider some of the truths we hold to be self-evident, and I want to offer hope that although such reconsideration may be difficult, it is nothing new and is in fact a vital part of the American tradition, and it is at the heart of the practice of making a more perfect union. 

And finally, I want to say at the outset: we can do this. I am fully aware that we are in an incredibly difficult place right now. But it is my burning hope, and it is the object of my work to ensure that the darkness we are experiencing as a nation is not, as my friend Valarie Kaur has observed, the darkness of the tomb, but instead the darkness of the womb. We work to ensure that we do not see the death of democracy but instead a new birth of liberty and of justice for all, and to affirm that all lives do not matter until black lives matter. 

The program is split into two halves—first, I want to give an example of reconsidering our truth and the power that can have on our country. I want to show you that not only is it possible, it’s happened before and is part of what it means to be an American. Then, after a short interlude, I’ll discuss some specifics about why we are where we are and how I think we can move forward.

We start with the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” is one of the most famous turns of phrase in political history since it was written in 1776 — but it has not always been so. When you ask most Americans “How old is America?” we almost universally point to the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 as our founding date. We pick this date instead of June 21, 1788 when the U.S. Constitution was ratified, or April 30, 1789 when George Washington entered the Office of the Presidency.

The Declaration of Independence was, in fact, given little attention by the Founders in the years after the Revolution—celebrations of Independence Day and indeed early histories of the Revolution itself, paid little heed to the document. By the 1780s, when the Constitution was being drafted and debated, the Declaration was largely an afterthought and mostly forgotten by everyday Americans. And while the Declaration enjoyed moments of interest throughout the late 1700s and early 1800s, and its rhetoric was proudly adopted by the delegates of the Seneca Falls Convention, the Declaration did not take on the importance with which it is imbued today, until President Lincoln placed it at the heart of the Gettysburg Address in 1863 and elevated it into the pantheon of American history. 

The opening sentence of the Gettysburg Address reads, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Let’s break that down. “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this content a new nation, conceived in liberty.” 

Now this refers to 1776, not 1789. Up until this point, 1776 was seen as the year of “American Independence” but not as the birth of the nation. This speech and its aftermath changed that understanding and the nation’s first centennial celebration took place thirteen years late in 1876. (There had been no semicentennial or 50-year celebration in 1826.) 

And then the opening sentence closes: “Dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” It is critical for us today to understand how much of a departure that was from the contemporary understanding then of the American founding. 

But to illustrate this point, and you should look it up if you don’t believe me, the word “equality” does not appear in the United States Constitution, nor in the Bill of Rights, nor any of the ensuing amendments. In fact, the Equal Rights Amendment, if ratified, would for the first time ever write the word “equality” into our Constitution. For President Lincoln in 1863 to argue that our nation was dedicated to equality at its founding, was for its time a revisionist argument, but an argument that he ultimately did win. 

The closing sentence of the Gettysburg Address reads, “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, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

This sentence captures, for me, not just the brilliant rhetorical abilities of President Lincoln, but in fact lays out the roadmap that we are still using today to guide the progress of our nation. We acknowledge the sacrifice made by so many Americans before us, we resolve that their deaths shall not be in vain, and we vow to press ahead to protect and preserve a free government that acknowledges and indeed upholds, the inherent worth, dignity, and equality of every person. That has been a guiding spirit for this country ever since. 

But—and this is what I want to underscore—this vision of America was new in its time. Its truths had been reconsidered. And the country was moving forward. I believe this moment today demands such a reconsideration. I cannot tell you what it will look like, but I am trying to show you that not only is such a reconsideration possible, it has already happened before.

Of course, not everyone agreed with this new direction, and President Lincoln himself inadvertently placed an incredible obstacle in the path of progress when for electoral reasons, he selected Andrew Johnson to serve as his Vice President in 1864. As President, Mr. Johnson destroyed any hopes of a successful Reconstruction, and forfeited our nation’s best opportunity to heal the gaping wound of American slavery at precisely the moment it was needed most. 

And before I wrap up this first portion of the program, I want to emphasize that Reconstruction, the 14 years following the end of the Civil War, is one of those periods that White Americans must re-examine and better understand in order to answer the question, “Why is this happening and how can I fix it?” Many Americans were taught in school that Reconstruction was a period of federal government overreach and the usurpation of liberty and dignity of white Southern ex-Confederates. 

In fact, this view predominated in American history classrooms for well over a century, before—in only the last forty or so years—we began to build a new understanding of Reconstruction as having not gone far enough to heal and build up a new inter-racial American democracy. But a lot of people learned about that period before the last forty or so years. Developing a shared understanding of our history and linking the decisions and the policies for which our government was responsible to what is happening today is critical. Because if we do not share that understanding of the past, it will be impossible to enact justice today. 

Sermon Part 2

In the second part of the program today, we’ll discuss the specifics of trust in government, why I think it’s declined, and how we can rebuild it. There is a growing sense that government is no longer, “of the people, by the people, for the people.” 

As President Lincoln described. If you have the sense that trust in government is near an all-time low, you’re right. In 1958, the National Election Survey found that 73% of Americans said yes when asked, “Do you trust the government to do the right thing most of the time?” 73 percent! As of last year, that number was down to seventeen percent. Put another way, we’ve gone from about three in four Americans agreeing that they trust their government to do the right thing down to fewer than one in six. That’s a big problem. 

I don’t think I need to spend too much time trying to convince you of why this is a problem, given that we are currently in the middle of a global pandemic and staring down the barrel of global climate change and now evidently, in case you haven’t heard, the New York Times has basically reported that UFOs are real and we are not alone. And that’s not a joke, that has actually happened in the last few days. 

These challenges are larger than our individual abilities to meet them — that’s why we have government. Now part of this decline of course was driven by a deliberate, anti-government ideology that was weaponized during the 1970s and 1980s in order to lower the top marginal tax rate, protect a white supremacist racial order, and gave rise to jokes like, “The scariest nine words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’” And coined phrases like, “Big Government.” And, more recently, promised to “Drain the Swamp.” So that’s part of it. 

But the decline hasn’t been just driven by right wing, anti-government activists. Distrust in government is also on the rise among white liberals, for three reasons. 

First, arguments about political corruption and the capture of government by special interests have long held sway with American liberals, which is a part of why government ethics reform was a top priority of the Progressive movement a century ago. These concerns have been heightened since the 2016 election and widespread concerns of self-dealing and the ushering in of industry insiders through the revolving door and into our federal government. 

The second reason is the rise of authoritarianism and the attack on American institutions. Anti-authoritarianism has always been a central component of liberal ideology, dating back to the Enlightenment. The rise of authoritarianism in America and around the world are highly distressing, especially because of the attack on lower-case-D-democratic institutions, like a free and independent press, and the rule of law. You know things have taken an unusual turn, when liberals are the ones defending the FBI. 

The final reason is more complicated, but I think potentially the most important of the three, because unlike the first two, this trend will not change any time soon. With a new administration and a new Congress, political reforms can be made, and the rise of authoritarianism may be stemmed. This third area is different, and potentially more challenging. 

Over the past ten years, there has been a decisive and rapid shift to the left of the views held by white liberal Americans about the effects of racism on our society. We talked at the beginning of the program about the moment of “transition” in which we find ourselves in the movement for racial justice, and I believe this is an acceleration of that shift among not just liberals, but increasingly among white Americans more broadly. 

And why is this happening? I don’t think we know for sure, but I believe it dates back to 2014, when Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri and the emergence of the movement for black lives. The spread of high-definition video recordings of similar encounters shared and accessible through vast and deeply connected social media networks are a critical component. And just because I know this is a topic that many people are concerned with, I want to touch briefly on social media and the media more generally.  

An interesting thing I’ve noticed is that at the same time so many of us feel completely overwhelmed by the news, the actual number of journalists who are working has declined precipitously over the past 15 years. It was not that long ago that running a newspaper was very profitable, because they had cornered the market on print advertising. Social media marketing and search engines like Google completely upended that revenue model. The amount of local news being covered has declined in proportion with cuts to budgets, and most—although not quite all—of what is left is controlled by large corporations like Gannett or Sinclair Broadcasting. 

There are two problems here. The first is that as profit margins have declined, these news outlets actually have less freedom to cover what needs to be covered — instead they have to chase what gets clicks and what drives revenue. I know people complain about negativity — but media sites have some of the best analytics. They know what clicks and what people will actually read. 

The second problem is that local media outlets have played a critical role in helping communities define themselves. Without that ability to generate a local identity, it is much easier to get swept up in a statewide or national identity — but those are often much more adversarial and can make it more difficult to enact change at the local level. This is a long-winded way of saying: support local news. And when we do use social media, it’s critical that we slow down and make sure that when we share information, we make sure we are sharing correct information.

As many of you know, I began my advocacy work pushing for the broader acceptance of LGBTQ rights. One of the most powerful forces in that space was the coming out of LGBTQ people across our country and throughout society. Over time, this created a “critical mass” where more people felt safe coming out and more Americans had a close friend or family member who was openly LGBTQ. 

I believe the spread of these videos is having a somewhat similar—although obviously not identical—effect. LGBTQ identities, unlike race, are randomly distributed throughout the population. Racial identities are not randomly distributed, and we still live in a very stratified, very segregated society, and so it has taken the spread of video and social media to create that new critical mass that has made this moment of transformation possible. 

But as we transform and as we embrace justice and we begin this process of asking “Why is this happening and how can I fix it?” We are finding answers that are often uncomfortable. We’re re-examining the founding fathers who I discussed at the beginning of the program and are growing increasingly uncomfortable with what we see. 

And I think that’s totally reasonable. How can you trust your government when your nation’s founding documents and many of the leaders at that time contained unacceptably anti-democratic views? Even the Declaration of Independence, that promised the protection of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, contained within it contradictions that led to continuation of slavery for nearly a century. How do we square this? 

And that brings us to the smash hit musical “Hamilton.” If you aren’t familiar, the musical is a hip-hop and showtunes retelling of America’s founding centered around Alexander Hamilton, featuring a starring cast of people of color portraying America’s founding figures. Reimagining our founding fathers as African American is both subversive, but potentially one way of maintaining a coherent national identity. 

One of the artistic directors who helped put the musical together told The New Yorker “What Lin is doing is taking the vernacular of the streets and elevating it to verse. That is what hip-hop is, and that is what iambic pentameter was. Lin is telling the story of the founding of his country in such a way as to make everyone present feel they have a stake in their country. In heightened verse form, Shakespeare told England’s national story to the audience at the Globe, and helped make England England—helped give it its self-consciousness. That is exactly what Lin is doing with ‘Hamilton.’ By telling the story of the founding of the country through the eyes of a bastard, immigrant orphan, told entirely by people of color, he is saying, ‘This is our country. We get to lay claim to it.’”

And indeed, that’s one of the most coherent messages coming out of the movement for black lives, is that for its faults, there is nothing wrong with America that cannot be fixed by what is right with America. The re-invention and re-definition and the renewed understanding of who we are as a country is a tradition as old as America itself. And — I would argue — it is a critical component of how we rebuild trust in our government. 

Our founding fathers initially understood themselves to be subjects of the British Crown. They changed that identity. President Lincoln re-elevated the Declaration of Independence, placing its promise of equality at the heart of the American story. He changed our understanding. And as we have continued to update that understanding for women, for LGBTQ people, and once again for black, indigenous and other people of color, we are continuing that tradition of making our union more perfect. And I would also be remiss if I did not point out that today is the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was authored by the US Senator from Iowa, Tom Harkin. We have expanded our understandings of the responsibility we owe each other before — and we can do so again. 

And finally, our chalice lighting words today asked, not just “Why is this happening,” but also, “How Can we fix it?” Here are some thoughts.  

  • First, build a political identity that is as involved locally as it is nationally. I mentioned earlier the challenges and importance of building a local identity as our media outlets have shifted to the national stage — that makes it all the more important for us to support local news and to learn more and stay up to date on what is happening here in our communities. 
  • Next, stay curious — understanding just how much we have to learn about our own past and listening to the new voices that are entering into and leading this conversation is vital if we are to learn the lessons of the past so we are not doomed to repeat its mistakes. 
  • Related to that, maintaining humility is important for any effective advocate for change — It feels a little strange for a 29-year-old to stress the importance of humility, but something critical I learned in work in support of LGBTQ advocacy was that even growing up in a household with lesbian parents does not inoculate you from making mistakes. When I made mistakes, I had to learn how to be held accountable without becoming angry or upset — because it wasn’t about me. It was about the work and advocacy on behalf of others. That’s critical.
  • Next, especially when there are people in Government actively trying to sow seeds of doubt amongst the public, we must be more interested in the truth than in scoring political points. This is advice for me just as much as anyone else. The free and responsible search for truth and meaning is a core UU principle – and I would simply underline responsible. 
  • As a part of that, we all need to slow down on social media. Do not share things blindly. President Lincoln was famous for, when he was upset, writing a letter and putting it in a drawer. I’m not totally sure what the social media equivalent is, but it seems like good, perhaps prophetic, advice. 
  • Finally, we must all be willing to sacrifice and to fight for someone you don’t know. I have mentioned the late John Lewis a few times today, and I also am thinking of the martyred UU minister, the Rev. James Reeb, who traveled from the UU Congregation in Washington DC to Selma to protest alongside John Lewis, MLK, and others. Rev. Reeb made the ultimate sacrifice during these protests. During his eulogy for Rev. Reeb, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told us, “In his death, James Reeb says something to each of us, black and white alike—says that we must substitute courage for caution, says to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered him but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced his murder. His death says to us that we must work passionately, unrelentingly, to make the American dream a reality, so he did not die in vain.”

Amen. 

Benediction

For today’s benediction, I will give the final word to John Lewis: “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”