Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Being a Liberal Patriot — Sermon by the Rev. David Pyle

Last preached on July 7th, 2013


Sermon     “Being a Liberal Patriot”      Rev. David Pyle

On July 2nd,

two hundred and thirty seven years ago,

Thomas Jefferson was drafting a document

that would change the world.

A few days later, the first copies

of the newly approved Declaration of Independence

had just been printed,

and were being stuffed into the message bags of couriers,

and sent across the newly founded nation.

Copies were being sent to each of the colonies.

Copies were being sent to Great Britain.

One copy was sent to George Washington,

encamped around New York

with a young and inexperienced Army.

Washington read the declaration

to his troops on July 9th.

Soon after, they would be retreating

in the face of an overwhelming British advance.


The document had been months in the making,

from the haggling and debating in each colonial legislature,

to the creative conflicts within Thomas Jefferson’s mind,

to the debates within the Continental Congress.

In truth, the document we have all seen,

the one that John Hancock signed so prominently,

was not signed until August 2nd

because the New York Legislature

had yet to make up its mind for independence on July 4th.


Jefferson had agonized for 17 days on the wording alone.

The original draft was almost half again as long

as the document we know today.

He was said to be deeply disappointed, and even a little angry,

as the continental congress

took out a section condemning slavery,

even though he himself was a slave holder.


The men who voted for the Declaration were not rich.

By today’s standards, only two or three

would have been considered millionaires, and they barely.

Most of the truly wealthy in society

knew that their interests were better served

by remaining British subjects.

These “forefathers” were not wise elder statesmen…

their average age was around 33.


There is a common belief that the rebellion

was over taxes… it was not.

The slogan that belief comes from is

“No taxation without representation…”

Without Representation.

The taxes were not the problem…

not having a say in government was.


Every fourth of July, I begin my day

by reading the Declaration of Independence.

It is a reminder to me that the very foundation

of this great experiment we call the United States of America

rests on the sacred spirit of liberalism.


When these fifty some odd men raised their hands and said “aye”

on July 4th, 1776, they did so in part because they were liberals…

not in the modern sense of the set of beliefs and issues

that have come to be associated with liberalism,

but rather in a more spiritual sense.


I think we as a society have become confused

as to what it means to be a liberal.

Be it in politics, or in our religious faith,

we have allowed the term “liberal”

to be attached to specific sets of beliefs and ideas.

When I say I am a “political liberal”

it probably brings forth assumptions that I believe certain things…

such as the need to fight global warming,

or that I believe in freedom of marriage, or in large government,

or in choice in reproductive rights,

or in a non-military based foreign policy.


Much of this I do believe in,

but these beliefs do not make me a liberal…

they only make me a Democrat.

Different beliefs once made me a Republican,

and for a short while a Libertarian…

but you know what?  Even then I think I was naturally a liberal.


When I say that I am a religious liberal

among my more conservative clergy colleagues,

it brings up for them all kinds of assumptions about what I believe.


These assumptions often include the idea

that Jesus was a man, not God;

that the physical resurrection from the cross is mythology;

that I believe that divine wisdom can be found

in many different religious traditions;

that I do not believe in hell;

that I believe that human reason

must guide our explorations of faith.

All of these things I do believe,

but they make me a Unitarian Universalist, not a liberal.


You see, liberalism is not about belief.

It is about how you relate to your beliefs.

Liberalism is a methodology.

Liberalism is not what you believe… it is how you believe.


The liberal is someone who recognizes the past

can only serve us as a guide.

To live in or worship the past is to stagnate.


The liberal is someone who accepts

that doubt is something to be cherished,

for it is the signpost to deeper understanding.


The liberal recognizes that the world is so complex and dynamic

that he or she must care about many different aspects of it,

and not focus their attention on just a few issues.


The liberal is someone

who finds their truth in authentic relationship,

and that kind of relationship is never defined

in terms of right vs. wrong, left vs. right, or us vs. them.

Humanity is far more complex than that.


The liberal is someone who can apply

a set of core principles across a whole range of issues,

principles such as liberty, equality, justice,

compassion, faith, and hope.


The liberal is someone who recognizes

that their perceptions create the world they see,

and that this creates many different understandings of reality.

Far from being threatened by this complexity,

the liberal is someone who seeks to learn from

these many different perceptions.


The liberal is someone who seeks to ask and answer

the deeper questions about their beliefs…

it is not enough to oppose war,

but rather you must also seek to understand why you do.

The liberal looks at their own motivations for holding beliefs,

and that those motivations are always,

always deeply spiritual and personal.


Most importantly, the liberal is someone who is willing,

in asking those deeper questions

and in seeing the ever changing complexity

that is human relations…

the liberal is someone who is willing to transform their beliefs

as much as they are willing to be transformed by them.


Because for the liberal, no belief, no assumption

can be more important than the principle that inspires it.


It is not surprising to me that the word “liberal”

has become almost a curse word in politics.

It is not surprising to me that the idea of liberalism

has become so misunderstood

that it is regularly equated to a series of beliefs,

the more radical the better.

Because true liberals are almost always a threat

to the established order and power,

in ways that mere activists and single issue or cause believers

can never be.


The right of our political spectrum

has claimed the right to the flag,

has claimed the right to equate patriotism

with their political beliefs and ideologies.

Liberals are vilified as being un-American, anti-democratic,

and even communists and terrorists.

I remember a conversation I had with a colleague

at the U.S. Army Chaplain School,

a Southern Baptist who claimed to be interested

in what Unitarian Universalists “Believed”.

He had gone online, read the UUA website,

and had jotted down some notes.


He had quickly found the 7 principles,

found Rev. David Rankin’s

top 10 beliefs of Unitarian Universalists,

and sat down with me outside class

during one break with a question.


“How can you all believe in abortion

if you believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person?”


I think he expected me to challenge

whether an unborn child is a person.

I think he expected me to argue for the rights of the mother.

I think he expected about anything of me but what I said.


I told him that our faith was not about belief.

We did not “believe” in abortion…

many Unitarian Universalists might support

a woman’s right to control her own body,

but our faith was much, much deeper than mere belief.

Our faith rests in principles held in authentic relationship,

with each other and with the world.


He just stared at me.  He did not understand.

How could anything be deeper than sacred beliefs?


The conversation pointed out to me

just how different the understanding of faith,

the understanding of the world is

for someone in whom the spirit of liberalism blows.


To be a liberal, in politics or in faith,

is to be someone who can accept an ever changing universe…

to accept that all beliefs are transient, of this moment alone,

and must be constantly re-evaluated and tested

as the world shifts around us, and as we shift within.


To be a liberal is to intentionally build upon the shifting sands,

having realized that the shifting sands are all there are.

The perceived solidity of the is an illusion.


The same Chaplain candidate who asked me

about what UU’s believed about abortion

came back to me a few weeks later,

one morning after a field worship service.


I did not know how much he was obsessing

in trying to understand my faith, our faith…

but he had apparently been reading about us

and about liberal religion during those two weeks.

He did not come with a question,

but with a belief about Unitarian Universalism

that he wanted to check with me.


He asked if I thought our faith could be classified

as Post-modernist Religion.


I told him I was ok with that description… for the moment.


Sadly, he did not get the joke.


As much of a smart-alec as I was being,

he had hit upon an essential understanding

of Unitarian Universalism and of liberal faith…

we can indeed be understood as a post-modernist religion.


Post-modernism teaches us that most of the beliefs

we humans hold so dearly are assumptions;

they are symbolic representations of a reality

that is too complex to ever grasp in full.

Albert Einstein once put it this way:


“We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many different languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is.”


To be a religious liberal, even to be a political liberal,

is to stand in that library in awe and wonder,

and to accept that we will never, can never grasp it in full.

It is to understand that we must operate in this world

without full knowledge, and without the benefit

of some shorthand or index that can explain it all to us.

It is to stand in that library not in a state of fear and confusion,

but in a state of awe and wonder.


This kind of faith is not a comfortable faith.

The life of the liberal is a challenging life,

of changing assumptions and beliefs,

guided only by a set of principles,

and by the teachings of those who have walked

upon the shifting sands before us.


Mark Twain did not think that it was possible

to remain this kind of a liberal for long…

that eventually everyone had to find some beliefs,

and then spend the rest of their days

propping those beliefs up, stopping the leaks,

and praying that it does not cave in on them.


Yet the challenge of being a liberal

is to transform our beliefs rather than prop them up…


A Navy friend of mine who is also a religious liberal

suggested this motto for liberalism…

Semper Gumby!  Always flexible.

Flexible in a deepening understanding of our principles,

and on the beliefs and strategies that arise from them.


Learning to become comfortable

with shifting sands beneath your feet,

and your eyes fixed upon principles in the distance,

this is what it means to be a liberal.

Choosing to stay in the sands

and avoiding the illusion of firmness that rocks of belief offer,

this is what it means to be a liberal.

When the earthquake comes…

when the false security of belief based systems is revealed,

the earthquake is much more jarring

to those standing on the rock

than it is for those walking on the sands.


Our nation has known such earthquakes.

When Martin Luther King declared his dream,

and was assassinated for it,

our nation shook and both the rock and the sands moved.

When the bombs landed upon an unsuspecting Pearl Harbor,

our nation shook and both the rock and the sands moved.

When the stock market collapsed and the food became scarce,

our nation shook and both the rocks and the sands moved.


When our nation divided and cannons fired between states,

our nation shook and both the rock and the sands moved.

And when fifty-six men signed the Declaration of Independence

with their very lives, our fledgling nation shook,

and both the rock and the sands moved.


Like Jefferson, and many of those other men

who took that brave step into the unknown,

we stand upon the shifting sands.

We have chosen the sands,

sometimes standing, sometimes walking,

and sometimes running for our very lives.


But our liberal, our patriotic eyes

are fixed upon the principles of our faith…

the principles of our nation.

Equality, Justice, Compassion, Liberty, Freedom,

Faith, Hope, Love…

and the greatest of these is love.


So may it be, blessed be, and amen.

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