Friday, September 14, 2012

The Election Sermon

I mentioned to some folks today that it's an old tradition to have an "election sermon," and some of the people I was speaking with had never heard of this tradition, so I thought I'd do a little research and write on it.  It turned out to be a lot more complicated than I thought.  From how I understand what I'm reading, it seems there are two sorts of "election sermons" -- one is a sermon preached just prior to election day, and the other is called an "election sermon" but is preached before government officials but on inauguration day, which was called, confusingly, "election day."  So, for example, this "election day" sermon from 1790 --
-- was preached on "the day of general election," apparently before the newly elected officials.  Likewise, this Gad Hitchcock text from 1774 was preached to the elected officials on "election day."  Similarly, in 1830 Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing preached a notable election sermon, before the Massachusetts legislature in which he said the memorable words:
I call that mind free, which jealously guards its intellectual rights and powers, which calls no man mater, which does not content itself with a passive or hereditary faith, which opens itself to light whencesoever it may come, which receives new truth as an angel from heaven, which, whilst consulting others, inquires still more of the oracle within itself, and uses instructions from abroad, not to supersede but to quicken and exalt its own energies.
Unitarian Universalist minister the Rev. Kirk Loadman-Copeland describes the events:
It began in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634 and continued until 1884. The tradition spread to Connecticut in 1674, to Vermont in 1778, and to New Hampshire in 1784....  It was one of the few public holidays in pre-revolutionary America. Stores and schools closed and the day was marked with parades, picnics, and an Election Day sermon delivered to the officials by a distinguished minister.
This seems to be the sense of the election sermon in Unitarian author Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter that the Rev. Mr. Dimmesdale delivers:
Thus, there had come to the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale—as to most men, in their various spheres, though seldom recognized until they see it far behind them—an epoch of life more brilliant and full of triumph than any previous one, or than any which could hereafter be. He stood, at this moment, on the very proudest eminence of superiority, to which the gifts of intellect, rich lore, prevailing eloquence, and a reputation of whitest sanctity, could exalt a clergyman in New England’s earliest days, when the professional character was of itself a lofty pedestal. Such was the position which the minister occupied, as he bowed his head forward on the cushions of the pulpit, at the close of his Election Sermon.  
At some point, however, the tradition of preaching the election sermon to the politicians themselves ended, for the most part, and we began to understand the term "election sermon" differently, as one preached to the congregation shortly before the election.  Today, our understanding of the "election sermon" is definitely as a pre-election sermon given by the minister.  The modern understanding has become so pervasive, partly because of the confusion of the term "election day" that the Unitarian minister the Rev. Forrest Church wrote in an election sermon:

There’s a noble tradition in the ministry, going back to the 17th Century.
One or two Sundays before an election, almost every preacher in the land
devoted his sermon to the body politic.

It’s a great literary genre.  Often, the brimstone was so hot
that an Election Day sermon was the one sermon a minister might be remembered by....

Here’s how it went.  The world has gone, or is about to go to Hell.
The reason is simple. God is punishing you for your sins.
Whatever is wrong in this world is wrong because you are wrong-headed,
wrong-hearted, inattentive to God’s commandments,
 and God is watching and God is angry,
 and if you keep on messing up you will burn forever.
Until reading up on it, my understanding had been that the Unitarian tradition of election sermons was always, as Forrest Church suggests, as we practice it now.  But like most traditions, this one has apparently changed over time.  That doesn't mean that what we now do is meaningless, just because the tradition isn't "pure," but that we must find the meaning in it not from the sake of tradition, but because it is worthy in its own right.  For now, I think there's something important about speaking to the event at hand on the eve of an election, and am planning what I will say in my own this year.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Politics and Preaching

Watching the national political conventions is a great opportunity to study the art of public speaking--the rhetoric and the oration.  There's a lot one can learn about effective public speaking, and thus preaching, by listening to these top-level politicians.  Four years ago, I remember thinking that Barack Obama, love him or hate him, was the greatest orator of our age, and, as I sit down and wait to listen to him tonight, it's a good time to reflect on some of what I've heard in the conventions so far, not from a political standpoint, but from the perspective of public speaking.  Now, I didn't watch much of the RNC.  I haven't actually watched that much of the DNC, either.  So I really only have a few to speak about, so I'll give you my thoughts on those, ranking them low, middle, and high.

The best I've heard...

Michelle Obama

I think Michelle Obama's come a long way as a public speaker in her four years as First Lady.  I remember not being terribly impressed by her four years ago--thinking she was good enough, and all that, but not blown away.  This time around, her words were so finely honed that I just got over one bout of tears when she would send me into another.  I found her words were finely crafted to make me feel compassion, and to make me feel connection with her--she spun her role as "mom-in-chief" and as wife to this man she was trying to humanize with great skill.  As to her speaking style itself, she had a verbal mannerism that did distract me: "It matters th-that you don't take short cuts..."  This little stutter-step was something she did repeatedly throughout the speech.  And I found it distracting, but charming.  Because of this, I did have to wonder if it was done deliberately--it humanized her, made you connect with her, made you see her as an ordinary person.  It gave her style a feeling not of polish, but of intimacy--she's talking to you as a friend, as another mom, about her worries and how she's now confident in her husband's role as president.

Bill Clinton

Holy cow.  His speech made me remember why this man was so successful.  It didn't tug at my heart-strings at all like Michelle's, but it was logical, organized, persuasive, and effective.  He was charming, friendly, and had a great way of drawing you in.  His style of saying, essentially, "Now listen, this part is important," worked effectively to grab attention focus the next point.  Overall, high marks for style & content.  After that speech, it was clear to me this was why we kept this man in office for eight years.  He might be a better speaker than Obama.  Certainly, his charisma is overwhelming.  Holy cow.

The mid-range...

Joe Biden

While I like what he had to say (and that he kept mentioning Michigan and the automobile industry), it didn't grab me.  There were no obvious flaws in style or content, but it didn't command my attention either emotionally or intellectually.  He was at his best talking about family members, and I liked those pieces.  The starting off with the address to his wife was funny and touching.  I believe he believes what he's said about Barack Obama, but the shouting pieces didn't fire me up they way they're intended to.  And much as I like that GM is alive, I'm getting tired of hearing, "Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive."  We've heard that already, Joe.  I liked his phrasing of "the hinge of history."  That was a nice piece of rhetoric.

The Amateurs

I'd also have to put most of the "average Joes" that have been trotted out here--they're not professional public speakers, and that certainly shows, and many aren't ready for this stage.  But they're also not put out to make a great speech, but rather to make a great point, to be an example of something, be it the point that religious people or military people can love Democrats or minorities can love Republicans or "Romney killed my job" or the opposite or whatever.  A notable exception in this category would be Zach Wahls, who I heard a lot of praise for, but whose speech I haven't listened to yet, and thus can't comment on directly.

And now for the worst...

Clint Eastwood

Oh, I understand it was funny to people who hate Obama, and I understand why.  But, try to be objective here.  The device was the most literal example of the straw man fallacy I've ever had the misfortune to see.  The only way it could be more literal is if he filled the empty chair with a scarecrow made to look like Obama.  Seriously.  I can't support a speech built entirely around a logical fallacy.  The delivery was rambling and made you feel that this was off-the-cuff in the worst sort of way.  And the jokes weren't all that funny--it was mostly funny that he pretended the president was saying things that were a bit offensive and unrepeatable. 

I wish I could balance this out more by showing you poor oration in Democrats and good rhetoric in Republicans.  I just really didn't listen to much in the RNC--I'm sure they had some good speakers.  I just didn't hear any.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Politics and Staying Friends

One of the reasons I created my RevCyn Facebook page was so that I could post about religion and social justice issues without subjecting ALL my Facebook friends, which includes conservative relatives and high school chums, to the full extent of my politics and faith.  I then post such things less from my own account.  One exception, however, is that because I try to draw a fine line between partisan politics and my ministry, and because I see the RevCyn page, and this blog, as an extension of that ministry, I try to refrain from endorsing a candidate here, or making statements about Republican and Democratic candidates that could be seen as an endorsement.  But my personal Facebook account,  however, is where I do feel free to be political, just as I do in my front yard and the bumper of my car.  Thus, as the election draws near, I run into more and more occasions where I risk alienating the conservatives among my Facebook friends.  The liberals among my 754 Facebook friends vastly outnumber the conservatives, since the majority of UUs are liberal, and a large percent of that 754 is colleagues and church members.  Add to that the liberals in the Jackson community that I work with through various agencies, along with the fact that most of my college friends are liberal, and you've got a pretty big block.  And most of those people enjoy talking politics--the old rule that it's impolite to talk about religion and politics would eliminate the very things we're enjoying talking about the most.

Recently, one of my high school friends posted this picture:

It was picked up and posted by another high school friend.  I don't know either of their political leanings.  The picture speaks to the fact that with a hot election like this one, it truly has become harder and harder to be friends with people on the opposite side of the political spectrum.  I personally find it hard to let a post slamming Obama and repeating what I believe to be lies go by without comment. 

I personally don't think getting heated up and arguing with people on Facebook ever does much good, despite what, I am sure, is the 100% completely logical, persuasive, and, let's face it, correct nature of my arguments.  What it does is alienate my conservative friends and push me deeper into my liberal enclave where I'm less likely to encounter, much less transform, people of different thinking, and where my conservative friends are less likely to have their thoughts challenged.  From what I'm learning through such works as The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science- and Reality, sharing facts and figures is not persuasive to those who have made their mind up on the right (and on the left, as well, although arguably to a lesser extent, according to that author).  And certainly re-posting snarky internet memes can't be the most effective way to change a mind.

To that end, I'm making an effort to let people know that I'm happy to block them from my political posts if they're in political fatigue or don't enjoy arguing.  What I won't do is pretend I'm not a liberal and don't have my views, but I'm willing to not constantly subject all those Facebook friends to my personal political beliefs.

On the other hand, I'm still left with the greater question, which is how to have the truly meaningful and transformational conversations with people on the other half of the spectrum from me.  I would love to have regular, deep, face-to-face conversations with conservatives who are willing to engage in these conversations with me, but I don't know where to find such a connection or event. I think if facts and figures and my wonderful logical arguments aren't what changes someone, and reposting Facebook memes is not the right tool, the answer has to lie in personal connections and personal, emotional content.  The only way to have those deep conversations is to build a relationship first.

So for right now, I'm trying to put relationship-building ahead of politics with my Facebook friends, while still being true to who I am at all times.  Not everyone will be willing to build relationships with a LGBT-friendly agnostic Unitarian Universalist minister.  So that's all the more reason to be gentle and kind with those conservatives who are.