The Better Angles of our Nature


To begin, a story:


A man was climbing a mountain on a foggy day, and no doubt because of the poor visibility, he strayed off the path, slipped, and started sliding and rolling toward the edge of a cliff. As he fell over, with an enormous effort, he caught on to the branch of a bush that was growing on the edge and held on for dear life.


He looked down between his dangling feet…and saw nothing but fog. The bottom of this cliff could be a few inches below his toes or a thousand feet away. He looked around. There was nothing to hold onto but the slender bush, which he could see would not hold the strain of his weight for long.


Desperate, he called for help.


“Is anybody up there? he cried, hoping for a passerby, but there was nobody. “Is anybody up there?” he cried again, his voice cracking under the strain. To his surprise, there was an answer this time. A booming voice from the sky.




“Oh, my God, God! I mean, God…oh, I am so glad to hear from you! Help me!”




“Oh, thank God, I mean…I mean…what should I do?”




“What!? How deep is this chasm? I can’t just let go! I might die!”




The man looked between his feet at the abyss below and around at the lack of other options and then up at the sky and he yelled, as loud as he could yell, “Is there anybody else up there?”


It is becoming almost trite in progressive circles to lament the way our collective life seems to be hanging by a thread, how more and more we find ourselves divided one from another, our politics at an impasse. We listen to some of our neighbors, our fellow citizens, and wonder how they can say the things they say, believe the things they profess to believe.


And that is here in progressive Portland. At the national level, we seem to have lost our way in some strange fog and now the branch we are holding onto seems less and less able to bear our weight.


This is not a sermon about our current politics and most certainly not a sermon about the current candidates. You know that I consider myself a progressive and it does not require genius level intelligence to figure out my general political preferences. But I am very aware that opinions about economic and social policy vary more widely in this sanctuary than some of us imagine. And as with other diversities, It is an article of faith with me that those differences, too, are blessings, not curses…


I have been trying to gather my own thoughts for some time, and search out what wisdom I could find about the cause and nature of these divisions and how I and we are called to approach this period.


I do not pretend to have this figured out. But I have learned some things and have a bit of understanding that I am ready to try to share with you.


Here goes.


First, these are not the only divisive times we have confronted as a nation, nor, in fact, the most divisive. My sermon title, The Better Angels of Our Nature, is drawn from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address. You will remember that almost immediately after his election, the southern states began seceding from the union, though shots had not yet been fired on that January day when he was sworn in.


Lincoln, desperately wishing to avoid the coming war, ended his speech with this impassioned plea:


“I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”


The Better Angels of Our Nature. Lincoln is acknowledging, among other things, that we have both angels and demons, the power for both good and ill within us.


The question then becomes not whether we are good and pure…


the question becomes how we can live and lead in ways that constrain and contain the most divisive, the most punishing, the most punitive impulses…


And how to encourage the most generous, the most collaborative, the most life affirming hopes we can embody?


I will come back to these questions in a bit, but for now just remember them.


First I want to look at the who rather than the how. Because it is so very tempting to view those with whom we most disagree as the demons in the piece, as somehow less evolved and ultimately less worthy than we are. A temptation to see ourselves as the elect and THOSE people as the problem.


I will be referencing work summarized in an article by Amanda Taub, originally given to me by a congregant. I really do read and use the things you send to me.


The article was published on the VOX website this March. Taub  sites many social science researchers; too many to name individually. Trying to understand what we are living through has become quite a cottage industry. I will try to get to the heart of the argument without getting lost in the details…and with as few numbers involved as possible. If you want to pursue this further, I would encourage you to begin with that VOX article, entitled “The Rise of American Authoritarianism.”


Who are THOSE people? The “deplorables” they’ve been called…with some justification. The racists. The zenophobes. The Islamaphobes. The ones who want to build a wall on our southern border, keep women in their place and limit love. Who are they?


It is a question that be-deviled political and social scientists for a long time. Because you can’t very well just ask people if they are bigots. A different way to get at that information was needed.


And, some time ago, a different way was found.


Let me ask you a question: Which do you think is more important for a child to have: independence or respect for elders? Raise your hands. How many think Independence is more important? How about Respect for Elders?


Try this one. Which is more important for a child to have: curiosity or good manners? Raise your hands. Glad to see a few hands for good manners.


These and two other similar questions about child rearing turn out to be extremely predictive measures of what is being called “authoritarianism”. Let me be clear. It is not the answer to any one question. Don’t hold your head down if you raised your hand in the minority. It is the pattern of the four questions that the researchers found predictive.


Four simple questions that appear to ask about parenting but are in fact designed to reveal how highly the respondent values hierarchy, order, and conformity over other values.


These authoritarians, and that language is not value neutral, let me hasten to admit…


These authoritarians, when they face physical threats or threats to the status quo, favor forceful, decisive action against things they perceive as threats. And they flock to political leaders who they believe will bring this kind of decisive action.


They want leadership which is simple, powerful and punitive.


Does any of this sound familiar?


Large scale research discovered that over 40% of white respondents scored as “high” or “very high” on the authoritarian scale. 44% actually.


There is correlation here with political party, some…


And correlation with education, or lack of it…a bit stronger…


But this measure seems to be more what is called an independent variable in social science research. It stands alone and seems to operate across other defining variables.


I apologize for the social science lingo here, but this identification of folks with this authoritarian tendency, well, it really seemed to point to something important.


And the number of folks who score high on authoritarianism can expand quickly. Authoritarianism is often, you see, latent. And it can be triggered by some perceived threat, physical or social. That latency is part of how, over the past few decades, authoritarians have quietly become a powerful political constituency without anyone realizing it.


Jonathan Haidt, whose work, The Righteous Mind, I’ve referenced several times from the pulpit, says about this dynamic:


“It is as if a button is pushed that says, ‘In case of moral threat, lock down the borders, kick out those who are different, and punish those who are morally deviant.’”


Haidt, in describing human decision-making, used the image of our large, powerful emotional and instinctual elephant being ridden by a small, relatively weak rational rider.


Authoritarianism is an emotional response…it is the elephant at work. The elephant responding to fear, responding to perceived threat…the elephant seeking safety.


This is why victims of violence by undocumented immigrants can be used to generate fear…even though the rational facts are that undocumented folks commit fewer crimes than those of us who are documented. It is not rational.


That is why our Presidents’ birthplace is still used to delegitimize him 5 years after he was bullied into producing his birth certificate. What other US President has ever been asked to show his papers?


Rational argument is unlikely to change the charging elephants’ course, at least by much.


Third, and here is where it gets truly personal, the greater the perceived threat, the more people whose latent authoritarian impulses will be triggered or “activated”. This is the ultimate caution against our own hubris. Even those of us most comfortable with the changes we are now living through…you and me arguably in that number… even those of us who preach the power of love, can be triggered if the threat becomes severe enough. At least that is what the research says. We might want a different kind of strong person leader…but we are not immune.


And the outcome of the current election, regardless of what it is, won’t remove the threats and social changes that have been the triggers that activated the current wave of authoritarianism.


It is not going away.


To some extent, it is a bell that cannot be unrung or to use yet another metaphor, a dog whistle that cannot be unblown.


So, now let me turn to those big questions that I asked earlier.


How can we live and lead in ways that constrain and contain the most divisive, the most punishing, the most punitive impulses…


And encourage the most generous, the most collaborative, the most life affirming hopes we can embody?


How can we support the better angels of our nature?


Please view this as a preliminary report. This is a work in process for me, as much as it is for many of you.


First, even though rational argument is not likely to change many hearts and minds, liberal religion is still called to witness.


And our witness needs be based in fact.


Facts will not be enough to change the beliefs of the most authoritarian folks. But facts can help minimize the number of individuals who are activated, or triggered into a more authoritarian impulse. Our world will be in so much more jeopardy if the number of authoritarians is not 44% but 54%.


Second, we are talking about emotional reactions, about our elephants. And so we need to marshall emotional arguments. But emotional arguments not based on fear. Emotional arguments based on love.


Think of the example of BGLTQ rights and the movement for marriage equality. It required both the public witness of faith communities like this one AND, more importantly, the courage and calm, human presence by queer couples who were willing to live out and proud…to go to those teacher conferences and soccer games…so that more and more straight Americans, even authoritarian Americans, had to admit that they knew BGLT folks whom they liked or even had at their family Thanksgiving table. The change in attitudes was built on relationship, it was built on love.


That means, I believe, that we need to search for ways to build more relationships across more of these boundaries of race and immigration status and religion. We have modeled good attention to this already at First Unitarian. We have a good start. But we will need to do more. And that is no simple task. How many authoritarian folks are in your personal circle?


Third, wherever possible, we need to resist and interrupt the movement toward authoritarianism. What form the resistance needs to take will likely shift as we move through this election season and beyond. But resistance is going to be necessary.


We must continue to proclaim our faith and even if it sounds naïve to our own ears, continue to show up on the side of love.


Because if we and other progressive folks do not continue to raise our voices, then the only voice in the public square will be the voice of fear.


These times require the voice of hope…now more than ever.


And one last thing…for now. We call this space a sanctuary and we are going to need a sanctuary as we live through these divisive times, a sanctuary where we can affirm the power and possibilities of our coming together and resist the fear that is being promoted so heavily outside these walls.


We may be hanging by a thin branch, over uncertain terrain… but we are not alone. Our togetherness is our most powerful resource. Our commitment to community grounds us even when the mists of fear roll in.

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