Democracy Stumbles

Rev. Barnaby reflected on how Unitarian Universalism’s professed devotion to democracy is not faring well in our thoroughly distracted and neurotic society. How important is defense of this part of our faith?

Readings: Excerpts from the Economist Intelligence Unit’s report on its 2019 Democracy Index (; Excerpt from The Democacy Principle by Rev. Jill Cowie (

Listen to his homily or read it below:

There’s a story I came across about a UU Sunday School class made up of young elementary school kids. Maybe it was around Easter time because their teachers had a bunny there to show them. The lead teacher asked the children whether they thought the bunny was a a male or female, and why. They were invited to pet the animal and look closely. They weren’t allowed to try to flip it over, pin it down, and closely probe its reproductive organs. That can be dangerous for kids and the animal. It’s also often inconclusive if the animal is young, fidgeting and scared. When I googled how to determine the sex of a rabbit this week, I found a lot of advice to check any conclusions I might reach with a vet if I needed to be sure.

Nevertheless, the class in the story huddled and, with surprising speed, told the teacher the bunny was a female. “How do you know?” the teacher asked.

We took a vote,” one of the kids said.

This affectionate spoof of Unitarian Universalism celebrates the fact that UU’s value democracy so highly that our children get exposed to its practices – especially voting – from a very young age. The joke also serves as a lesson that the value of voting – and perhaps democracy in general — depends on what kind of issue you are trying to resolve. There are millions of parts in the average jet airplane. I don’t want to fly in one that was assembled based on repeated votes by average citizens on what to do next. Nor is democratic debate and voting a good way for a pro football team to pick its next play. The team may be filled with players with intelligent thoughts to offer, but it will be penalized if it doesn’t start that next play within 35 seconds of the referee signaling the ball is ready to be hiked.

Here’s another potential lesson buried in my bunny story. I initially read it as a simple joke hitched to something we’ve all seen at one time or another: young kids misunderstanding their power over the environment. The more I thought about it though, I imagined that the group might have included a couple of ringleaders who intuited that there was no way they could give a good answer. Maybe they understood instinctively that a quick vote would subversively critique the teacher for asking them what seemed to be an impossible question. Once I went down this rabbit hole, it also occurred to me that a question that seems impossible might be more frustrating or suspicious to a child than, say, you adults. You know that our third principle encourages spiritual exploration in our congregations and the fourth principle embraces a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. We affirm these principles because UU’s are skeptical about final answers. We prefer good questions. I hope that’s what the teacher wanted from the class, even if it might have been too much to expect.

I have one final thought about this RE class. Can we agree that all of us begin learning long before we can put it into words that democracy is a completely human and highly adaptable invention? As such, democracy is capable of being used – and abused – in countless ways. I suspect the most frequent reason democracy gets abused is that we as adults simply go through the motions. We rarely commit completely to the work of democratically and lovingly responding to overwhelming challenges, like climate change or how open our borders should be. And yet there democracy is, a centerpiece of our Fifth Principle, affirming that this is how we are to make decisions together in our congregations and as an association of congregations.

Alas, however much we grew up believing – or wanting to believe – in the virtues of democracy, many of us now feel that democracy is fraying under the pressures of modern political, social, economic, and environmental challenges. Who among you was surprised by the decline in the worldwide Democracy Index in our reading, or even by the Economist Intelligence Unit’s assessment that the United States had fallen into the category of “flawed democracy?” I won’t inflict on you the details of how this is calculated, but the United States has slipped to 25th in the rankings. Our ratings fell in categories like how well the government is functioning and protection of civil liberties.

I caution you though. Democracy is perfectly capable of going off the rails in ways that have nothing to do with authoritarian government. Take the Unitarian Universalist Association, which transacts a lot of its business at its annual General Assembly. As far back as 2009, a study group called the Fifth Principle Project noted that this was a fake form of democracy. Less than half the delegates that congregations are entitled to send show up; those who do are usually well-off people who can take time away from work and can afford to pay for the trip, housing, registration and meals. Few congregations look closely at the issues to be decided and send their delegates with directions on how the congregation wants them to vote. Votes, including UUA presidential elections, are often decided by less than 2 percent of the nation’s 200,000 UU’s. In short, when it comes to congregations investing the time, finances, and intellectual effort to make UUA democracy robust, we balk. It’s not just our denomination that has this problem – human devotion to democracy frequently wanes when we have to sacrifice for democratic practices to thrive.

On Dec. 20, 2016, just a month and half after Donald Trump was elected President, Rev. Lynn Ungar, the director of religious education for our Church of the Larger Fellowship, posted the following on her Facebook page:

Here’s a poem for the solstice. Or the election. Or whatever.”

Born Again

Let’s be clear about this:
It isn’t the same as being sick

and getting better. It isn’t
changing your mind at the last minute
or pushing away from the brink.
The only way to be born again
is to die. The Phoenix doesn’t just
go up in a blaze of glory. It
feels the fire lick up and sizzle
every feather, until each quill becomes
a column of flame carried straight to the core.
Whatever the legend of re-birth, there is always
time in the fire, under the ground,
hanging on the cross or the tree.
Don’t skip over that part of the story.
If you would be reborn, you have to die.
But what then? After the dying
how are we to rise again into new life?
The earth, the hero, the god, you and I—
how does any of us find our way back
from the Valley of the Shadow?
The same way we die:
Walk into the light.”

“Ok,” you might be saying if you are still with me in this train of thought. “Democracy has its limits. Acting with compassion for all and demanding justice while seeking to honor and account for conflicting perspectives and needs isn’t child’s play.” Indeed, you might agree with Judge Hastie, the pioneering African American Appeals Court judge cited in our reading, that nurturing democratic institutions and practices is an “eternal struggle.” Or you might see democracy as constant birth – a labor that can only be successful when we take deep intentional breaths and push. That’s the vision in our reading of the young Sikh-American civil rights activist Valarie Kaur. Then there is Rev. Ungar, who felt in the wake of President Trump’s election that practicing democracy in the Trump Era would call us to experience a form of death and then steadfastly walk toward light that would still be there for us on the other side.

All of these strike me as true. But Lynn Ungar’s solstice/election/whatever poem also suggested a different truth to me. We turn toward the light each morning, literally, when we look toward the rising Sun. But we don’t walk toward this most life-sustaining of all lights. We orbit it. That’s why we don’t die but instead seem to be reborn each day. We orbit a great, energetic light in a very narrow realm where life and all of its wonders proved to be feasible against odds we have no way of calculating.

The principles as we have them now intuit that strong practices of democracy are somehow crucial to our ability to remain in stable orbits around Life-sustaining Love. That requires much more than working to let everyone vote on matters that are important to them, as the kids’ version of the fifth principle says. Don’t get me wrong. Voter suppression is a dire threat. But any vote is a weapon that may be used against all we value if citizens are denied access to truth on which to base their judgments. Democracy also requires that potential voters and truth tellers in the media or public assemblies are protected against retaliation or oppression when they exercise democratic rights. Without these practices, the right to vote is not enough to save us from tyranny.

Our democracy orbit has become less stable because our common understanding of what constitutes truth-telling is eroding. Perhaps you are one of those people who believe President Trump is the most unrepentant, irresponsible, dangerous liar ever to occupy our nation’s highest office. Maybe you figure the Washington Post’s tally accusing him of more than 16,000 “false or misleading” claims since he took office is reasonably accurate. And every new falsehood grates on you.

But all that is missing the point. A couple of years ago, I told you about a non-white European view of truth I had seen attributed to the Pawnee tribe of Native Americans. I can’t confirm its accuracy but the claim goes likes this: to the Pawnees, a true story talks about something important to the tribe’s future or its current situation. The details can be imaginary or flat out wrong. Maybe listeners know that the hunt storyteller recounts lasted for 6 days, not the 8 or 12 he talks about. It doesn’t matter. On the other hand, a story could be rigidly correct about what we call facts and be false by the Pawnee standard if it doesn’t deal with something important to the tribe.

We are talking, of course, about emotional rather than literal truth. Our UU forebears rejected reading the Bible literally and many Jews and Christians do the same. But its stories still address fundamental questions of right and wrong, the nature of humanity, and other issues in ways we turn to again and again – fruitfully – in our search to understand what seems true today to us. Or take this modern example: in his book Homo Deus, an Israeli philosopher named Yuval Noah Harari claimed that in 2014 a venture capital company “broke new ground by appointing an algorithm named VITAL to its board (of directors).” Think of it, an algorithm – that is a computer program for analyzing problems and calculating decisions – voting at board mneetings right alongside humans. As it turns out, Harari’s source was an online article that made clear this board appointment was imaginary. Harari wasn’t too bothered when it was pointed out that he misled his readers in reporting this breakthrough. In his view, that did not undercut the larger truth it meant to illustrate that artificial intelligence was evolving rapidly enough to command our attention. (The Really Big Picture, Ian Parker, The New Yorker, 2/17-24/ 2020, p59).

Folks, this is what is going on with many of President Trump’s lies. They are uncomplicated fictions that don’t embarrass him because they tell his supporters a story they believe is true in the Pawnee sense about what they take to be real threats: too many immigrants for us to absorb, coastal elites ignoring their needs, climate change hype justifying government regulation that will eliminate their jobs, growing taxes to redistribute wealth and services from the middle class to the poor, and so on.

There is a war going on all around us that can be accurately framed as truth versus factual lies, but the more important struggle is over which “facts” matter in determining truths that matter. And which sources you can trust. In this climate, it takes great faith to affirm as we do in our congregations that we will center decision-making on democratic practices. Those practices require that we finds ways to agree on shared truths out of which we can forge empowering stories about who we are as a community and what future we want to fashion. That only happens with ongoing engagement, and at times, discomfort. UU democracy relies on our willingness to repeatedly show up for and with each other to wonder together, to listen, to propose, to explore, to reconsider in humility, and, yes, every now and then, to vote on matters small and great.