Sermon is copyright (c) 2022 Dan Harper. Delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The sermon text may contain typographical errors. The sermon as preached included a significant amount of improvisation.
Reading: “For You O Democracy”
Come, I will make the continent indissoluble,
I will make the most splendid race the sun ever shone upon,
I will make divine magnetic lands,
With the love of comrades,
With the life-long love of comrades.
I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of America, and along the shores of the great lakes, and all over the prairies,
I will make inseparable cities with their arms about each other’s necks,
By the love of comrades,
By the [life-long] love of comrades.
For you these from me, O Democracy, to serve you…!
For you, for you I am trilling these songs.
— Walt Whitman
Sermon: “Education and Our Congregation”
We Unitarian Universalists have our “seven principles,” a statement of values that our congregations agree to. These seven principles are not a creed, mind you; they’re a set of value statements. And one of those seven values statements talks about how we “affirm and promote” … “the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” I will make an even stronger statement than this. We do not just affirm and promote democratic process. I’m convinced our Unitarian Universalist congregations have an important role to play in maintaining a healthy democracy.
Yet in spite of my firm conviction that our Unitarian Universalist congregations help maintain a healthy democracy, I find it difficult to explain how we do this. The role we play in maintaining a healthy democracy is not simple and straightforward; it is subtle and complex. This morning, I would like to speak with you about one of the more important ways we help maintain a healthy democracy. And that is that we train our young people — our children in teens — in the democratic process. Our religious education programs support healthy democracy. It may not be part of the explicit curriculum we teach, but democratic process is central to our implicit curriculum; it is woven into everything our young people do in our congregation.
Our Unitarian Universalist religious education programs have four main goals. First, we aim have fun together and build community. Second, we want children to gain basic skills associated with liberal religion, such as public speaking, skills of cooperation, interpersonal skills, intrapersonal skills, basic group singing, and so on. Third, we aim to teach basic religious literacy. Fourth, we want to prepare young people to become Unitarian Universalists, if they choose to do so when they’re old enough to decide on their own.
Now let me explain how each of these four educational goals helps teach young people how to participate in democracy.
The first of our educational goals is to have fun and build community. On the surface, this is an entirely pragmatic goal. Religious education is but one of a great many options open to children and teens. If our programs are going to compete with sports, robotics, or video games, our programs had better be fun. But on a deeper level, we need children and teens to feel that they are a part of a community before we can reach some of the other goals. For example, when we offer Our Whole Lives comprehensive sexuality education classes, young people need to feel relatively safe talking with one another when it comes time to talk about difficult issues and to think about personal goals.
This same principle applies to us adults. We can work more effectively together on committees if we first take the time to get to know one another. It’s easier to rely on one another for help during life’s adversities, if we’ve taken the time to get to know one another first. Then, too, when the inevitable conflict arise, it is easier to manage those conflict productively if we know one another first.
For both adults and young people, we know the basic techniques of building community and having fun together. Eating together is a great way to have fun and build community. Before starting a Sunday school class, or a committee meeting, we take time to check in with one another, each person sharing something about what’s going on in their personal lives. Working together on a common project is actually one of the most effective ways to build community.
This is true of society beyond our congregations, too. Out in California, I volunteered at a homeless shelter, and one of the other volunteers belonged to the local Christian evangelical church. We strongly disagreed with each other about things like abortion, homosexuality, and climate change, but our shared work at the homeless shelter meant we developed respect for each other. Once people have developed mutual respect through sharing work and fun, we are much less likely to demonize one another when we start debating polarizing political issues. Since demonizing others is destructive to democracy, then we can see how learning to build community helps strengthen democracy.
The second goal for our religious education programs is to build the skills associated with liberal religion. Partly, we want to give young people skills to work together towards common goals. We want them to be able to serve on committees when they get older, so we teach them how to compromise, how to look for common ground, how to disagree respectfully, and so on. We want them to be able to communicate their ideas clearly and without being nervous, so we help them speak in small groups such as classes — and a key feature of our Coming of Age programs for grade 8 through 10 is helping young people to speak with ease and comfort in front of the entire congregation. We teach them interpersonal skills, skills like listening well to others, searching for common goals, being empathetic, and so on. We teach them intrapersonal skills, skills like learning how to identify one’s own feelings, learning where the core of one’s being is, moderating one’s own feelings.
Our democracy would be stronger if more people learned these skills. Our democracy needs people who can aim for the highest ideals but who also know when and how to compromise. Our democracy needs people who know how to speak well in public, not to manipulate others, but to encourage people to work together. Our democracy needs people who have enough self-awareness to know what they feel and to know how to listen to the feelings of others.
Another of the skills associated with liberal religion is group singing. Believe it or not, group singing can also serve to strengthen democracy. When we sing together, interesting physiological and psychological things happen to us. Group singing releases hormones that help moderate the amygdala. The amygdala, sometimes called the “lizard brain,” generates some of our most primitive and destructive emotions, so moderating the amygdala is a good thing. In addition, when we sing together, our breathing and our heart rates synchronize, and I believe this physiological response can help people of all ages learn empathy at a deep level.
So all these skills associated with liberal religion, even group singing, can help young people build a strong democracy.
On to the third educational goal: religious literacy. This is not an abstract academic educational goal. Several years ago, I attended a presentation by a doctoral candidate who was researching religious literacy. She found that good religious literacy programs in high school and middle school measurably reduce bullying. Her research supports what the American Academy of Religion says about religious il-literacy: “One of the most troubling and urgent consequences of religious illiteracy is that it often fuels prejudice and antagonism, thereby hindering efforts aimed at promoting respect for diversity, peaceful coexistence, and cooperative endeavors in local, national, and global arenas.” So says the American Academy of Religion in their religious literacy guidelines for grades K-12.
You have to understand that for most people, religion has little to do with intellectual assent to doctrines or philosophical positions. Instead, religion has more in common with the expressive arts, with political life, with culture more generally. The big divide is not between religion and science, but between science and the arts and humanities. Just as the arts and humanities teach us how to have a deeper understanding of other human beings, so too does religious literacy.
And thus we can conclude that learning religious literacy will help strengthen democracy.
Finally, a brief mention of our fourth educational goal: we want to prepare children and teens to become Unitarian Universalists if they choose to do so when they’re old enough to decide on their own. Even this educational goal has a bearing on educating for democracy. Large democracies are made up of smaller groups with different priorities and values. In a healthy democracy, people in these smaller groups have a firm understanding of who they are. They have a nuanced understanding of their core values, and they know that they can choose these values freely. This is exactly the kind of self-knowledge that’s involved in helping young people decide if they are Unitarian Universalists. So even this fourth goal of ours strengthens democracy, by helping young people grow in self-knowledge and self-awareness.
So we teach community building. We teach skills that happen to be useful in a democracy. We teach religious literacy, or cross-cultural understanding. We teach self-knowledge and self-awareness.
All these educational goals teach things that lead to a healthy democracy. A healthy democracy needs people who are know how to build community with one another. A healthy democracy needs people who have skills like empathy, listening well to others, public speaking, and many of the skills that are associated with doing liberal religion. A healthy democracy needs people with skills in cross-cultural understanding. A healthy democracy needs people with self-knowledge and self-awareness.
So you see, the ways in which we teach democratic process to our young people are sometimes subtle and often complex. Yet these are exactly the kinds of skills our young people need to learn. We live in a time when our democracy is in danger precisely because so many Americans lack the skills we teach. When we teach our children the things we teach, we are sending people out into the world who have the skills our country needs.