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by Wesley V. Hromatko
Some time ago Doug Muder in the UU World doubted if our church could speak to the average working man. He thought that we didn’t have anything to say to his father who made cattle feed in Illinois. If his father came to church he wouldn’t find anyone he could talk with. He also said that you wouldn’t find a trucker or anybody with callused hands. A harsh life needed a harsh religion. Being one of us works for teachers and professors but not for regular people. He thinks we exclude people by class. Now Doug Muder is a UU and hopes we have a wider message, but he doesn’t know what it is. To say the least, I was floored.
I hadn’t noticed the article right away probably because it came out the year my father died. My father was a UU farmer. When he started working away from home he was a hired man. He cleaned barns, fed pigs, delivered calves and milked cows. He told about working for several weeks but was paid barely enough for gas to get home. Why my father joined our church is part of my answer to this article.
My father had grown up the way the columnist had. Then it came time for the dreaded confirmation classes. He couldn’t understand what he was supposed to agree to. Well, he had no trouble with the Golden Rule and the Ten Commandments except getting them in order. Telling the truth and keeping your hands off other people’s things made sense. On the other hand what about the Trinity and the dual nature of Christ. He didn’t understand it. My Grandfather suggested he could wait until he grew up and then only had to say yes.
He got through this much of joining the church until his Uncle Jens died. I remember Uncle Jens. He never got farther than working at a feed store or for room and board somewhere. He liked ladies and children well enough. He probably would have liked to have his own family but where would he have ever made the money? So, at least part of the time, he was a bachelor Norwegian farmer. When he had a little extra he would buy my father and sisters ice cream or candy. Later, he did the same thing for me and even found a handkerchief to give me for my birthday. I remember he was in the Slayton hospital, and then he died.
The pastor said he wouldn’t give Uncle Jens a funeral. My grandmother was nearly hysterical because they wouldn’t bury her brother. My Dad and grandfather went down to church to argue. After all, Jens was a good man. He took care of his mother himself until she died. He went to church at least on Christmas and Easter. The pastor said that wasn’t enough. The argument went on and finally, a service was arranged. However, at the funeral to everyone’s horror, the pastor said Uncle Jens was in hell. My father said he was never going back to church. Later he would drive his mother but he wouldn’t go in.
About this time my folks would do about me and Sunday school. My grandmother had been listening to a radio program from the Sioux City Unitarian Church. Rev. Mr. John Brigham whose was the minister even came to visit my Grandparents Moffatt at Slayton. He talked about how he had worked on a farm in New England. He said that there was Sunday school program by mail sent people from Boston.
My Dad would have said we were common people. He didn’t finish the eighth grade. He had been a hired man, but then rented from his father and did custom farming. My mother had started college studying music but got pneumonia and didn’t finish. My grandmother, my mother’s mother had to work and hadn’t gone to high school. When my mother and grandmother explained Unitarianisms, it made sense to my Dad right away. He liked that there wasn’t a creed. He liked that Channing had said that you wouldn’t be shut out of the church unless goodness had died in you. It’s hard for me to imagine one of our ministers refusing a funeral because of poor attendance.
We were on the Hanska mailing list as well as the Sioux City. Sioux City was quite far away. My folks talked about coming to the summer festival and smorgasbord. The Hanska congregation particularly appealed to my Dad. The Nora Church broke away from Lake Hanska because of fighting over who could be buried in the cemetery. When the new church formed one of the first order of business was a new cemetery. Anyone could be buried there no matter what they believed. Even the pastors who refused burial to others were welcome. My parents and Marilyn are safely there.
What appealed to my father was the church’s plainness. You must listen to your conscience and do the right thing. Dad understood the commandments and the Golden Rule. Love of neighbor was a basic value. When a neighbor hurt his arm in a corn picker accident Dad was off on his Farmall to join our neighbors in bringing in the harvest. Farmers may sound like individualists but when the chips are down they work together.
It is claimed that we are hard to understand and read complicated books. How could the average person understand what we believe? Actually, our church requires less philosophy to understand religion. Of course, in other churches, you can simply believe. However, if you start studying the Trinity and the dual nature of Christ you will find a lot of ancient philosophy that is really very hard. I remember talking to a traditional minister who said he couldn’t understand the creed and he, of course, had graduated from seminary. You can, of course, turn to philosophy to understand religion. We won’t stop you. It can even help and you might enjoy it. It’s just that our basics aren’t all that complicated. They are simple, but they are not easy.
We have liked the sort of summaries that called elevator speeches. Can you tell what you believe to a stranger in the time it takes to ride an elevator? The summary is an ancient idea going back to the Golden Rule and is found in other religions. Our Willmar congregation has a banner in the front with its many varieties. Even briefer is “What is hateful to you, do not do to others. This is the whole of Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and study” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a). You can say it standing on one foot. The Ames covenant was popular among us. Its summary was loved God and love to humanity. John Dewey in A Common Faith suggested that theists and humanists shared common ideals.
The World editorial that inspired this sermon was skeptical that our traditional value of freedom could have wide appeal. Our oldest American congregations never had creeds. They had covenants. They were agreements about what we were to do not about what to believe. These covenants go back in some cases to the 1600s. In a sense the new behavior covenant that churches have recently tried writing are redundant. We always had agreements about how we were to act. The real problem is honoring them. Because our churches didn’t require an exact set of words but a way of behaving we could embrace a wide number of people who didn’t believe exactly the same. Being a farmer my father never liked being told what to do. If you must do things all day long, it should be a relief to be able to think for yourself.
We have an appeal to the average person. When well over a hundred years ago Christopher Janson went to the Prairie to preach to the Hanska farmers, he found an audience right away. The looked at each other and nudged one another. Afterward, some said they had always thought the way he did but had been afraid to say so.
Unlike the columnist’s father my father always could find someone to talk to in our churches. There is an idea that we are all teachers, scientists, professors. True some of us are. However, our backgrounds aren’t as uniform as people suppose. One of the great ministers more than a hundred years ago Robert Collyer started as a blacksmith and even would use it as a pulpit. Professor James Luther Adams, known for translating theologian Paul Tillich, worked on a farm. He helped his father who drove a combine pulled by twenty-two horses. To make money for the University of Minnesota he crawled under trains to fix air brakes. As a minister, he was active in supporting labor. A fellow student with me at our Chicago seminary drove a railroad inspection car. Between churches, another worked for quite awhile at a milking machine company. A former president of our Chicago seminary worked during WWII setting the triggers in bombs. Another seminary president was once a trucker, When he drove away to a retirement congregation he rented and packed his own truck to move. Another well-known minister worked in a steel mill. Robert Fulgham whose books were made from his church columns was a cowboy as well as an IBM salesman. He is the author of “All I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” He sold over 15 million books and was translated into 27 languages. We seem to have some common appeal. Author Herman Melville was both an able seaman and a farmer. We have had fishermen, police, truckers, electricians, and firemen in our pews.
The editorial author didn’t notice our church in his town until he had grown up and moved away. He didn’t see something else. In New England, the textile mills and shoe factories are gone. Steel plants and other factories closed in the old Midwest. One reason that our churches don’t have factory workers or other labors is that the jobs aren’t as common as they once were. Manufacturing has declined dramatically since 2000. 24 per cent had factory jobs in the 60’s today it’s 8 percent who do. A good many jobs were shipped overseas where labor was less expensive. The most common jobs are nursing and clerical. Nearly 60 percent (75 percent) of women are counted in labor statistics. Churches tend to reflect communities.The kind of jobs
The kind of jobs have also changed. I know someone in one of our churches that made feed, but he has a Ph.d. People who once made things now are more likely to provide services. Better paying jobs now require more education. This is true both of farming and manufacturing. Even the military needs people with higher levels of education to maintain and use the equipment. The truth of the matter is we are mostly all working people in one sense. Only 10 percent of people actually work for themselves. The small drugstores and other stores are now mostly chains and franchises. Even those with good corporate salaries aren’t independent. We have a message for working people.
We have congregations with all sorts of people. We have those who based their belief on the biblical heritage and those who just believe in being and doing good. Our message is simple but that does not mean it is easy. Educator John Dewey in his book A Common Faith thought that people can share common ideals. For example, author Kurt Vonnegut called himself a free thinker and was skeptical about traditional religion. On the other hand, when interviewed on television he would pull out the Golden Rule and the Beatitudes. Like his favorite uncle he would say, “If that isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”
The election outcome was a shock – but wasn’t something new. Throughout U.S. history we’ve had waves of right-wing populism, when people bought into explanations of their economic hardships that scapegoat other marginalized groups and reject traditional elites. This election was a right-wing populist upsurge that few of us saw coming. We underestimated the number of voters willing to accept racism, sexism, Islamophobia and immigrant-bashing in a candidate.
But we also saw a surge of progressive populism – the kind that criticizes economic systems and the rich – in the strong showing for Bernie Sanders’ campaign and the popularity of Senator Elizabeth Warren. And that can be our source of hope now, that the progressive populists could organize social movements and take over the Democratic Party.
The mainstream Democratic Party used to have more progressive populism in its platform, its rhetoric and its political actions, from the 1930s through the ‘70s. But I’m one of many leftists who started criticizing the party in the ‘90s for its turn to the right, for ignoring working class and poor people harmed by de-industrialization and making trade deals like NAFTA and the TPP. In particular, the national Democrats ignored white working class men, the only race/class/gender cluster who actually has lower income today than their fathers and grandfathers.
Democratic leaders didn’t treat falling wages and unemployment as true crises. After the crash they accepted the bailout of “too big to fail” banks and they didn’t push enough for a bailout for foreclosed homeowners. Gradually over the last 30 years the Democratic Party began to get more of its campaign funding from Wall Street, big corporations and wealthy individuals, and began to operate under the delusion that a coalition of well-off coastal liberals and urban people of color could swing national elections – which clearly isn’t always true. They took union support for granted, not realizing that the rank-and-file don’t necessarily vote with the leaders.
“We need to reach out and build personal and political ties with those Trump voters who aren’t committed haters, but whose economic woes and worries we can empathize with. Our first UU principle about the inherent worth and dignity of every person is hardest to put into practice with people we have profound disagreements with.″
Many Democratic leaders also fell into the cultural classism that some of us coastal liberals fall into, of regarding the Midwest as a flyover zone full of gun owners or Christian fundamentalists who are too stupid to have a reasoned political conversation with. It’s important to remember that Donald Trump won the majority of votes from college-educated and high-income whites as well, so we need to be on the alert for classist demonizing of white working class people. This is a white right-wing populist uprising that cuts across classes.
Those of us who didn’t see this coming need to ask ourselves whose voices we hear on a regular basis, why more of the voices of the disaffected rural and Rust Belt white people weren’t on our radio programs, in our newspapers, on our Facebook feeds – and in our personal circles. We didn’t hear them.
We need to stop huddling in our liberal echo chamber talking about how “they” got it wrong and we are right about everything.
Reach Out, Build Ties of Solidarity
“It will take a mass progressive movement to turn our country in a healthier direction.”
Instead we need to reach out and build ties of solidarity, both personally and politically: ties with people already being targeted by street harassment from emboldened bullies who are spray-painting racist slurs and yanking off head scarves; ties with those likely to be politically targeted for deportation and stripped of union rights, health coverage, abortion rights, religious freedom and affirmative action.
But we also need to reach out and build personal and political ties with those Trump voters who aren’t committed haters, but whose economic woes and worries we can empathize with. Our first UU principle about the inherent worth and dignity of every person is hardest to put into practice with people we have profound disagreements with. We may need to put aside disagreements over gun ownership and find common ground in preventing Wall Street and multinational corporations from taking over our democracy and our economy.
It will take a mass progressive movement to turn our country in a healthier direction. Only a multiracial and cross-class mass movement can limit how much damage the Republican Senate, House and President can do in these coming years. A mass movement could light a fire under the Democratic Party to nominate progressive populists like Bernie Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren.
We need a responsive party that is loudly pro-labor, that pushes for full employment policy, that will be firmly anti-sexist and anti-racist, that will tell the truth about how crucial immigrants are to economic growth, and that will treat income inequality as a national crisis. The movement and the party I’m imagining would put forward a progressive populist message that will make sense to economically struggling people of all races and regions.
It’s too early know what effective resistance will be organized to stop the rightward lurch of our country, but when it happens, when you get invitations to join organizations, to boycott, to go to protests and to speak up, please say yes. All of us will need to say yes, say yes, and say yes again.
Betsy Leondar-Wright spoke these words on a panel about race, class and gender in the presidential election, at First Parish UU Church of Arlington, MA on November 13. She is on the board of Class Action (www.classism.org) and on the steering committee of UU Class Conversations (www.uuclassconversations.org ).