Our America eagle can’t survive without both a right and left wing. As is, it wars against itself, one wing battering the other, flapping around in circles. The dangerous divide in our country between left and right – between red states and blue states, between city and rural, between educated and not, between moneyed and not – cannot grow in rancor without ruining our common condition.
Nor can our Unitarian Universalist congregations be whole without honoring and including so-called left and right types of thinking. I wouldn’t want bitter hostility to divide us or exclude anyone. “The inherent worth and dignity” we try to see and honor extends to those we disagree with. How do we then still speak our truth in a sacred circle that includes such differences?
Some Operating Assumptions
From time to time I realize the operating assumptions I bring to this pulpit need to be restated. I tend to think once I’ve said it, it’s heard and remembered. I forget that it may have never been heard well, or remembered, or that new people haven’t heard it at all. So, let’s update.
First, I am no expert and I have no authority. I’m trained and experienced. I have a Master’s in Divinity and am duly ordained, but by nature and tradition, I don’t impose dogma or tell you what to think or how to act. My mind tends to see many sides to most situations, but I would be failing my role if I were to never take a side. I do this knowing I am like any human. I’m a bundle of ability and fallibility facing necessity. Though I think that is true of you too, I expect you to remember that of me.
Second, I tend to speak to our larger society through you, forgetting you might take it personally. I watch, read, and think a lot, trying to sum up vast subjects in twenty minute talks. I tend to voice what I think is missing from the cultural conversation, speaking for those who have no say. We can’t fix America from here, but we can share views and ideas otherwise missing from our media.
Third, I don’t believe the separation of church and state means we should never consider political and social issues. In fact, to bar religion from evaluating such conditions and trends is to stand the purpose of the separation on its head. The injunction in the Bill of Rights is on our government to neither promote nor persecute any religion. It is religion’s job to prophesize about current trends, including economic, political, social, technological, and theological. What the IRS claims to restrict, in order to keep a non-profit status, is a religion’s involvement in partisan directives. Though thousands of churches did exactly that in the elections of 2000 and 2004, few were questioned, much less reprimanded or removed. Speaking about abortion is their right; telling the congregants who to vote for or against on that basis is not. Saying slavery is divinely ordained, or that it is the devil’s doing, is their right. Consigning religion to speak only of other realms and afterlives, while ignoring social and political conditions, imposes a definition of religion that removes it from our actual lives and world, thus removing the practical function of religion intended in our first amendment.
So, having clarified my authority, your prerogative to hear me and still think otherwise, and our need to consider the context we must live in, let me address the dangerous divide we face nationally and in our fellowship.
Dangerous Divides or Decent Differences?
The red state / blue state maps we’ve seen are misleading at best. Truer would be shades of purple. Whole states are not only red or blue, nor are congressional districts, nor families, nor even individuals. And though red and blue stand for differences, they shouldn’t stand for enemies. Winning and losing is an electoral agreement, not battles in a war. The last culture war we really had left more dead than any war we’ve ever had. Taunting a new one would only sicken our common culture.
Since the horribly tragic shootings in Tulsa recently, perhaps we have come to question and heal the dangerous divisiveness we had grown to. (The mixed sitting pattern at the last State of the Union address lessened the sense of rancor that had become a sort of media sport.) Though neither “side” wanted or caused people to be senselessly shot, the rhetoric and reality of such violent tactics was mostly coming from one side only, the right. Urging people to “armor up” and “exercise their 2nd Amendment rights” led people to add guns to their belligerence at otherwise civil meetings. The implication was that they were so mad they would shoot their way to power. It wasn’t Democrats who pushed this bully tactic on our society. Guns and the threat of using them come primarily from one side. If Democrats were to start armoring up, we’d probably quickly get gun control.
But saying so is resented. Plus, it is a generalization. Not all conservatives or Republicans want an armed, angry populace. While a swaggering macho posture does run from Bill O’Reilly to Sarah Palin, not all on the right like them or agree. Yet, we think in categories and tend to identify ourselves into various camps. When I see the rightwing takeover of our radios, televisions, and government, delivering us all to powerful corporations and petty moralists, and say so, I offend those who identify with Bill and Sarah for their own sincere reasons. Rather than know what I say can be agreed to or not, such people might feel marginalized. If they then stomp off, or tip toe off, it would be our loss.
For instance, if I were to feel sympathetic to the plight of illegal Mexican immigrants and spoke to it, some might feel slighted because they care about honoring our existing laws, protecting our jobs, or slowing our population growth. If that person with those views were to exit we would lose both the person and the perspective. We would miss what many think and feel by failing to hear and include him or her.
Because I resent the right for what I see as arrogant ignorance, self-righteously imposed, I might miss those aspects of the republican and conservative stances that I do agree with. I didn’t appreciate conservatives until I read an Emerson’s essay by that title. In it, he credits conservatives for practical thinking coupled with daring and diligence. If I had adopted my dad’s republican attitudes I might have been more enterprising and diligent in my life and by now be making more money than I do. And when I think over my UU career, I remember valuing certain Republicans especially: Ed was smart on finance and business organization. Frank and Don worked for the armaments industry dutifully, intelligently, and compassionately. Bill captained a nuclear sub and knew war, but he worked for peace.
Then I also note Republican politicians I still admire. Eisenhower tops my list. Perhaps you remember his astonishing exit speech at the end of his career as general and president:
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. . . Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
Imagine the irate ridicule such ideas would receive today. “How dare he attack America” they might screech. Eisenhower’s lament and warning went even deeper than that. Unlike ignorant civilians eager for war, he knew the costs and waste of war. He said, “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.” But it wasn’t just the war itself that he was wary of, it was also the preparation for war and the mindset of war that he warned us of:
Now this conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet, we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved. So is the very structure of our society.
He had been a dutiful general; now his responsibilities included our entire society in the long-term. He asked a practical and important question, “How far you can go without destroying from within what you are trying to defend from without?” He prophesized:
As we peer into society’s future, we — you and I, and our government — must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow. . . We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.
Eschewing inordinate power, waste, and debt resonates with all of us, yet Republicans and conservatives currently sound the alarm over only the last of those three. Living within one’s means is certainly a conservative value, but conserving the natural resources that undergird our entire lives appears to have been abandoned by them. They seem to conserve only the right to profit, no matter the cost to our society and ecosystem, betraying the very essence of conservatism. We have to go back 50 years to Eisenhower and 100 to Teddy Roosevelt to see a wider, wiser conservatism exemplified. As is, corporate plunder, wild debt, ecological suicide, anti-government hyperbole, and angry threats to other countries and our own citizens seem to be their common stance.
Ike wouldn’t approve. Rather, he said:
“We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.
Even more applicable for America today and our topic, Ike, totally reversing prevailing attitudes during that time of McCarthy and the KKK, said two things I admire – distinguishing dissent from destruction:
Here in America we are descended in blood and in spirit from revolutionists and rebels – men and women who dare to dissent from accepted doctrine. As their heirs, may we never confuse honest dissent with disloyal subversion . . . I despise people who go to the gutter on either the right or the left and hurl rocks at those in the center.
It was Oregon’s own Republican Governor Mark Hatfield who urged Eisenhower to run for president as a Republican. Hatfield, a Unitarian, gave the keynote speech at the convention that nominated Goldwater, but he openly didn’t like Goldwater’s extremism. He also broke ranks with most Republicans in opposing the wars in Vietnam and Iraq.
I admit my favored examples are not typical of Republicans. Abraham Lincoln was Republican in name, but his legacy is more in keeping with the Democrats of late. Republicans of late want a Supreme Court that rigorously adheres to an originalist view of the Constitution, claiming, for instance, that the 2nd Amendment gives everyone the right to have and use guns. Missing from such sanctimonious insistence is any attention to the crucial words there: “a well-regulated Militia.” Also missing is any adhering to the other key words in the Preamble, “to form a more perfect Union,” “insure domestic Tranquility,” and “promote the general Welfare” (capitals in the original), all pertinent to our current condition. I doubt most Republicans think guns create tranquility and transnational corporations care for our general welfare. However, given the absence of such leaders saying so in today’s extremist shouting contest, we see decent Republicans represented by shallow, mean-minded whackos. Using current media assumptions and tactics, Eisenhower couldn’t win a primary. This betrays the practical nobility that exemplifies many Republicans.
I like to quip, “Republicans are good at what they do, but what they do isn’t good.” I see skillful manipulation of our limbic systems in our brains to an overall detriment to our personal and social health. But this comes from my own values and biases. I am more of a collectivist who thinks government at best is us taking care of ourselves and acting nobly in the larger family of nations. Resenting right wing selfish individualism makes me miss the other underlying values that right wingers hold: individual initiative, living within one’s means, duty to one’s smaller group (be that family, party, or nation). Similarly, right wingers resent leftists for imposing big government taxes and solutions on us, missing the collective caring and innovation such leftists hold dear. Both sides miss the value of the other. Neither half makes a whole. Let’s not make divides of our differences.
It isn’t just business skill and practical caution in Republicans that I like, value, and want in the U.S. and our religion, it is the very functioning in our brains and beings that their way embodies. I sometimes talk about the “organic” wisdom of wholeness in our persons, congregations, and society. Neither right nor left is sufficient and healthy all by itself. Resenting either is dividing ourselves. Let’s look at the very layout of our brains and consider the bias we have against our own minds, projected on others.
Human brain functions go down to up and entail both left and right. The old emotionless reptilian brain has a “kill or be killed” wariness and aggression born of a reptilian sense of “I.” The newer mammalian brain (our limbic system) manages our emotional intelligence. Tuning into the subtleties of social relations, it expands the “I” to include “and mine.” The newest neo-cortex, the top and front of our brains, manages logical thinking, language, music, pictorial images and stories, and compassion. It sees beyond the “I and mine” to include a larger sense of “us.” This recent top layer is divided into left and right functions. Our left brain, which controls the right side of our body, manages language, logic, happiness and compassion. Our brain’s right side is more image and story-based, and it tends to more negative emotions. The corpus callosum integrates the two sides, more so for women than men.
If a Shylock demands a pound of flesh, don’t cut out part of your brain. Yet we effectively do this by having prejudices against certain functions and the people who exemplify them. Look at the bias in our language against our left side. Our left hand tends to be weaker and less able than our right, but does it deserve to be punished for that? Left-handers used to be whipped for it. Who wants to be left behind or left out? The French and Latin origins for the word left were “awkward” and “sinister.” When “right” also means “correct” or “approved” does “left” mean “wrong” and so should its adherents thus be shunned? Apparently, left is wrong and weak; right is correct and strong.
Complicating these biases is the cross-over. Our strong right side is actually managed by the left brain, whereas our weak and awkward left side is run by our right brain. Right wingers tend to ridicule and resent weakness, even though their weak side is managed by their right brain.
Studying the trust and cooperation in chimps and bonobos, our nearest animal relatives, researchers Brian and Vanessa Woods found that stress and negative emotions heated up the right brain. Positive emotions like joy and contentment fire up the left side. Chimps tend to be distrustful of novelty and unable to cooperate. Male chimps beat the females into submission in a strict hierarchy that keeps females and infants on the bottom. Bonobos are tender and trusting creatures able to cooperate with each other. Females rule and infants are parented by the entire group. Bonobos are famously promiscuous, exchanging sex as if handshakes. Chimps hoard their food and fight over it. Bonobos are more like the French, sharing and savoring their food, grooming each other in peace after meals. I see both kinds of behaviors in humans, though each is favored or repressed by the type of culture and religion that prevails. We can be warlike or peaceful.
A similar need for wholeness comes with the triune brain. We may favor our recent top neo-cortex for its analytical and cooperative abilities, but neglecting our limbic mammalian nature leaves it to be stimulated by advertisers and Fox News. And deeper, the reptilian “kill or be killed” aggressive wariness is also a necessary part of our whole selves. We wouldn’t be alive to inherit any higher function without that essential ability. We have a killer in us that is on-call should we need it. However, again, the kind of culture we craft either transcends the primitive violence or taunts and teaches it as how we have to relate. Keep things scarce and anxious, drive our reactions with frequent fear and hot hate, push us into scary corners, and we lash out. Bring fairness, fondness, beauty, and bounty into our prevailing situation, and we laugh, love, and lounge. Our whole brain is still there, but calming the fear and hate allows our more creative and compassionate beings to emerge and grow.
Our brains literally grow or shrink according to what we do with them. Chimp, bonobo, and human babies will all just die if they are left alone and stressed too much. University of Oregon’s Helen Nelville documents the long-lasting results of how poverty affects brain development. Attention, executive skills, memory, and language skills all fail to develop or deteriorate in poorer children. Security, stability, and stimulation favor brain growth and functioning. Neural-genesis, actual neural growth, comes from stimulation and satisfaction. Even adults grow brain ability by using it, and by getting ample exercise coupled to a fresh-food healthy diet.
Our stress responses that once kept us from being eaten by lions still get frequently fired up simply by living in cities and watching TV. The real news is prevailing peace in our neighborhoods and world. But the TV news assembles all the bad news, raising our fear and hate reactions, cortisol wearing our worn heart. This sells medicines but leaves us reeling. Most American drama seems to center on conflict settled by guns. Add to this the easy-to-rouse and hard-to-ignore stimuli the fear and hate tactics in political ads and debates and we have a society hooked on the cheap and wearing shots of dopamine and adrenalin coming from anger and anxiety. It isn’t a good high, but it’s familiar, popular, and addictive. Rouse this into desperation and you have shrill voices urging we “armor up,” and “reload.” This divides us from each other and could lead to an actual widespread “culture war.” Technologically, we’ve come a long way since the medieval ages and the Civil War, but biologically, psychologically, and spiritually, we’re the same people stumbling into familiar conditions.
Our biology is both stubborn and promising. I speculate that hurt, fear, and hate, tends to freeze our minds into suspicious attitudes and stubborn thinking. Such emotions are regulated by our mid-brain’s limbic amygdala, which has more neurons going up to the neo-cortex than down from it. People suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) continue to react with fear and anger long after their traumatic injury. It is hard to calm down, think clearly, and act kindly. If our right brain processes negative emotions, pictures, and stories while our left tends to facts, language, and positive emotions such as joy and compassion, it is hard to face the facts calmly and come up with collectivist solutions when both a hurt past and a fanciful story team up. The paranoid beliefs that scientists and big government are out to trick and restrict us, and the preferred beliefs in free markets and God’s management, make it hard to rationally consider the facts of global warming, especially when it contradicts our stories and habits, and when it impacts animals and people not considered “us.” Thus anxiety and anger feed a story that dismisses it all as a hoax despite all the science and concern coming from “leftists.”
It will take a lot of left brain pre-frontal skill to reassure a society hyped on fear, hate, and divisiveness that other stories can manage this global challenge to our collective safety and bounty. Religions steeped in fallen-ness and suffering – which resent thinking as disobedient willfulness, which favor judgment, punishment, and magical redemption, which care not for this life as much as some imagined afterlife – will lock up our thinking and political progress. Religions that can link fact, compassion, and pictorial story will help free our thinking and politics towards collective solutions. Whatever the religion, if it serves and uses all of our magnificent brains, if it values our bodies and earthly life, there is hope.
Which gets us back to why we need each other. Just as there are no parts of us which we should judge and cut out, so should we welcome and engage all types of persons with all manner of ideology. Should we cut out parts of our brain, remove the left side, fear the right, ignore the old, deny the new? Ridiculous. Similarly, our entire society needs an organic wholeness to function. Totalitarian regimes and corporate-dominated ones crush or ignore the very voices needed to bring us to healthy wholeness. A UU fellowship without Republican members is as lopsided as an Evangelical church is without liberal voices.
Because the media in our larger society largely ignores, ridicules, and represses leftist liberal sentiments and ideas, I feel the need to “speak truth to power.” I tend to “afflict the comfortable” more than “comfort the afflicted,” dwelling more on the reasons for the unhealthy divide than tending to the stubborn and pervasive results of it. But in so-doing I tend to criticize one aspect of the Republican or Conservative Christian mindset, forgetting this might alienate the decent Republicans and Christians among us who believe the way they do for sincere and decent reasons. If so, my bad. I like Republicans and Christians, and I want them here. I’d rather welcome, include, and creatively engage all kinds of souls here, just like I’d recommend we all utilize all aspects of our wonderful body’s glorious incarnation. May my work and our fellowship serve a synergy of wholeness in our selves, with each other, and for our larger world.
America is not red or blue, it is both, a sort of purple when seen at a distance. And what became of white in this mix? What would the white stand for? And where better to realize our rainbow beauty than in a Unitarian Universalist congregation?
American eagles once almost went extinct. A mere 400 pairs were known, the others decimated by DDT. Now, because we listened to our scientists and cooperated with each other, there are more than 10,000. If you go to the Tule Lake area south of Klamath Falls to see them, please notice they don’t fly in circles or flop about on the ground, angry, anguished and incapacitated. When both wings are equally used, they soar. So will we.
Reverend Brad Carrier
For the UU Fellowship of Grants Pass
Grants Pass, Oregon
© February 6, 2011