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Citizens Speak to Would-be Presidents (in 2000)

Welcome to this church service where “Citizens Speak to Would-be Presidents.” I thank you for your attention and invite you to add to what I will say. As you can see, I have arranged for some video cameras and a microphone to be present. Not only will we partake of this exercise, others will be able to see and hear what we did. I hope and trust the cameras will not detract from our service. It’s just a way to include more people in our service, to show them this sort of liberal religion exists.

We don’t often deal with politics. But social and institutional values are at stake. Being a citizen of a representative democracy is both a privilege and a responsibility. It may sound shocking to you to hear that I consider voting the minimal thing we do as citizens. Voting is the least we should do, and it is the least effective. Far more important is speaking your mind and heart publicly. Democracy thrives on informed citizens speaking together honestly. It shrivels into a sham when many are intimidated or ignored, or cynical and unconcerned.

We’re being citizens sharing the democratic method here. Thanks to a very expensive and tightly controlled media, we tend to be passive recipients of swift sound bites and shallow slogans, inundating our consciousness with limited and limiting ideas. Our vote means little, 1/1,000,000th in a then-distanced Electoral College system. But our voice means more. That’s why I’ve arranged for this way for me, then you, to have our say, to our would-be presidents if they were to see it, but at least to each other, our communities and beyond.

Before I proceed, let me clarify the separation of church and state. The first amendment, which I love and honor, is an injunction on the state to neither persecute nor promote any religion. It is not intended to prevent religions from commenting on political and social issues. Quite the opposite, the religious community is to stand watchdog on social and political trends. It is part of our checks and balances. To use it to silence social criticism and advice in the religious realm is to stand the principle on its head. Of course, this opens the door to conservative religions with an authoritarian bent to tell their adherents how to vote. While I disagree with their theologies and advice, I respect their right to do that.

In the long run, full free participation will balance out the problem of one sort of religious advice dominating the public discourse, as it has for two decades now. The fault is not theirs for doing what they believe in, but ours for not effectively adding our perspectives to the community’s conversation and understanding.

However, I will not tell you how to vote. One, I don’t presume to know The Truth and then boss you about it. Two, the IRS explicitly bars partisan activity in non-profit, tax-exempt organizations. So, I’m not here to campaign for one candidate, but to explore the issues from my and our liberal religious perspective.

Before I speak to our would-be presidents, let me address our just-was one: Bill Clinton, don’t you leave this office with your tail between your legs. Hold your head high, for your have managed to help protect and advance our society and its government in a dangerously dynamic and misdirected time. As Richard Reeves commented in his column, if you had not skillfully played defense during the republican revolution, our whole government and society would have been turned over to large corporate interests and the powerful wealthy people who wield those interests to their private advantage.

Of course, there are those who say you did nearly that, that you were a pretty good Republican. But I ask those critics, where were you during the last decade? How did our generation go from “tune in, turn on and drop out” to “tune out, turn away and sell out”? You were a leader without his troops. From newspapers controlled by a few people, to numerous belligerent radio talk show hosts, to whole television networks, you were hounded and belittled, tripped-up and insulted for tripping, mocked and scorned for any imaginary flaw they could muster. Did we expect you to enact our idealism alone? Were we shamed into silence by the barrage of criticism while you suffered cruel attacks alone? You dealt with an unrelenting, organized hostile media onslaught with wily skill and dignified responses for nearly a decade. As I said here a year ago, I refuse to join the hounding chorus. I honor you and your principled brave wife, Hillary, for modeling mutual marital commitment in the face of a frenzied feast of shaming.

I was so proud of you in your difficult hour when you said, “If presidents don’t deserve privacy, who does?” You do, and we do. And Hillary, you do too. Faced with enormous social pressure, you stood by your husband, no matter your hurt and frustration. You have modeled a new sort of fidelity. What if every wife left their wayward husband, or if husbands abandoned their wives and families for any human fault? Faithfulness need not be equated with stern monogamy; faithfulness is abiding love despite personal hurt and public humiliation. I credit you both for staying true to each other despite the hoards of stone throwers.

The presumptiveness of puritan piety put to prosecution and punishment plagues America with a neurotic meanness that leaves no one innocent or forgiven. Were we to exile every president who ever strayed sexually, we’d have very few to remember. Piety protects the power it plies.

I credit you, Bill Clinton, for not folding your cards on all the important matters of government because of their picky and nagging harangue.

However, I do not hold you blameless. Presidents must pander some to perceived social pressures. Your creating of a federalized police force and prison system, largely to lock up innocent pot users and growers, was a misguided move. You’ve helped create a police/prosecution/prison industry that pits those punitive puritans against blacks and hippies. It is a massive cultural injustice that is un-American to the core, will not fix our social ills, and serves only to alienate and educate angry vengeful prisoners who formerly lived by the rules of fair play and decency.

Also, your rush to override our national laws and interests in the hurried faith to enact international systems of capitalistic free trade, might take decades to repair. Your faith is that this is good for the world and us. My fear is that it injures both. Let us see whether worldwide trade results in worldwide benefits. This persistent notion that wealth is created, and that it doesn’t come from somewhere and some one, astounds me.

How is the average person better if the top one percent owns over half the wealth? How does it help a sustainable earth if some profit mightily from a dwindling and exploited supply? Would someone profiting mightily from a scarcity of water or oxygen be a good thing?

Finally, I criticize the horrid mistake of rushing to a military solution in Waco. Our sense of caution and respect ought to be proportionate to our power. After Vietnam we had a period of morality about the misuse of power. That has faded. Now, we quickly praise any intervention, as if appropriate. If America is to occupy an imperial role in world affairs due to our overwhelming military power, we should develop and manifest an equal part of cautious restraint and creative respect. Waco was a sad example of how not to treat crazy rebels or taunt apocalyptic myths.

But, these are neither our last president’s problems alone, nor his successor’s alone; these are our human problems that we Americans especially should handle well. To do that we need to speak about it. That’s why I’m conducting this service, in anticipation of our coming election.

There are those who cynically claim there is no difference between the candidates, that once again, we have only the Republicratic party. I disagree. We have four parties in play, two of which must hug the middle to win. The other two add a place where citizens can see their perspectives represented. They could impact the election this year, but more likely will sway their nearest party some in the next round just as Ross Perot helped put national debt reduction into the public discourse and agenda.

Let me then address the two main contenders and the next two choices. Al Gore, I see in you a man raised in a populist but pragmatic family. I suspect you really care about ordinary Americans, but are so sufficiently steeped in the political realities of our system that you sign on to the Democratic Leadership Council. By giving certain large industries and interest groups what they want, you get the money and backing you need to do what you want. It is not the progressive stance that I or the Green Party or the Socialists want, but it trades elements of progress for assurances of stability.

George Bush, I see in you a man raised in the rarified environment of privilege, dimly aware of how hard it is for those outside that elite circle. I applaud you for addressing the callous selfish past of the Republican Party by calling for “compassionate conservatism.” You have highlighted the most important word in the world’s religions, for “compassion” is the single concept that typifies the best in the Christian, Buddhist and Islamic faiths. You have helped open conservative people to the compassion they have.

However, I am apprehensive that this is just a ploy, a posturing for the moment, to secure a power that cares little for compassion. You say, “prosperity with a purpose.” Yes, we have prosperity. To what purpose do you propose we put it? To what do we dedicate our unexpected abundance? You and your opponent promise big increases to the military in peace-time. Why? In that you also would cut taxes, what aspects of our budget would you cut to pay more to the military? Is the purpose to de-fund government and the commonwealth it tends to promote private wealth, private schools, private health, and private opulence, free of social concern? What is “Prosperity with a Purpose”? When the few get richer and the more get poorer, is that the purpose? Is compassion for the wealthy the purpose?

There is another problem. Somehow, people have been convinced the reason they’re poor is because of taxes. Yes, we pay taxes. But we pay far more to private, profit making enterprises that drain us for life’s needs. Government formerly was seen as the moderating influence, mitigating the ravages of unrestrained capitalism. How has it come to be on the defensive, meekly providing for the barest of our common needs?

Case in point. In 1993 it was suggested there be a gas tax of 4 cents per gallon to help reduce consumption and pay down the national debt. The amount of money was astounding as to how quickly it would have paid down the national debt. But a cry went up that we’re being taxed too much, that government is too big. So, quickly it was abandoned. Since then, what has happened? Gas has gone up twenty to forty cents, but no benefit went to the public commonwealth.

Instead, a few already rich people made even more money while the country went needy. Meanwhile, many opted for huge truck-like SUVs. They doubled the weight, bulk and waste of getting around town to lord it over smaller vehicles, endangering them in the process. This rampant self-protection and other-endangerment resulted in what? Whining about high gas prices while wasting even more of it was the result.

Cutting taxes for the affluent and cutting the abilities of what government can do worries me. How is it we’ve come to regard our own democratic government as inimical to the people who generate and staff it? Government should not be the enemy. Government is us, all of us, taking care of ourselves and our land. Government is us, acting honorably in a community of nations and responsibly in our global ecosystem. Government is the way we promote, not just business profits, but well-being for all – free, fair, full opportunity for all – safe, secure, satisfied – all.

No matter how well off many Americans get, we still feel we don’t have enough, that more would also be better. How is it that during this period of unprecedented prosperity we still need money for schools and medical care and decent human activities? Why is there all this competing by Gore and Bush to give more money to the military? Is there a war being planned secretly? Why not a war on cancer? Why not a war on ignorance? Why not a war on those technological and economic processes that injure our planet’s environmental balance and health? Why is the CIA given secret billions to subvert democratic elections and finance paramilitary death squads while our leaders claim to decry terrorism? Are Americans so well off they neither know nor care about these discrepancies?

We’ve got to reconnect citizens and their government. No doubt, and with good reason, we are cynical in part due to the way campaigns and offices are financed. Our local paper reported the Republicans received $800,000 in August alone from the large pharmaceuticals. I don’t have the money to compete with this, to lobby for inexpensive medicines. Well-paid specialists, devoted to their narrow selfish cause, fund our legislature.

It is a failure of democracy that the Democrats also participate in. We must find a solution to this, create some form of check and balance, lest our beloved democracy succumb to utter corporate and wealthy rule, barely masked by the crassest form of sham and pretense.

However, I admit government can be an annoyance, especially to business owners, large and small. As a recent contractor and new employer in another business besides my ministry, I discovered how annoyed and hounded businessmen are by governmental bureaucracy. Businessmen endure forms, regulations and taxes their employees and the general public know nothing of. These are not user-friendly or easy realms. They come with the typeface, layout and nomenclature of an IRS report.

I’m not saying business should be exempt from governmental oversight and involvement. Records and regulations should be simply fair, clear and comprehensible, however. While you, Mr. Gore, and you, Mr. Bush, dwell on the narrow issues of prescription plans, the deep and lasting issues of pride and confidence in our government go wanting.

Since the assassination of J.F.K. we’ve suspected a show of democracy masking the reality of mob corruption and callous corporate manipulation at home and abroad. Oliver North’s secret army during Reagan’s reign was the greatest failure of law in our nation’s history. Yet it is portrayed as just another Watergate or Whitewatergate. We find out Chile’s Alliende was set up and murdered in our capital, yet who cares? Will our beloved America become an imperial force for the wealthy alone? Will we live by the justice we claim to promote? How can we expect security or respect when we violate both regularly? Will our technological and economic systems promote a sustainable planet of universal abundance, or a ruined planet of universal scarcity and strife?

Which brings me to the Green Party candidate, Ralph Nader. Have you seen the bumper sticker: “Gush and Bore make me want to Ralph”? On the environment, campaign finance reform, the legalization of marijuana, scaling back our military to a peace time status and applying our legal system vigorously to corporate cheats, Ralph represents my values. However, I doubt I’ll be voting for him because, one, I liked the Corvair, two, I know that harder than being a saint is living with one, and three, I’m leery of idealism in our less than ideal world.

Stevenson, McGovern, Dukakis – these were decent candidates swept out the door into oblivion despite their near forty percent approval in the polls. Then we see what happened because of John Anderson and Ross Perot. Their meager percentages threw the election in the opposite direction of what they wanted. Do you really think there is no difference between the two viable candidates? Do you really think it would be better for us to go even farther from your positions in the stubborn futile gesture of a protest vote? Green voters want to show how mad they are that either main party doesn’t carry their causes. It’s their chance to have a loud say, even if the consequences are harder on everyone. It’s a curious call.

Molly Ivins suggested they vote for Nader in states where the outcome is certain and for their next choice where the outcome teeters on the brink. This makes a point without sacrificing it. I have some sympathy for the Green position. If they get enough votes, they’ll be entitled to federal campaign money in the next round. Because they’re principled, they’ll need the money to spread their cause to a wider audience. There they’ll find how conservative this country is. I suspect the Democratic Party has already noticed the strength and fervency of the Green vote. The Democratic Leadership Council swung right when society had also done that, effectively co-opting what would have been a continued Republican win.

Where is society now? Does the Green vote portend another shift back to the left? Will the Democratic Party reclaim its traditional constituents by appointing Ralph Nader Attorney General, John Kitzhaber Surgeon General, and Jesse Jackson Secretary of Health Education and Welfare?

Finally, to Mr. Buchanan I would say I appreciate your concern for working class Americans hurting due to the shift to international markets and labor. However, your presuming to rule what a woman does with her own cells in her own body is an intrusive invasion of religious law into private affairs. I also do not share your distrust of the United Nations, but I respect your fear and recognize some of our land are similarly worried.

Whoever wins the presidency this year will have to shift from representing their own constituents to incorporating and leading all types and causes at once. We have to move from a win-lose mentality to “e pluribus Unum.” We need to model courteous civility and creative conversation with each other and in the world. Our corporate leaders are not always conniving and callous. There are good people throughout our land and in the world.

We need a leader who draws the goodness in our people and systems out. When I look at all four presidential candidates, and their running mates, I don’t see an evil person among them. I see people representing various values and causes reflective of the diversity in our country. I don’t agree that this election is a given, or that it doesn’t matter. Veering the vast momentum of history in moments grand and little always matters.

Whoever wins this election, I hope my words, and the comments that follow, help place your work in a larger context than they ads and debates reflect. The challenge of history is no more pressing on us than it was on the founding families. Democracy is not a privilege; it is a right, secured and safeguarded by those responsible enough to care. More important than who is president is who and how we are together and in the world. Whoever wins, can we be the sorts of citizens who are worthy of being called “American?”

Reverend Brad Carrier UUs of Central Oregon Bend, Oregon October 10th, 2000

Byron has been using his writing and public speaking to engage, challenge and inspire audiences for over 40 years. Reverend Carrier's mission is to rescue and revive our earthly Eden, including our human worth and potential. If you enjoy his work, consider supporting him with Patreon.

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