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In the Absence of Angels – 3/9/2014

On November 1st, 1872, Susan B. Anthony went with her sisters to a barber shop in Rochester, NY to register to vote. Four days later on November 5th – Election Day – she cast her ballot. Thirteen days after that on the 18th, she was visited at her home by a deputy US marshal. He was invited to sit down in the parlor. He commented on the weather and made a few other attempts at conversation with Ms. Anthony. Finally, when asked directly, the marshal explained that he had come to arrest her for the crime of voting. She asked if he normally arrested men in this way. He said that he did not, and so Susan demanded to be treated in the same manner as any man being placed under arrest would have been. She held out her wrists for the hand-cuffs. When the marshal suggested they take separate carriages – it was generally considered improper for a young man to be alone with an unmarried woman – she refused.

It had been her goal to get arrested, or at least to make it to court somehow. Just registering to vote was an accomplishment; the election inspectors initially rebuffed her. But after more than an hour of determined arguments, and a detailed and convincing threat to take the men to court personally for refusing her and her sisters what she regarded as their rights as citizens, they were allowed to add their names to the voter rolls. Those inspectors may also have just been intimidated by Ms. Anthony’s presence – she was twenty or thirty years older than they were, and renowned as a woman who did not back down from a fight.

Susan never managed to force her case all the way to the Supreme Court, as she had hoped. She was robbed of the opportunity when her own lawyer paid the bail she had refused to pay herself. When she asked him why he’d done it, he said, “I could not see a lady I respected put in jail.” But the case got attention for her cause nonetheless, and in 1920 the 19th amendment to the constitution – sometimes called the Anthony amendment – made it legal for other women to do what she had been arrested for.[i]

Susan B. Anthony was notoriously determined and stern-willed. I have heard it said that at social occasions she had a habit of approaching a group of people, bursting into the conversation and announcing, “Votes for women!” before turning away and moving on to the next group. It was a monomaniacal focus on her cause, which must have made her something of an oddball – that person at a party that no one wants to talk to. She never married, she had relatively few close friends, and even the ones she had were fellow activists, with whom she sometimes quarreled on questions of tactics and priorities. Looking at her life from the distance of 150 years, it is easy to ask the question, “How could she give so much? How could she keep struggling towards a goal she had to know she probably wouldn’t – and in fact did not – live to see accomplished?” The question that comes easier to me is, “How could she not? Susan lived in a world in which she and everyone else like her was denied an essential right that I have never once in my life, since turning 18, had to worry about being refused. How could she not fight to claim it with every ounce of her being?”

Both a Quaker and a Unitarian, Susan B. Anthony is one of our theological ancestors. I would like to think that she would be celebrated by her co-religionists no matter what faith she had practiced, but she is particularly cherished by us because the equal voice of all people in the decisions that affect them is so essential to our values as Unitarian Universalists. Alone among the religions of the earth, our faith holds up democracy as one of our guiding ideals. For this reason, our ancestors in centuries past and our congregations in the present have championed the right of self-determination, the right of conscience, and the right of the ballot box in this country and all over the world.

Yet this value of ours is, I think, a thing which is easy to misunderstand. The fifth principle we share as a religious movement endorses, “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” And here, already, as far as I am concerned, is a mistake. There is not one democratic process which can serve as a litmus test for democracy. Coming from the Greek for “rule of the people,” democracy is not a single way of ordering a nation or an organization; it is a goal, an ideal, a principle which can be applied to many different ways of organizing human beings. To be more accurate, I think that our fifth principle ought to call for the right of conscience and the use of democratic processes. We can change its wording in that way, as I hope one day we will, because our principles, purposes and sources – the core document that marks out the theological center we share – was made and can be remade through the democratic activity of our congregations. In fact, only a few years ago a major set of changes were proposed and failed by a very narrow margin of votes. That proposal included changing the fifth principle in just the way I think we should – and I voted against it, because it also included some drastic changes I thought were more important to prevent. Democracy makes for some messy choices.

But the larger and all-too common mistake is to think that only governments that look like the one described by a US high school civics class, or an episode of School House Rock – that these and only these may be described as democracies. That whether or not people are permitted to vote on who rules them every 2-6 years is the only horizon between tyranny and freedom. That is a standard that is dangerously low. There’s a story from the Sioux nation – a people with good reason to have little faith in the elections held by the government that stole their land.

Once, it is said, all the dogs held an election to choose who would be president of all dogs. Each one argued for themselves: I should be president, I am the strongest, the fastest, I have the most beautiful coat, the best sense of hearing, the loudest howl. Finally, one dog jumped up and said, “I nominate for president whichever dog smells the best!” So all the dogs started to sniff one another, but they couldn’t agree, and even today they are searching for the dog who smells best. And this is the story of why dogs sniff each others’ butts.

That’s a commentary on the craziness that the United States gets up to every four years, but not a criticism of democracy itself. The principle of democracy has deep roots in North America, where collective decision-making and public consultation was practiced long before the arrival of people from Europe. The Haudenosaunee – whom the French called the Iroquouis – are the indigenous people of most of the state of New York. Their lands include the current site of the city of Rochester, where both I and Susan B. Anthony come from. The government of the Haudenosaunee depended on a broad consensus across many tribes and clans. Women had a significant role in this process, including final authority on which men would serve as chiefs, and when to go to war. There is some evidence that the Haudenosaunee Great Law of Peace helped to influence the US constitution – but clearly the active inclusion of women in decision-making did not make its way in for the first 130 years.[ii]

Our religious commitment to democracy grows out of our understanding that revelation is ongoing, and not limited to any time, place, or person. Every human life contains wisdom and insight to contribute to the greater whole. We come together into community to share what we know as individuals and to discern the larger truth, together. There is a Jewish story that illustrates this point – some of you have heard me tell it before. It is set a little less than 2000 years ago. The Sanhedrin, the council of legal authorities, were debating a small point of law and one of them, Rabbi Eliezer, found himself at odds with the others. Outvoted by his fellow sages, Eliezer declared, “If it is as I say, let this carob tree prove it.” The tree immediately uprooted itself, flying through the air and out of the garden where it had been planted. But the other teachers were not impressed; “No proof can be brought from a carob tree,” they replied.

Rabbi Eliezer continued, “If it is as I say, let this stream of water prove it,” and the stream began to flow backwards. His fellow rabbis remained adamant: no proof could be brought from a stream, either.

“If it is as I say, let the walls of this meetinghouse prove it,” he declared, and the building around them began to quake. Another sage leapt up to rebuke the walls, saying, “When scholars engage in legal dispute, what is your relevance?” The trembling stopped, but the argument continued.

Finally, Rabbi Eliezer proclaimed, “If it is as I say, let it be proved from Heaven.” And there came a great voice from on high crying out, “Why do you dispute with Rabbi Eliezer? All matters of the law are just as he says!” But Rabbi Joshua responded, “The law is not in Heaven.” The responsibility of that legal ruling fell

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to the judges in that room, and to no one and nothing else. Not even the voice of the Holy One had standing to contradict the determination of the court.[iii]

It is a popular thing to complain about attempts at democracy – it always has been. Listening to and considering many different possibilities and points of view takes time and energy. There are always those who will abuse the process, try to push the group off-track, who will try to sway the people out of self-interest rather than a sense of greater good, or who just want to talk when they have nothing of importance to say. The speed and decisiveness of autocracy – of any system where orders simply come from the top and are followed by everyone else – is seductive. We can fantasize about cutting through inconvenient rules and doing away with distasteful compromise. Everything will be just as we want it to be. This isn’t just the philosophy that supports dictatorships – it can crop up in any organization or community whenever the people grow weary of the hard work of making their choices together. This has become largely the rule in big corporations now, where shareholders and boards of directors generally abdicate their responsibilities to powerful CEOs, and labor unions are absent or weakened beyond influence. And the trend exists even within some of our congregations: some wish to choose a minister to run the show, and hand them nearly all of the power and responsibility once reserved for the board of trustees and the congregation as a whole.

This is not one of those congregations, and I am not one of those ministers. And as popular as it has been since the invasion of the Ukrainian Crimea to say that the leader of the Russian Federation appears strong and decisive, while the leader of the United States appears weak and indecisive – their respective actions reflect the differences in the governments they lead, and I would not trade one for the other. Autocrats are only popular with those who fool themselves into thinking that their wishes and hopes will be honored by the powerful without all the trouble of a free press, an informed citizenry, a strong guarantee of universal rights, or a process of open elections. Sooner or later, that illusion must crumble: for dictators are not so good at following the will of the people – they find it far easier to coerce their consent.

Roughly 240 years ago, in the Federalist Papers which argued for the adoption of the US constitution, James Madison wrote, “what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”[iv] In the absence of angels, what we have is each other and whatever loyalty we share to a goal which is higher than our own self-interest; whatever trust we can muster that we will, by choosing together, choose more wisely than we could have on our own.

The movement toward democracy is a constant struggle – it is not inevitable, and its momentum is only built by the hard work of people seeking for their rights and the rights of others. In 1872 it was Susan B. Anthony talking her way into a vote, getting arrested, and putting America on trial for it. One hundred years later, with technical political equality for women, the full freedom of perfect democracy was still long off – just as it is still long off today. Within our own movement in the 1970s, women and men were equal in theory but entirely unequal in practice. The campaign to raise the voice of women in Unitarian Universalism – which has taken us from a religion with only a handful of female religious leaders, to one where the majority of our ministers are women – began at the grass roots, in our congregations. At one of these, for a service calling for a more democratic Unitarian Universalism, Carolyn McDade – the musician who wrote our most beloved hymn, Spirit of Life, wrote different song. It began with this verse:

Well we might come in a-fighting, cause there’s lots that needs a righting;

We’ve learned a lot from living never taught to us in schools;

If they say come in like a man, well, they must not understand,

When we enter in the game we’re gonna change the god-damned rules.[v]

Movement towards democracy doesn’t mean that a few more people get to vote, but everything else stays the same. By the standards established in the constitution lobbied for in the Federalist Papers, I and nearly everyone else in this room would have been ineligible to vote. Each expansion of that franchise: beyond only those who owned land, beyond only white people, beyond only men, beyond only those over 21 – has also meant major changes to our society. We are constantly changing the rules – but not always in the direction of democracy. The powerful like to remain powerful, and can be quite imaginative in finding ways to deny people their voice, even when they are legally entitled to it. That’s why some of the most recent public positions taken our association – by delegates from our congregations debating and voting together – include stands against voter ID laws and other tactics designed to rob poor people and people of color of their vote, and calling for an amendment to the constitution in order to end corporate personhood and get corporate money out of the political system.

There are many critical matters at issue in our society: healthcare reform, the war on drugs, tax policy; the list goes on. We don’t usually think of democracy as being one of these issues – it’s supposed to be something that we all have agreed upon. But the laws and practices that make a nation more democratic or less so – these require the same sorts of advocacy and campaigning to accomplish and protect as for any other issue. In the absence of angels, what we have is each other, and the work we are willing to do to make sure that each of us has a voice – whether we like what the other person says with it or not.


[i] The Trial of Susan B. Anthony for Illegal Voting, Doug Linder (2001),


[iii] From the Mishnah, Bava Metzia 59b

[iv] The Federalist No. 51

[v] Carolyn McDade, “We Might Come In a-Fighting,” Arlington Street Women’s Caucus Songbook, Boston, 1975.


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