Millennials to business: Social responsibility isn’t optional

By Michelle Nunn, Washington Post, December 20, 2011

Michelle Nunn is CEO of Points of Light Institute, a nonprofit nonpartisan volunteer organization with more than 20 years of history. She is also the co-founder of the HandsOn Network, the volunteer-focused arm of the Points of Light Institute.


….As consumers, employees and entrepreneurs, Millennials are shifting the norms of corporate America’s conduct, ethical imperatives and purpose. In his book, “The Way We’ll Be,” pollster John Zogby documents how these “First Globals” are more conscientious consumers than their predecessors, demanding greater honesty and accountability from businesses.

Millennials are bringing their values into the career equation by placing a premium on employers’ reputation for social responsibility and the opportunities those companies and organizations provide their employees to make a positive impact on society. ..

Millennials, as consumers, are pushing companies to change the ways of doing business to align with the values of civic and global responsibility largely held by Millennials…

While Millennials are transforming established businesses, they are also starting a new breed of businesses with built-in social missions that are resonating with the marketplace and revolutionizing their sectors…The values behind Occupy Wall Street are manifesting themselves in the marketplace and companies that are failing to take notice should start…

A new generation of employees, consumers and entrepreneurs is stepping forward with a better way of doing business — putting its bets on the goodness of people rather than loading the dice in its own favor.

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The Occupy Wall Street movement is largely fueled by a relatively small set of young people who view the protests as a fight for their future. The vast majority, however, are getting up and going to work every day — or wishing they could. These individuals are part of a less dramatic but, perhaps, equally powerful movement of Millennials shaping the future of business. As consumers, employees and entrepreneurs, Millennials are shifting the norms of corporate America’s conduct, ethical imperatives and purpose. In his book, “The Way We’ll Be,” pollster John Zogby documents how these “First Globals” are more conscientious consumers than their predecessors, demanding greater honesty and accountability from businesses.

Millennials are bringing their values into the career equation by placing a premium on employers’ reputation for social responsibility and the opportunities those companies and organizations provide their employees to make a positive impact on society. Sixty-one percent of 18- to 26-year-olds polled in a 2011 Deloitte Volunteer IMPACT survey said they would prefer to work for a company that offers volunteer opportunities. Over the past decade, this generational shift has pushed these programs to be more sophisticated, generating billions of dollars of pro bono support for nonprofits and activating millions of skilled volunteers.

Even as the economy has slowed, companies are expanding volunteer programs because these programs attract, develop, motivate and retain the most dynamic and passionate employees. The most innovative of these companies also understand these programs as critical to their bottom line. IBM’s Corporate Service Corps, launched in 2008, has deployed 1,200 IBMers to more than 20 countries, in both a highly competitive leadership development program and a rigorous endeavor to bring the corporation’s skills to bear on complex problems in developing communities. IBM Chairman and CEO Sam Palmisano said at the program’s founding that “we fully expect [this] will make IBM a more competitive and successful business.”

Millennials, as consumers, are pushing companies to change the ways of doing business to align with the values of civic and global responsibility largely held by Millennials. Monitoring supply chains, safeguarding labor and environmental conditions for the creation of products and embracing environmental sustainability have become basic requirements to preserve relationships with customers and retain young employees. A recent market study by the public relations firm Edelman shows that consumers now expect brands to support causes. Many companies are responding to this market shift in ways that integrate causes fully into their business strategy and brand identities. Earlier this year, the Millennial founders of GOOD Magazine launched a subsidiary consulting business called GOOD/Corps, which is helping some of the world’s most recognizable brands navigate and profit from what they call the “Values Revolution” driven by this generation. Companies like Pepsi, Toyota and Starbucks are seeking their guidance on building the meaningful connections that these consumers demand.

While Millennials are transforming established businesses, they are also starting a new breed of businesses with built-in social missions that are resonating with the marketplace and revolutionizing their sectors. TOMS Shoes was founded in 2006 by 30-year-old Blake Mycoskie and has quickly become one of the fastest-growing apparel companies in the world. Well known for its groundbreaking “One-for-One” model that donates a pair of shoes in the developing world for every pair sold, it is also growing a fiercely loyal and active following through its anti-poverty advocacy efforts. It is hard to imagine a traditional shoe brand being able to mobilize a network of 1,200 campus chapters and 250,000 young people in a single day to promote its brand, but that is exactly what TOMS has accomplished with its “One Day Without Shoes” campaign.

Despite the economic downturn and the headlines, the nation’s private sector is still lively. The values behind Occupy Wall Street are manifesting themselves in the marketplace and companies that are failing to take notice should start. These people-powered movements may not have stopped the markets in their tracks, but they are creating the demand for new forms of corporate behavior and ethical imperatives. The winning brands of the future will be ones that authentically respond.

This may result in an aligning of private-sector muscle to address the very inequities, lack of transparency and poverty that Occupy Wall Street has spotlighted. A new generation of employees, consumers and entrepreneurs is stepping forward with a better way of doing business — putting its bets on the goodness of people rather than loading the dice in its own favor.

Our Inconsistent Ethical Instincts

by Matthew Hutson, New York Times, March 30, 2013


MORAL quandaries often pit concerns about principles against concerns about practical consequences…We like to believe that the principled side of the equation is rooted in deep, reasoned conviction. But a growing wealth of research shows that those values often prove to be finicky, inconsistent intuitions, swayed by ethically irrelevant factors… Even the way a scenario is worded can influence our judgments, as lawyers and politicians well know….knowing that our instincts are so sensitive to outside factors can prevent us from settling on our first response. Objective moral truth doesn’t exist, and these studies show that even if it did, our grasp of it would be tenuous. But we can encourage consistency in moral reasoning by viewing issues from many angles, discussing them with other people and monitoring our emotions closely…

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MORAL quandaries often pit concerns about principles against concerns about practical consequences. Should we ban assault rifles and large sodas, restricting people’s liberties for the sake of physical health and safety? Should we allow drone killings or torture, if violating one person’s rights could save a thousand lives?

We like to believe that the principled side of the equation is rooted in deep, reasoned conviction. But a growing wealth of research shows that those values often prove to be finicky, inconsistent intuitions, swayed by ethically irrelevant factors. What you say now you might disagree with in five minutes. And such wavering has implications for both public policy and our personal lives.

Philosophers and psychologists often distinguish between two ethical frameworks. A utilitarian perspective evaluates an action purely by its consequences. If it does good, it’s good.

A deontological approach, meanwhile, also takes into account aspects of the action itself, like whether it adheres to certain rules. Do not kill, even if killing does good.

No one adheres strictly to either philosophy, and it turns out we can be nudged one way or the other for illogical reasons.

For a recent paper to be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, subjects were made to think either abstractly or concretely — say, by writing about the distant or near future. Those who were primed to think abstractly were more accepting of a hypothetical surgery that would kill a man so that one of his glands could be used to save thousands of others from a deadly disease. In other words, a very simple manipulation of mind-set that did not change the specifics of the case led to very different responses.

Class can also play a role. Another paper, in the March issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, shows that upper-income people tend to have less empathy than those from lower-income strata, and so are more willing to sacrifice individuals for the greater good.

Upper-income subjects took more money from another subject to multiply it and give to others, and found it more acceptable to push a fat man in front of a trolley to save five others on the track — both outcome-oriented responses.

But asking subjects to focus on the feelings of the person losing the money made wealthier respondents less likely to accept such a trade-off.

Other recent research shows similar results: stressing subjects, rushing them or reminding them of their mortality all reduce utilitarian responses, most likely by preventing them from controlling their emotions.

Even the way a scenario is worded can influence our judgments, as lawyers and politicians well know. In one study, subjects read a number of variations of the classic trolley dilemma: should you turn a runaway trolley away from five people and onto a track with only one? When flipping the switch was described as saving the people on the first track, subjects tended to support it. When it was described as killing someone on the second, they did not. Same situation, different answers.

And other published studies have shown that our moods can make misdeeds seem more or less sinful. Ethical violations become less offensive after people watch a humor program like “Saturday Night Live.” But they become more offensive after reading “Chicken Soup for the Soul,” which triggers emotional elevation, or after smelling a mock-flatulence spray, which triggers disgust.

The scenarios in these papers are somewhat contrived (trolleys and such), but they have real-world analogues: deciding whether to fire a loyal employee for the good of the company, or whether to donate to a single sick child rather than to an aid organization that could save several.

Regardless of whether you endorse following the rules or calculating benefits, knowing that our instincts are so sensitive to outside factors can prevent us from settling on our first response. Objective moral truth doesn’t exist, and these studies show that even if it did, our grasp of it would be tenuous.

But we can encourage consistency in moral reasoning by viewing issues from many angles, discussing them with other people and monitoring our emotions closely. In recognizing our psychological quirks, we just might find answers we can live with.

Matthew Hutson, the author of “The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane,” is writing a book on taboos.

Progressive Building Blocks

American Values Project

A concise, coherent and compelling progressive vision for America rests on three, fundamental building blocks, which are explored in detail in Progressive Thinking. They are:

  • Our Values
  • Our Beliefs
  • Our Issues

Our values, beliefs and issues build on and support our vision for America, with values occupying the bottom and most important tier, philosophical beliefs the middle tier and issues the top tier. The pyramid points, ultimately, to our vision of the society we are trying to create – steadily improving living standards and opportunities for everyone; safe, clean and healthy communities; a government that works for all people; and economic growth with widely shared prosperity. The entire pyramid then becomes an outline of our central progressive message: “Everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does his or her fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules.”

Some progressives tend to be overly analytical in their communications, favoring discussions of issues and policy rather than venturing into the sometimes murky territory of morals, values and core beliefs. But if we want more people to connect with a progressive view of the world, we need to reach their hearts and their heads. As the architecture of this pyramid highlights, core progressive values form the most important level of our communications, with political beliefs and issue positions building on this values foundation. Implied is the need to articulate our values and beliefs as much, if not more than, we discuss our positions on the issues – as a way to highlight our broad, common ground.

Progressive Thinking: A Synthesis of Progressive Values, Beliefs, and Positions

American Values Project, representing a cross section of leaders from think tanks, philanthropic organizations, and environmental, labor, youth, civil rights, and other progressive groups, to try to distill progressive beliefs and values into clear language in one digestible resource.

Progressive Thinking: A Synthesis of Progressive Values, Beliefs, and Positions.

Progressive Thinking is a comprehensive and practical synthesis of the current and best understanding of progressivism, encompassing its history, traditions, worldview, values and positions on major issues. Progressive Thinking is designed to serve as a foundation for greater coherence in communications and unity in the expression of progressive ideals and aspirations. This document – and our use of the terms “Progressive Thinking” and “synthesis” – are informed by our communications with more than 300 progressives and extensive correspondence and conversations with many of our nation’s leading progressive thinkers.

Progressive Thinking outlines what we believe as progressives and how we view the world. It is designed to help our nation’s diverse progressive community better understand and articulate a common philosophical and values framework to the wider public. We also believe a majority of Americans will find themselves and their views represented in these pages because progressive thought is deeply rooted in the values and philosophies on which our country was founded and upon which we have built nearly two and a half centuries of American achievement.

We sincerely hope Progressive Thinking and its central, common-sense theme – “everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does his or her fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules” – will help focus the views and, indeed, the hopes of a growing majority of Americans committed to progressive principles and policies.

To download a PDF of Progressive Thinking, please click here. You will need Adobe Acrobat or Preview to view this document.

Progressive Building Blocks

Progressive Thinking: A Synthesis of Progressive Values, Beliefs, and Positions

What It Means To Be A Progressive: A Manifesto

What It Means To Be A Progressive: A Manifesto

By John Halpin, Guest Blogger and Ruy Teixeira, Guest Blogger on Mar 22, 2013

People often ask what, exactly, do progressives believe?  Over the past few years, we’ve worked with a great group called the American Values Projectrepresenting a cross section of leaders from think tanks, philanthropic organizations, and environmental, labor, youth, civil rights, and other progressive groups, to try to distill progressive beliefs and values into clear language in one digestible resource.

The result of this collective effort is called Progressive Thinking: A Synthesis of Progressive Values, Beliefs, and Positions The document is free and we encourage you to read, review, critique, and pass it around to others.  As the handbook states, the central progressive message is one of fairness and equality:

Our approach is simple to summarize and is built upon the ideas of generations of progressives from Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Barack Obama:  everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does his or her fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules. As progressives, we believe that everyone deserves a fair shot at a decent, fulfilling, and economically secure life.  We believe that everyone should do his or her fair share to build this life through education and hard work and through active participation in public life.   And we believe that everyone should play by the same set of rules with no special privileges for the well-connected or wealthy.

The book is divided into sections outlining the overall progressive story, foundational beliefs about government, the economy, and national security, and the application of this framework to contemporary issues.  It also includes a number of useful speeches and essays that show progressive values and beliefs in action throughout our nation’s history.

In terms of values, Progressive Thinking breaks down the four pillars of progressive thought as follows:

1. Freedom.  In terms of our political foundations, the most basic progressive value is freedom. This also happens to be one of the most contested values in American life.  Progressives have a two-part definition of freedom:  “freedom from” and “freedom to”.  First, we believe that all people should have freedom from undue interference by governments and others in carrying out their private affairs and personal beliefs.  This includes our rights to freedom of speech, association, and religion as well as the freedom to control our own bodies and personal lives.  Second, we believe that all people should have the freedom to lead a fulfilling and secure life supported by the basic foundations of economic security and opportunity.  This includes physical protections against bodily harm as well as adequate income, economic protections, health care and education, and other social provisions…

2.  Opportunity.  Complementing our commitment to human freedom is our belief in opportunity.  Like freedom, the concept of opportunity has two components:  one focuses on political equality and the other on economic and social arrangements that enhance our lives.  The first component of opportunity prohibits discrimination against anyone based on race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious faith or non-faith, or disability.  It also means embracing the diversity of American society by ensuring that all people have the chance to turn their talents and ambitions into a meaningful life, not just the rich and powerful or dominant racial and ethnic groups.  The second component of opportunity involves the conditions necessary for people to be secure and to move up in life—health care, education, a decent job, labor rights, a secure retirement…

3.  Responsibility.  Along with freedom and opportunity comes responsibility — personal responsibility and the responsibility we have to each other and to the common good.   Personal responsibility requires each of us to do our part to improve our own lives through hard work, education, and by acting with honesty and integrity.  Responsibility to others and to the common good requires a commitment to putting the public interest above the interests of a few and an understanding that strong families and communities are the foundation of a good society.  It means working to achieve greater social justice and economic conditions that benefit civil society broadly.  It demands an open and honest government and an engaged and participatory citizenry…

This requires public investments in things like transportation and trade, innovation, a skilled workforce, courts to protect patent rights and contract agreements, public safety and other measures that support the creation of wealth and help to make individual prosperity possible.  It also requires progressive taxation, meaning those who have and earn more should pay more to help support the investments in things like schools, transportation, and economic competitiveness necessary to advance the interests of all.

A key component of responsibility involves ecological and social sustainability.  This requires on-going stewardship of our land, water, air and natural resources, smart use of energy, and the responsible consumption of goods…

4.  Cooperation.  Rounding out these political values which are primarily directed at the rights, opportunities, and duties of individuals is the basic progressive value of cooperation.   Cooperation is the foundation of our most important social institutions including our families, our communities, and our civic and faith groups.  Freedom without cooperation leads to a divided society that cannot work together to achieve common goals and improve the lives of all.  Cooperation as a value requires that we try to be open-minded and empathetic toward others and that we are accountable for their well-being as they are accountable to us.  Progressives believe that if we blindly pursue our own needs and ignore those of others, our society will degenerate.

Successful families and communities cannot exist without cooperation.  We also value human interdependence on a larger scale and accept the importance of looking beyond our own needs to help others and find global solutions to global problems.

As progressives gear up for inevitable fights over taxes, budgets, and social policy, we shouldn’t forget about the importance of values in explaining who we are and what we want to achieve. We believe in freedom with opportunity for all, responsibility to all, and cooperation among all. We believe that the purpose of government is to advance the common good, to secure and protect our rights, and to help to create a high quality of life and community well-being. We want decent paying jobs and benefits for workers and sustainable economic growth. We want growing businesses producing the world’s best products and services. We want an economy that works for everyone, not just the few. We want all nations to uphold universal human rights and to work together to solve common challenges. This is what a progressive America looks like.

The False Equation: Religion Equals Morality by Gwynne Dyer, December 19, 2011


…In the United States, where it is almost impossible to get elected unless you profess a strong religious faith… Not one of the hundred US senators ticks the “No Religion/Atheist/Agnostic” box, for example, although 16 percent of the American population do…This is a common belief among those who rule, because they confuse morality with religion. If the common folk do not fear some god (any old god will do), social discipline will collapse…politicians, religious leaders and generals in every country, are effectively saying that my children, and those of all the other millions who have no religion, are morally inferior to those who do. It is insulting and untrue.

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In the United States, where it is almost impossible to get elected unless you profess a strong religious faith, it would have passed completely unnoticed. Not one of the hundred US senators ticks the “No Religion/Atheist/Agnostic” box, for example, although 16 percent of the American population do. But it was quite remarkable in Britain.

Last Friday, UK Prime Minister David Cameron urged the Church of England to lead a revival of traditional Christian values to counter the country’s “moral collapse”.Last Friday, in Oxford, Prime Minister David Cameron declared that the United Kingdom is a Christian country “and we should not be afraid to say so.” He was speaking on the 400th anniversary of the King James translation of the Bible, so he had to say something positive about religion – but he went far beyond that.

“The Bible has helped to give Britain a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today,” he said. “Values and morals we should actively stand up and defend.”

Where to start? The King James Bible was published at the start of a century in which millions of Europeans were killed in religious wars over minor differences of doctrine. Thousands of “witches” were burned at the stake during the 16th century, as were thousands of “heretics”. They have stopped doing that sort of thing in Britain now – but they’ve also stopped reading the Bible. Might there be a connection here?

Besides, what Cameron said is just not true. In last year’s British Social Attitudes Survey, conducted annually by the National Center for Social Research, only 43 percent of 4,000 British people interviewed said they were Christian, while 51 percent said they had “no religion.” Among young people, some two-thirds are non-believers.

Mind you, the official census numbers from 2001 say that 73 percent of British people identify themselves as “Christian”. However, this is probably due to a leading question on the census form. “What is your religion?” it asks, which seems to assume that you must have one – especially since it follows a section on ethnic origins, and we all have those.

So a lot of people put down Christian just because that is the ancestral religion of their family. Make the question more neutral – “Are you religious? If so, what is your religion?” –and the result would probably be very different. There were attempts to get that more neutral question onto the 2011 census form, but the churches lobbied frantically against it. They are feeling marginalized enough as it is.

Why would David Cameron proclaim the virtues of a Christian Britain that no longer exists? He is no religious fanatic; he describes himself as a “committed” but only “vaguely practicing” Christian.

You’d think that if he really believed in a God who scrutinizes his every thought and deed, and will condemn him to eternal torture in Hell if he doesn’t meet the standard of behavior required, he might be a little less vague about it all. But he doesn’t really believe that he needs religion HIMSELF; he thinks it is a necessary instrument of social control for keeping the lower orders in check.

This is a common belief among those who rule, because they confuse morality with religion. If the common folk do not fear some god (any old god will do), social discipline will collapse and the streets will run with blood. Our homes, our children, even our domestic animals will be violated. Thank god for God.

Just listen to Cameron: “The alternative of moral neutrality should not be an option. You can’t fight something with nothing. If we don’t stand for something, we can’t stand against anything.” The “alternative of moral neutrality”? What he means is that there cannot be moral behavior without religion – so you proles had better go on believing, or we privileged people will be in trouble.

But Cameron already lives in a post-religious country. Half its people say outright that they have no religion, two-thirds of them never attend a religious service, and a mere 8 percent go to church, mosque, synagogue or temple on a weekly basis. Yet the streets are not running with blood.

Indeed, religion may actually be bad for morality. In 2005 Paul Gregory made the case for this in a research paper in the Journal of Religion and Society entitled “Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies: A First Look.”

Sociological gobbledygook, but in a statistical survey of 18 developed democracies, Gregory showed that “In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, (venereal disease), teen pregnancy, and abortion.”

Even within the United States, Gregory reported, “the strongly theistic, anti-evolution South and Midwest” have markedly worse crime rates and social problems than the relatively secular North-East. Of course, the deeply religious areas are also poorer, so it might just be poverty making people behave so badly. On the other hand, maybe religion causes poverty.

Whatever. The point is that David Cameron, and thousands of other politicians, religious leaders and generals in every country, are effectively saying that my children, and those of all the other millions who have no religion, are morally inferior to those who do. It is insulting and untrue.

 Gwynne Dyer has worked as a freelance journalist, columnist, broadcaster and lecturer on international affairs for more than 20 years, but he was originally trained as an historian. Born in Newfoundland, he received degrees from Canadian, American and British universities. His latest book, “Climate Wars: The Fight for Survival as the World Overheats”, was published in the United States by Oneworld.


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An Address delivered at the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association by Forrest Church, Quebec, Canada, June 21, 2002

I speak to you this evening in the great nation of Canada as an American citizen to my fellow Americans. Yet, in so doing, I invoke the broad spirit of our Unitarian Universalist Principles and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Each is emblematic of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee’s noble mission and heritage. In fact, the language of the two are in many respects interchangeable. Among other things, the statement of principles guiding contemporary Unitarian Universalism speaks of “the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity, and compassion in human relations; the rights of conscience and the use of the democratic process;” and “the goal of world community with peace liberty, and justice for all.” Proclaiming all people to be “endowed with reason and conscience,” the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948) affirms that, “The inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation for freedom, justice, and peace in the world.”

This evening I shall consider the source for these uplifting affirmations. It is Thomas Jefferson’s preamble to the American Declaration of Independence.

We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

In 1949, when the Unitarian evangelist A. Powell Davies described Unitarianism as America’s Real Religion, he persuasively coupled the religious views of Thomas Jefferson to American first principles. Inspiring thousands of his fellow citizens to embrace our faith, Davies made explicit the connection between Unitarian core values and the faith upon which America was established: “Jefferson (Davies wrote) had seen that something deep within the [human] heart requires [freedom and neighborliness], that it breaks out from history like the brightening of the sky against a night of darkness; that it speaks in conscience and the moral law. That was Jefferson’s faith and he found it because something deeper than his own life had spoken to him. It was America’s real religion.”

Many Unitarian Universalists today would instead excommunicate Thomas Jefferson from our communion for betraying–as a slaveholder–the spirit of our faith. Apart from Jefferson’s abridgment of his own ideals in practice (which I shall get to in a moment), there are three possible reasons that contemporary Unitarian Universalists might cringe at embracing these powerful and redemptive words. Feminist sensibilities with regard to the pronoun “man”; anti-theistic theological scruples; and, American self-loathing. Since to reject Jefferson’s founding principles entails jettisoning the centerpiece of our own tradition, let me address each point briefly.

Feminism’s foremothers, our Unitarian forebears Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, pointedly chose the Declaration of Independence as their proof text that men and women are created equal and therefore deserve equal rights. Their Declaration of Sentiments ratified in the great feminist convention of Seneca Falls in 1848 has a familiar ring.

When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one portion of the family of man to assume among the people of the earth a position different from that which they have hitherto occupied, but one to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes that impel them to such a course. We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.

As Anthony and Stanton make clear, women were presupposed by the founders in the generic use of “man” and “mankind.” The Declaration of Independence thus served as a proof text for their own crusade. It does not read “Some are created equal,” or “All males are created equal,” or even, as was actually proposed by some Americans, that “All whites are created equal.” Jefferson’s clear affirmation that all people are created equal is American bedrock, grounded not so much theistically, by the way, as it is in the laws of nature, which (for Anthony and Stanton as well as Jefferson) mandate full equality. According to the foundations of this encompassing theology, natural rights belong to all. The theological grounding is important, because nature’s law, so understood, forbids abridgment by any lesser authority. As for American self-loathing, Stanton and Anthony resisted the temptation. Enforced inequality may represent American practice but it betrays American ideals. They judged America in the name of America. That was the very point they were trying to make. In fact, to appreciate the full power of Jefferson’s words, one almost has to read them through the eyes of those whose inalienable rights are abridged or denied by governmental writ. American feminism represents a valiant, yet unfinished campaign to tune the nation’s history to the key of its ideals.

The relationship between American and Unitarian moral principle has been sounded often and effectively throughout history. To offer but one additional example, the Unitarian prophet and abolitionist Theodore Parker considered the Declaration of Independence “the great political idea of America,” placing it as the cornerstone of his campaign against slavery. To Parker, the Declaration’s relationship to the American Constitution was akin to that of Jesus to the Bible. Both gave spirit to the letter, fostering aspirations that, if risen to, would establish “the reign of righteousness, the [realm] of justice, which all noble hearts long for, and labor to produce, the ideal whereunto [humankind] slowly draws near.” Part of the document’s power lay in how profoundly it held the nation under judgment. William Henry Channing, Ellery’s nephew, a champion of Native American rights and far more stalwart an abolitionist than his uncle, recognized Jefferson’s “declaration of principles” to be “the clearest announcement of human rights” in all of history. His often stirring critique of America was all the more powerful, both rhetorically and in fact, for being based on American tenets. To Channing, Jefferson’s was the text by which we measure our moral progress as a people.

With this as a backdrop, I invite you to reconsider both the rhetorical and redemptive power of what I, following in the spirit of our forebears and adopting the language of Martin Luther King, Jr., call the American Creed.

Not long ago, Roger Wilkins, nephew of the civil rights leader Roy Wilkins and a professor of American history at George Mason University, visited the Jefferson Memorial. Standing beneath the dome of a monument dedicated to the memory of one of America’s most honored slave owners, Wilkins brooded on Jefferson’s complicity in his family’s bondage. Then those immortal words recorded on a single slab of marble sang out and touched his soul. Wilkens could not help but marvel at “the throbbing phrases at the core of the American hymn to freedom that Jefferson composed and flung out against the sky.”

Roger Wilkins is an American. Like all Americans, he participates in an unfinished story. This story is both noble and tragic, but its genius is emblazoned from the beginning. “The Declaration of Independence,” Wilkins concluded, “for all the ambiguity around it, constitutes the Big Bang in the physics of freedom and equality in America.”

When the founders gathered one wiltingly hot July in Philadelphia to hammer out their dreams into a single, ringing declaration, they were fashioning precepts as sacred as they were secular. As a group, they were not notably religious men. But they were united, almost miraculously, in forging a union that transcended, even as it encompassed, the historical particularity of the present crisis. Fired with ardor and apprehension–the prospect of a long war, its outcome uncertain –America’s first citizens performed an almost perfect act of alchemy. In their crucible were transfigured the elements that would reflect America’s promise and set the measure for its fulfillment.

Capturing the essence of the American experiment, the American Creed affirms those truths our founders held self-evident: justice for all, because we are all created equal; and, liberty for all, because we are all endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights. America’s fidelity to this creed is judged by history. Living up to it remains a constant challenge. But it invests our nation with spiritual purpose and–if we honor its precepts–a moral destiny.

The word “Creed” sounds forbidding and ecclesiastical, especially to Unitarian Universalist ears. The American Creed is neither, but it is steadfast in its principles, enduring enough to redeem the nation’s history whenever we stray from their course.

Non-Americans may appreciate the nation’s unique foundation more clearly than Americans themselves do. It was an English author, G. K. Chesterton, who first said, “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed,” one set forth “with theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence.” He memorably called America “a nation with the soul of a church.” Though the American Creed as fashioned by Thomas Jefferson and perfected by the Continental Congress rests upon a clear separation between church and state, the body politic does have a soul. Chesterton assumed that the American Creed condemned atheism, since it secures human rights as inalienable gifts from God. The saving irony is that this same creed (as interpreted in the Bill of Rights) also protects atheists against the coercion of believers.

In America’s Dilemma, a compendious study of American racism, another foreign observer, Sweden’s Gunnar Myrdal, recognized the self-correcting nature of what he too called the American Creed. “America,” Myrdal concludes, “is continuously struggling for its soul.” Pointing to the ongoing battle for civil rights, he recognized the tension between American ideals and their incomplete fulfillment. Yet, unlike much self-criticism–which can glibly lapse into self-loathing–the critique of this thoughtful observer was charged with appreciation and hope. He read American history as “the gradual realization of the American Creed.”

Unlike the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence is so explicit in its language that proponents of slavery finally had to reject it. In 1861, Vice President of the Confederate States of America Alexander Stephens conceded that the Declaration proclaims liberty and equality for all and that Jefferson himself believed slavery to be in violation of the laws of nature. Jefferson’s ideas “were fundamentally wrong,” Stephens proclaimed. “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid; its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.” Stephens once had quoted Proverbs 25:11 to Abraham Lincoln–”A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.” Here is Lincoln’s reply.

The expression of that principle ["all men are created equal’] in our Declaration of Independence was the word “fitly spoken” which has proved an “apple of gold” to us. The Union and the Constitution are the picture of silver subsequently framed around it. The picture was made not to conceal or destroy the apple; but to adorn and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple, not the apple for the picture. So let us act, that neither picture nor apple shall ever be blurred, bruised or broken.

Abraham Lincoln saw the Declaration of Independence as “spiritually regenerative.” The touchstone of what he called “our ancient faith,” its “sacred principles” establish the spiritual and political foundation for America. Inclusive and chastening, the American Creed rings forth the good news that all people are entitled to equal justice and invested with equal dignity. A century later–forty years ago–within sight of the memorials dedicated to Jefferson and Lincoln in Washington D. C., Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired a new generation of American citizens when he said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.”

As understood by Lincoln, King and many others, America is a union of faith and freedom, a union in which faith elevates freedom and freedom tempers faith. The American Creed doesn’t impose parochial faith upon its citizens but protects freedom, including freedom of religion, by invoking a more universal authority. Though employing the language of faith, it transcends religious particulars, uniting all citizens in a single convenant. It treats believer and atheist alike, offering each the same protections, securing freedom both of and from religion. Equally important, it protects freedom from itself, tempering excesses of individual license by postulating a higher moral code. In America, faith and freedom wed to form a union greater than either alone is capable of sustaining.

As for the theology implicit in this broad and generous creed, when Jefferson said, “I have sworn on the altar of God eternal hostility to every form of tyranny over the mind of man,” people remember what he swore, but tend to forget on whose altar he swore it. Those who don’t forget sometimes jump to the conclusion that he had his hand on the Bible when he made this oath. He did not. Jefferson swore eternal hostility to every form of tyranny on the altar of nature and nature’s God. Others among the founders may have been guided to like views by the scriptures, but Jefferson’s religious convictions came straight off the presses of the Enlightenment.

To Jefferson nature’s laws were self-evident–a late substitution in the Declaration of Independence for “sacred and undeniable.” And the rights they confirmed were inalienable (the original “inherent and inalienable” considered a redundancy). Its primary draftsman, Jefferson described the Declaration of Independence as “an expression of the American mind”–”the genuine effusion of the soul of our country.” Its preamble stands as a summation of our aspirations as a people. What is more, it accomplishes this with conscious intent. It proclaims itself to be the American Creed.

None of Jefferson’s propositions is original–creedal originality is an oxymoron–but in 1776, when placed in the context of all previous government charters, Jefferson’s “self-evident” truths were hardly self-evident. They were unique in the history of statecraft. Never before had government limited or bound itself in such a manner, nor established itself on so republican and egalitarian a footing. The divine (or, if you would prefer, natural) authority for human laws is invoked in a strikingly novel way. With ambition not unlike the hitherto unprecedented ambition of our first English settlers, in the Declaration of Independence Jefferson gave expression to something altogether new in the annals of history.

For Jefferson, the handmaiden of equality is justice. In his first Inaugural Address, he listed justice foremost among government’s obligations, calling for “Equal and exact justice to all. . ., of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political. . . That should be the creed of our political faith,” he went on to say, “the text of civil instruction, the touchstone by which to try the services of those we trust; and should we wander from them in moments of error or alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and to regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty, and safety.”

The 19th century positivist philosopher August Comte argued that the word “rights” should be struck from the political lexicon. It is a “theological and metaphysical” conception, he said, and should have no place in modern scientific discourse. Even American presidents have not always been immune to Comte’s logic. Accepting the Republican nomination for vice-president in 1920, Calvin Coolidge said, “Men speak of natural rights, but I challenge anyone to show where in nature any rights existed.” That is what laws are for, Coolidge argued. Law creates and protects the rights it establishes.

Though expressive of the secular modernist gospel, this is an un-American concept, with un-American consequences. When the foundation for law is an arbitrary one, moral checks and balances are relativized. The rights Jefferson lists in the Declaration of Independence are certainly open to interpretation, but, according to our founders at least, their metaphysical basis–grounded in nature itself–is not. By this view, the rights with which nature itself endows us are inalienable. Laws may abridge them, but such laws are without higher sanction.

Dating back to the Greeks and emerging as the centerpiece of Enlightenment science and philosophy, natural law is read from the script of the creation, which trumps all lesser revelations. Looking back on the Declaration of Independence with the entitlement that comes with old age, Jefferson indulged in not a little hyperbole, yet the essence of his memory rings true: “We had no occasion to search into musty records, to hunt up royal parchments, or to investigate the laws and institutions of a semi-barbarous ancestry. We appealed to those of nature, and found them engraved on our hearts.”

Enlightenment philosophers were confident that under the scrutiny of reason, both natural and moral truth would be made self-evident. “Can we suppose less care to be taken in the Order of the Moral than in the natural System?” Ben Franklin asked with rhetorical flourish. No longer do we share the same confidence. Nonetheless, to the extent that the American experiment has proved successful, it has been so because the founders (whether Christian or Deist) believed in a natural order based upon the imperatives of moral law.

Jefferson and his fellow Deists were more responsive to the teachings of science than they were to the teachings of Christian theology. The scientific method of trial and error in fact challenged the dogmatism familiar to religion. Yet, if biased in the direction of science, Jefferson was not ignorant of contemporary theology. Combining the two, he derived his understanding of natural law from Newtonian cosmology and a wide assortment of teachings from the French philosophes and the English and Scottish Enlightenment Schools. Jefferson could well have subscribed, if not to the particulars of Immanuael Kant’s Idealist philosophy, then certainly to the sentiment Kant expressed when he exclaimed, “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and the more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within.” Advancing our understanding of nature and nature’s God, Kant also posited “that lordly ideal of a universal kingdom of reasonable individuals . . . to which we can only belong if we relate solicitously to one another according to the maxims of freedom as if they were laws of nature.” To Jefferson, they were laws of nature.

Assuming that the universal truth of reason would soon triumph over centuries of superstition, Jefferson believed that, by the day of his death, every child born in America would be born Unitarian. Once his fellow citizens considered matters a little more carefully, everyone would surely come to the same religious conclusions he himself had. Fortunately, Jefferson was mistaken. A world composed only of Unitarians would be a pallid world indeed. Nonetheless, Jefferson was testifying not to his faith in reason alone, but also to the reasonableness of his faith. To Jefferson it made no earthly difference whether another individual believes in “twenty gods or no God [for] it neither picks my pocket, nor breaks my leg.” In a world where religion often picks people’s pockets and breaks their legs, Jefferson dedicated himself to limiting this danger. Hence his zealous pursuit of legal protections for freedom of belief.

Looking back on the debates and circumstances leading up to the codification of the American Creed, what detracts more than anything from its moral claim on succeeding generations is how dramatically the founders’ stated ideals were betrayed by their tolerance of slavery. It was not that they were insensitive to the intrinsic worth of human liberty. Even as the Puritans a century and a half earlier had championed their own religious freedom not anybody else’s, the same could be said of the founders with respect to freedom itself. They spoke passionately of liberating the colonies from abject slavery, yet only a few denounced the bondage liberty’s champions themselves imposed. When Washington declared that he would rather the nation be drenched in blood than inhabited by slaves, he was speaking of himself and his fellow plantation owners. Even Franklin spoke of a crown-appointed governor “blackening” and “negrifying” the Pennsylvania Assembly by denying calls for American rights. From England, the literary lion Samuel Johnson posed the obvious question: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”

The abiding irony of America is how often the claims of equity have been abridged in practice. Original constitutional guarantees covered neither race nor gender, and for this reason, throughout the nation’s history, claims of justice haunt the boasts of liberty and equality. No one knew this better than Jefferson himself. Reflecting on slavery (where his personal witness is, at best, hypocritical), Jefferson wrote, “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.”

Indicted by his own soaring rhetoric, Jefferson might better be described as schizophrenic than hypocritical on the question of slavery. A slaveholder who on his death (unlike Washington) failed to offer manumission to the great majority of his slaves (including the half-sister of his first wife and mother of his children, Sally Hemmings), Jefferson nonetheless gave every indication that he included blacks in the benefice bestowed on all by nature’s God. In June of 1776, he proposed then-radical language for the Virginia Declaration of Rights that would free from bondage any slave henceforth coming into the country. Reflecting on his failure to win passage for this clause, he wrote, “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.” Expressing astonishment that individuals who would do anything to liberate themselves from the bondage of taxation without representation apparently thought nothing of inflicting actual slavery upon another human being, Jefferson–without a hint of self-recognition–mused openly about how “incomprehensible” human nature is. In the Declaration of Independence itself, his fieriest words condemned the king for waging “cruel war against human nature itself” by countenancing the slave trade. Blatantly hypocritical, this passage was cut, to Jefferson’s abiding regret.

When Jefferson dropped the word property from Locke’s familiar list of rights (“life, liberty, and property”), one possible reason redounds to his moral credit. The text that Jefferson appears to have embellished in his preamble to the Declaration was George Mason’s Declaration of Rights for Virginians, adopted the month before: “All men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot by any compact deprive or divest their posterity.” To Mason (who himself opposed slavery), these rights were life, liberty, property, the pursuit of happiness and the ability to secure safety. The condition guaranteeing full rights only to those who had entered “a state of society” was an amendment to Mason’s original draft written to underscore that the declaration expressly excluded slaves (who were not considered members of society) from its compass. Property themselves, slaves were seen as human goods not as humans entitled to full participation in the common good. This demeaning nuance is missing from the Declaration of Independence. By eliminating reference to property from his preamble, Jefferson removed a condition he knew to have been recently imposed to qualify the claims for equal status among all people, slave or free. By so doing he secured the integrity of the American Creed.

Thomas Jefferson’s reputation (and not only among Unitarian Universalists) has slipped in recent years. Growing scrutiny of his hypocrisy as a high-minded slaveholder and the late-rising star of John Adams have combined to tarnish his memory. Both of these revisionist schools enhance the understanding of our history, and are therefore to be welcomed. But as we rectify the balance, we must be wary of not overloading the other side of the scale. Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence have contributed more to the rectitude of our nation than all other utterances combined. It was to this as well as to Jefferson’s brilliance that President John Kennedy was alluding when he quipped in a roomful of Nobel laureates that no more eminent assembly had dined in the White House since Thomas Jefferson had supper there alone. In another toast of sorts, Abraham Lincoln wrote: “All honor to Jefferson, . . . to the man who . . . had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document an abstract truth, . . . and so to embalm it there, that today, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression.”

Before I close, let me say a few words about the contemporary relevance of Jefferson’s ideals. In many quarters of the world today America is resented–even hated–for its perceived embrace of godless and value-free materialism and the felt imposition of this moral “decadence” on world society. The first American armed conflict of the twenty-first century is being cast by its aggressor in religious terms as a jihad against the infidel, with America blasphemed as “the great Satan.” Osama bin Laden proclaimed that it was God who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. America is caricatured through much of the Muslim world as a godless society wedded to materialism and wanton in its exercise of power around the globe. Yet the surest guarantee for world peace remains the American ideal of E pluribus unum as enshrined in the American Creed. By this light, the struggle being waged–one that will continue into the indefinite future–is not, in essence, between God and godlessness, but between competing theological worldviews, with diametrically opposed conceptions of the role faith should play in society to advance the greater good.

When religious believers confront neighbors who hold conflicting beliefs or don’t believe in God at all, short of adopting their neighbor’s views they have only four options. They can attempt to convert, destroy, ignore, or respect those who hold contrasting beliefs. Fundamentalism embraces the first and, in its most radical expression, the second of these four options. It champions conversion but can sponsor destruction as well. Secularism occasionally opts for destruction (witness the crematoria and the gulags) but most widely embraces the third, ignoring religious differences as of negligible importance. The American Creed, charted by our forebears and coded in the nation’s laws, represents the fourth path. In the spirit of liberal democracy, religious pluralism is celebrated. At its best, America witnesses to a deeply held belief in freedom of faith, the rights of conscience, and the worth and dignity of every human being.

Terrorists may hate America as the incarnation of amoral secularism, but this caricature, if justified, is an America watered down by modernist arrogance and post-modernist relativism. American values go far deeper than untrammeled laissez faire capitalism and have nothing to do either with materialism or relativist groundlessness. They rest instead on the firm spiritual foundation on which the nation was established.

In aspiration, to be a moral people is not to be a perfect people. (Otherwise there would be no such thing as morality, perfection stifling every effort to ensure its attainment.) But the founders saw to it that we would hold ourselves to a higher standard. “An almost chosen people,” in Abraham Lincoln’s words, we demonstrate our greatness not by force of might or by virtue of our unquestioned economic dominance, but through rigorous moral endeavor, ever striving to remake ourselves in our own image. When we have approached true greatness, we have been great not because we were strong but because we were good.

Such goodness today is under attack, and not only by terrorists. Some argue that, to protect America, civil liberties must be sacrificed. They forget that America enshrines a radically different truth than that espoused by the absolutists who sponsor terror. American union finds its noblest expression in the devotion we render to liberty. The right to dissent must therefore be zealously guarded. Here the American Creed itself is our most persuasive instrument. The best (not to mention most persuasive) way to protect civil liberties is to do so in America’s name. To demonstrate that John Ashcroft’s defense of America is patently unAmerican, we need look no further than the ideals of Thomas Jefferson. As Eleanor Roosevelt, co-author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights once said: “It is high time that we Americans took a good look at ourselves, . . . remembering how we established a land of freedom and democracy, remembering what we believed in when we did it.”

History instructs us to be wary. From John Adams’s Alien and Sedition Acts to the government’s treatment of Japanese Americans in World War II and McCarthyism during the 1950s, the record suggests that threats to security too often offer license to overturn fundamental human rights. Future historians will list the so-called Patriot’s Act in this same category. The government has an obligation to protect public safety, but we must guard against politically convenient yet otherwise unnecessary abridgment of Constitutional guarantees.

Here, not only American but Unitarian history is instructive. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony cited the American Creed to advance women’s rights. Theodore Parker adduced it to refute slavery. A. Powell Davies lifted it up in his battle against McCartyism. To find our own prophetic voice, I can think of no better instrument. As it has always been, the American Creed remains a sentinel for the peoples’ liberty, but, for it to do its work, we must recapture it from its late captivity, demonstrating a patriotism far loftier than that which would smother American ideals in the American flag. The historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. makes this case succinctly:

When we talk of the American democratic faith, we must understand it in its true dimensions. It is not an impervious, final, and complacent orthodoxy, intolerant of deviation and dissent, fulfilled in flag salutes, oaths of allegiance, and hands over the heart. It is an ever-evolving philosophy, fulfilling its ideals through debate, self-criticism, protest, disrespect, and irreverence; a tradition in which all have rights of heterodoxy and opportunities for self-assertion. The Creed has been the means by which Americans have haltingly but persistently narrowed the gap between performance and principle. It is what all Americans should learn, because it is what binds all Americans together.

Searching through my grandparents’ attic when I was a boy, I found a handsome wooden plaque picturing a soldier in a broad brimmed American World War I helmet and embossed in burnished copper with the words, “My country, right or wrong.” If lifted from its most memorable source, this quote was taken out of context, leaving a misleading impression. What Senator Carl Schurz of Missouri actually said in 1899 was, “My country, right or wrong: if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.” That is the essence of true patriotism. That, when guided by the sacred precepts set forth by Thomas Jefferson, fulfills the promise of the American Creed.

Saving America’s Soul – Uptown Neighborhood News Nov 2012

Commentary by Phyllis Stenerson, Uptown Neighborhood News, Minneapolis, MN November 2012 – expanded version with links to more information

We need to talk.

How did a nation founded on the vision of the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all become one mired in gross inequality, obscene poverty and a corrupt political process? Opportunity for a bright future is being stolen from millions of innocent children.

Our nation’s founders brought together the best thinking of the time balancing faith with reason, materialism with moral values and the reality of struggle with the energy of hope.  For more than two hundred years the United States of America moved forward toward that dream and now we are going backward.

Democracy, one of the greatest ideas in history and the best form of government ever invented, has been corrupted by greed, fear, ignorance and lust for power. 

Our dignity and honor as a nation never came from our perfection as a society or as a people: it came from the belief that in the end, this was a country which would pursue justice as the compass pursues the pole: that although we might deviate,
we would return and find our path. This is what we must now do.
John Adams – second President of the United States

The founders were abundantly clear about their intent that America be a nation of ideals built on Enlightenment principles of reason and the values of compassion and empathy at the core of all world religions. They embedded freedom of, and freedom from, religion in our Constitution and clarified this country was not established as a Christian nation.

Religion and morality are necessary conditions
of the preservation of free government.
George Washington – first President of theUnited States 

So, what has happened to our moral compass and our common sense? It is fundamentally wrong that many millions of children live in poverty while a few thousand adults live with more wealth than anyone could ever need. There is a solid consensus among scientists that climate change is real with unimaginable consequences for the future. Why are we not addressing these crises?

The problem is awesomely complex but solutions are within reach. Democracy provides the framework for working through the problems and toward answers. The founders emphasized that for the democratic process to work an educated and involved citizenry with a commitment to honor was essential.

Out of all the components in this vast puzzle, an area that is seriously out of balance is the role of money and religion in politics.  These are topics that people are uncomfortable discussing but that need attention now.

The way in which a new conservative movement was built during the 1960s and 1970s to pull power away from the dominant liberal consensus is a fascinating study. The long term strategy included investing millions of corporate dollars into think tanks and communication networks. Conservatives created a “message machine” that changed hearts and minds to embrace a radically conservative worldview.

Social and cultural changes were utilized to serve the long term strategy. Turbulence of the time including theViet Namwar, Civil Rights Movement and hippie’s Summer of Love as well as women’s struggle for equal opportunity created fertile ground in which to grow new ideas. Many Americans were disgusted by the emerging lifestyles.

Leaders of the religious right developed organizations to strengthen a conservative Christian worldview and establish a power base called the Moral Majority.  By the early 1980s this grassroots movement was becoming known to religious and social scholars but most dismissed any possibility of it making a difference. Liberals did not articulate a progressive narrative to reinforce the liberal consensus. They organized around issues instead of a cohesive worldview.

A Supreme Court decision allowing legal access to abortion and introduction of the “Pill” strengthened the women’s movement but also provided the catalyst for the conservative movement to aggressively organize opposition to liberalism.

Fast forward to 2012 when conservative Christian extremists, a small segment of the population, had gained power to select the candidates to represent the Republican Party in the election of the President and Vice President of the United States. The party platform proposes draconian cuts to the social safety net, education, health, nutrition and other programs that provide access to opportunity for all. The Republican agenda would shift power from ordinary people to those already rich and powerful and destroy many of  the qualities that madeAmericagreat, and good.

America’s soul is in grave danger. This is what we need to talk about.

Phyllis Stenerson is a former Editor of the Uptown Neighborhood News who lives in CARAG. Context including an expanded version of this commentary with links to background information can be found at, the author’s website.

Is This Election A War For America’s Soul?

by Richard Crespin, Forbes, The CSR Blog, 9/21/2012 

Decoding South Park’s Lessons for Voters

What South Park & the Ancient Greeks can teach us about presidential elections

Over the Labor Day holiday, our house was overrun — I mean blessed — by the arrival of my in-laws. Conversation stayed mostly banal but suddenly turned political when my brother-in-law summed up his view of the present election as a choice between two different versions ofAmerica. Is America a place that helps me when I can’t help myself or is America a place that lets me become the person I work to become?

He’s not alone. The latest New York Times/CBS News Poll picks up this theme of two competing versions of America, drawing a distinction between “…the president’s vision of a country that emphasizes community and shared responsibility,” contrasted with a vision of “…self-reliance and individual responsibility, a distinction at the core of the debate between the Republican and Democratic tickets about the proper role of government.”

Both Mitt Romney and President Obama, inadvertently or not, underscored which version they support, with Governor Romney telling an intimate gathering of supporters that he stands with the self-reliant in opposition to those that rely on government and then State Senator Obama calling for redistribution of wealth “…to make sure that everybody’s got a shot.”

How we frame this question, though, is more important than the answer, because the nature of a question dictates its answer. The question — as posed by my brother-in-law, the New York Times, and the candidates — is about a change in the absolute condition, the very definition, or soul, of America.

It’s a flawed premise, a flaw perhaps best articulated by Trey Parker and Matt Stone from the cartoon SouthPark. In their retelling of American history, they demonstrate that it is the fact that these visions compete that gives America its strength. The tempering influence of the doves allows the hawks to claim a righteous cause when going to war. Our self-reliant ethic prevents our communalism from dulling our competitive edge.

We not only need these two visions in constant conflict, we need them to continuously trade places in power. A better restatement of the question facing us in this election is which version do we need in power right now?

The temporary nature of the question makes it possible to do two things: first, concede the legitimacy of the other side during the election, and second, come together enough to make progress after it.

When we cast things in absolutes, we make it impossible to compromise. It’s the absolutist part that makes the Israeli-Palestinian question so intractable. If it was simply an argument over “land for peace,” then the matter could be put to bed quickly. Just make the trade. But if God told me that land is mine, then to compromise is to sell my soul, to betray God.

Same thing in the present election. If I’m voting about the very nature of America, then by definition no matter which side I pick, the other side must be a bunch of heretics with ideas dangerous to the soul of America. Tamping down the permanency of the question means that I’m really just choosing between which of my own instincts to give the lead at the present moment.

Looking at the question this way, the decision comes down to this: are we in a time of crisis — like the Great Depression or WWII – that requires collective action and shared sacrifice? If so, then we take one course for now and when the crisis is over, we can revert back to self-reliance and shameless pursuit of selfish interest. If not, if we simply find ourselves in a bad economic cycle, then we just need to take certain steps to kick-start growth.

Regardless of which conclusion you draw, by rephrasing the question and emphasizing the temporary nature of the decision we preserve the legitimacy of the other side and leave enough room to work together regardless of the outcome of the election.

Any one who seeks to casts these decisions in terms of absolutes should look both at the modern Middle East and the Ancient Greeks. The modern Middle East, with its tendency to rapidly degenerate any question into violence, shows what can happen when the ability to compromise disappears. The Ancient Greeks show us what happens when we overreach, trying to win too much. Greek tragedies followed the cycle of koros – hubris – ate – nemesis.

The tragic hero, having gained great power, would get greedy (koros), grow over-confident to the point of overwhelming arrogance bordering on moral blindness (hubris), go mad with power (ate), and then get brought low (nemesis). In our modern setting, I’ll pick on Karl Rove. He set out to create a “permanent Republican majority” and now we watch as the Republican party becomes a reductio ad absurdum shade of its former self: representing a smaller and smaller sliver of true believers.

I pick on Mr. Rove as an archetype. These tragic heroes exist on both sides of the aisle, pulling us into a continuing spiral of hardening absolutist positions. The only way out is by reframing the original question.

Agree with me, disagree with me. Join me at the UnConvention at the COMMIT!Forum. The party to change the world. Forbes readers save 15% when the enter ID Code FORBES12.

Inside the Values Voter Summit

Religious Right, Allies Blast Church-State Separation,InviteFundamentalistChurchesTo Dive Into Partisan Politics

By Rob Boston, October 2012,

The Rev. Dan Fisher puts it right out there: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and other Founding Fathers got it all wrong – there’s no such thing as separation of church and state.

“Friends, we’ve been lied to,” Fish­er, pastor ofTrinityBaptistChurchinYukon,Okla., said recently. “We’ve been sold a bill of goods of separation of church and state, which is nothing more than a lie, twisted out of a misused phrase out of a Thomas Jefferson letter in 1802. It’s all a lie!”

Fisher’s fact-challenged history lesson came during the Values Voter Summit, an annual gathering inWashington,D.C., sponsored by the Family Research Council (FRC) and other Religious Right groups. He was speaking at a breakout session titled “Debunking the Myth of Separation of Church and State: Why Pastors Must Engage in Politics.”

The session was organized by the Rev. Rick Scarborough, aTexaspastor who enjoyed a brief moment of notoriety in the 1990s as a protégé of Jerry Falwell.

Scarborough, who runs a small Religious Right outfit called VisionAm­erica, opened the session by scanning the room, looking for Americans Uni­ted Executive Director Barry W. Lynn.

“I keep waiting for my friend Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State to pop in,”Scarboroughjoshed. “He usually comments on what I have to say.”

Alas,Lynndidn’t attend this parti­cularSummitsession, so Scarborough and Fisher were unable to school the AU leader with their appeal for pastors to get involved in politics to leadAmericaout of its “crisis.”

For Fisher, political activity includes violating federal law by endorsing candidates from the pulpit. TheOklahomapastor has intervened in elections in the past and vowed to do it again.

Scarborougheven took some time to explain to attendees why it’s OK to vote for Mitt Romney, whose Mormon faith is considered a cult by many evangelical Christians.

“We’re not electing a pastor,” he remarked. “We’re electing someone to lead the nation.”

That statement was a bit curious coming as it did at this conference.Summitattendees clearly do expect Romney, if elected, to behave as a pastor and implement a series of laws based on fundamentalist Christianity.

TheSummitwas designed to outline the Religious Right’s political demands and rally the troops around Romney, which was done not by highlighting Romney’s accomplishments or goals but by heaping abuse on President Barack Obama. Obama – or rather the fundamentalist movement’s characterization of Obama – spent two days during theSummitas a Religious Right piñata.

For attendees, a highlight of the Sept. 14-15 confab was an address by Republican vice presidential candidate U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.). Also appearing were GOP governors Rob­ert McDonnell (Va.) and Jan Brew­er (Ariz.), House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), U.S. Senate candidate from Texas Ted Cruz, U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and a bevy of GOP House members.

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli whom the crowd loves for, among other things, his harassment of abortion clinics, was on hand too.

Ryan, who spoke Friday morning, was a huge hit. He stood before the adoring crowd and launched into a fiery assault on Obama.

The president, Ryan said, lacks “moral clarity and firmness of purpose,” especially in foreign policy. He accused Obama of leading the nation down an economic blind alley and opined that thanks to Obama’s policies, “We are at risk of becoming a poor country.”

Romney did not attend the event in person – he sent a short video message – but Ryan, a conservative Rom­an Catholic beloved by fundamentalists for his strong stands for a ban on all abortions and opposition to marriage equality for same-sex couples, was a more-than-adequate surrogate.

During the 25-minute address, Ryan blasted the president as a failed leader and a proponent of big government who is a captive to the extreme left.

Ryan tossed the crowd red meat, calling for laws to protect “the most defenseless and helpless of human beings – the child waiting to be born.” He also blasted “unelected judges,” praised the Romneys’ marriage and accused Obama of being hostile to Catholic Charities, an organization he said “does more to serve the health of women and their babies” than any other.

Concluded Ryan, “We know what we’re up against. We know how desperate our opponents are to cling to power, but we’re ready…. Let’s get this done and elect Mitt Romney as the next president ofAmerica.”

There was nothing unusual about the partisan content of Ryan’s speech. In fact, its themes appeared again and again in the remarks blasting forth from a parade of speakers at the podium.

At times it seemed as if speakers were all relying on a central script: Speaker after speaker ridiculed Obama and portrayed the Democrats as a party afraid to even mention God in its platform. Obama was vilified as a weak leader who constantly apologizes forAmericaoverseas and who is eager to throwIsraelunder the bus and cozy up to Islamic terrorists.

The president was also accused of presiding over a wide-ranging “war on religion” – but to this crowd, his worst crime was getting health care reform passed. (The measure was never called anything but “Obamacare.”)

Numerous speakers openly called for Romney’s election, and several opined that this election is the most important one ever.

The FRC is a tax-exempt body, but it runs theSummitthrough FRC Action, a 501(c)(4) affiliate. This sleight of hand gives the FRC a little more leeway to be partisan, since (c)(4) organizations are allowed to endorse candidates. Several other groups that co-sponsor the event also do it through (c)(4) units, such as American Family Association Action.

But other sponsors are tax-exempt, likeLibertyUniversity, Liberty Counsel, the Heritage Foundation and American Values. (In previous years, these groups have claimed that they are only co-sponsoring the non-political portions of the event, but that would be impossible. There were virtually no non-political portions; the whole thing was a two-day rally for the Republican ticket.)

Over the years, theSummithas also taken on the feel of the Heritage Foundation at prayer – which is perhaps not surprising since the broadly conservativeWashington,D.C., foundation is one of the event’s co-sponsors. There were regular calls for banning abortion and blocking same-sex marriage, but attendees were just as likely to hear denunciations of “Obamacare” alongside demands for tax cuts and reduced government regulation of industry.

These days, it seems, Jesus is a confirmed bootstrap capitalist.

Aside from the pols, a retinue of fading Religious Right figures also surfaced at theSummit. Chief among them was Oliver North, an ex-Marine who became a hero to the Religious Right during the Iran-Contra scandal in 1986 and has somehow managed to make a living on the far-right lecture/media circuit ever since.

Star Parker, an obscure African-American woman who makes her living shrieking anti-welfare screeds to audiences of white conservatives, also appeared. (Parker’s big applause line this year came when she attacked Sandra Fluke, aGeorgetownUniversitylaw student who has been advocating for women’s access birth control. Parker called Fluke “a national icon for sexual promiscuity” and added, “[We] should not be forced to cover her sex life.”)

Celebrity power this year was lacking, represented primarily by Kirk Cameron, a c-list actor who came to flog his new film “Monumental,” an alleged documentary that purports to explain the “Christian” roots ofAmerica’s founding.

In this election year, theSummitrhetoric quickly went over the top, and some of the allegations bore only a passing resemblance to the truth. Obama was constantly portrayed as an appeaser to “radical Islam” who traipses the globe, apologizing forAmericaand refusing to acknowledge “American exceptionalism.”

A generous dollop of Islam bashing was tossed into the mix. Controversial House member Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) called Obama a tool of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation. This shadowy organization, Bachmann warned darkly, seeks to impose Islamic law on all nations, even those without large Muslim populations. Part of its scheme is to instill “Islamic-enforced speech codes” inAmerica.

“They intend to force us to kiss our freedom of speech and religion goodbye,” Bachmann said. A moment later she added, “We’re quickly losing a sense of who we are as a nation.”

Blasting Obama as a proponent of “apology and appeasement,” Bachmann told the crowd, “It is my belief and my opinion that Barack Obama has been the most dangerous president we’ve ever had on foreign policy. We cannot sustain another four years of Jimmy Carter-like policies.”

Gary Bauer, president of American Values, called radical Islam “the cancer growing in the middle of that faith” and insisted that the “creator” referred to in the Declaration of Independence “is not just any god – that god is not the god of the Quran.”

Among the speakers was Kamal Saleem, a man who carries the unlikely job title of “former terrorist.” Saleem claims to have been tied to the Palestine Liberation Organization and to have worked alongside Libyan strongmanMoammar Qaddafi,Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Islamic terrorists inAfghanistan.

In fact, Saleem, whose real name is Khodor Shami, is a former employee of TV preacher Pat Robertson who has been exposed by several journalists as a likely fraud.

A session on alleged “persecution” of religious groups featured a discussion of a lawsuit filed by Americans United inCastroville,Texas, to block school sponsorship of prayers during school events. FRC President Tony Perkins made a big deal out of the fact that a federal appeals court allowed a student to make religious remarks during graduation.

No one bothered to point out that the case was later settled out of court in a manner favorable to Americans United, including a court order barring school officials from initiating, soliciting or directing prayers.

The session quickly fell down the rabbit hole when Perkins asked William G. “Jerry” Boykin, an ex-Army general who now serves as FRC’s executive vice president, why he thinks liberals so often attack religion.

Boykin matter of factly replied, “I want to remind you all to remember that one of the terms they used for Adolf Hitler was ‘a progressive.’” After invoking the worst mass murderer in history, Boykin piled on with some Red baiting.

“They are following to the letter the philosophy of Marxism,” Boykin said. “They would not call themselves Marxists, so they do it under the label of ‘progressive’….What you’re seeing happening inAmericatoday is Marxism. They don’t call it that, but it’s Marxism.”

Boykin then asserted that the long-range plan of liberals is to get religion out of society so people have to depend on government.

A cult of victimization also pervaded theSummit. Conservative Chris­tians, attendees were told, are “persecuted” by nefarious forces to seek to silence them. This was coupled with a rampant disdain for the media and that ever-popular right-wing bogeyman know as “the elites.”

FormerU.S.senator and failed pres­idential candidate Rick Santorum sparked some unintentional amusement when he bemoaned, “We will never have the media on our side, ever, in this country. We will never have the elite, smart people on our side, because they believe they should have the power to tell you what to do.”

TheSummit’s relentless partisanship was reflected at the FRC Action PAC’s members-only reception. The event is an opportunity for candidates to seek campaign support and express their personal faith and their political views. According to FRC Action PAC President Connie Mackey, each had been “vetted” by the FRC.

Every politician who spoke was Republican, among them U.S. Reps. Steve King (R-Iowa) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), as well as aspiring officeholders such as Jim Bridenstine, who is running for a U.S. House seat in Oklahoma; Tim Fox, who is running for Montana attorney general; and Sher Valenzuela, candidate for Dela­ware lieutenant governor.

Prior to theSummit, AU’sLynnissued a media statement urging politicians to reject the Religious Right agenda.

Lynn, who has attended every Values Voter Summit (and many Christian Coalition “Road to Victory” Conferences before that), observed, “Candidates have knelt at the altar of the Religious Right much too often. The American people do not want religion brought into partisan politics or politics brought into the sanctuary. Poll after poll reaffirms that point.”

He concluded, “I’d like to hear candidates make a profession of faith in the Constitution and church-state separation.”