“My Favorite Famous Unitarian”
Sermon and Service for
The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of
Columbia, South Carolina
February 26, 2017
The Rev. Jennie Ann Barrington, Interim Minister
Call to Worship [Adlai Stevenson]:
“Public confidence in the integrity of the Government is indispensable to faith in democracy; and when we lose faith in the system, we have lost faith in everything we fight and spend for.”
This is a picture of my favorite famous Unitarian, Adlai Stevenson. I’ve been thinking about him this week because he was born in February; on February 5th, 1900. Adlai Stevenson ran for president of the United States twice. He did not win either time. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bother learning about him. He is an excellent reminder to us that, in a competition between two people, the one who loses is still worth looking at. By running, and by the honorable, intelligent way that he ran for President, Adlai made those elections about joys and concerns that really matter in people’s daily lives, instead of just about gossip. This picture was taken while Adlai Stevenson was campaigning for President; he is writing a speech he is about to deliver. Now some of the older people here today can tell us what is so funny about the picture of the bottom of Adlai’s shoe. [There’s a hole in it.] The photograph shows how he tried to get every last bit of mileage out of a pair of shoes before he threw them out, and also how much he was walking around listening to people on the campaign trail, and how earthy he was. After that picture hit all the newspapers, hundreds of people sent Adlai shoes! They sent him shoes in the mail. This photograph won the Pulitzer Prize because it summed up Adlai so well. Adlai Stevenson was also very funny. He was cracking jokes all the time. Often he made fun of himself. His jokes were never cruel toward other people. After the photographer who took this picture won the Pulitzer Prize for it, Adlai sent him a congratulatory telegram that said, “Glad to hear you won with a hole in one.”
Morning Reading [Adlai Stevenson, see McKeever bio, p. 257]:
“I have traversed the New England hills, ablaze with autumn color, and felt the touch of the soft air of the Southland. I have flown over the mighty mountains to the Golden Gate and the blue Pacific. I have flown over fir-clad slopes and the rolling wheat fields of the great Northwest, and over the lonely cattle lands of the old Southwest. I have traveled the route my forebears followed westward to Illinois. I have seen the old stone houses in the Pennsylvania hills, and I have come home to the sweep and the swell of the free soil of our beloved Illinois. I have seen an America where all of the signs read “Men at Work.” But we have much to do in this century in this country of ours before its greatness may be fully realized and shared by all Americans. As we plan for change, let us be sure that our vision is high enough and broad enough so that it encompasses every single hope and dream of both the greatest and the humblest among us.
I see an America where slums and tenements have vanished and children are raised in decency and self-respect.
I see an America where men and women have leisure from toil– leisure to cultivate the resources of the spirit.
I see an America where no man is another’s master– where no man’s mind is dark with fear.
I see an America at peace with the world.
I see an America as the horizon of human hopes.
This is our design for the American cathedral, and we shall build it brick by brick and stone by stone, patiently, bravely, and prayerfully. And to those who say that the design defies our abilities to complete it, I answer: To act with enthusiasm and faith is the condition of acting greatly.”
Special Music: Promenade from Mussorgsky’s, “Pictures at an Exhibition”
The Morning Sermon:
What does it really mean to be a Public Servant? It means that it’s not all about him or her; it’s about doing what’s in the best interest of one’s constituency. It means working for the long-term betterment of one’s communities, not for short-term accolades nor ego-enhancement. It means being accessible and available; accountable, responsible, and honest; it means listening and responding. At his or her best, a real Public Servant inspires younger generations to go into public service too, to work for the common good. Adlai Stevenson was a public servant who actually served the public.
Adlai Stevenson is my favorite famous Unitarian. What most people remember him for is that he helped to create the United Nations. Later in his political career, he was made U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. But that was after he ran for President of the United States twice, and lost both times. I so admire him for daring to run a second time, after that first defeat. I imagine he knew he wouldn’t win. He was running against General Eisenhower, who was a national hero. Yet Adlai had the best chance of winning of any Democrat at those times, and so he “threw his hat in the ring,” as we say. He did so, so that he could make those elections about ideas, ideals, and real issues that were affecting people’s daily lives, instead of sparring matches of name-calling, insults, verbal attacks; what they called, “mud-slinging,” or “mud fights.” In fact, in describing the political climate of his day, Adlai said, “It is an ancient political vehicle, held together by soft soap and hunger and with front-seat drivers and back-seat drivers contradicting each other in a bedlam of voices, shouting ‘go right’ and ‘go left’ at the same time.” [Doesn’t that sound familiar?] So by running for President, and by the honorable, intelligent, and good humored, way that he ran, Adlai Stevenson raised the level of discourse, in the political arena, and across our whole nation. That was sorely needed in his day. And it is sorely needed again, now, in ours. So in a minute I’ll talk a bit more about some of the similarities between politics in Adlai Stevenson’s time and in ours. But first I think it’s helpful to look at what Adlai was like as a boy.
He grew up in Illinois, in Bloomington, and had an older sister named Buffie. As a boy, he loved being outdoors, camping, all kinds of trains, and stamp collecting. Stamp collecting led him to be very interested in geography, history, travel, and especially castles and cathedrals. He was a late-bloomer; it often took him a few tries to pass a written test. But he had great curiosity, imagination, and physical energy. He loved riding horses. His family owned a newspaper. He was the editor of his high school newspaper and his college newspaper, at Princeton. As an adult, he had good manners, he was a great sports fan, and he loved lively conversations with people, especially women. People he was in conversation with always felt he really respected them and cared about who they really were. Eleanor Roosevelt was his very close friend, and she also helped establish the United Nations. Adlai Stevenson had a habit of doubting himself, being critical of himself, telling jokes that made fun of himself, and thinking of himself as not worth much. This true story from when he was twelve years old may explain why he was so hard on himself. It’s something that haunted him for the rest of his whole life:
[The following is summarized from the biography by Porter McKeever, pp. 30-31: Adlai’s older sister, Buffie, was having a Christmas dinner party with her friends. Adlai was considered to be too young to be at their party, so he was given dinner early and sent up to his room. Their parents were at a neighbor’s house. One of the boys at Buffie’s party, Bob Whitmer, had learned how to “present arms” with a rifle at his military school. He said he wished he had a gun so he could show the friends at the party how he had learned to do the presentation of a rifle. “Buffie called upstairs to Adlai and asked him to go to the attic and look for an old .22 rifle she thought was there. Adlai ran down with it and handed it to Bob Whitmer who examined it to make sure there were no bullets in it, proudly explaining that such checking was always required at school. To the applause of the group, he smartly [did the presentation of arms], then handed the gun back to Adlai to be returned to the attic. As Adlai excitedly imitated the older boy’s movements the gun went off. One of the girls, Ruth Merwin was accidentally shot by Adlai, and died.” Adlai felt terrible and cried and moaned. The little girl’s mother did not want to make Adlai feel any worse than he already did. She knew it had been an accident, and she knew Adlai was a responsible, considerate, and sensitive boy. But for years afterward, no one ever talked about what happened, and Adlai continued to feel terrible inside about what he did. Many years later, Adlai Stevenson heard about a woman whose young son had been involved in a similar accident, accidentally shooting someone with a gun. Adlai wrote to the woman and told her what to say to her son, “Tell him, that he must live for two.” That may explain why Adlai was so motivated to serve the public– to figure out ideas and programs that would make lots of people’s lives better– lots of people he did not even know and would never even meet.]
The first way that Adlai did that– his first public service job– was as Governor of Illinois, from 1948 to 1952. There had been corruption in the state for a long time which he cleaned up, he made the state police force far more effective, he cracked down on illegal gambling, and he improved the state highway system. Those were serious improvement– But as I said, Adlai also had a wonderful sense of humor. When he became Governor, the legislature kept trying to pass bills that would please their supporters, even though Adlai would probably want to veto them. [see McKeever bio, p. 134]. “One of [those bills was], pushed for years by bird lovers concerned over the dangers posed by cats…” In Adlai’s veto of it, he wrote: “It is the nature of cats to do a certain amount of unescorted roaming… The problem of car versus bird is as old as time. If we attempt to solve it by legislation who knows but what we may be called upon to take sides as well in the age old problems of dog versus cat, bird versus bird, or even bird versus worm. In my opinion, the State of Illinois and its local governing bodies already have enough to do without trying to control feline delinquency. For these reasons, and not because I love birds the less or cats more, I veto and withhold my approval from Senate Bill No. 93.”
As Adlai was finishing his first term as Governor, he didn’t think he was necessarily qualified to run for President, and he didn’t want to run for President. He wanted to keep being Governor for four more years because he knew it would take four more years for the improvements he had made to really stick. So the way he became the Democratic candidate for President was very unusual in our political history. His nomination was not the result of his getting an inner circle of powerful politicians to tell the people on the floor of the convention to pick him. The people on the floor of the convention, of their own accord, and in an overwhelming voice, chose Adlai as the nominee for President, because they were moved by his ideas and ideals, and the way he spoke about his ideals. The people on the floor lifted him up to power. Every time I think of that, I feel moved. It was called a genuine draft, because he was genuinely drafted for the position by the people, because they believed in him. Adlai Stevenson believed in them, too. He believed that people have the right to govern themselves, and the ability to govern themselves, especially with education, and the example of democratic process that works, such that differing ideas can be openly aired and debated.
One of his most famous speeches is about patriotism. He said that, “True Patriotism, it seems to me, is based on tolerance and a large measure of humility. [He went on to say that] The anatomy of patriotism is complex. But surely [it] … cannot be cloaked in… the denial of the right to hold ideas that are different—the freedom of man to think as he pleases… And freedom of the mind, my friends, has served America well. The vigor of our political life, our capacity for change, our cultural, scientific and industrial achievements, all derive from free inquiry, from the free mind– from the imagination, resourcefulness and daring of [people] who are not afraid of new ideas. Most all of us favor free enterprise for business. Let us also favor free enterprise for the mind. For, in the last analysis, we would fight to the death to protect it. Why is it, then, that we are sometimes slow to detect, or are indifferent to, the dangers that beset [the free mind]?”
Adlai Stevenson had what could almost be called a religious faith in the democratic process as a way we could all peaceable live together as one human family– all people of differing ideals, all nations of competing interests. That is why he was so devoted to the United Nations, and was so effective in educating people about it, and advocating for it. Many people criticized the U.N. for the fact that every member nation, large and small, has one vote, and that criticism is still heard today. But Adlai “saw this as a necessary effort to apply to nations the principle we try to apply to individual citizens: the principle of equality before the law– one [person], one vote; one nation, one vote.” [McKeever bio, p. 568] Adlai saw the United Nations as a way to give developing nations the lived experience of effective democratic process in action. He believed that all nations had the right, and the ability to govern themselves democratically, and to thereby live civilly with each other, and with other countries.
And so, these past few weeks, I have been thinking about the huge turn-outs at town hall meetings, and wondering what Adlai Stevenson would think of them. And I think he would be thrilled– Because he was nominated by a genuine draft, and because he had an almost religious faith in democracy, I think he would feel inspired and proud to see people showing up, stepping up, and speaking up, in informed and impassioned ways, as they engage in the public debates that are our right, and also our responsibility. At several of the recent town halls, there have been over a thousand people inside, and over a hundred outside, who could not get in. Much of the questioning of representatives has been about the fear of the Affordable Care Act being repealed. People want to know how it would be replaced. And they are left unsatisfied that there is any clear plan that would be put in its stead. I’ve seen images this week of the signs from those town hall meetings. They vary from “Agree” and “Disagree” to “Answer the Question” and “You’re Dodging the Question.” Two other common ones were: “First Do No Harm” and “You Work for Us.” And there were several: “Unpaid Peaceful Protestor” and “Unpaid Concerned Citizen.” At a town hall meeting in central Tennessee, people chanted, “This is what Democracy looks like.” These events were all shared on-line and on local TV news.
Adlai would be thrilled to see that a variety of perspectives are being voiced and publicized, because he always considered all sides of an issue before he made a decision. For that, he was labeled as indecisive. And that label hurt him in his Presidential candidacies. But the people who worked with him on those campaigns maintain that he was not indecisive. Adlai didn’t have difficulty making up his mind. The fact is, the people who labeled him as indecisive didn’t like the positions he took after he weighed all sides and then made up his mind. He did not believe people are stupid, and he didn’t campaign as if people are stupid. Adlai Stevenson viewed people, and whole countries, as being capable of greatness, especially when they are educated about the facts of an issue, and the future consequences of a course of action. That’s how he made political discourse in his day more informed and more sophisticated.
He also, even back over fifty years ago, had a vision of globalization as a vehicle for peace, within nations and between nations. In his last speech to the delegates of United Nations, five days before he died, he said:
“Already science and technology are integrating our world into an open workshop where each new invention defines a new task, and reveals a shared interest, and invites yet another common venture. In our sprawling workshop of world community, nations are joined in cooperative endeavor: improving soils, purifying water, harnessing rivers, eradicating disease, feeding children, diffusing knowledge, spreading technology, surveying resources, lending capital, probing the seas, forecasting the weather, setting standards, developing law, and working away at a near infinitude of down-to-earth tasks– tasks for which science has given us the knowledge, and technology has given us the tools, and common sense has given us the wit to perceive that common interest impels us to common enterprise. Common enterprise is the pulse of the world community– the heartbeat of a working peace.”
The main thing Adlai Stevenson is remembered for is that he inspired young people by his example of politics as noble service through which peoples could live together more peaceably. He inspired college students, and high school students, and even very young children to enter public service as an honorable and admirable career. As J. Epstein wrote, in his commentary, “Madly for Adlai:” “He was a fundamentally decent man in a political climate where decency was a rare commodity.” As such, Adlai Stevenson’s legacy is not so much one of quantifiable accomplishments, but rather a dedication to enduring values and truths:
Adlai was good to his word, and would not make public statements he did not believe in;
His use of good-natured humor lightened conflicts and even created a sense of community and generosity;
His vision of the common good included special attention to the needs of people who did not have his privileges; and
Adlai believed that both the power of governmental structures, and the convictions of ordinary human beings, were good things, that, collaboratively, could make for a more peaceful and prosperous world.
What the world needs now, is more Public Servants like him.
*Closing hymn #159 This is My Song
*Parting Words [Adlai Stevenson]:
“Looking back, I am content. I have told you the truth as I see it. I have said what I meant and meant what I said. I have not done as well as I should like to have done, but I have done my best, frankly and forthrightly; no [person] can do more, and you are entitled to no less.” [Go in peace.]