The Election Sermon

Traditionally on the Sunday before Election Day, Unitarian Universalist ministers preach about the democratic process, the Constitution, or the importance of voting. We will come together this Sunday to reexamine and reaffirm all that is good at the heart of these things. Reverend Jennie Barrington

Service Transcript

“The Election Sermon”

Worship Service for

The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of

Columbia, South Carolina

November 6, 2016

the Rev. Jennie Barrington, Interim Minister


Opening Words [by Abigail Adams]:

“I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

Choral Call to Worship “Choose Something Like a Star” (Robert Frost) Adult Choir

**Hymn # 357 “Bright Morning Stars are Rising”

The Morning Reading, John Adams’ Letter to Abigail Adams, October 7, 1775:

“The situation of things is so alarming, that it is our duty to prepare our minds and hearts for every event, even the worst. From my earliest entrance into life, I have been engaged in the public cause of America; and from first to last I have had upon my mind a strong impression that things would be wrought up to their present crisis. I saw from the beginning that the controversy was of such a nature that it never would be settled, and every day convinces me more and more. This has been the source of all the disquietude of my life. It has laid down and risen up with me these twelve years. The thought that we might be driven to the sad necessity of breaking our connection with Great Britain, exclusive of the carnage and destruction, which it was easy to see must attend the separation, always gave me a great deal of grief. And even now I would cheerfully retire from public life
forever, renounce all chance for profits or honors from the public, nay, I would cheerfully contribute my little property, to obtain peace and liberty. But all these must go, and my life too, before I can surrender the right of my country to a free Constitution. I dare not consent to [the surrender of the right of my country to a free Constitution.] I should be the most miserable of mortals ever after, whatever honors or emoluments might surround me.”

Special Music “Water Music – Hornpipe,” by G.F. Handel

the Morning Sermon:  “Dear John and Abigail” [Rev. Jennie]

Dear John and Abigail,

President and Mrs. Adams, exemplars of the high moral
character on which the United States of America was founded; we now call you
the Grandparents of our Nation; we now call on you for advice and succor.

Dear John and Abigail,

I began re-reading your letters to each other several weeks ago, because I was searching for the values at the cornerstones of the foundation of our nation. You two did not let me down. You promoted literacy and public education, particularly for people with little means; you spoke out against slavery, and in favor of the rights of women; you promoted and practiced frugality; you continually remembered the children among us; you lived lives of humble service both in the home sphere and for the public good. You two regularly worked fourteen-hour days and, rather than sinking into self-pity, kept a cheerful outlook. Mr. Adams, you worked in the humble hope that you would be worthy of the great trust the citizens had put in you, and always with the comportment of service to the “ordinary people.” You expressed your ever-present love for your children; your deep concern for their education, character, and well-being; your vision of the welfare, liberty, and happiness of future generations. Mrs. Adams, we would now say that you, in effect, raised your children as a single mother– no small feat. We have come to call parenting the hardest job, and the most important. And for your careful and astute reporting of the battles in and around Boston, Mrs. Adams, we also would now call you a war correspondent– another of the most challenging jobs today.

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Adams,

Your letters to each other show that you were in continual conversation with each other. You kept providing each other with challenging feedback, constructive criticism, thoughtful analysis of the other’s ideas, values, and priorities. You did not simply tell the other what the other would want to hear. In short, you tried to keep each other honest and ethical. This is why your letters are still of such lasting value.

We know the outcome of your history. We know America became a great nation. But you two were toiling humbly, in the midst of war-torn streets, a new governmental experiment, and uncertainty whether your cause would succeed, and yet you maintained the faith and “the strongest hopes that we shall yet see a clearer sky and better times.” [letter of JA #14. 28 August 1774]

We are nearing the end of a Presidential Election season. It has been too long, and too ugly and rancorous in many of the participants’ words and deeds. Believe it or not, we feel there has been too much information. For months now, we have been flooded with minute details, with candidates’ personal choices that are so disrespectful that we cover our children’s eyes and ears, and with “fighting words” from every corner. Months ago, the discourse of this election devolved to a level of, “You’re a lying liar who lies,” and “I know you are, but what am I,” and “So’s your old man,” like schoolchildren brawling in a yard, but worse than any schoolchild I have heard.  I have longed for the days when political campaigns were simply images of the candidates by a bandstand, eating ice cream, and kissing babies. But back then we did not know what the candidates were really like, in the way they lived their personal lives. And those days are long gone. Believe it or not, now we receive “breaking news” of the campaigns, and even of world events, instantaneously, electronically, even as we are strolling along a sidewalk or sitting in a waiting room. It really has been too much to take in. And now we know the candidates so well that, in some ways, it’s disturbing.


This election season has been excruciatingly emotionally painful. When it is over, hopefully by late Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning, everyone will be relieved. And many people will be left feeling unsatisfied. There are actually five Candidates for President, the Democrat, the Republican, an Independent, a Libertarian, and one from the Green Party. In the Democratic primaries, the very liberal Senator from Vermont ran, named Bernie Sanders, who is, believe it or not, a Socialist. He captured the support and enthusiasm of Americans, especially young people, like nothing else we had seen in years. But he did not prevail. So now he is working hard to elect the Democratic candidate. I’ll get to her (yes, her! You heard me correctly, Abigail) in a minute.  In the Republican primaries, there were, chaotically, seventeen candidates. One man beat them all for the nomination. He is a real estate mogul with no political background and no record of public service. The fact that he won the nomination means that, in the Republican Party, there was a “power vacuum.” That party was unable to select and agree on one candidate to put forward for the office. There wasn’t one of the candidates that I could serious consider, and I grieve that. In my life there have been Republican politicians who, those I disagree with some of their positions or policies, they had values and principles I could respect. There are ways that I am conservative, including fiscally. I deeply grieve that, at this time, it is so difficult to figure out what the values and principles of the Republican Party are. Our country needs a two-party system, in which both parties are viable and functional, for our democracy to be healthy. Dear John and Abigail, in your time, our nation was breaking away from England because that relationship had become one in which we were being disrespected, violated, and bullied. It is with deep grief that I tell you that, in our time, people have broken away from the Republican Party for the same reasons. People are in real emotional pain, many feel physically unwell, and family members are fighting with, or alienated from, other family members.

Do I wish that you and your contemporaries had defined more clearly the criteria for running for President of the United States? I surely do. But you believed that any child should be able to grow up to become President. At this time, many people are rethinking that. Yet many other people really want change, from the way our government has been doing things, or not doing things. And they think that a businessman, who has been a celebrity and an entertainer, can and will do that for them. Yet in this election, from some candidates, or their staff, family members, or supporters, there have been words and actions that are racist, misogynistic, and disrespectful of religious minorities and others who are marginalized. And there are grave concerns about trustworthiness, being accountable to one’s word, and even the peaceful transition of power after the results are all in. I feel sadness for all the people who, in this election season, have not been able to experience a higher level of public discourse. I am writing to you from the new Millennium, the year 2016. By now, seventy-seven percent of our voters are women, or “people of color” (black, Hispanic, Latino, or Asian), or young adults between the ages of 18 and 35. I love those people–  They are my hope. They are America’s future. And all of those groups have been offended and insulted by the wretched rhetoric of this election. During the Republican Convention, a party official actually stood up and told delegates to “vote their conscience,” i.e., not necessarily for the presumptive nominee. And some in the crowd actually booed him. During the Democratic Convention, The father of a soldier, who was an American Muslim, and died in combat saving his unit and many civilians, directly addressed the Republican nominee. He said, “Like many immigrants, we came to this country empty-handed. We believed in American democracy; that with hard work and goodness of this country, we could share in and contribute to its blessings… Let me ask you: have you even read the United States Constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy. [he pulls it out] In this document, look for the words ‘liberty’ and ‘equal protection of law.’” And those conventions were many weeks ago, now. Enduring this election season has felt like living through a war.


Even so, I am able to tell you, with pride, about how Unitarianism (which we now call Unitarian Universalism) has grown and developed and continued to make the world a better place, since its earliest days in our nation in your time. Myself, I have been a Unitarian Universalist minister for over sixteen years. I was the settled minister of a Massachusetts church for seven years, and then became an Interim minister. So I have served, for a year or two at a time, congregations in Indiana, Virginia, Arkansas, and now the lovely state of South Carolina. In short, this congregation, in 1950, was born directly out of the need, in this very conservative area, for advocacy for religious freedom, and for equal rights for all people of all races, and to be a venue for discourse that is respectful and sophisticated. Back then, our predecessors considered their neighbors who were in hardship or discriminated against. They asked themselves, “What can we do to be helpful, and promote higher education, and peaceful relations?” Then they did what they could, despite their small number, and the worry of criticism in this conservative area. The Fellowship’s original purpose was: to further individual freedom of belief, to further discipleship to advancing truth, to further the democratic process in human relations, to further a brotherhood undivided by nation, race, or creed, and to further allegiance to the cause of a united world community. I feel awe at those noble ideals, especially when I think of the context in which those founders came together. Within a culture which was hostile toward civil rights and liberal religion, this congregation was counter-cultural, visionary, and very brave.

Over time, this congregation grew in membership and it continued to advocate for racial minorities, to champion environmental causes, and to speak out on behalf of the rights of people who are gay. And we have seen its wider community become less hostile over the years.  What our predecessors were doing back then was trying to get on the right side of history. And they did get on the right side of history, in so many ways in which they were ahead of their times. The members and friends of this congregation are serving the common good just as you two wanted us to. And, as a nation, we have progressed. Eight years ago, we elected our first black American President. And it is a special honor to tell you, Abigail, that the nominee of the Democratic Party is a woman. On Tuesday, our nation may elect its first woman President. Though her unfavorability numbers are high, as are those of the Republican candidate, she has a long record of hard work, public service, and political accomplishments.

Today, more Unitarian Universalist minister are women than men, we come from a wide variety of religious backgrounds, and represent many races and nationalities. On Sunday mornings, we are supposed to speak the truth as we see it, as best we can, for this day in history, knowing that what truth is can and will change, next week, to some extent even later that same day. Dear John and Abigail, as I look at the conflicted political times you were in then, and we are in now, I wonder whether I am equal to that task. But you two believed that someone like me– someone exactly like me– you believed that ordinary people exactly like me would be equal to the task of meeting the challenges of times such as these. You believed that ordinary citizens have the ability to choose competent leaders and the ability to be informed participants in their democratically-run government, making decisions that will preserve and enhance the common good. How are we to discern wise and good political leadership today? What yardsticks do we measure competence by? When I was ordained, I began the benediction of that ceremony with the most important yardstick I live by: “May we never forget where we came from.” And so, dear Mr. Adams, I now look back to you, for the moral values our noble nation originally came from.

Mr. Adams, it is your strengths and gifts as a diplomat that I am thirsting for, these several years of wartime. You created a constituency for America’s independence from England. You worked tirelessly, in a country where you didn’t know the language, to gain from the Netherlands respect for our then new United States, and much-needed loans. You had a good sense of political timing and strategy. And you participated in the final negotiations for the Peace Treaty with Britain in Paris in 1783. It was not until many years after your death that the greatness of your political contributions was recognized. And I’m sorry to tell you that you never did make it onto any of our nation’s currency. Though actually it’s Abigail who should be on our money. Her impressive frugality, as you well know, in managing your family household and business is an example our leaders should be looking to several times a day. We are trying to imagine what sort of leaders America needs next. And sometimes it’s hard to know where to start in imagining them.

Yet, dear Mr. Adams, as I have read and re-read your letters and papers, searching for your guidance, I have seen over and over again that, for you, your work really was all about securing for our country a free Constitution, necessary checks and balances to curtail abuses of power, and, for future generations, security from “misery, want, and contempt.” [see JA’s letter #73 of 29 October 1775.] Dear John and Abigail, in truth I do not care to think about the possible violations of our Constitution that we could be on the brink of. But, Mr. Adams, when I think of your writing, by hand, on paper which was so precious and hard to procure, your, “Thoughts on Government,” in April of 1776, I am awed and emboldened. Those ten sheets of paper of yours became the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and of our United States of America. On those sheets of paper you wrote that politicians should have to be re-elected every year, that “this will teach them the great political virtues of humility, patience, and moderation, without which every man in power becomes a ravenous beast of prey.” And in April of 1776, dear Mr. Adams, you wrote this to your little son, John Quincy: “I thank you for your agreeable letter of the 24th of March. I rejoice with you that our friends are once more in possession of the town of Boston; am glad to hear that so little damage is done to our house. I hope you and your sister and brothers will take proper notice of these great events… I hope that you will all remember how many losses, dangers, and inconveniences have been borne by your parents, and the inhabitants of Boston in general, for the sake of preserving freedom for you and yours, and I hope you will all follow the virtuous example, if, in any future time, your country’s liberties shall be in danger, and [I hope that you will] suffer every human evil rather than give them up. My love to your mama, your sister and brothers, and all the family. I am your affectionate father.

In these frightful political times when life, liberty, and happiness have become so difficult for ordinary Americans to pursue– How shall we proceed?  Where should we turn? Who can we call on to find public servants who will humbly serve the common good?

Dear John and Abigail, President and Mrs. Adams, exemplars of the high moral character on which the United States of America was founded, Grandparents of our Nation– We cry out your names.


**Closing Hymn #67 We Sing Now Together


**Benediction: Letter of Abigail Adams to John Quincy Adams, Jan. 19, 1780:

“These are times in which a genius would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life, or in the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues. When a mind is raised, and animated by the scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities which would otherwise lay dormant, wake into life and form the character of the hero and the statesman.”