In a speech almost a year ago to U.S. troops, President Bush declared: “The freedom you defend is the right of every person and the future of every nation. The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world; it is God’s gift to humanity.”
When a President speaks of something having its origin in God, he opens himself to evaluation by that standard. In other words, using his metaphor, he “unwraps” God’s gift in public view, exposing the ways human activity can distort or extend the good of which a free society is capable.
Were there weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? The Bush administration declared their existence as the main reason for short-circuiting the United Nations inspection process and proceeding with war. I weighed the evidence and agreed, one of the few in my Unitarian tradition who did. All we know of Saddam — the mass graves, the torture chambers, national theft — indicates he did, or would, export terror into established and emerging democracies. But the reason given for war was the immeasurably larger threat of Saddam with weapons of mass destruction, a claim that now appears to be based in poor or misguided intelligence.
As the world’s leading and enduring light for democracy do we treasure our freedom seriously enough to have the courage to tell the truth to ourselves even when doing so may put our own political agendas on hold? A democracy needs leaders who possess the capacity to make distinctions between the deceptions necessary to conduct modern politics, and the deceit that will foster a public distrust and eventually destroy a Republic.
My faith tradition has its roots in 16th century Reformers who dissented against the doctrine of the Trinity; and later, independent 17th century Congregationalists who organized themselves to be independent of ecclesiastical control. My tradition affirms that the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit is an “organizing power,” forming trusting relationships that strengthen and extend the freedom with which God has endowed humanity. Democracy is its best political form because it balances a realistic view of human nature with relationships formed by trust.
Unfortunately, as the legacy of past U.S. administrations attests, regardless of political stripe, we, as a country, consistently fall short of democracy’s needs. It is not a partisan need and not one that can be filled by a partyís platform. It is a peculiar kind of religious need: to understand the complex interplay between democracy and religion, and to humbly recognize God’s grand purposes for creation, and our own self-interested and power-infested approximations.
At this time in history, our democracy and leadership must model an understanding of public morality that is more than “the ends justify the means.” Until then we cannot boast that we are the highest or even best political manifestation of freedom, let alone that we are on God’s side.
Dr. Brent A. Smith is minister at All Souls Community Church, a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan.