Political Saints

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber on All Saints Sunday,  November 4, 2012, at St. Paul’s Church, Bantam, Connecticut.

I think it’s interesting that election day and All Saints Day always come close together. Is it a study in contrasts? Not necessarily.  It may give us a chance to see what’s possible. As you know, I like to tell stories at All Saints’ time and there are, in fact, many stories of Christian people in politics who changed the world by their lives.

Take, for example, William Jennings Bryan: he’s remembered now, I think, for his involvement in the Scopes trial, the so-called “Monkey Trial” in Tennessee in 1925 testing the right of a science teacher to reach evolution contrary to state law – a fight that still goes on.  Bryan took the fundamentalist side and won but there was a lot more to him than that. He ran three times for President, first when he was just 36 and lost every time, but he became Secretary of State in Woodrow Wilson’s cabinet.  Bryan, however, was a pacifist and he resigned on principle when it seemed to him that Wilson’s policies were going to involve the country in war. You can agree with him or not but it’s rare for someone in Washington to resign on principle – and maybe to have principles! – so that’s worth remembering.

Bryan was also a strong advocate of woman’s suffrage, the direct election of senators, the income tax, the Department of Labor, and other liberal causes.  But what matters is not so much what he did as why he did it. He said this:

“I recognize that the most important things in life lie outside of the realm of government and that more depends upon what the individual does for himself than upon what the government does or can do for him.  Men can be miserable under the best government and they can be happy under the worst government. Government affects but a part of the life which we live here and does not deal at all with the life beyond, while religion touches the infinite circle of existence as well as the small arc of that circle which we spend on earth…When discussing questions of government I must secure the cooperation of a majority before my ideas can be put into practise, but if, in speaking on religion, I can touch one human heart for good, I have not spoken in vain no matter how large the majority may be against me.  So Bryan was never elected but he kept his principles and he’s one of the best remembered losing candidates.

Angelina Grimke grew up in a wealthy southern family but she was a bit of a rebel. Her family owned slaves and she instinctively hated the whole slave system.  When she was old enough to leave home, she moved north and became a Quaker and a leading advocate of abolition.  She published “An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South,” calling on women to use their moral influence to overthrow slavery.  Copies of the document were burned by the South Carolina post office and she was threatened with arrest should she ever return to her home state.
There’s a transcript of a speech she made in Independence Hall, Philadelphia, complete with sound effects from the mob that gathered outside the hall:

“Men, brethren and fathers — mothers, daughters and sisters, what came ye out for to see? A reed shaken with the wind? Is it curiosity merely, or a deep sympathy with the perishing slave, that has brought this large audience together? [A yell from the mob without the building.] Those voices without ought to awaken and call out our warmest sympathies. Deluded beings! “They know not what they do.” They know not that they are undermining their own rights and their own happiness, temporal and eternal. Do you ask, ‘what has the North to do with slavery?’ Hear it — hear it. Those voices without tell us that the spirit of slavery is here, and has been roused to wrath by our abolition speeches and conventions: . . . This opposition shows that slavery has done its deadliest work in the hearts of our citizens. Do you ask, then, ‘what has the North to do?’ I answer, cast out first the spirit of slavery from your own hearts, and then lend your aid to convert the South.”  As the speech went on the report tells us: [Just then stones were thrown at the windows, — a great noise without, and commotion within.] [Shoutings, stones thrown against the windows, &c.]  The next day, the mob burned the building down, but Angelina fortunately wasn’t there and she continued to campaign for abolition and added the cause of woman’s suffrage to her agenda. She was one of those people who might have said what George Bernard Shaw said first and Robert Kennedy quoted: “You see things as they are and ask why; I see things that never were and ask why not.”

Paul Jones was the Episcopal bishop of Utah when the United States entered World War One.  The people of Utah, a newly admitted state, were eager to show their patriotism and embarrassed by the fact that the Episcopal bishop of their state was an avowed pacifist who had declared war to be un-Christian. The Episcopal House of Bishops was asked to take up the question, and they supported Jones at first but then backed away under pressure and asked for his resignation.  So Jones resigned and spent the next ten years of his life as executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, speaking and writing on behalf of peace. “Where I serve the church,” he said when he resigned as Bishop of Utah, “is of small importance, so long as I can make my life count in the cause of Christ.”

He said to the House of Bishops, “In the first place, let me say that I, as a loyal citizen, am whole-heartedly for this country of ours in which all my hopes and ideals and interests are bound up. I believe most sincerely that German brutality and aggression must be stopped, and I am willing, if need be, to give my life and what I possess, to bring that about. I want to see the extension of real democracy in the world, and am ready to help that cause to the utmost; and finally, I want to see a sound and lasting peace brought to the world as a close to the terrible convulsion in which the nations are involved.  But the question is that of method. It is not enough to say that the majority have decided on war as the only means of attaining those things and therefore we must all co-operate. I believe that it is not as easy as that, for the problem goes deeper.  If we are to reconcile men to God, to build up the brotherhood of the kingdom, preach love, forbearance and forgiveness…rebuke evil, and stand for the good even unto death, then I do not see how it can be the duty of the church or its representatives to aid or encourage the way of war, which so obviously breaks down brotherhood, replaces love and forbearance by bitterness and wrath, sacrifices ideals to expediency, and takes the way of fear instead of that of faith. I believe that it is always the Church’s duty to hold up before men the way of the cross; the one way our Lord has given us for overcoming the world. . . .  Prayer is, I believe, the best test of the whole matter. If it is right and our honest duty to fight the war to a finish, then we should use the Church’s great weapon of prayer to that end; but the most ardent Christian supporter of the war, though he may use general terms, revolts against praying that our every bullet may find its mark, or that our embargoes may bring starvation to every German home. We know that those things would bring the war to a speedy, triumphant close, but the Church cannot pray that way. And a purpose that you cannot pray for is a poor one for Christians to be engaged in”

But maybe no one illustrates what a Christian in politics can do better than Frances Perkins. who was secretary of Labor under Franklin Roosevelt and the first woman to serve in the Cabinet. She said, “I came to Washington, to work for God, FDR, and the millions of forgotten, plain common workingmen.”  Well, it’s a common thing for politicians to make generic references to God but sometimes hard to tell about their sincerity. But Frances Perkins used to make regular retreats at the Episcopal All Saints Convent in nearby Catonsville, Maryland. “I have discovered,” she said, “that the rule of silence is one of the many beautiful things of life.”  As the first woman to serve in a presidential cabinet and one of Roosevelt’s most important advisors, she needed that perspective on things.

Frances Perkins spoke about the “great and mighty principle . . . presented to us in the Incarnation . . .the overwhelming principle of God and man made one; of God and man reconciled to each other, and through that, of course, of man’s possibility to be reconciled to himself. . . It is the reason for man’s effort, it is the cause of man’s effort to build a Christian society. This knowledge of the Incarnation, this fact of the Incarnation, gives to man the capacity with God to love his fellow creatures, and to work, and to cooperate with God for the establishment of a Christian order of society. A kind of holy society which we conceive to be the will of God . . .”

Frances Perkins began her professional life as a teacher and a student of economics and sociology.  In 1911 she was a witness to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire – the worst such disaster in New York history until 9/11. When fire broke out in a factory building the doors to the stairwells and exits were locked – a common practice at the time to prevent pilferage – so there was no escape from the flames except to jump.  Frances Perkins watched the young women trapped in the fire pray and then leap off the window ledges of the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors into the streets below.  The youngest victim was just 13 years old.  Perkins never forgot what she had seen and worked to raise the employment age and factory safety standards. Governor Al Smith of New York brought her into his administration and Franklin Roosevelt continued to give her important state positions.  When he took her to Washington, she said she had seen first-hand

“the specter of unemployment–of starvation, of hunger, of the wandering boys, of the broken homes (that) stalked everywhere. The unpaid rent, the eviction notices, the furniture and bedding on the sidewalk, the old lady weeping over it, the children crying, the father out looking for a truck to move their belongings himself to his sister’s flat or some relative’s already overcrowded tenement, or just sitting there bewilderedly waiting for some charity officer to come and move him somewhere.”

She knew new laws were desperately needed and set out to persuade Roosevelt. He thought of Social Security as “the dole” and was opposed to it at first. Perkins said, “I had a great time to get him to quiet down and stop talking about the dole; to try to think about the realities.” He said, ‘Well, there are constitutional problems, aren’t there?’  And she said, ‘Yes, very severe constitutional problems; but what have we been elected for except to solve the constitutional problems?”

Frances Perkins was the primary force behind the adoption of the Social Security system and considered it her most lasting and significant achievement.  She was especially concerned to assert the connection between religion and politics.  It was, she said,

“(the) duty of Christian people to take part in politics. I feel that more sincerely than I can possibly say. The withdrawal of Christian people of high purpose and nobility of mind and heart, the withdrawal of people like that from political life, has been a terrible loss not only to the world, but particularly to our form and organization of government and society.”

You may or may not agree with the positions taken by these people but they did what they did out of Christian conviction and that’s uncommon even now and deserves respect and sets us, I think, an example and raises a question for all of us as we prepare to vote. Do we also act out of faith and a deep conviction and have we prayed for guidance before we act? I think William Jennings Bryan,  Angelina Grimké, Paul Jones, and Frances Perkins are people to remember because as the Bible says, “we are fellow citizens with the saints.”  We have their witness to guide us and their accomplishments to show us what can be done when we trust in God to work through us for the building up of the kingdom.

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