The Soul of Democracy: A Conversation featuring James Luther Adams, Sharon Welch, and Jane Page.
This Readers Theater Script was created by Jane Page using the works of James Luther Adams and Sharon Welch.
Many thanks to Sharon Welch for giving me permission to use her work in this "conversation" and encouraging me to share it with others.
Presented at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro on July 7, 2019.
I decided to have this program while I was on vacation in the Canadian Rockies after our General Assembly this year. Although I was “on vacation,” I can never really leave my work behind – and I was looking at our online program planning sheet for this congregation and realized that we were short one program for July –and since I did not have plans for this Sunday – I volunteered to provide the congregation with a complementary sermon (which means it’s over and above what I’m paid to do.)
While I was at General Assembly, I heard Sharon Welch share a paper entitled “The Soul of Democracy” which lifted up many of James Luther Adams ideas. And I thought that with this being 4th of July weekend, it would be great to invite both and Dr. Welch and Dr. Adams here and for us to have a conversation about this. But Sharon Welch lives far away, and we didn’t have the money to pay for her travel. And James Luther Adams (aka JLA) died in 1994 at the age of 92 – and I didn’t have the magical powers to bring him back. Yet I can have them here – in a way – today. You see, I have their words and ideas – because they have written them down and shared them. I’ve asked Janet Isralsky to embody Sharon Welch and Marc Isralsky to give life to James Luther Adams. Almost all the words they say are direct quotes. I did use some creative license in some transitions, etc.
But for the most part, I’ve pulled very heavily from Welch’s paper, which she so graciously provided for our conversation. Before we begin our conversation – I’ll give you a brief introduction to each.
First – Professor Adams.
James Luther Adams was the most influential theologian among American Unitarian Universalists in the 20th century.
He was born on November 12, 1901, in Ritzville, Washington, the son of a farmer and itinerant Plymouth Brethren preacher. In his family and in church, the Day of Judgment was constantly considered a very real possibility. After graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1924, Adams went on to the Harvard Divinity School to become a Unitarian minister. In his education, he moved from "premillenarian fundamentalism" to "scientific humanism" and then to liberal Christianity.
After graduation from Harvard, Adams served as a parish minister for several years. In the late 20’s through mid-30’s, Adams spent considerable time in Germany, where he befriended several notable religious figures (including Karl Barth and Albert Schweitzer) who were active in clandestine resistance to the rise of Nazism.
In 1937, Adams began a long career in academia by joining the faculty of Meadville Theological School in Chicago. While there, he became a member of the First Unitarian Church of Chicago and served on its board of trustees. In 1956, he became Professor of Christian Ethics at Harvard Divinity School, where he stayed until he retired in 1968.
When I was at Meadville Lombard, people talked of him as if he were still alive and roaming those halls. Certainly, some of his spirit was there among us. And we are so glad you could be with us today Professor Adams.
Dr. Sharon Welch
I came to know Dr. Welch – a former – now affiliate professor at Meadville Lombard – not through that common association, because she was not yet there when I graduated – but through her writings. When I was chair of the Curriculum Department at Georgia Southern – our own Dee Liston introduced me to Sharon’s book “A Feminist Ethic of Risk” – required reading for Dee’s Ethics class in our Curriculum Studies Doctoral Program. I later read her excellent book entitled, “Sweet Dreams in American: Making Ethics and Spiritualty Work.” Perhaps these books encouraged my own pivot from teacher education to ministry. At least I’ll give you some of that credit, Dr. Welch.
Dr. Welch currently serves as a Senior Fellow of the Institute for Humanist Studies and a member of the Unitarian Universalist Peace Ministry Network as well as an affiliated faculty member with Meadville Lombard.
She served as Provost and Professor of Religion and Society at Meadville Lombard for ten years.
Previously she held faculty positions at the University of Missouri and Harvard Divinity School. She is the author of six books and many articles; and she’s the recipient of awards too numerous to mention.
We are glad you are with us today.
So – I’m going to down here with you now so we can have a real conversation.
So good to be with both of you. I’d like to ask about the title of our conversation– which I also borrowed from Dr. Welch’s paper – “The Soul of Democracy.” I really wasn’t sure what she meant and thought maybe she borrowed the term from you Dr. Adams. Is this something you wrote about?
Well, you know it’s been a very long time since I published my works – but I don’t remember using that phrase. Perhaps you should ask Dr. Welch.
Sorry – since you came all the way back from the dead, I wanted to ask you the first question.
I think I kind of get it Dr. Welch. I thought maybe it came from Adams because he speaks of “a deeper way of being in deep community,” and that sounds like it’s getting down to the soul. I’m currently reading Jon Meacham’s book, “Soul of America,” and he seems to be looking at those deep inherent aspects within us -- some good, some evil - and of course - encourages us to follow our better angels. What do you mean, though?
Well, I was using the term before Meacham’s book, but he and I are wrestling with exactly what you have named - our inherent capacities for deep community, for growth and learning, as well as for cruelty, exploitation and a misplaced confidence that we have overcome the inherent capacities for folly and cruelty (as I'm sure you're seeing as well - people in the detention camps behaving in ways far too close to those in the holocaust). The policies and principles of democracy are designed to honestly wrestle with the ongoing challenge of nurturing our best and containing our worst. And today, we are in a struggle for the very soul of democracy, and all that we hold dear – interdependence, reason, compassion, respect for all human beings, and stewardship of the natural world that sustains us, is under direct, unabashed assault.
We are experiencing a rise of authoritarianism in the United States that is as dangerous as the anti-Communism of the McCarthy era of the 1950s, potentially as deadly as the eradication of basic political and human rights for African Americans after the Reconstruction period following the civil war; we are also witnessing a resurgence in authoritarianism not seen in Europe since the rise of fascism in the 1930s.
Dr. Adams, I know you lived through some of those horrendous times that Dr. Welch speaks of and were witness to some – especially fascism in Germany. Can you share how this affected you?
Yes. In 1927 in the city of Nuremberg . . .I was watching a Sunday parade on the occasion of the annual mass rally of the Nazis. As I watched the parade, I asked some people on the sidelines to explain to me the meaning of the swastika, which decorated many of the banners. Before very long I found myself engaged in a heated argument. Suddenly someone seized me from behind and pulled me by the elbows out of the group.
At the end of the alley my uninvited host swung me around quickly, and he shouted “You fool. Don’t you know? In Germany today when you are watching a parade, you either keep your mouth shut, or you get your head bashed in. If you had continued that argument for five minutes longer, those fellows would have beaten you up.”
I was rescued by a man who had visited New York city when he was a sailor with the merchant marine. He was an unemployed worker and invited me to his home for supper.
I learned vividly of the economic distress out of which Nazism was born. I learned that one organization after the other that refused to bow to the Nazis was being threatened with compulsion. And freedom of association was being abolished. At this juncture I had to confront a rather embarrassing question. What in your typical behavior as an American citizen have you done that would help to prevent the rise of authoritarian government in your own country? What disciplines of democracy (except voting) have you habitually undertaken to directly affect public policy? More bluntly. I asked myself, what precisely is the difference between you and a political idiot? From that time on, I did my best to take up the discipline social responsibility and encourage others to understand the importance of citizen participation
Oh yes, I understand from Dr. Welch’s writings and others including something we now have called Wikipedia – that you were very involved with Chicago ward politics and you were a co-founder of the Independent Voters of Illinois, a group that was created in 1940 to “‘fight isolationism, counter racism and the rising tide of McCarthyism.”
And so much more – but your folks here probably don’t have time for you to list all his involvement. My understanding – and tell me if I’m wrong Dr. Adams – is that your experiences in Germany gave you a ‘shock of recognition’ as an American; and that you came to see white racism as our Nazism.
It seemed to me that way at the time. What do you think now?
Dr. Adams, I could show you a video of actions in Charlottesville, VA and other places that will let you see how prophetic you were.
Oh, I wouldn’t need to see your video. I believe you and warned my students this could happen.
Yes, and you clearly called all of us to the faith of the free.
Absolutely, and I encouraged then and now a twofold goal – first, an acknowledgement of the systemic injustice of the past, and second, work for a genuinely inclusive and expansive common good.
Well, we are still in need of that today! We keep trying, but we fall short – even we UUs, perhaps I should say, especially we UUs – because we think of ourselves as leading this work.
Yes, the trouble with being a Unitarian is you’re not supposed to flunk!
Thankfully, I’m seeing lots of coalitions of folks including UUs attempting to work together to ameliorate these problems.
True, - At this moment in history I find it ironic that the threats of authoritarianism that Dr. Adams saw in his life have re-emerged, and that the potentially transformative power of his vision of social responsibility is being lived out in multiple sectors of our society.
But - Before we explore these constructive forms of civic engagement, and their resonances with the work of Dr. Adams, I’d like for to examine more closely the contemporary rise in authoritarianism.
Sure, please share how we have possibly come to this place.
According to political scientists, there is a strong tendency toward authoritarianism, nationally and internationally, that is activated at times of perceived threat and extensive social change. While this seems to be a salient characteristic of human communities worldwide, in the United States authoritarianism has long been expressed in virulent racist attitudes and physical attacks against people who are Native American, African American and Latinx, and is now also being manifest in attacks on Muslim citizens and refugees.
So, what many of us perceive as positive changes in society, extension of rights to women, religious and ethnic minorities, and the LGBTQI community – leads to the growth of authoritarianism?
Well, there are some political scientists– like – Karen Stenner - who would say that. In her research correlating child rearing practices with political beliefs, Stenner goes so far as to conclude that the pace of social change must be curtailed and that democracy itself has to be limited in order to survive. She challenges us to forego the “religion of democracy for the science of democracy.”
If Stenner is right, gains in civil rights, equality for women, for people who are LGBTQI, more rights for those with disabilities, and increasing racial, cultural and religious diversity will inevitably produce authoritarianism. But I believe her research is flawed, and your congregants can read my paper when it’s published for the details – but one example is that all her subjects were white. Another is that her choices for responses are limited to polar opposites which do not include values of our attitudes toward others. She sees people as being on a spectrum of authoritarianism and libertarianism, seeking either cohesive community or emancipated individualism. Missing from this choice is what many of us honor and uphold – the desire for generative interdependence, a community that fully values diversity and connection, that nurtures creativity and scientific rigor, that embodies responsibility for others and the freedom to and new and better ways of living out, and creating, expansive human communities of connection, respect ad cooperation.
As a UU minster, I would say that she’ leaving out our seven principles.
Adams and Welch – chuckle or nod with smiles.
Yes, as I once said – “By their groups you shall know them.” Those attributes that Dr. Welch shared that are similar to the UU Principles are what I was advocating when I stressed “a different way of being in deep community.” There are alternatives to authoritarianism on one hand and excessive individualism on the other. And that is why I emphasize that we live out the principles of democracy and the pursuit of justice through voluntary associations – and move beyond the concern only with their professional or family lives.
Dr. Adams, at this time in history, there are many of us who are seeking to live out the mandates of democracy in just those other places – finding ways to raise our children to stand up to the injustices that stunt their lives and the lives of others, and to find the joy and fulfillment that comes from being accountable and self-critical builders of community and makers of history.
Many people are also creating alternatives to authoritarianism and excessive individualism in their professional lives. We can see this catalytic social engagement as manifest in the world of social entrepreneurship –growing numbers of co-ops, small and medium scale social enterprises and corporations with a commitment to social equity and environmental sustainability.
This movement is also manifest in the work of Engagement Scholarship. Public and private universities have expanded their mission – no longer simple teaching and research, but teaching, research and mutually beneficial community engagement. It is also exemplified in people denouncing an unjust, racially discriminatory and ineffective criminal justice system, coming together to both stop police violence against people of color and to enact substantive criminal justice reform.
Yes, for example, many of us here in this congregation are leaders in the grass-roots effort called Lights for Liberty. And we’ll be calling on elected officials to end the horrific treatment of refugees at our borders and will be demonstrating together on our courthouse square this Friday evening.
That’s great. At the core of democracy is a social compact that fully embodies respect for the rights of all, and, what is of equal importance, a recognition of the limits of all. We are all partial, fallible, and capable of the misuse or abuse of power to serve the needs of the few rather than the good of the many. We need checks and balances to address the possible misuse of power; we need multiple voices and perspectives to address the partiality of our knowledge and the mistakes in our reasoning.
So true. I’d like to pivot here, though, to a chief concern of ours within UUA at this moment and in this congregation --- and that is white supremacy. Dr. Adams, I’ve heard that you had an experience when teaching about Nazism that made you realize the dominance of white supremacy.
Yes, during the Second World War, it was at one time my task to lecture on the Nazis to a large group of U.S. Army officers who were preparing for service later in the occupation army in Germany. As I lectured, I realized that together with a just resentment against the Nazis I was engendering self-righteousness, a hundred percent ‘Americanism’ that was not the faith we were supposed to be fighting for. So, I recapitulated the ideas of the Nazi ‘faith” . . . stressing the Nazi belief in the superiority of the Teutons and in the inferiority of other ‘races.’ I also reminded the officers of similar attitudes to be observed in America. I asked these white officers if there were any essential differences in their attitudes toward other races and Jews and the Nazi attitudes. Did they think these others were inferior? “I blush when I think of some of the responses I received. (shake head).
After each racist and anti-Semitic response, I simply repeated my question again and again: “How do you distinguish between yourself and a Nazi?” Seldom have I witnessed such agony of spirit in a public place. They spoke the faith that was in them, a trust in white, gentile supremacy – faith in the blood.
Dr. Adams, I see this as one of your key insights – the importance of white Americans genuinely confronting and acknowledging the history of racism.
In order to fully live out the promise of constructive political and social change, it is imperative that we see, name, and contain intrinsic forms of evil.
That will be hard for many white people, even religious liberals.
Yes, I see three several dangers as we attempt to grapple with these challenges. Here are just three.
One moral danger is clear, and is demonstrated in the research on liberalism. We may be tempted to choose excessive forms of individualism, of isolated self-assertion, rather than finding our freedom and creativity in collaboration and mutual respect.
A second danger is remaining unaware of our own capacity for error and partiality. We can be morally pure but strategically inept, and when that happens, we lose.
A third related danger is our failure to take on the multiple expressions of racism and checking these in our personal, civic, and professional lives. We may focus only on the virulent racism of others, and not confront the ongoing dangers of implicit bias and structural racism in our own personal and professional lives. Conversely, we may focus only on structural white supremacy and not confront the resurgence of violent and virulent racism by white Americans against others. Both threats require deliberate and sustained attention, analysis, and activism.
I concede that this work has dangers we need to heed. But our time is about up, and I’d like for us to close this conversation on a more positive note.
Ah Yes – As I’ve noted -- Liberalism holds that the resources (divine and human) that are available for the achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate optimism.
So true. It is vital to remember that our NO to hatred, fear and violence is grounded in a deep, a generative, an expansive YES
Page: Yes, a YES to difference and the richness of diversity,
Adams: And a YES to the gift of reason and to the joy of cooperation.
Welch: And a yes to the deep soul satisfaction of compassion. Let us continue to learn from each other, to support each other, to work together to keep alive the promise of freedom, the joy of compassion and cooperation, and the very soul of democracy!
This ends our conversation on The Soul of Democracy. Please thank our wonderful guests with your applause.