Sermon by Rev. Scott W. Alexander: Is America Really Going to Hell in a Handbasket?

Scott Alexander

The Rev. Scott Alexander, minister at Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Vero Beach, pumps his fist after dipping his bicycle in the ocean in front of Waldo’s Driftwood Resort on Tuesday afternoon. Alexander biked 3,300 miles and raised more than $50,000 to benefit the Harvest Food and Outreach Center, as well as the international organization Stop Hunger Now.

Rev. Scott W. Alexander, Preaching

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Vero Beach

OPENING WORDS: GOOD-MORNING AMERICA!

The sun is slowly spreading its welcome over this vast and beautiful and strong nation…

The blue green waters here on the Treasure Coast already sparkle in the morning’s eager embrace…

The vast prairies of The Heartland are being awakened by the touch of golden light…

And the mountains and deserts of the West will soon receive their baptism of promise and hope.

And all across our nation, the people of America are stirring to life and purpose…

Making pancakes with the kids…

Lolly-goggling in bed with coffee and the Sunday papers…

Walking the dog…

Jogging the beach…

And – of course — getting ready for church!

GOOD MORNING AMERICA!

We are a great and vast nation…

A land with so much beauty and promise…as well as challenges and pain…

As we begin our day, may our hearts remember the noblest ideals and highest hopes of our nation…

May we strive this day to open our hearts to life and one another…

And, by the work of our hands and hearts help shape America into the nation of our dreams…

GOOD MORNING AMERICA…GOOD MORNING

MY SERMON:

As I suspect is the case with MOST of you here this morning, I have spent my entire life (except for a couple of short and interesting trips overseas) in the United States of America. For all of my 66 (+plus) years, I have been both an active observer and participant in the complicated life of this nation — and thus have weathered (with all of you) all the gyrations, upheavals, conflicts and changes that have marked the life of these United States over recent decades.

America, of course, is not the only country in the world to have been through a lot in the last half century or so. We would be hard pressed to name a nation of the world that has not – since World War II – been confronted with many challenges, crises and changes. But by any standard, our nation – which has always lived large and played an over-sized role in world affairs — has weathered numerous cultural, social, economic, environmental, geo-political, and military upheavals – dramas that have tested both the American spirit, and the American psyche.

Each decade – over the last 50 years or so — has (of course) had its unique challenges and upheavals, and in preparing for this sermon I went on-line and looked back to remind myself of some of the cultural and historical highlights that have shaped the American experience.

  • Remember the 60’s and 70’s – with the Cold War and fears of nuclear annihilation (“Duck…and Cover!”…they were kidding, right?)…the brutalities of the civil rights struggle…the excesses of the sexual and drug revolutions…the bloody tragedy of the Vietnam war…the heart-wrenching assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King (and the deadly urban riots that followed)…and the political upheavals of Watergate?
  • Then came the 80’s and 90’s – with the computer revolution…the Rodney King beating (and the deadly burning of Los Angeles which followed)…the dot.com bubble (that eventually burst)…the collapse of the Belin Wall and then the Soviet Union…”Desert Storm” (the first Iraq war)…California earthquakes and the eruption of Mt. St. Helens…and rampant, shameless greed on Wall Street.
  • Next came the 21st Century – starting with the complete hysteria about “Y2K” (do you remember that nonsense?)…the deadly terrorist attacks on 9-11…followed by the costly Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq…the spread of both domestic and international terrorism…the heart-break and destruction of Hurricane Katrina…and the near collapse of the U.S. and World economy…followed by the painfully slow recovery?

So much has happened to us as a people over the past 50 years…and yet we are all still here…through all the ups and downs…American citizens sharing life (for the most part peacefully) on this vast and beautiful part of our planet which stretches majestically between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans…with Canada on the north, and Mexico on the south. This nation is – by any measure — a dramatic, vibrant and interesting place to live!

I guess all this national drama is why an intrinsic part of being an American seems to be that we WORRY – both individually and collectively – about where our country is headed, and what lies ahead for our nation.

  • We Americans worry about jobs and the economy…
  • We worry about our roads, bridges and the rest of our public infrastructure…
  • We worry about cultural, social, environmental, religious and educational trends…
  • we worry about race, and class, and poverty, and immigration, and guns and crime…
  • We worry about foreign policy, and homeland security, and military entanglements…and…
  • (arching across all these concerns) we worry whether or not America is headed in the right direction, toward a brighter and better future for all.

Now…these questions about our future get amplified and exacerbated every four years, as our democracy slowly (some would say too slowly!) moves towards electing a new President. Even though right now the next Presidential election is still more than a year away (November 5th of next year, which is 376 days away to be precise) our nation is already fully swept up in the protracted spectacle of having an unusually large number of candidates vie for their respective party’s nomination, for arguably the most important job in the nation, if not the world.   The news media — which thrive (24-7) on the drama (and the ratings!) of the contest – are already saturated with protracted coverage of candidate debates, rallies, speeches, other campaign events – and offer wall-to-wall…dawn-to-dusk… analysis.

In the early primary states the candidates ads – negative and otherwise – are already airing ad nauseam …and everywhere you turn you are bombarded by both fact and opinion about the various candidates and where they stand. As an American right now, you have to work pretty hard at shielding yourself away from this absolute barrage of electioneering…and a whole lot of us will be relieved when this is all over about a year from now…God help us…still a full year from now.

Now…I have been an attentive and diligent voter now for almost 50 years…since my 18th birthday way back in 1967…and I am CERTAIN that (in that entire half century) I have never seen so much negativity, anger and angst as in this election cycle…

  • Negativity, anger and angst amongst the candidates…and
  • Negativity, anger and angst amongst the voters.

Let’s first talk about the candidates for a moment. Surely you are all aware that – most especially on the “rather heated” Republican side of the equation where there are an abundance of candidates struggling for votes and attention – that many of those running have engaged in derogatory name calling, and extreme rhetoric in attacking their opponents (whether they be Democrat or Republican).

Many political commentators – both conservative and liberal – are bemoaning the angry and negative and personal tone of the early campaign, and urging (for the sake of the nation) that all the candidates to tone down their rhetoric, end their false exaggerations, and stop the personal attacks.

As a thoughtful voter and citizen, I (of course) lend my voice to those who are calling for less anger…less vitriol and poison…and more civil, measured, and truthful talk from all the candidates.  Surely we can all agree – no matter where we fall along the American political spectrum – that democracy works best when the candidates for office comport themselves with dignity, civility, truthfulness, reason, and calm…qualities that (in some quarters) have sadly been in short supply lately.

Now…that said…let’s also look at what the candidates are saying – both about the current “State of our Union”…and about our national future.

Here too there has been a great deal of negativity, fear and dread. One of the candidates who is getting a lot of early attention from many voters is Donald Trump. Mr. Trump (as I am sure you’re all aware, for he is a very loud and brash candidate) regularly and repeatedly states that America is in “terrible shape” and must be totally “turned around.” On the campaign trail, he regularly declares that, [quote], “America is going to hell,” because it leaders are “stupid”…and its government is “terrible…absolutely terrible.” It is his opinion that, quote, “the American dream is dead”…that our foreign economic competitors (like China and Mexico) are, quote, “Killing us economically”…and that “our country has horrible infrastructure problems, horrible.” He has further declared that (even though we are a nation of immigrants that has always thrived on the energy of new citizens) we must immediately stop most immigration, deport the many millions of undocumented immigrants already here, and refuse to help the millions of desperate refugees from the Middle East because the U.S. has [and now I quote him] “become the dumping ground for everybody else’s problems.” His overall message is that America in 2015 has never been in worse shape…we are sinking as a nation…have lost our competitive edge…are being overrun by “foreigners” who are destroying our national culture…but (with his leadership and brains, of course) “America” (and this is his precise campaign slogan) “America can become great again.”

donaldtrumphairflying

Mr. Trump, of course, is not alone on the campaign trail with such dire views of the American situation.  Many of the other candidates are similarly proclaiming that the United States is (in effect) “going to hell in a handbasket” — that it’s collapsing economically, morally, socially, diplomatically and militarily. If you listen to the candidate debates (and Dear God how can anyone do that for 3 hours at a time without getting totally exhausted and bored?) but if you listen to the candidates’ debates as I have, you might think that America is (in the year 2015) literally coming apart at the seams:

  • That the economy (not to mention our bridges and freeways and levees) are collapsing…
  • That government spending is going to bankrupt and impoverish the nation…
  • That mobs of lawless and violent criminals are taking over the streets (killing cops, innocent bystanders, and one another)…
  • That sex and drugs and out-of-wedlock pregnancies and welfare cheating (and all forms of licentiousness, laziness and irresponsibility) are commonplace…and
  • That lawless and lazy immigrants are pouring across the border – stealing jobs from American workers, overwhelming our schools and hospitals, inflating the welfare rolls, and weakening the historic fabric of American life…

I believe it is undeniable that a majority of the candidates who are presently running for the office of the President of the United States of America (especially those on “The Right” or “conservative” side) are now saying – in effect – that our nation is “Going to hell in a handbasket.”

HELL IN A HANDBASKET

Now let’s pause here for just a moment and explore where this expression “Going to hell in a handbasket” came from, and what it means.

Wikipedia:

“Going to hell in a handbasket”, “Going to hell in a handcart”, “Going to hell in a handbag”, “Go to hell in a bucket”,[1] “Sending something to hell in a handbasket” and “Something being like hell in a handbasket” are variations on an American allegorical locution of unclear origin, which describes a situation headed for disaster inescapably or precipitately.

So the expression “going to hell in a handbasket” in this current election context means that a whole lot of Americans seem believe (right now) that unless we quickly and dramatically “turn a whole lot of things around” – our nation is surely headed for absolute disaster.

And – as I think you all know — it’s not just some of the politicians that are saying this! Recent polls clearly indicate that quite a few Americans (a majority really) share in this dire and despairing and disastrous assessment of our nation.

Here is the polling data. A recent Fox News Poll found 58% of voters feel that the country is [and this is the exact phrase they used in questioning voters] “Going to hell in a handbasket”…and fully 61% are “not hopeful” about the direction of the country.

A similar Rasmussen Poll reports that only 25% of likely U.S. voters now think that the country is heading in “the right direction,” and this negative assessment pretty much goes all the way back to 2010 when only 30% felt positive.

Similarly, a new Bloomberg Politics Poll reports that fully 72% of American think that our “Country isn’t as great as it once was” with 47% saying that America is “Falling behind” other nations…and 25% believe that (as a nation) we are just totally “failing.”

When asked to name the biggest threats to American greatness, respondents cited “moral decay” (32%), “our own lagging work ethic” (27%), “the rise of the Islamic State” (26%) and “competition with China” (21 %). As John McCormick of Bloomfield News summarizes the glum American mood:

Americans are “fed up” with politics, suspect the wealthy are getting an unfair edge, and think our country is going in the wrong direction…[our latest poll] lays bare the depth and breadth of the discontent propelling outsider candidates in the Presidential field.

You can certainly see signs of this angry discontent right here in Vero Beach. The other evening, for example, I was driving over to the Barber Bridge to my rotary club meeting when I pulled up at a stoplight next to a rather sweet looking older woman (you know with that classic “bluish” hair) driving a nice car. We smiled at each other, but then (as she pulled away) I was shocked to see on her bumper this message: “Love America…Hate Obama.” Really?   “Hate” our President?…”Hate” this thoughtful, wonderful husband, father and Christian who wants to make sure every American has health care?…HATE HIM? I can understand disagreeing with him (and his administration) on this public policy issue or that…and I certainly wouldn’t fault you for not voting for his party…but HATE him? Really?

obama_smiling_capitol_bkgrnd_no

Has American politics (even for sweet-looking old ladies) sunk to that level of vitriol and violence?   My point here is that as this election draws near — angry, fearful, and excessive rhetoric like this is easy to find…and a whole lot of Americans seem full of this negativity

Alright…so I think it is painfully clear that there is a great deal of fear, anger, poison and discontent (right now) amongst both Americans voters and politicians — as we stumble our way toward the 2016 election.   And this downward shift in the national mood is noteworthy…for historically – as countless social commentators have long observed — Americans have traditionally (for most of our entire national history, really) been an upbeat, optimistic, pioneering, forward-looking, “can do” people.

But right now in 2015 (for reasons I and many other American do not fully understand) there is a dark cloud of gloom and doom hanging over the psyche (and the politics) of the nation.

Now surely one obvious reason so many Americans perceive things so negatively and fearfully in this time is the ever-expanding, and unrelenting, 24-7, “bombardment of news” — from talk radio, cable television, the internet, all the many chattering social media platforms — that pours worrisome events and ideas into our collective consciousness. Dreadful news – which has always been fairly abundant in human affairs – now gets our constant (and immediate) attention.

I believe that many Americans (in this time of sheer information-overload) have unwittingly gotten themselves dangerously “plugged into” and “all worked up by” this constant flood of fearful facts…focusing their attentions only on that “worrisome” portion of the truth about the world we live in…that weigh down their spirits down with dread, anxiety and foreboding.

So…if I am right about the current negative state of the American psyche, what I want to explore in the time that I have remaining this morning is two things:

  • FIRST — IS THIS DIRE NATIONAL MOOD A REALISTIC OR SOUND ASSESSMENT OF OUR AMERICAN SITUATION? ARE THINGS REALLY AS BAD IN AMERICA TODAY AS SO MANY SEEM TO IMAGINE THEM?…and whether they are or not…
  • SECOND — WHAT CAN BE DONE TO HELP THE AMERICAN PEOPLE REGAIN THEIR OPTIMISTIC AND HOPEFUL FOOTING SO THAT WE CAN MOVE TOGETHER MORE POSITIVELY INTO OUR UNFOLDING FUTURE?

Alright, I realize that providing answers for these two questions is a tall order…so let me get quickly to it.

First, I emphatically do NOT think (and I passionately hope that most of you share this measured assessment of mine) I do NOT think that the actual “facts on the ground” of American life (when taken all together) warrant the negativity, anger and fear expressed by so many in “the body politic” right now.

I believe that any rational and impartial observer of the sum total of our national life – IN ALL ITS ECONOMIC, SOCIAL, POLITICAL, ENVIRONMENTAL, AND MORAL ASPECTS – that any rational and impartial observer of the sum total of our national life right now is obliged to conclude that while our nation clearly faces some vexing and complicated problems and challenges, all-in-all far more is “right” with our nation than is “wrong” with it…and we are certainly not collectively ”going to hell in a handbasket.”

  • Yes…we still face a sluggish economy (with worrisome income disparity, and too much national indebtedness, and chronic un-employment and under-employment in some communities)…and
  • Yes poverty and crime and gun violence and the aging of our national infrastructure have proven to be persistent challenges…and
  • Yes we face the growing threats of environmental change, and global terrorism, and geopolitical instability, and millions of worldwide refugees seeking safe haven…and
  • Yes, God knows we could probably all name other things that are not going perfectly fabulously in these United States.

These are complicated times, with complicated challenges that will require us (together as a nation) to find creative and effective and humane remedies…and none of our persistent national problems and challenges will get fixed overnight. But I believe — in so many obvious and visible ways — that life in these United States is (despite all the imperfections) making positive, purposeful, and encouraging strides.

And yet for a majority of Americans (at least for a majority of those who have answered polls) it doesn’t feel that way.

Perhaps what many Americans are fearfully reacting to is the fact – the undeniable and obvious and irretrievable fact – that America – over the last few decades — is rapidly CHANGINGnot COLLAPSING…not “Going to hell in a handbasket”…just CHANGING! Let me count the ways…

AMERICA IS CHANGING:

  • First, we are changing DEMOGRAPHICALLY,
  • Second, we are changing ECONOMICALLY,
  • Third, we are changing RELIGIOUSLY,
  • Fourth, we are changing SOCIALLY.

AMERICA IS CHANGING:

  • First, we are changing DEMOGRAPHICALLY. While the majority of Americans are still “Caucasian,” or “White” (comprising about 3/4ths of the national population) Black and Latino Americans (with their higher birth rates) are increasingly making up a larger share of the total population. Combine that demographic diversification with the fact that hard-working so-called “Brown” immigrants from all over the world are coming here, making our nation far more vibrant, eclectic and diverse. This change means (and this is a metaphoric example folks) this means that Roy Rogers restaurants are closing…and Rio Ranchero restaurants are opening up! And let me pause here for just a moment and say, “Thank God for the foods and flavors our immigrants bring to us!” Collins and I keep an apartment in the Kalorama section of Washington DC — one of the most demographically diverse communities in America. Every time I visit there, I am thrilled to be out on the noisy streets and see how colorful and energetic immigrants (from all over the world) are blending smoothly into our society…bringing America so many rich delights – a delicious smorgasbord of music, culture, cuisine, language, and laughter. America is increasingly a DELICIOUS AND DIVERSE DEMOGRAPHIC DELIGHT!…a positive trend that will only intensify and expand over coming decades.
  • Second, we are changing ECONOMICALLY. In these early years of the 21st Century, the global economy (and other forces) are necessitating that Americans work in different kinds of jobs and industries…and also requiring our national economy to stay nimble and innovative and adventuresome. The robust “factory” and “manufacturing” economy that brought such economic stability to America in the 50s and 60s is gone for good, and we must find new high-tech ways to keep our overall economy healthy and growing.
  • Third, we are changing Traditional Christianity (and its local congregations) are declining, and we are witnessing the rise of new and more expansive spiritualties…not to mention the rise of the secularized “nones” [that’s N-O-N-E-S] who express no need for organized, congregational religion, but are “spiritual seekers” nonetheless. All religious congregations (including our own!) are going to have to adapt to a new, and more fluid spiritual landscape…one that is less bound to traditional buildings and beliefs, and more interactive with the wider community and world.
  • Fourth, we are changing SOCIALLY — with the goal of complete gender and racial equality now assumed (and racism and sexism on the run)…and a radical new understanding of what it means to be a “family”…including (with the slow demise of homophobia) a new and liberating equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons. Human relationships are being redefined (in a new and positive direction) as never before.

So AMERICA IS CHANGING!…my friends…and although many people in our nation seem to fear and resent many of these changes that are inevitably underway in America today, the truth is, “THIS IS NOT YOUR GRANDFATHER’S AMERICA ANYMORE!”

The old, predictable, homogenized, white-bread, orderly Post World War II America (the one I grew up in in the 1950’s) is all but gone…and you know folks (to tell you the truth) despite how some yearn for the old social order, “The Good Old Days really weren’t all that good!” The old America (some still romanticize like “a 57 Chevy in the rearview mirror”) was full of sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, sexual and domestic abuse, and other oppressions and injustices we are lucky to have left behind.

The point is in 2015, a new America…a much more diverse America…a much more inclusive and just America…and much more interesting and challenging America…and (I believe) an America with so much more potential and possibility is emerging…AND WE SHOULD EMBRACE THESE CHANGES NOT RESIST AND RESENT THEM.

But, as I have said, many greet these new American realities with fear and anger and suspicion.

In her bitter new book American conservative and provocateur Ann Coulter suggests – in the nastiest of terms – that the current influx of immigrants from Latin America, the Indian subcontinent, Vietnam, Nigeria, and other places around the world – an influx which she declares is a nefarious liberal plot to swell the voting rolls of the Democratic Party – will destroy our country and its culture.

Image #: 16860567 Ann Coulter, Best-Selling Author, Legal Correspondent for Human Events, makes remarks at the 2012 CPAC Conference at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C. on Friday, February 10, 2012..Credit: Ron Sachs / CNP DPA /LANDOV

Ann Coultner

She bitterly calls this influx of immigrants and says that these dangerous “newcomers” are swelling the welfare rolls, committing Medicare fraud, and child rape, and gang rape, and honor killings, and in spite of that of these dastardly things are true.

Indeed many studies indicate recent immigrants — both documented and undocumented — make huge economic and social contributions. They grow the economy, start businesses, create wealth and innovation, pay taxes, enrich our culture, stay off welfare, and are much less likely to commit crimes than Americans who have been her for multiple generations.

Despite all the evidence that robust immigration greatly enriches and ennobles the United States, there is Ms. Coulter – night after night on the conservative talk shows – spitting out her silly poison to fearful American listeners about all the many ways immigrants are destroying America.

In her bitter new book “Adios America! The Left’s Plan to Turn Our Country Into a Third World Hellhole” American conservative and provocateur Ann Coulter suggests – in the nastiest of terms – that the current influx of immigrants from Latin America, the Indian subcontinent, Vietnam, Nigeria, and other places around the world – an influx which she declares is a nefarious liberal plot to swell the voting rolls of the Democratic Party – will destroy our country and its culture.

She bitterly calls this influx of immigrants “The Browning of America” and says that these dangerous “newcomers” are swelling the welfare rolls, committing Medicare fraud, and child rape, and gang rape, and honor killings, and a “host of other un-American activities.”

In spite of the fact that there is absolutely no reliable evidence that ANY of these dastardly things are true. Indeed many studies indicate just the opposite.  Recent immigrants — both documented and undocumented — make huge economic and social contributions.

They grow the economy, start businesses, create wealth and innovation, pay taxes, enrich our culture, stay off welfare, and are much less likely to commit crimes than Americans who have been her for multiple generations.

Despite all the evidence that robust immigration greatly enriches and ennobles the United States, there is Ms. Coulter – night after night on the conservative talk shows – spitting out her silly poison to fearful American listeners about all the many ways immigrants are destroying America.

And she is not alone. A few weeks ago, Presidential hopeful Donald Trump told thousands of wilding cheering Americans in Phoenix, “We’re going to take the country back!” Take the country back? Take the country back To what? From Whom?   The America that was “back there” is DEAD AND GONE! I hate to tell those of you who are nostalgic for “the way things used to be” but:

  • Father (never really did) know best…and
  • Ozzie and Harriet are both dead!…and
  • The Partridge Family has flown the coop!…and
  • The Dukes of Hazard are all in nursing homes…and
  • The Love Boat has been sold for scrap! and…
  • America has moved on to a new day, with new dynamics and demographics…and new (exciting) possibilities.

I hate to tell Mr. Trump the truth, but we can’t “Take Our Country BACKwe can only “take our country FORWARD” starting with WHO and WHAT and WHERE we are as a nation… right here….right now.

And so this is where I must leave you this morning, my fellow Americans. DO NOT DESPAIR! (and) DON’T BE SILLY!  The United States is NOT [quote, unquote] “Going to Hell in a Handbasket.”  

Where it IS going is into its unfolding (and yes, uncertain) future…a future (I believe) that holds at least as much PROMISE as PERILat least as much POSSIBILITY as PAIN.  And so rather than (as citizens) wallow in all the EASY NEGATIVITY about all the ways in which America is not presently perfect, let us pledge ourselves to the slow work of enabling our country to live up to its highest principles and potential.

Let us together roll up our sleeves and work to strengthen the economy…increase the opportunities…improve education…reduce poverty…end sexism, racism, ableism, and homophobia…and make America truly a place for every last one of its citizens to thrive…and find the peace, joy, and fulfillment of the American Dream.

Amen.

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