When this country was founded, the aspiration was high. The men who imagined it dreamed big, casting a vision of a world where all men were created equal, where rights were endowed by our creator, transcending culture and the expectations of the day; where life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness would be allowed and enjoyed without infringement. It was a radical and new vision, born from Enlightenment optimism which was taking hold in educated circles, inspired by scientific discovery and the dismantling of entrenched power systems. The founders saw that shaking off embedded religious and political systems was possible as were previously unimaginable feats like vaccinating children from deadly diseases and discovering things like electricity and oxygen. It was a heady time filled with hope and possibility and when it came time to separate from the motherland, they dreamed big. Governments are to be instituted by the people, deriving their power by the governed who can determine their own levels of safety and happiness and regulate the course of the nation based on their own values. It was an intoxicating vision, as bold as the Protestant Reformation that swept all of Europe.
And they had the hubris to believe they could make it happen. They who articulated and institutionalized that vision believed that this new nation would be realized by their embodiment of these visionary ideals. They staked their claim in the Declaration of Independence and institutionalized it in the Constitution. They elected their first President and when he stepped down, relinquishing power to return to the role of citizen, those founders believed they lived to see their vision realized. A new President ran for office and the Republic was up and running. It was done. A new world order.
Those men weren’t distracted by the genocide they inspired or the enslavement of other people they required for this nation to be born. They declared equality while swimming in a sea of inequality. When they declared “ALL men were created equal”, they meant white, Protestant, men. They didn’t mean women. They weren’t including Black people either who’d been enslaved or those who were free. They didn’t include Catholics, Jews, men who didn’t own land. They were so proud of their inclusivity, so inspired by their own cutting edge philosophy. They really had no idea how narrow it was, how constrictive, how small a vision. The words were lofty as was the intent, but the reality of what they created in that moment was undersized.
The men who wrote those words were calling into being a More Perfect Union. They were Establishing Justice. Insuring Domestic Tranquility. Securing the Blessings of Liberty. They believed that they and the men of their generation would will this new nation into being. They would establish the structures required for such a grand vision, they would test it, and then it would be done. They didn’t realize it would require many more people, many different voices. They didn’t know how many generations would have to be part of the creation of that dream- How long it would take before the nation they imagined would be made manifest.
The soul of America has yet to be born. We are gestating it, all of us and have been for hundreds of years. And this election isn’t going to end this incubation, bringing the nation to full embodiment. It might move us closer. It might move us further away. It’s even possible we stay still, but it won’t be the end. This is a long pregnancy and we need more time. Over these 240 years, we’ve become more inclusive, but we haven’t full expanded. Not every voice, not every story, not every person is heard, yet.
The dream of America is beautiful. It’s inspiring. It hasn’t happened. This election isn’t going to deliver it. I hear the Biden campaign talk about the soul of America, but I think they mean something different from what I mean. They seem to be talking about integrity, about ending cronyism and nepotism and maybe to stop the bleed of corruption. I’m talking about higher ideals. I’m talking Life. Liberty. The Pursuit of Happiness. I’m talking about a place every person is free to discover who they are without being hindered by government. A place every person is given room to explore and to love and to express themselves in all the ways that are right for them. It’s the possible, the potential America we’re waiting and working for.
Historian Heather Cox Richardson tells us there’s a pattern in American history that’s giving her hope. She writes: “And then, with our country free again, the future looks wildly exciting, full of different voices, races, religions, foods, gender identities, books, ideas, inventions, music, clothing, political identities, perspectives. In the past, when we have come through a period in which a small group of Americans has taken control of our society and ordinary Americans have taken it back, industry, art, science, and civil rights have blossomed. For my part, I don’t expect to like everything that happens in such a fertile world, but I do expect to learn, and grow, and feel privileged to watch the construction of a world that reflects our people at their best.”
We are on the eve of an election, two days before…something…will happen. We are waiting in suspended animation as if we had so much going on before. Some of us are organizing, some of us are stocking up on essentials, some are just hoping we’ll remember to vote. But, I think it’s fair to say that all of America is living in this in-between space, this holding pattern. The President is sowing seeds for election chaos, telling us not to trust the results, saying he might not leave office. So, we hold our breath and wait.
It’s a tradition the night before a battle for the general to walk through the camp. The idea is that he’s reassuring soldiers that things will be OK. But, I think they do it for another reason. I think they do it because this is the last time it will be so quiet, this is the hush of the evening and whatever happens during the battle, life afterwards will have been altered as a result of having gone through it. I think this is the place we’re in now too. These are the last hours of the Before Time.
I have a friend whose mother used to say often, “I want you to take very good care of yourself.” She said it all the time, when hanging up the phone or ending a visit. I want you to take very good care of yourself. We have two days to sleep, and that’s what we should do. After this service today, (and the meeting that follows), we should rest. Do whatever it is that brings you joy today. Turn up some loud music, walk through your neighborhood and smile at strangers. Cook some pasta and drink red wine. Whatever it is, today is your day.
We have a country to birth. We have a dream to fulfill. We were given a gift of possibility and we are the next generation to move it forward. The soul of America is at stake. It won’t be won in a single election; it will be imagined and articulated and realized over time as we travel together toward this land of the free. We will each contribute our own stories, our own hopes and visions, weaving together a diversity of experiences so that the idea of America can be made real. Not on Tuesday. Not after the pandemic. Maybe not in our lifetimes. But, someday. Someday that gorgeous idea will live in fulfillment and we will have been part of its embodiment.
But, for today, for tomorrow, I want you to take very good care of yourself.