You can watch a YouTube video recording of this message here:

(c) Rev. Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved

Hello Gathering at Northern Hills members and friends!  Thank you for logging into this YouTube Video message.  We are offering this  Sunday message video as a way for you to stay connected to your church while it is temporarily closed due to the coronavirus outbreak.  While the local outbreak is not currently serious, by temporarily closing – along with many other churches, schools and other public venues we are hopefully being public servants operating in the best interest of all.   Fear is not our motivation.  Instead, we hope along with you and many others that by reducing the number of large group gatherings in our area, we will help minimize or local coronavirus infections outbreaks.

Most of all, I encourage you to take care of yourselves, maintain social distancing as much as possible, wash your hands, self-isolate if you are even slightly sick, stay in touch by phone, text, email or social media with church friends.  Let’s please be sure to check on each other – in particular those who live alone.  

This is a time to model all of our better angels – with more love, more compassion, more care for one another.  And most of all by being selfless instead of selfish.  We do that by accepting our temporary closing of church, by not hoarding health supplies needed by doctors, nurses and the truly sick, and by reaching out to the most vulnerable.  And so I begin my planned message for Sunday, March 15th.

My message theme this month is “Spirituality in Politics” and it is to explore how spiritually minded people, like all of us, can engage in civic political matters.  As I discussed two weeks ago, we as a church should never endorse or oppose any specific politician or political party.  Indeed, as a tax exempt organization, we are legally forbidden to do so.  We can, however, speak in favor of issues and policies that touch on what it is we spiritually believe.

An important principle which we do believe, and which is enshrined in our Seven UU Principles, is that all people have worth and dignity.  We are to model that belief in how we speak and act.  Since that is so, I believe we should be part of solving the political disunity and polarization in our nation. 

In 2018, an organization called “More in Common” undertook a landmark study of political polarization in America.  It was a strictly non-partisan study which sought to understand the causes of political polarization and how to help reduce it.

8000 scientifically chosen people were involved in the study – people who represent the broad diversity of America.  The first  question the study asked was whether or not political differences in our nation are too big to overcome or, if they are instead solvable such that we can all live more amicably.  77% of all 8000 people in the study said our differences are NOT so big that we cannot be respectful and more unified as a nation. 

That result is a very positive sign.  We have not reached the point, as America was before the Civil War, that a majority of Americans choose open warfare as the only solution.  Thankfully, America today is a long way from that.

The “More in Common” group then asked all 8000 study members to take a quiz which asked about one’s core values as well as the actions each takes as a result of their core values.  A link to this same quiz has been emailed to most of you.

The quiz was written by sociologists and other experts in order to understand the core values of most Americans.

Results from the quiz indicate that America is not polarized between just two opposite sides, but is instead divided into seven unique political identities.  Those identities are 1) Liberal Activists representing 8% of the population 2) Traditional Liberals at 11% of Americans 3) Passive Liberals at 15% of citizens 4) Politically Disengaged persons at 26% 5) Moderates at 15% 6) Traditional Conservatives at 19% and 7) Devoted Conservatives at 6%.  If you take the online quiz, it will tell you which group you likely fall into.

What these seven American political tribes or identities reveal is that there is a very large component in our nation called the “Exhausted Majority”.  These are citizens who are tired of division and polarization.  They hold many traditional American values like a belief in freedom, equality, and the pursuit of the American dream.  They are proud of the nation and they want to move past the seeming divisions that are causing hatred and disrespect.  Members of the Exhausted Majority may hold different opinions but they are each similar in their open mindedness and willingness to be politically flexible.  Most of all, this majority believes that finding common ground in our nation is possible.  They are upset that it has not yet  happened.

What the study revealed is that the two extremes of the seven tribes, what the study calls the two “wings” of American politics, they are responsible for what appears to be our nation’s division.  So-called Liberal Activists and Devoted Conservatives, who together just 6% of Americans, together are the drivers of what appears to be national disunity.  

In other words, the wings are deeply divided and are at polar opposites in their core values, but the “Exhausted Majority” are much less divided.  This majority of citizens, ranging from traditional liberals to moderates, to disaffected voters, to traditional conservatives, want to find common ground and want to end disunity.  

To understand the core values of the two disunity extremes or wings of  American political identities, the study asked six core value questions.   I want to highlight for you the significant disunity not between all Americans, but between the two opposite wings of political identities.  When asked by the study if you agree with the statement that men and women have different roles in society, just 15% of Liberal Activists agree.  96% of devoted conservatives agree.  And the national average is is 61% agree.

When asked if they agreed with the statement that hard work will always insure success, 5% of Liberal Activists agreed, 92% of Devoted Conservatives agreed, and the national average is 54%.

On the matter of agreeing with the statement of “I’m proud to be an American”, 45% of Liberal Activists agree, 91% of Devoted Conservatives agree, and the national average is is 78% agreement.

Do you agree with the statement that men begin their careers with an advantage, 91% of Liberal Activists agree, just 18% of Devoted Conservatives agree, and the national average is 45%.

Do you agree that the government should insure all Americans are provided for?  94% of Liberal Activists agree, just 3% of Devoted Conservatives agree, and the national average is 46%. 

Finally, for the statement “I’m NOT proud of American history”, 60% of Liberal Activists agree, 5% of Devoted Conservatives agree, and 27% is the national average.

What is clear from these core value statements is that there is a very, very wide gulf between the two wings or extremes of American politics.  And they, according to More in Common, drive what appears to be our national divide.  As More in Common states, polarized beliefs have become a business model especially for the media and for social media.  Executives of such media companies have realized they get a larger audience for their TV network, or their internet website, if they showcase the most extreme voices – people who are absolutely certain of their opinions and people who eagerly demean those on the other extreme.  These media companies believe  that nuanced opinions and moderate voices are relatively boring and they don’t create the kind of entertainment that liberal activists or devoted conservatives do.

All of that attention focused on the two wings of American political thought, those that combined represent only 14% of the total electorate, are responsible for making it appear that our politics are extremely polarized when, in fact, they are not.  These loudest voices, are also responsible for causing many voters to disengage –  particularly the passive liberal group and the politically disengaged group.    According to More in Common, a huge number of the people in those groups are so off-put by the loudest and most angry extreme groups – on both sides of the divide – that they no longer vote or pay attention to national politics.

On several political issues, Americans are more united than divided.  60% of all Americans believe racism in the nation is at least somewhat of a problem.   69% believe the same about sexism.  And 60% of Americans now support same-sex marriage rights.

What the More in Common study showed is that the American electorate is complex and not as divided as many think.  It also showed that 3 out 4 Americans want unity and believe that finding common ground is not only possible, but should be actively pursued by politicians.

Of more importance to me and perhaps all of you, is how we as spiritual people can help diminish division in our nation and not alienate many Americans from the political process.  I list three action steps we can take to help reduce disunity and division amongst ourselves and in our country. 

First, I believe that the more we personally interact with those with differing beliefs, the more we can understand them.  Experts say this should not just involve listening to Fox News if we’re a liberal or to MSNBC if we’re conservative.  Indeed, those networks enhance the voices on the wings of American voters and studies show they cause more moderate groups to become more depressed and those on the wings of politics to further harden their opinions. 

Instead, experts suggest we find opportunities to engage in well moderated citizen assemblies where mixed political groups deliberate over challenging social and political issues.  Such assemblies that have been held resulted in a remarkable ability to find common ground and even agree on possible solutions to problems.

Second, as I’ve often encouraged, genuine empathy is an often overlooked attitude.  Experts say people must try to adopt the perspective of others – to not only walk in their shoes but to try and inhabit their minds.  One study asked participants to adopt the mindset of the transgendered – to feel as if they were a male born in a female’s body and vice versa.  And then they were confronted with issues that face the transgendered in everyday life – using the restroom that aligns with their new gender for instance.  Surprisingly, even the most skeptical of participants toward the transgendered, when asked to mentally pretend to be transgendered, were able to empathize with how they feel and to then believe they are being discriminated agains by society.

I’ve said in several messages that empathy involves not sympathy or even agreement with another.  It asks for intense listening to the other – especially to their feelings and what they experience.  Who, for instance, could not empathize with the fears many black mothers and fathers have for their teenage sons as they begin to drive and could potentially face one bad apple policeman who has a trigger finger?  Or understand the 2016 election vote of a laid off assembly line worker whose job has been transferred to China and who, at a middle age, cannot learn a new career and is relegated to a minimum wage job?  

When we figuratively feel the wounds that others feel, I believe we can then understand why they believe and vote as they do.

Third, as I discussed last week, I believe that by finding a larger identity than that of a small group, we will then open our minds to more diverse thinking.  Instead of being Democrats or Republicans, might we instead enlarge our identity to be Americans or even as Humanists and World Citizens?  The current coronavirus shows us that all people sink or swim together.  The disease does not care whether we are from China, Italy, or the State of Washington – or that we are Buddhist, Muslim, Christian or Atheist.  The same is true for good things in life.  Since every person can equally get sick from this  virus, every person should therefore have access to affordable healthcare.   We all belong. We are all members of the same human family.  We need to think and act that way – and not as a member of some narrow religious, political, ethnic or any other group.

Of course, to think and act according to these three suggestions is easier said than done.  It’s not easy to empathize with someone who says they hate me because I’m a liberal or because I tend to vote differently from them.  But empathize, understand and respect them is something I know is a great virtue – one that has been practiced by all the great figures of history – Jesus, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Jr. and many others.  

This past Wednesday, a few of us here were at the Lighthouse Youth Shelter preparing and serving lunch to the homeless kids there.  I was struck at one moment with the time-worn adage – “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”  I’m no better than any of you, but my realization was that I’ve been lucky in life – born to well-off parents, born with white privilege, born with health and intelligence I mostly inherited, and then given many advantages.  Where would I be if I had not been so lucky?  I might well be in a similar homeless shelter – ignored by many, and dependent on the kindness of strangers.

Conservatives are right that a good portion of success in life comes from hard work.  And Liberals are also right that such is not always the case.  Many, many people work very hard in life but still end up homeless, poor or struggling.  Still others are born with very little luck.  And many others on the lucky side of life barely work and still end up rich and seemingly successful.  

Might each political group see beyond their core belief regarding that question of hard work and success – or any other subject – to instead see that life is complicated and there are rarely absolute answers to anything?  Let’s avoid extreme opinions.  Let’s keep open minds.  Let’s be willing to change our minds.  Let’s seek understanding, empathy and generosity of heart for those who have different ideas and opinions.  Let’s never judge others but instead understand them and try to work with them.  

We know these practices and attitudes are universally good, and so lets endeavor to actually practice them – and thereby encourage finding common ground with almost anyone.