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Sermons: “We Are The Ones: Avoiding Fascism in a Turbulent World

We are the ones we have been waiting for. Our new President, Barack Obama, said that.

But before Obama, Alice Walker titled her book: We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: Light in a Time of Darkness (2006)

Before the book, we had the albums of Dan Curtin (2006) and the Visionaries (2006), the music of Sweet Honey in the Rock (1998).

Before Obama, the book and the music, we heard that we are the ones in the prayer of the Hopi Elders (2001).

Before that, we learned that it was an oft repeated phrase by Washington street organizer Lisa Sullivan.

Before Lisa Sullivan, it was the concluding line in June Jordan’s poem for South African Women: we are the ones we have been waiting for 1980.

Before June Jordan, there was Ghandi: "We must become the change we want to see in the world."

There was Buddha: There are two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way and not starting.

There was the Bible: Micah 6:8 "He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"

Unitarian Universalists have always been haunted by and enamored with the concept of social justice and our relation to it. As a morally principled people, for many of us social action is an important part of working for the good that we want in this world. We flirt with ideas, fantasize about our role in social change, yearn for progress and hunger for hope. We WANT to be the ones that we are waiting for and, yet, we fear that we are the ones that we have been waiting for. We will never forget Marianne Williamson’s famous words: "Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate, but that we are powerful beyond measure." In an unsettled way, we fear that statement in the pit of our stomach and yet it also makes us proud. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We have hope.

You have heard these words before, yet I do not apologize. We must hear ideas many times in order for them to be sewn into the fabric of our being. This week we honor and remember one of the world’s greatest theologians, orators and activists, the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Junior. Dr King understood our yearning and he also understood our ambivalence and our need for vigilance. Even though most of his speeches spoke directly to the civil rights issues of his time, his rhetoric is as prophetic now as it was then.

In 1958 King stated, "Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable….This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action."

Obama, in his election night speech noted: "This victory alone is not the change we seek—it is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were. It cannot happen without you."

King was outspoken in his quest for civil action. Obama, too, presses us to expect more from politics, give more of ourselves and feel truly invested in something bigger than a particular candidate or cause. Obama cries out, "This is it. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.[1]"

Dr. King and President elect Obama speak passionately and repeatedly urge everyone to get involved. They have a strong regard, as did president Abraham Lincoln, for a government that is by, for and of the people. Barbara Jordan reminds us that we often place the emphasis in the wrong place in that phrase. To Jordan, the phrase concerns a government that should be by the PEOPLE, of the PEOPLE and for the PEOPLE.[2] The people. That’s us. The people.

Some people fear that we are moving toward a fascist state. The people are not a basic component of fascism. In fact, fascism denies the principles of democracy. A fascist state is ruled by a leader, a superhero if you will. It affirms the "immutable, beneficial, and fruitful inequality of mankind, which can never be permanently leveled through the mere operation of a mechanical process such as universal suffrage.

Do these remarks seem like a huge jump in our conversation? How does one go from representative government to a fascist state? Political consultant and author Naomi Wolf suggests that there is a simple, effective blueprint for turning a democracy into a dictatorship, one that has been repeatedly and successfully used in many countries. She worries that President Bush has initiated most of the steps that lead us in that direction.[3] (In fact, over the course of his presidency, President George W. Bush and his supporters have been called fascists and Nazis thousands of times.) Wolf asserts that because most Americans were born in freedom, we have a hard time even considering that it is possible for us to become unfree. This is because we have opted out. We no longer deeply study our rights or our system of government. I quote: "The task of being aware of the constitution has been outsourced from citizens' ownership to being the domain of professionals such as lawyers and professors—we scarcely recognize the checks and balances that the founders put in place, even as they are being systematically dismantled."[4]

President elect Obama has also been labeled fascist. How can that be? How can both men, the leaders of our government, be labeled as fascists? Is it possible to live in a fascist regime that is also a republican form of government?

My friends, allow me to delve into this area a little while for it directly affects our major thesis: we are the ones. The United States of America values democracy as a style that recognizes the worth of each individual and requests their input. However, democracy is not our form of government, for in a democracy the will of the majority is absolute and unlimited. Whether directly or indirectly through representatives, a democracy is rule by the people. The decisions of the majority are supreme and unappealable: they are absolute. A democracy subordinates the role of reason to that of free will. So, for example, if the people vote to distribute all of the money in the Treasury to the teenagers in our country, that would be the people’s decision and it would have to be carried out. Some have labeled this form of government, mob-ocracy. No form of democracy has ever been successful.

The United States of America has a republican form of government. A republic seeks to honor the role of the individual while safeguarding the rights of the minority. A republican form of government is created through a constitution and is limited by its constitution. It separates power, is voted on by an electorate, can be changed through amendment and has at its core a set of undeniable rights. It is executed through the reason of law.

This is the root of the tyranny of the vote. We, the electorate, choose people to represent us and then must hold them to the fire for their vote counts as our will. How our representatives vote is the legislative power of the government. While it can be constrained by the executive or judicial branches, through a creative system of checks and balances, it is the fundamental building block of our rights and protection.

This representative form of government only works when it is truly representative of the desires of the people. Only then can it be of the people, by the people and for the people. On election night in 2008, the people of the United States of America chose the person whom they believed would best represent them as our executive leader. They also chose many of the men and the women who will make our laws. Yet, in order to be effective, to be representative, the elected officials must constantly be aware of the desires and needs of their constituency. How can they know? How can they avoid the "bubble" of Washington? How do they stay in touch with those people whom they represent?

It is of special interest to note that Thomas Jefferson wrote James Madison in March 1789 that:

"The tyranny of the legislatures is the most formidable dread at present, and will be for long years. That of the executive will come it’s turn, but it will be at a remote period." (Text per original.)

Many fear that that remote period has come. The time has come when we must fear the tyranny of the executive for it is today that the executive is presumed to be leading us down a fascist path.

Let’s turn now to fascism. In 2003 Dr Lawrence Britt summarized the major points of fascism.[5] For our purposes I have condensed them into three broad statements.

Statement number one: Through the rhetoric of threats to national security the fascist government extols patriotism through slogans and mottos, identifies enemies/scapegoats as a unifying cause, disproportionately funds the military, and aggressively advocates authoritative measures of crime and punishment.

Second statement: In a fascist state there is an underlying disparagement of human rights and a rigidity of social roles using the media as a source and the dominant religion as a tool to manipulate public opinion. Intellectuals and artists are disdained and may be censored or poorly funded. Elections may be manipulated.

Thirdly: In a fascist state, corporate power is protected and labor is suppressed through favorable laws and cronyism. The business aristocracy is self perpetuating and self protective, using governmental power and authority to protect friends and associates from accountability.

It is evident that the perceived threat to our country as a result of the "9-11" crisis opened the door to a hungry acceptance of executive directives which would make citizens feel more safe. The repeated use of phrases such as "weapons of mass destruction" and "axis of evil" clearly focused on our fear. The ensuing war efforts vastly increased funding for the military. There has been an aggressive campaign to capture and punish our enemies, to the extent that human rights have been violated. There have been repeated cries that the media is biased and the rise of emphasis on this "Christian country" has not gone unnoticed. This administration has supported tax changes favorable to the rich and big business – the trickle down approach – and has advocated corporate friendly laws.

Jonah Goldberg notes that the motivating passions of fascism include the cult of unity and the cult of personality, the faith that a great leader would rise from among 'us' and bring everyone together.[6]

Certainly, Bush’s slogans have been utilized to create a unity which has enabled an aggressive war effort. Nietzsche, who greatly influenced the fascist movement, popularized the concept of the "superman" whose will prevailed over those weaker than him. As Bush’s popularity decreased over the years, he has been accused of attempting to be this super-hero.

But before we point the finger of partisanship, let us turn to Obama, not yet in office, who has also been accused of a fascist approach. Goldberg notes that "totalitarianism was for Mussolini a way of uniting businesses, classes, regions, religions, institutions and people from "all walks of life"..."Fascism," Il Duce declared time and again, "is a religion." And the animating dogma of that faith was that if we’re all in it together there’s nothing we can’t do. Everything in the state, nothing outside the state.

Goldberg notes that, according to The New York Times, Barack Obama's own recruiters were trained not to talk about issues, but to 'testify' about how they 'came to Obama' the way one might normally talk about coming to Jesus...Or as his wife, Michelle, put it: 'We need a leader who's going to touch our souls because, you see, our souls are broken.'[7] Obama offers us a message of hope.

Bush is accused of excessive nationalism through his military zeal, but militarism is not necessarily the only form of nationalism. Goldberg notes that during the first third of the 20th Century militarism was seen as the best means of organizing society. Since then, according to Goldberg, liberals have been searching for a moral equivalent of war that would inspire citizens to drop their personal ambitions and, in President Woodrow Wilson's words, 'marry their interests to the state'. … President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal of the early Thirties was just such an enterprise, complete with militarized work, environmental and youth programs—the New Deal was initially hailed by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini as a great fascist undertaking.[8] Obama’s policies have often been compared to the New Deal.

So how, then, does a republican form of government become a fascist state? Each of our presidents is accused of a focus on themselves as savior, whether militarily or spiritually, an emphasis on their seductive power to lead the nation to greater heights. Is this the making of a fascist regime? Yes it is! BUT, fascism can only exist with a buy in, with a constituency that is eager to say, yes, tell us how, show us the way, make it so. While the people of the state may feel that the new laws, the projects of the state, are for the people, they are less and less of and by the people. There is a relinquishment of power in the face a potential savior, a stronger, safer nation and economic prizes. Hope is placed in another, vacating the energies of the people.

The election of President Obama presages change. Will we, the people, rise to the challenge of making our desires manifest? Will we fight for what we want? Will we tackle the hard issues?

In his day, Dr King noted that "the movement for social change has entered a time of temptation to despair because it is clear now how deep and systemic are the evils it confronts. There is a temptation to break up into mutually suspicious extremist groups, in which blacks reject the participation of whites and whites reject the realities of their own history."[9]

Today President Obama asserts: Americans[who] sent a message to the world that we have never been a collection of Red States and Blue States: we are, and always will be, the United States of America. It's the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day…. As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours, "We are not enemies, but friends...though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection."[10]

By February 7, 2008 over 300,000 people had contributed to the Obama campaign in 2008, just 38 days into the new year! No one has ever built a campaign involving so many Americans as true stakeholders. Obama stated that this level of contributors "speaks volumes not only about the kind of campaign we're running, but also about how we want politics to be."…of the people, by the people and for the people. We have hope.

President elect Obama’s rhetoric strives to forge connections among all.

Dr King understood the alienation of people. "Alienation is not confined to our young people, but it is rampant among them. Yet alienation should be foreign to the young. Growth requires connection and trust. Alienation is a form of living death. It is the acid of despair that dissolves society.[11]

Obama might counter:[our campaign] grew strength from the young people who rejected the myth of their generation's apathy; who left their homes and their families for jobs that offered little pay and less sleep; from the not-so-young people who braved the bitter cold and scorching heat to knock on the doors of perfect strangers; from the millions of Americans who volunteered, and organized, and proved that more than two centuries later, a government of the people, by the people and for the people has not perished from this Earth.

Dr. King would remind us that we need more than connection. In his words, "Jesus reminds us that the good life combines the toughness of the serpent and the tenderness of the dove. To have serpentlike qualities devoid of dovelike qualities is to be passionless, mean and selfish. To have dovelike without serpentlike qualities is to be sentimental, anemic, and aimless. We must combine strongly marked antitheses.[12]

From another passage: "What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love."[13]

Obama appears to understand that hope must be accompanied by strength. His words, "And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world—our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand. To those who would tear this world down—we will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security—we support you. And to all those who have wondered if America's beacon still burns as bright—tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope.

Obama acknowledges that "the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime—two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century." Yet, he exhorts us to participate. He promises to be honest and to listen even in disagreement. He is hopeful that we will get there. How we hope that he is being honest, that he will rise to the challenge of governing this beloved nation.

Dr. King asserts, "A solution for the present crisis will not take place unless men and women work for it. Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. Even a superficial look at history reveals that no social advance rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals. Without persistent effort, time itself becomes an ally of the insurgent and primitive forces of irrational emotionalism and social destruction. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous positive action.

It is the shame of the sunshine patriots if the foregoing paragraphs have a hollow sound, like an echo of countless political speeches. These things must be repeated time and again, for men forget quickly, but once said, they must be followed with a dynamic program, or else they become a refuge for those who shy from any action. If America is to respond creatively to the present crisis, many groups and agencies must rise above the reiteration of generalities and begin to take an active part in changing the face of their nation.[14]

Yes, we are the ones. Can we make a difference? Si se puede! We have the yearning, we have the hope, we know what we want. Yes we can! Yes, we must.

I believe that Dr King and Mr. Obama might agree that Plato was wrong. The human personality is not like a charioteer with two headstrong horses, each wanting to go in different directions. Perhaps there is one horse raring to go and the other plagued with inertia, perhaps too analytical, too willing to see all sides of every issue, to stand up and make a difference.

Let us take up Obama’s clarion call. He says: This is our chance to answer that call. This is our moment. This is our time—to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American Dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth—that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope, and where we are met with cynicism, and doubt, and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes We Can for we are the ones.[15]


[1] Obama, Barack

[2] Rogers, Mary Beth Barbara Jordan: American Hero New York: Bantam Books, 1998, p. 309.

[3] Wolf, Naomi Axis of Evil: Fascist America in 10 easy steps The Guardian, 4/24/07

[4] Ibid.

[5] Britt, Lawrence "Fascism Anyone? The 14 characteristics of Fascism" Free Inquiry magazine, Spring 2003

[6] Goldberg, Jonah "Beware the liberal fascists—the leaders who aim to 'save' us by controlling everything we do"

[7] Goldberg, Jonah "Beware the liberal fascists—the leaders who aim to 'save' us by controlling everything we do"

[8] Ibid.

[9] King, Martin Luther King Jr. found in Washington, James M. (Ed.) A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. San Francisco:Harper, 1986, p.646.

[10] Obama, Barack All following Obama quotes are from "Election Night Remarks" November 4, 2008

[11] King, Martin Luther, Jr., op, cit., p.644

[12] King, Martin Luther King Jr, op. cit. p 495.

[13] King, Martin Luther King Jr., op. cit., p. 578

[14] King, Martin Luther King Jr, op. cit. pp. 472-473.

[15] This sermon can be found on the UU Evansville website.


Originally delivered on the occassion of Barack Obama's inaguration as President

Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship. Any reprints must acknowledge the name of the author.

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Last updated on Tuesday, February 26, 2013.

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