The Reverend Kathleen Damewood Korb
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples


One of the most cherished traditions of our faith is the free pulpit. Every one of our congregations mentions it in their bylaws. They have to because no minister would accept a call from a congregation that failed to guarantee their freedom to preach the truth as they saw it without fear of reprisal. It is not always fully understood. There have been incidents of certain groups within congregations who cite the idea as their right to have their voices heard, confusing free with open. In our tradition of covenantal relationship between the minister and the congregation, this is far from the point. Once the congregation has called a minister, the pulpit is on loan to that minister, and it is the minister's responsibility to protect both its truth and its freedom until the covenant ceases, and disagreement with the message may not be grounds for ending it.

One of our most famous ministers, John Haynes Holmes, who served Community Church in New York City in the early part of the 20th century is the center of two of our most cherished stories illustrative of the point. William Howard Taft, a Unitarian, was an excellent churchman. I think he even served as moderator of the American Unitarian Association for a time. When he traveled he always would attend church wherever he found himself, and the reputation of Holmes and that of his congregation's commitment to social justice made Community Church the obvious one for him to attend. That was the day that Holmes chose to endorse a candidate for president, and the one he endorsed was not Taft. It might have been Theodore Roosevelt, but I believe it was Woodrow Wilson. I have heard the story both ways, and given Holmes' pacifism and the fact that Wilson campaigned on a peace platform, I suspect he was the favored candidate. You have to give Holmes credit for courage if not for tact. As Taft left he was overheard to say mildly to one of his entourage, "The only thing more he could have done for his candidate this morning was raise funds for his campaign." Some of you may feel a little uncomfortable that a minister endorsed a presidential candidate from the pulpit, given our strong tradition of support of the separation of church and state, and I'll get into that in a bit, but first I want to tell you the second story.

The First World War, though we fought in it for only a few months, and though before we entered it there was some doubt which side we were on, raised considerable passion. Sauerkraut was renamed liberty cabbage (sort of like freedom fries) as one example of the heights to which emotion was raised, and there was even an incident of a little dachshund attacked on the streets of New York City as a symbol of the Reich. Holmes was a pacifist on principle and opposed to our participation in this war in particular and said so. He was told that his congregation was in strong disagreement with him, and being who he was he immediately scheduled a sermon series on the topic. A large delegation from the congregation attended the next board meeting of the trustees demanding that a special congregational meeting be held to dismiss Holmes from his po-sition. The board met for several hours in closed session and emerged with a unanimous statement. Every one of them disagreed with Holmes and every one of them endorsed his right to speak as he saw fit, refusing the request. They too were courageous. They put the value of the free pulpit higher than their own quite passionate political positions. They even convinced the congregation that they were right. It is a shining moment in our history.

Now, however, back to the question of whether or not a minister may or should endorse a presidential candidate, whether or not he is actually in the room at the time. Before the recent presidential election someone in another congregation asked me whether, given the polarization of our present political scene and issues of separation of church and state I would feel justified in endorsing a presidential candidate. My answer was that if I felt I should I would not hesitate for a moment, but my sense of my freedom to do such a thing was based less on my understanding of the free pulpit, than on the value upon which that whole structure is based, something that is merely alluded to sometimes in bylaws rather than addressed directly, and seldom even mentioned from the pulpit in direct terms, and that is the free pew. That is, it is not only the right but the obligation of members of a free faith to do their own thinking. It would be, it seems to me, the height of arrogance for me to have tried to change your mind or expect that I could do so by telling you for whom I was going to vote. But you don't know you probably haven't known me for more than a week. There are many ways without formal endorsement for a congregation to understand the political leanings of its minister.

I did once endorse a presidential candidate but not in order to change anyone's vote. I not only believe, I hope, that you would know better than to give any single person the power to decide for you how you would vote. However, I endorsed Fritz Mondale. It had seemed to me from conversations that I had had that his supporters were tragically lukewarm. They seemed to feel that he was a mere stopgap - the lesser of two evils, or perhaps not even significant enough to be an evil. He seemed to me to be instead an extremely intelligent, competent, well-intentioned individual, one for whom anyone should be proud to vote. Besides, though this should have had no influence, his much older half-brother was Lester Mondale who died just about five years ago, a Unitarian minister and the last living signatory of the first Humanist Manifesto. I preached a sermon in which I enthusiastically pointed out Mondale's virtues. I have also from newsletter and pulpit openly endorsed a flagrant criminal for governor of Louisiana, and a senate candidate for whom a retired archbishop assured everyone it would be a sin to vote. In none of those cases did I expect to change a single vote. What I did hope to do was remind people of the importance of voting for the right person for the right reasons, for their positions on substantive issues, and to remind all of us that election day - any election day -should be, as one of my colleagues put it, a holy day of obligation for Unitarian Universalists. Our religion is based on freedom - freedom of thought, freedom of belief, freedom of conscience - and the most significant way to live that religion in the world is to vote. Election Day is indeed a holy day of obligation.

That includes our own church election day - today, in fact. The first democratic vote in North America was the election of a minister to the pulpit of the Plymouth Church. They also elected their elders. That freedom, another word, for responsibility, is something we cherish to this day. I often remind you that a free congregation means that its members alone are responsible, or in other words, free to support it, create it and maintain it, and yet free churches all over the country fear at each annual meeting that not enough people will be interested that they can maintain a quorum. Somehow they always do. We know that when we abrogate responsibility we have compromised our freedom. Therefore, for us, even our own election day is a holy day of obligation.

In the secular world, of course, an issue that is always raised is one that we also feel strongly about, the separation of church and state. That does not mean the separation of religion and politics. That cannot be done unless you don't care about either your religion or your politics. Important political decisions are based on values, and that is what religion is about. The values that you hold as a consequence of your religious beliefs will decide for whom you will vote in an election - or at least, given the quality of candidates for some of our offices, will be taken into account whether they can actually be useful in the decision or not. That is pretty clear when we are talking about issues, but to have the minister actually name names seems to some of us to be going pretty far. Once upon a time even the Internal Revenue Service knew differently. They do have rules for appropriate political action for churches which I believe is none of their business, but that was not one of them until the rules were changed during Johnson's presidency. He succeeded in pulling the teeth of the religious groups who opposed him. I don't know if those rules have been adequately contested. We may not, if our contributors wish to be able to take a charitable contribution to us off their income tax, campaign for or contribute to a particular candidate as an organization. The congregation cannot vote, nor can the board, to publicly state our support for one candidate over another. We cannot display campaign materials unless we display them for all the candidates, nor can we hold a rally for anyone's election. We can't do any of those things, but the minister, from the pulpit, ought to be able to endorse whomever he or she wishes. Free pulpit and free pew are inextricable linked. To compromise one is to compromise the other, and the free exercise of religion may sometimes require political action.

I wonder if we still hold as high an idea of the sanctity of the free pulpit as was held by President Taft or the board of Community Church in New York. I have often heard people complain of politics in the pulpit or express anger that a minister had the nerve to give a partisan opinion, citing as their reason the separation of church and state. They don't say such things about me, of course. We're all much too tactful for that, but I've heard it of others. In the first place the separation of church and state is about having freedom of religion - the state may not have a state religion or favor one religion over another. It says nothing about the obligation of a religious faith to establish in the world the values that it holds sacred. We may agree or disagree with those values, but we cannot disagree about the religious obligation. To establish those values is simply, necessarily, politics. That is how human beings relate beyond the intimacy of family life. Sometimes even there, and even within churches. Certainly within churches.

It may be in part because we have not stressed enough the even higher sanctity of the freedom of the pew. Those who come from religions where the minister spoke the word of God and expected everyone to know it may be particularly sensitive to strong expressions of opinion from the pulpit. However, free religion is based in large part on the understanding that the minister has no straighter pipeline to God than any member of the congregation. Each individual is just as responsible for the truth as the minister is. We ministers have vowed to speak the truth insofar as we are able to discern it, but you have the even higher obligation of discerning the truth for yourselves.

It is true, of course, that I have probably spent more concentrated time reflecting upon whatever topic I am preaching on than have my listeners, though that probably doesn't include political opinions. After all, I have to preach on it and it's what you called me to do. That doesn't mean that I think that my reflections have necessarily enabled me to be always right or that I expect you to think that I am. That is why I have cherished a sermon discussion after the service. If I have missed something or misunderstood something or not made my meaning clear it was helpful to me to have members' reflections to clarify my own thinking. I have occasionally been told, to my utter bewilderment, that some people find me intimidating because of the strength of my opinions. If I feel strongly about something I will speak strongly, but I am always aware that I can be mistaken. The one thing, however, about which I am sure that I am right, the opinion on which I am absolutely immovable, is that you and you alone are responsible for your opinions. Ralph Waldo Emerson said something that I think should be carved above the door of every one of our churches: Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. That is why I can say unhesitatingly that I have not only the right but the responsibility to speak politically - even to endorse a candidate for any public office - if I feel that the times and the need require it, simply because you have the equal right and responsibility to make up your own minds. The free pulpit is one of our proudest traditions. The free pew is all that can make that possible. It is the basic requirement and the mark of free religion. My obligation as your minister is to remind you of your freedom. Yours is to defend it.