The Human Heart is the First Home of Democracy

The Human Heart is the First Home of Democracy

Presented on-line on November 8th, 2020   Rev. Fiona Heath

Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during World War II once remarked: “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…” (

I have at times had great sympathy for the notion that democracy is the worst. Usually when I listen to Parliament’s Question Period which seems to consist of people in the loudest yelling in outrage competition.

Democracy at its simplest is intended to allow each person equal say in selecting the government – one person, one vote.

It’s more complicated in practice but the essential idea is that the people of a community or country decide for themselves who will take on leadership.

As Unitarian Universalists we practice this – the congregation selects and votes for the minister – this is congregation polity. It’s our fifth principle – “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.”

Our religious tradition says democracy is the best worst way to run our community and the countries we live in.

I am glad that the U.S. election has been called, having spent much of last week nervously refreshing twitter feeds and news coverage. And for me, it feels good  – joyful – to have Joe Biden and Kamala Harris win. Woo Hoo! It’s wonderful to see the first woman, first woman of colour poised to be the vice-president.

The people voted and the votes were counted. Democracy works.

Sort of.  Mostly.

The United States is a polarized place – millions and millions of people voted to stay on the path they were on. The divide between people is deep – a gaping grand canyon kind of chasm – and there is no apparent bridge across.

As Terry Tempest Williams says: “How do we engage in conversation at a time when the definition of what it means to be a patriot is being narrowly construed? You are either with us or against us. Discussion is waged in absolutes not ambiguities. …Fear has replaced discussion.”

Williams wrote those words in 2004 – the US canyon chasm has been growing larger since. Fear has replaced discussion and hate has replaced compassion. I hope that will begin to change.

And I see the chasm beginning to be dug here as well – hateful rhetoric, fear baiting and falsehoods pedalled as truth – it is all showing up.

We have time to prevent the chasm widening. To build bridges across it while we can still see the other side.

This morning I am going to be quoting extensively from Terry Tempest Williams.  Williams comes from a conservative Republican Mormon family in Utah. She herself is a feminist, environmentalist and democrat.

Her life is a testament to how to live with difference, of how to live with the pain of division while also loving across that divide.  Williams words give me hope, pointing to democracy as an act of faith.

Terry Tempest Williams says: “A spiritual democracy is inspired by our own sense of what we can accomplish together, honoring an integrated society where the social, intellectual, physical, and economic well-being of all is considered, not just the wealth and health of the corporate few.”

Despite our principle lifting up the democratic process I have never considered democracy to be spiritual, but perhaps it is. Democracy is a political system created by humans, it reflects the values and meaning of the society that shapes it which can include spiritual values.

My sense is Williams’ spiritual democracy is the democracy UUs are seeking. Williams talks about democracy as being an open space – like the bowl of a chalice – open to all who are present.

She writes: “In the open space of democracy there is room for dissent. In the open space of democracy there is room for differences. In the open space of democracy, the health of the environment is seen as the wealth of our communities.”

There is room for dissent. There is room for difference. But the common ground is the land on which we all live.

Williams goes on to say that in a spiritual democracy: “Cooperation is valued more than competition; prosperity becomes the caretaker of poverty.” She says the humanities matter – are the art of what it means to be human. And in this democracy, beauty is essential and technology is developed out of a reverence for life.

This is chalice democracy – the democracy we want to practice – imperfectly and often failing – but trying. We seek cooperation and we value art and worship and beauty. Our principles are rooted in reverence for life. It isn’t the political democracy we have but it is one we can work towards.

Williams reminds us that “Democracy can also be messy and chaotic. It requires patience and persistence…”

We know this is true. Sometimes we get excited and move too fast – that’s often when cracks appear and gaps widen – not enough people are engaged. So we go back and talk some more and start again.

Sometimes we begin from different values – we are already standing on opposite sides of the canyon. Then it takes time to build the bridge across – not to erase difference but to work from it, use it as a strength.

For Williams democracy is “power is shared and maintained by many”. It is not about personal independence, but life in association, in connection.

This is not quick and easy. It takes time to develop relationships, build networks, hear all the voices, take all the needs into consideration.

It can be excruciatingly slow. Creation always takes longer then destruction. But bridges that last are built with care and attention, anchored in solid foundations.

It is especially difficult when there has been polarization, divisions into us and them, and dehumanizing rhetoric. A grand canyon chasm where you can’t even see the people on the other side.

But I believe the chasm can be narrowed and the bridges can be built. It is always possible.

It takes hard work and involves much failure and takes longer then ever imagined.

But it is possible. And it begins with each of us and the state of our hearts.

 Williams writes: “The human heart is the first home of democracy. It is where we embrace our questions. Can we be equitable? Can we be generous? Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our minds, and offer our attention rather than our opinions?

And do we have enough resolve in our hearts to act courageously, relentlessly, without giving up — ever — trusting our fellow citizens to join with us in our determined pursuit of a living democracy?

The human heart is the first home of democracy. Democracy is people choosing generosity. People listening to each other fully, wholly. Acting with courage.

This is hard.

Many of you struggle with how to engage with relatives, neighbours and colleagues who express views that are prejudicial and harmful.  I know I am reluctant to engage with conservative relatives – we too easily end up arguing.

And there are extremists who are frightening in their extreme views – who can’t engage in respectful dialogue and we should not try.

But as Kathy said earlier – we mostly want the same things – more money coming in then money going out – some friends to hang out with – love and meaning in our lives.

There is common ground. We can build the bridge if we stop seeing the other side as crazy or impossible to understand or evil. If we talk not to change someone’s mind or show how right we are, but to know one another. To hear someone else’s hopes and fears and share our own. To understand what is underneath their choice to believe what they believe.

To find the way to us by offering attention not opinions.

Last night on the news there was a young woman standing between Biden and Trump supporters who had been yelling at each other. She asked the two groups to stand together. To talk to each other, to understand that all of them, together, were America.

She is a bridge builder – understanding that we are all us. That we are all in this together. There is no other.

When the canyon is as deep as it is right now in the U.S., those first bridge builders going out over the chasm build just a little bit at a time. One foundation stone, then another. A few human connections across difference. Slow and careful breaking down of stereotypes, refuting hate.

Williams reminds us: “The heart is the house of empathy whose door opens when we receive the pain of others. This is where bravery lives, where we find our mettle to give and receive, to love and be loved, to stand in the center of uncertainty with strength, not fear, understanding this is all there is…”

Williams reminds me that there is power in empathy, in feeling, in caring for others. When we keep our hearts open we can stand in uncertainty with strength.

We have the power to prevent a deep chasm here in Canada. That power lies in keeping our hearts open to others, listening fully, offering attention not opinions.

It lies in wanted all to be included – and working towards that goal, seeking a spiritual democracy based on the worth of all people, knowing our interdependence.

It comes from staying rooted in our UU faith.

May the joy and hope of these days evolve into action, into more care for more people, into bridges built with solid foundations.

The human heart is the first home of democracy.


So Say We All.


All quotes from Terry Tempest Williams three part series on democracy in Orion Magazine. Written in 2004.


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