"Can You See" by Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy
On the evening of September 13, 1814, after dining with military officers on the British ship HMS Tonnant, seeking to negotiate an exchange of prisoners, Francis Scott Key was denied departure from the ship because a fierce battle had erupted in Chesapeake Bay. Key spent a sleepless night listening to bombardments aimed at American troops anxiously fearing the fate of his fellow patriots. At the sight of first light, Key, the lawyer poet, as best he could, peered over the bay covered with smoky residue from heavy gunfire and large explosives, nervously straining to catch a glance of which flag—the British Union Jack or the American flag—was flying over the bay signaling victory. When he saw the American flag high over the water the poet was inspired to write a song about the nation, the first words of which I have always been intrigued, “O, say can you see?”
Keep that question in mind, please. We will come back to it.
For as long as I can remember, I have loved the Fourth of July. Indeed, I have considered it an honor to speak on that day whether passionately calling for the protection of freedom while standing in the Canterbury Pulpit of the National Cathedral in our nation’s capital or from a lectern in Brighton Beach, England where I delivered a speech on the assigned topic of “Civil Disobedience,” (not a particularly popular theme in England on the day I was celebrating the Fourth of July abroad), or at home right here behind this pulpit in Northminster Church where I have praised and defended freedom from day one in this sanctuary. Independence Day is a time to talk about the most important subjects of our lives—freedom, government, peace, responsibility, citizenship, and independence. This morning I feel both responsible and joyful as I repeat Jesus’ exclamation “the truth will make you free” and repeat the first words of the Star-Spangled Banner, “O, Say Can You See?”
I must confess that on this Fourth of July I am more concerned about our nation and more fearful about our future than on any prior Independence Day that I can remember. A few days ago, a longtime friend steeped in knowledge of our nation’s status, asked me if I thought this would be the last Fourth of July we would celebrate as a democracy. The question stunned me. I wanted to ask, “What do you mean?” But suddenly, the opening words of our National Anthem rushed into my mind and forced me to think seriously about that question, “O, Say Can you See?” though I was asking myself, “O Say Can I See?”
When Francis Scott Key raised that question surrounded by conflict, he saw our nation’s flag waving triumphantly. He had hope that morning. This morning, what do we see? What do I see?
Americans’ support for democracy, our nation’s great experiment, has reached a new low. 77% of the citizens in our nation fear that our democracy is in danger. The smartest of political scientists are warning us that the health of major democratic principles is under severe attack. Scores of citizens and even members of congress now favor an autocratic government in which freedom is secondary if important at all. Can you see that? Do you see it?
Two of the most fundamental foundations of democracy are religious freedom and free open elections. Both of those pillars of stability are under attack.
Religious freedom has always been the cornerstone of our democracy. Early in my civics classes I learned that if we lost religious freedom, we would lose democracy.
Only a few days ago, while the Supreme Court was reporting its decisions on the cases it has heard during the past year, more than one of the justices of the High Court said that the definition of religious freedom will be altered. The new definition seems to veer away from the First Amendment and the court seems willing to provide more protection for discrimination that opens the door for some established religions—a move that the pilgrims came to this land to escape. Can I see that? Is that really going on? Look hard.
Religious leaders among Baptists and Catholic Bishops have agreed to refuse communion to politicians who do not oppose abortion even if that leader is the president of the United States. Is that politics or religion or freedom?
Speaking of religion, one of the fastest growing religions in our nation today is Q-Anon--a political movement disguised as a religion. Members of that group allege that a cabal of Satanic, cannibalistic pedophiles are running a global child sex trafficking ring that conspires against one of the presidential candidates in the last election. Devotees of Q-Anon are antisemitic because they believe Jews murdered children and engaged in Satanic blood rituals. Members of Q-Anon are waiting for a day they call “Storm” on which our government will be over-turned, and its current leaders will be replaced by the people supporting Q-Anon. What is that? Can you see? Is this religion or politics? Or neither?
Voting has long been called the most powerful nonviolent change of governmental leadership in a democratic society. Often voting has been called the holiest act of democracy. Of course, for many years, the nation did not want women or African-American men or women to be able to vote. Now voting repression has emerged again. At the heart of change regarding elections, state legislatures are removing the final decisions about who wins elections from voters and placing them in the hands of the political party that is in power in each state—what could be called bludgeoning democracy. Do you see? Can you see?
Now I speak with anger, sickness, fear, and tears. Day after day we watch replays of a reality that most of us never even imagined, much less feared or prepared for. I don’t consider myself naïve. However, on January 6, 2021, I watched the violent attack on our Nation’s Capital—a structure that for years I have always entered with awe and attended meetings there with reverence. So many nights I have walked around the capital building staring and admiring that beautiful dome and giving thanks to God for our government and the privilege of working in it. On that day, everything changed. We had to come face to face with the truth that scores of American citizens hate our democracy and armed themselves to destroy our capitol. Can you see it? How do you feel?
Almost unbelievably, either blind people or outright liars are now trying to tell us that what the whole world saw with gasps did not really happen. O say can we see? O, say can they see? I saw it. Efforts were made to kill our Vice President by hanging him; would be murderers brought the gallus with them. Brutal insurrectionists used the United States flag to brutally beat policemen trying to defend the capitol and members of congress.
Reflecting on what happened now, why would anyone, especially members of congress, not want to hold hearings to explore what happened and how that day. Can you see? Do you understand? And now we are being warned that another such home-grown terrorist attack may soon occur.
There is more I don’t understand. What do you see? When all of us have just endured—and some people are still enduring—a deadly pandemic, how could we not be impassioned to pull ourselves together to create a healthy society and build a more perfect union instead of fostering greater division and fragmenting the “United States.” Why can’t we see that? Do you see it? Do you feel it? Does it bother you?
I hate this part of today’s sermon because I love this nation. I know the good in our land. This is my home. How I have enjoyed being in other places around the world, like Sri Lanka, and had strangers come up to me and say “thank you” for what the USA has done for us. Look, I want to shoot firecrackers, listen to patriotic music, and celebrate today. But there is the question with which the Star-Spangled Banner begins. O, Say Can You See? Really see?
Devoid of reality, things will get worse. If we refuse to look around us, we repeat mistakes and slam shut the doors to positive change and a new love for our Constitution.
What we are seeing—violent attacks, ugly discrimination, attempts to remove our democracy and replace it with autocracy--is not sustainable. I don’t have answers to all of these troubling questions, but I have lived long enough to know that no problem can be solved without the problem being acknowledged.
Yes, it hurts to look. It is normal for us to want to look away or shut our eyes rather than stare at something that we don’t want to see. That is difficult; but we have to open our eyes and do it with sharp vision and brave honesty so we can look long and hard at what is happening around us. Oh, say can we see?
My friends, it does not have to be this way. We can do better; we must do better. So many things matter. Schools need to teach civics and classic ethics. People who cherish independence should also practice inter-dependence. Racism, bigotry, and violence, especially gun violence, must be stopped. People’s sexual orientation should not be used to define whether a person is a real human being made by God. What I am talking about is not political matters; these are matters of life and death. But let me focus on three items of importance for a better nation.
Both the starting point and the strongest foundation for our country is honesty. What do we see? Without honesty, there is no trust. And without trust there are no cooperation and union. Honesty is a must and right now honesty is missing in both leaders of government and representatives of religion. Truth-telling is the first step on a road to recovery in our splintered, violent communities.
Second is we must regain control of Partisan Politics. Politics is the art of government—compromise and cooperation. Right now, though, partisan politics is out of control to an extent that it taints if not contradicts patriotism. Can you see it? The framers of our constitution warned us. George Washington spoke of “the baneful effects of the spirit of party”. Similarly, Adams confessed that he dreaded nothing more than “two great parties.” Jefferson said, “If I could not go to heaven but with a political party, I would decline to go.” The Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia entirely omitted political parties from the new nation’s founding documents. Can you see? The biases, divisions, and conflicts in the two major political parties in our nation, each divided internally, are stagnating the decision making of both the house and senate and threatening our democracy. The people we elect to office should pay more attention to their constituencies than to the power in their political parties.
Third, elections need campaign finance reform, shorter time frames for federal election, and a careful review of the constitutions guides to assure fair representation.
We can make a difference.
Religious institutions have an important role to play in this discussion. Most needed immediately is for religious institutions to behave as religious institutions not as politicians. Religious bodies should teach their morals but make clear the distinction between religious morals and partisan policies. Houses of worship can be, but so many or not, facilitators of helpful dialogue and transforming action. The diversity in congregations should be a positive factor helping people better know and understand each other instead of sparks erupting controversy.
That can happen. We have experienced that in this congregation and community more than once. I remember well when Rabbi Kline and I convened community leaders to talk about unity amid tense moments after the first African American Mayor had been elected in Monroe. Rumors faded. The bright light of truth prevailed.
Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America but it requires action, not by only thinking about it or just talking about it. When our forebears penned the constitution they wrote a wonderful document, but they did not live into that document. In my Fourth of July sermon in 2004, I shared with the congregation an insight from my friend Bill Moyers. As an author of the constitution, Jefferson “got it right” in but “he lived it wrong.” That which Jefferson could commend to the world, he could not embrace in his own household. Words were not enough. Words are not enough. Only actions make a difference.
One day in a conversation with Rachel Maddow she told me that she no longer pays attention to what people say. She just pays attention to what they do. I understand. I look at that reality from the perspective of religion as well as politics.
From the civil rights movement, I also learned about the priority of action. We make no progress simply saying things will get better by and by. Democracy is not a state. It is an act. Citizenship is a verb.
Let me personal. The passion of my patriotism is exceeded only by the passion of my religion. But I know the difference between the two. Indeed, when I lose sight of that difference, both my patriotism and my religion suffer. Separation between the two is vital for my integrity—and the ability to speak honestly about religion and politics. Never can one serve as a substitute for the other. My faith gives me values, priorities, vision, and strength. My politics take shape as a strategy for living by love and practicing justice in my nation. Motivated by my faith, I am committed to trying to the best of my ability to translate the lofty truths or our Constitution into the daily realities of our nation. As a Christian and as an American, I see nothing less than that as acceptable.
Congressman John Lewis was one of the finest people I ever met. I cherished every minute I spent with him. Two days before he died, he wrote his last words for publication--several of which are held in my head and heart. What he said is how we should live. All of us can benefit from what John Lewis said, “I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe.”
Francis Scott Key had hope because he dared look at what could be positive or negative. We must dare see the truth about what is going on in our nation so we can be doing what true patriots do.
If we don’t, if we shut our eyes, if we don’t see reality, our answer to Key’s question--“Oh say can you see”—is: “No. No. We can’t see; we don’t even want to see it.”
Friends, on this Independence Day, we have work to do and a nation to save. So, let’s ask the hard questions, face the difficult issues, and pursue a better way. On this Fourth of July, let’s follow a few other words from John Lewis: “Together you (we) can redeem the soul of our nation.” “Walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.” Amen.