Dare Mighty Things: a Civic Sermon

"We can be the group of Americans who stepped up when democracy around the world was under assault; who stood up for pluralism, compromise, tolerance, and the common good. Who stared down the danger to our democracy and said 'Not here. Not now.'"

by

On Oct. 22, 2022, at Antelope Park in Lincoln, Civic Nebraska held its 11th Civic Saturday gathering, where Steve Smith, a national Civic Saturday fellow, delivered the following civic sermon entitled “Dare Mighty Things.” Listen to the full audio of the gathering below.

My mom and I have this weekly ritual. She lives near me here in Lincoln, and still gets her weekly hometown paper, The Pender Times – and because she’s legally blind, every Saturday I read it to her. After we tackle the obits, sports scores, and some other stuff, we turn to a column called Traveling Back in the Times

This is the best part of the paper each week. It’s one of those “remember when” columns that revisit the archives to provide a glimpse into what made news in the past decades. The Pender Times goes back 10 years at a time: eighty years ago, 70 years ago, 60 years ago, you get the idea. 

Reading it each week, you get a sense of how life in our old stomping grounds has changed over the decades – and perhaps more importantly, how it hasn’t. Being an armchair historian, I can’t help but read between the lines when I’m going through these long-ago items. I think about what else was going on in the world at the time, and how small-town Nebraska was reacting to it.

Nineteen forty-two. Barely a year into the Second World War, the most recent entry included Thurston County residents competing against other counties to see which one could repurpose the most scrap metal for the war effort.

Nineteen fifty-two. Pender was wrestling with building a new community hospital, debating the civic initiative needed for the village to remain a hub for healthcare.

Nineteen sixty-two. Reports of how “astronaut” was a popular Halloween costume, which of course called back to just a few weeks earlier when President Kennedy implored Americans to reach for the Moon and the stars.

The column goes up to 2012, but we often stop reading before then. The memories aren’t as indelible and plus, there are fewer items about the doings of community betterment clubs, neighborhood initiatives, or meaningful county-wide projects. The later entries tend to be more about what the weather was like, stuff at the school, or sports. 

Because even a rural community that prides itself on changing as little as possible isn’t immune to the larger forces that have pressed down on America over the past 50 years. That’s when the age of individualism really began to take hold. And in that time, we’ve become increasingly disconnected from our family, our friends, our neighbors … and, yes, our democratic institutions. 

Here’s how we know it’s reached a crisis point: The news media has finally picked up on it. And predictably, the media amplifies the bad stuff without presenting solutions. After the mass murder in Texas, we got a healthy dose of that underlying cynicism that pervades our media, which of course only reflects our wider society. 

One commentator described our aging political class and deadlocked political system as unable or unwilling to grind into action and address the nation’s most urgent issues, such as disarming dangerous people. Another went as far as to say it felt like we had quote-unquote “late-stage Soviet Union vibes.”

Well, I wouldn’t go that far. But we do have our work cut out for us, friends. We all feel it. Maybe it’s because we’re in the fall months, which are never calm in America – especially in an election year. Right now, looking at how our politics and our discourse are trending, it’s safe to say that we’re a long way from the national consensus and excitement that used to bring about broad challenges from our leaders – things that would show up in newspapers big and small. You know, like JFK’s we choose to go to the moon and do the other things initiative.

It begs the question, today: Are we capable of a new moonshot – figuratively or literally? Do we still have it in us to do great things – mighty things, whatever those might be? What does that even mean in Twenty-First Century America? 

Well, let’s talk about it. Let’s start by talking about where we are right now, and acknowledge what is holding us back.

Then, let’s consider how we can change to attack that next horizon. 

And finally, let’s examine what that next mighty thing might really be. As you can imagine, I have a few suggestions.

OK. Where we are right now

This won’t sound great. So I’ll just say it. 

As a nation – as a nation – we are enveloped in the conceit of American Exceptionalism, the idea that we are phenomenally special, that we are great because we are America, and we are America because we are great. This trickles down to each of us in big and small ways; a prideful attitude that history has shown tends to come before the fall.

For hundreds of years, we’ve spun this tale to ourselves – we believe that the United States is the top world power in all things – not just women’s soccer, all, everything. And the whole world is waiting with bated breath to see what our celebrities, politicians, athletes, and billionaires are up to. We carry around this naïve assumption that if you’re not in America, then you’d probably be miserable if you weren’t too primitive to know what you’re missing here in the USA.

Yet. The fastest internet in the world is in Singapore, and we’re not even in the top 25. The best urban transport systems aren’t in San Francisco or Seattle; they’re in Hong Kong. The world’s tallest buildings are in the UAE, China, and Saudi Arabia. People in Sweden, the Netherlands, and Norway – just to name a few – all have much higher average incomes, not to mention a healthier way of life. 

We’re still a world leader in many ways. We incarcerate more citizens per capita than any other nation on Earth. We’re No. 1 in the number of adults who believe angels are real. And we are far and away the world leader in national defense spending.

OK, OK, that’s not entirely fair. I’m cherry-picking a bit here. For the record, America is tops in the world in some other important metrics. Many of our inventions have changed the world: everything from the transistor to the airplane, to the computers and rockets that put men on the Moon. We are No. 1 in our generosity, based on global giving. We have the best universities. We’re the go-to nation for basic scientific research. And, not surprisingly, we’ve earned more Nobel prizes for physics, chemistry, medicine, and economics than any other country. 

Two things can be true at the same time. We are a powerful, creative, and consequential nation, one that has led world-changing advances in the past half-century. Simultaneously, we can acknowledge that at that same time, our country has seen increases in mental illness, anxiety, narcissism, and depression. The gravitation toward a politics of outrage and grievance, because we feel an unnameable, free-floating discontent – a sense that somehow we’re just not getting what we’re due. 

It’s who we are. To do mighty things, we first have to reckon with this. The good news is, I’m confident that, as a nation, we will. America has a long track record of leaning into the challenges before us, especially when our pride and our way of life are at stake. For centuries, people have bet against America, from King George III to Vladimir Putin. Each time, our nation has been equal to the task.

So what do we need – what do we really, really need – to achieve the next level of what I would call “American audacity”?

Well, without being too corny, the answer is sitting here today, in this park shelter; in these cars passing by on Capitol Parkway; and in the homes and businesses and schools across this neighborhood, our community, our state, our country. Long story short: It’s in our individual ability to produce a collective citizenship

Since the beginning, we Americans have benefited greatly from the creative power forged in the unique tension between Unum and Pluribus. And then we put that creativity into action – because, in a healthy democracy, success depends not only on the presence and productivity of citizens but our participation as well. And I don’t mean just voting. I mean deep participation. This is the thing from which all the others flow in a democracy. And this is where each one of us matters more than we can possibly know. 

Collective citizenship. That probably sounds squishy compared with launching Mars missions, implementing Medicare for All, or announcing a national initiative to tackle climate change. But individual participation is where every mighty thing must start. Engagement is the most important ingredient in our American alchemy. Engaged citizens gathering, exchanging ideas, investing in solutions, and – get this – not seeing each other as mortal enemies, and being able to discuss, clearly and soberly, our shared concerns. 

Crazy, I know. But we’re actually quite good at this. Our history is chock-full of this formula. It’s a formula that strengthens our nation while also empowering us as individuals. It provides us all the civic power of having a real say in the direction of our community, state, nation, and the world, while at the same time bringing us together under a shared banner. At our best, we form a virtuous cycle of trust, empathy, connection, and problem-solving. 

Now – Perhaps you’re sitting there thinking, Wow, that’s not what it looks like to me. Modern America looks vast, messy, polarized, broken, and too unwieldy to be fixed with what amounts to a group hug. And I agree – because that’s not what I’m talking about. 

What I’m suggesting is not easy. It’s not soft. If anything, engaging with other Americans – who we may strongly disagree with on nearly everything – is incredibly hard work. It’s hard-nosed and difficult. But we do it, to quote JFK, not because it is easy, but because it is hard

Now, amid rapid demographic and social change, we’re attempting to truly become the first pluralistic, multiracial, and multireligious democracy on the face of the earth, with liberty and justice for all. For all. 

This mountain is there – and we’re going to climb it. We are. Not because it is easy, but because it is hard. This is especially important for me to remember and for my fellow college-educated progressives to hear. Honestly, friends, for us, every time I pick up my phone, I’m more and more convinced that daring mighty things simply means stepping out of our carefully-constructed comfort zones and becoming more actively involved in our duty of building our democracy. 

It won’t surprise you to hear that educated liberals spend far more time on politics than Americans of other ideologies and education levels. The problem is, we tend to spend our time almost entirely on consuming partisan news, discussing politics online, and then, when we’re by ourselves, thinking about politics. 

You know what we don’t always do, though? The work. A recent study found that less than 2 percent of our spare time is spent volunteering in political organizations, doing the work of organizing, or putting ourselves out there so we can build durable networks for change. In other words, we’ve become a great big over-smart pile of political hobbyists, with our good jobs and our financial security, we’ve allowed politics to become another channel, another sport to follow. 

And yet – and yet! – I am convinced that the time to dare mighty things is right now.

In a few weeks, we’ll take part in a tradition that has sustained our democratic republic for centuries. We’ll cast our votes – and by doing so, we’ll collectively transform our values, convictions, and views into reality. This never gets old. The casting, accepting, counting, announcing, and certifying of our ballots creates the will of the people. This is the oldest and most powerful of democratic actions. And right now, it feels big. It feels consequential. It’s the World Series of democracy.

But it’s important to remember, I think, that our nation has never been defined by one single election. We often tell ourselves that change is only meaningful if there’s a big, tangible outcome that comes immediately from it. But our current obsession with politics as a spectacle didn’t happen overnight. It’s the result of years of smaller, incremental events that grew into the very real problem it is today. 

This type of politics won’t be vanquished, with a check of the box, on Nov. 8.

Don’t get me wrong – obviously, what we do on Election Day matters. But what we do every day that isn’t Election Day matters just as much, if not more. All that’s keeping us from creating that virtuous cycle of trust, empathy, connection, and problem-solving, really, is all of us.

Imagine: 

Instead of blasting each other over whether the military is too “woke,” we could consider how to keep the peace – with a strong defense, yes, but also with diplomacy and vigilance.

Instead of picking apart who is deserving – or undeserving – of a hand up, we could tackle how to lastingly raise everyone’s standard of living. How to provide everyone adequate, affordable healthcare. How to make sure that we all can enjoy secure retirements.

Instead of demonizing teachers and banging on about education standards, we could set a new expectation – that every American becomes a lifelong learner, and then agree to make education accessible and affordable for everyone, regardless of their age or background, or station.

What do you think? Sound unrealistic? Or is it only unrealistic, because we don’t demand it from our candidates, our elected leaders, or ourselves?

It’s time to raise our expectations. For ourselves, and for our fellow Americans. You’ve heard me say this before, but it bears repeating: We are all active co-creators of our shared democratic reality. All of our acts, big and small, formal and informal, digital and analog – they compound. They shape, over time, the vast, frenetic, complex system that is the United States of America.

It is this knowledge that sustains me. It fills me with hope and optimism for our country. It tells me – in no uncertain terms – that our best days are still ahead of us. If we simply have the courage and clarity to expect it.

Friends, we can be the group of Americans who future generations look back upon in 80, 70, or 60 years – maybe it’ll be in a hometown newspaper column that looks back over the decades, or maybe it’ll be in a big, influential history book. But we can be the group of Americans who stepped up when democracy around the world was under assault. Who stood up for pluralism, compromise, tolerance, and the common good. Who stared down the danger to our democracy and said Not here. Not now.

Friends, we must be that group of Americans.

That? That is nothing short of our generation’s moonshot. Reclaiming the common good. Reaffirming its essential and moral necessity. Finding and sharing and holding common ground with our fellow individual Americans, to form something bigger than all of us combined. 

Creating – for the first time in the history of the world – a modern superpower forged from all over the world, with people from all corners of the globe, people of every faith, language, ethnicity, and station. A nation that reflects the diversity and daring of its people; a nation that is a powerful force for hope and progress around the globe.

We will do this, and the other things. Because we Americans are not spectators. We are doers. Joiners. Connectors. Innovators. From how we make and keep our own homes, to how we engage in our communities, to what we demand of our leaders, every day, long after the votes have been counted. 

These are individual acts, but they lead to collective power: Civic power. Cultural power. Social power. And yes, political power. We’ve done this before; we can do it again. From Philadelphia to Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall, Americans have marshaled these forces to bring about meaningful, lasting, powerful change in America. Not because it was easy, but because it was hard. 

And now? Now, it’s our turn. If we dare.

Thank you.

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Views on the news? Share them Oct. 29.

The conversation will take place this Saturday, Oct. 29, from 9:30 to 11:30 am at the Lincoln Community Foundation building, 215 Centennial Mall South, in downtown Lincoln. 

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