Column by Emily Perper.
“What kind of nation would we really like to be, and how do we get there on our own? I don’t think without God — we won’t get there without God. How can we get there and bring our politicians along with us?” Rev. Oliver “Buzz” Thomas asked at Sunday morning worship.
Thomas will serve Chautauqua as preacher for Week Two. His reading was Isaiah 65:17-25.
“It’s our first great glimpse of the Kingdom,” Thomas said. “Everybody has a house, and a vineyard and a job.”
“If we are to be ‘Kingdom people’ in our churches, in our synagogues, in our mosques, in our faith communities … this is what we need to be aiming for. It’s what nations ought to be aiming for,” he said. “Low aim, not failure, is sin.”
In 1630, John Winthrop declared America stood as “a city on a hill,” whereas the first governor of Rhode Island, Roger Williams, strove to show that American exceptionalism was a myth.
“We Americans always thought we were special,” Thomas said.
In the Bible, the goal of exceptionalism was service.
“If there is such a thing as exceptionalism — as American exceptionalism — it is for service, not for dominion,” Thomas said. “Sadly, America has developed a reputation for selfishness in many parts of the world today.”
Nevertheless, Thomas believes Americans are generous and creative problem-solvers. He pointed to America’s role in rebuilding after World War II and the aid distributed in the wake of the 2007 tsunami in Southeast Asia.
“(Our reputation) soared, because we cared,” he said.
But to Thomas, politics that promote out-of-control spending, which he called “exceptionally bad,” and a lack of environmental concern are a shame.
“The world needs American leadership like never before; here we are stuck in political gridlock,” he said.
According to Thomas, there is bad news and good news regarding the current political situation.
“Our politicians can’t get us there right now … and it’s not their fault,” he said.
That’s the bad news. The paradigms of leadership in Washington, D.C., have changed in three important ways. First, people are more isolated, which makes deal-making and problem-solving more difficult.
“When you know someone, it’s a different sort of disagreement that you have when disagreements come, because you don’t lose their respect,” he said. “Money drives politics.”
It costs $20 million to run a statewide campaign, and Thomas explained that ideological supporters are more likely to donate money to those campaigns. As a result, politicians are more likely to move to the fringes of their political parties to appease the donors.
Thomas said the good news is we can solve our problems without politicians.
“We have done it before,” he said.
He cited the grassroots nature of the civil rights movement as an example.
“Our churches, our synagogues, our mosques, our houses of worship can lead the way … must lead the way,” he said.
The Rev. Joan Brown Campbell presided. Robert Metzgar read the scripture. Metzgar is former owner and president of North Penn Pipe and Supply and a trustee of both Penn State University and Chautauqua Institution. The Chautauqua Choir provided sacred music. The anthem was “The Eyes of All Wait Upon Thee (Psalm 145:15-16)” by Jean Berger, and the offertory anthem was “Once to Every Man and Nation,” by Thomas John Williams. Jared Jacobsen, organist and worship and sacred music coordinator, led the choir.