Posts Tagged voting

Go Vote!

“We covenant to affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.”
Fifth Principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association

"I Voted" sticker with flaming chalice pinThe congregation I serve makes its major decisions by voting.  As a church belonging to one of the faiths descended from the early American congregationalists, we elect our own officers, we set our own budget and we vote to call our own ministers.  One of the primary benefits of membership in the congregation, in fact, is the right to vote on such matters, though we do not exclude sympathetic non-members from discussing the issues, too.  But it is a unique responsibility of membership to vote, to contribute in this and other ways to the collective wisdom of our decision-making.

We trace this tradition of congregational self-determination back almost four hundred years.  Indeed, with the rejection of religious hierarchy — rejecting both the king of England as the head of the church and the bishops as its officers — more than a hundred years before the United States declared their independence, the congregationalists were trying out democracy long before the country as a whole embarked on its similarly bold endeavor.  Liberty was the watchword in both cases, but for the churches it was specifically the freedom of mutual love.

After all, there is more to democracy than simply voting.  Being engaged participants, whether as members or as citizens, is essential.  And simply voting on an issue according to majority rule needs to be accompanied by a commitment on everybody’s part to stay in relationship, or else risk succumbing to divisiveness.  It is a fact of life that there will always be differences of opinion, so the real question is not which opinion is more popular, but how to live and work together before and after the vote.  The right to participate in shared decision-making is inseparable from shared responsibility for the health of the community, whether that community is one congregation or a whole country.

This makes efforts to rig elections all the more distressing.  I’m not talking about so-called voter fraud, which like other boogie men doesn’t actually exist.  Apply some reasonable common sense to the idea of repeated visits to a polling station while pretending to be a different person each time and it is clear that such a scheme would have little impact but require lots of effort and risk.  On the other hand, redrawing district lines to segregate certain voters or passing laws to prevent certain people from being able to vote at all are clearly ways to skew elections that, for all that they have the appearance of legality, are only sophisticated forms of cheating.  And since they inevitably target marginalized individuals — including women, people of color and poor people — they are also unjust and immoral.

We are already saturated with coverage of the various presidential campaigns in anticipation of next year’s elections, but this year’s elections — today’s elections, in fact — are just as important.  Candidates for national office often begin at the local or state level, working their way up as their political careers gain momentum.  Ensuring that we have capable officials who truly represent the will of the people, rather than special interests with deep pockets, begins — and is most critical — in so-called off-year elections.

For all those people who can’t vote or are prevented from voting, each of us who can do so should embrace with joy and gratitude the right and the responsibility to vote.  The purpose of an election is indeed to pick a winner, but when participation is low, whether due to voter apathy or deliberate disenfranchisement, then we all lose.

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Social Change, with Love

Remember, remember the fifth of November:
Gunpowder, treason and plot!

— British nursery rhyme

One Autumn night in 1605, agents of King James I searched the cellars underneath Parliament and discovered three-dozen barrels of gunpowder guarded by a man armed with a slow-burning fuse.  A few days earlier, Lord Monteagle had been warned of a plot to blow up the House of Lords at the Opening of Parliament, thereby killing the Protestant king so that he could be replaced by a Catholic monarch.  The plot was the work of a group of English Catholics whose faith was repressed by the king’s policies, and the man with the fuse had been recruited after spending years abroad fighting with the Spaniards against the Dutch.  Under interrogation he admitted that his assignment had been to blow up the House of Lords, and under torture he revealed the names of his fellow plotters, as well as his own: Guy Fawkes.  Found guilty of high treason and condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered, Fawkes jumped from the gallows in order to break his own neck and so avoid the excruciation of evisceration and dismemberment while still alive.

Guy Fawkes Night is observed in today’s Britain as a largely family-oriented occasion featuring bonfires, food and firework displays.  Originating as a mandated celebration that the king survived an attempted assassination, it has thankfully grown beyond its former anti-Catholic sentiment, and represents a uniquely British holiday on a par with the American Hallowe’en.  I remember when I was growing up in England that, in the weeks before Bonfire Night, children would make figures out of newspapers and old clothes and ask people for “a penny for the Guy” to pay for firewood, supposedly, the idea being that such figures would be burnt on November 5th in memory of Fawkes’ fate.

As we approach election day this week, we can be thankful that civic life in the United States proceeds considerably more peaceably than it did in seventeenth century Great Britain.  Living in a constitutional federal republic with democratically elected leaders, governance is ultimately the responsibility of the people themselves, rather than a monarch or a class of oligarchs claiming a special mandate, divine or otherwise.  Moreover, and essential to the functioning of democracy, the people are constitutionally guaranteed the rights of freedom of religion, of speech, of the press and of assembly, all of which are clearly alive and well given the popular movements that are challenging today’s political and financial orthodoxy.

It’s interesting to compare Congregationalism (as a form of church governance) and Federalism (as a form of national governance) since, in the United States at least, they evolved in parallel.  Unitarian Universalist congregations, for example, elect their own leaders (including ministers), given their covenant to affirm and promote “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large”.  As such we enjoy many and varied discussions about how individuals and groups of individuals can balance freedom and responsibility, how we might seek peace and do justice, and how we are called to use our blessings in service to the greater good.  Disagreements are, of course, inevitable, but we try to remember one ingredient that unfortunately seems all too often missing from society’s political discourse: love.  For, in the words of the legendary Universalist preacher Hosea Ballou: “If we agree in love, there is no disagreement that can do us any injury, but if we do not, no other agreement can do us any good.”

Love was certainly missing in the lives (and death) of Guy Fawkes and the Court of King James, but it need not be missing in our public lives, too.  As you go to the polls this week, and as you prepare to vote in next year’s elections, will you do so with love?  Casting aside fear, forsaking anger and rejecting cynicism, will you enjoy the privileges of citizenship with love for those with whom you disagree?  Avoiding self-serving pity, will you choose compassion, literally “suffering with” the poor, the hungry and the dispossessed?  When you vote, will you do so as if “the least of these” were right there in the voting booth with you?

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