Sunday, September 21, 2008

Why I Vote the Way I Do--Part 1

Doxy's Note: Yet another series of very long posts...sorry. I started writing and couldn't stop--apparently I needed to sort it out for myself and writing is the best way I know to do that. You know what to do if it bores you.

If you do manage to slog through the whole thing, well...you probably deserve a medal. You surely have my thanks for your patience.

If you leave a challenge in the comments, I probably won't argue with you there, at least until I finish the series. I never finished my series of posts on racism because I got bogged down in the comments---lesson learned.
In the course of writing this, I've come to realize that it is important to me to get all the way to the end of it. Call it a spiritual discipline, if you like.

********************************************************************

In my last post, I talked about a disturbing encounter I had with a friend who is very conservative. I complained that he wanted me to justify the way I vote to him, but he's never done me the courtesy of explaining why he votes the way he does.

Just as a bit of background---as most of my regular readers know, I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian church and attended a school run by that church. As was expected of me by my teachers, I grew up to be a good little conservative. I cast my first vote in a presidential election for Ronald Reagan in 1984.

That all changed because I went to college and was taught to question what I was told and evaluate evidence for myself. I started out as president of the College Republicans at my alma mater, Memphis State University, and ended up pretty much where I remain today---a strongly progressive feminist with deep commitments to social justice and humane economics.

Since my college days, I've spent many years thinking very deeply and seriously about politics. From 1987-1994, I was a doctoral student in political science at Vanderbilt University, and I taught there and at two other universities. Although my specialty was International Relations, I taught just about every political science topic you can think of.

Whatever else I may be, I am not an uninformed consumer of political information.

But my diatribe about my friend got me to thinking---have I ever REALLY articulated to myself, or to others, why I vote the way I do? Other than to say that I think my faith demands it?

So the other day, on my long drive from Dear Friend's back to my house in Raleigh, I started making a mental list. Following is what I came up with.

I don't pretend that any of my arguments are air-tight---but I have arrived at my positions by trying to think deeply and honestly about who I am called to be in this world and what I am called to do, by virtue of both my faith and my humanity. I think about what it would be like to have to look Jesus in the face and answer the question "What did you do for the least of my flock?" I'd like to be able to answer that question honestly and without shame. And, for all the verbiage that follows, that's the reason I do what I do.

*******************************************

I vote the way I do because...

I am a Christian. First and foremost, this is my reason for voting for progressive politicians and policies. Jesus was very clear what our responsibilities on earth are---love God and love one another. Take care of the weakest and most vulnerable, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit those in prison. (Matthew 25: 31-46) He explicitly says that if you don't do those things, you will be sent away to eternal punishment.

Now you probably all know by now that I don't believe in a literal hell or eternal punishment. But I do believe that Jesus was deadly serious about this issue of caring for others. And the truth is that I, as an individual, do not have the capacity to look after all the vulnerable people in my community. I certainly take it as a duty to do my part---but I consider that part to include supporting progressive social policies that provide a safety net for those who are less fortunate than I am.

(For the political scientists out there, there's also John Rawls' "Theory of Justice" to consider--one day I might need those policies myself! Empathy is a huge reason to vote progressive.)

My Christianity is not some "girly," weak-minded, "why can't we all get along and have a group hug" kind of faith, despite what my friend seems to think. It is no coincidence that my favorite Old Testament character is Jacob, and my favorite story is the one where he wrestles the angel (or could it be God in disguise?) and says "I will not let you go until you bless me!"

That is the story of my faith---an endless wrestling match with God, hard, sweaty, and dangerous. I have been marked by it, as Jacob was. I have been twisted and wrung out and I limp towards God now, one hesitant step at a time. I will never have the certainty that some Christians do---never believe that I know EXACTLY what God wants. The only thing I can do is look to Jesus, author of my salvation, who was very clear about what it takes to do his will.

I have been marked---but I have been blessed, as well. And I will NOT take that blessing only for myself and say "I've got mine. You're on your own." I vote the way I do because I don't see that attitude applauded anywhere in my Bible--and certainly not in the life or words of Jesus of Nazareth.

************************************************

I believe in a strict separation of church and state. Now, at first glance, this may seem a contradiction to my first statement. It isn't, of course. I don't want government and church mixed because I want my church to be safe from government intrusion, and I don't want the government to have the power to compel me (or anyone else) to believe or worship in a particular way.

In other words...if I wanted to live in a theocracy, I'd move to Iran.

(If you need a Christian reference, just remember what happened to the German churches under National Socialism.)

My Christian values inform my politics, but I don't want to impose them as a condition for citizenship, election to political office, or eligibility for benefits. Given the choice, I'd much rather be governed by our resident self-described atheist, IT, than I would by George W. Bush, who has made a mockery of the "Christianity" he brandishes like a billy club.

I am a Christian who believes we should honor the American social contract by extending help to all those who need it---without religious strings attached. I want my government to provide the social safety net for every American citizen, rather than relying on churches or individuals to do it all.

Churches--and individual acts of charity--are an important part of the safety net, but only secular government can ensure that people are helped regardless of their religion, race, sex, marital status, sexual orientation, etc. No one in this country should go without food, shelter, or medical attention because they don't fit the "right" profile for a religious charity. I believe that allowing such things to happen is an insult to God and a violation of the most basic requirements of us as human beings.

Caring for the "least of these" is not a strictly Christian value---you can find that in almost every religion and philosophy in the world. We can adopt the humanitarian stance embedded in religion without corrupting public policy with religious dogma or corrupting religion with political power.

I believe that confusing religion and politics does violence to all involved--not only legal, social, and economic violence, but spiritual violence as well. That means I don't want my government enforcing religious dogma on people who do not share it. For me, forcing religion on people ranks as one of the most heinous things you can do---it totally corrupts religion in the service of power. It makes a travesty of faith, demoralizes and endangers the one to whom it is done, and demonizes the one who does it.

If you don't believe me, read up on the Christian Crusades---or study the plight of women in Saudi Arabia under Islam.

"That couldn't happen here!" you say? If I hadn't followed conservative evangelical Christian politics, I might agree with you. Having done so, I believe "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." (Wendell Phillips)

I vote the way I do because I don't want the government using religious tenets to deny me the right to use contraceptives or choose an abortion. Those choices have moral dimensions, and my church has every right to declaim on them. Politicians who don't know me or my story have no business doing so.

I don't want the government using religious doctrine to tell me who I can or can't sleep with, or to keep my gay and lesbian friends from getting married.

I don't want the government involved in teaching religion in schools or in mandating that my child's science teacher teach creationism or "intelligent design" in his public school SCIENCE classroom. I don't want government supporting adult-led public prayer in public schools, either. I will teach my children theology at home and at church, thanks very much--I don't need or want the government's help in that department.

We live in a plural society, thank God. That diversity of opinion and belief is what keeps us safe from the theocrats who would impose their tiny view of God on others, and start lighting the bonfires for the heretics among us. Tinkering with the Constitution and trying to play favorites with any particular religion is playing with those fires---and we all know that, when you start playing with fire, you are going to get burned.

Jesus was pretty clear that government and religion were two separate things. In answer to a pointed question tempting him to make political statements, he said "Render to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's." (Matthew 22:15-22) This is one of the few issues that will ever cause me to say "If it was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me."

I'll always vote my Christian values, but I'll do it in a way that keeps religion and politics as separate as possible.

*********************************

There will be more to follow. Lots more.