“For it is not enough just to give men rights. They must be able to use those rights in their personal pursuit of happiness. The wounds and the weaknesses, the outward walls and the inward scars which diminish achievement are the work of American society.”
– Lyndon B. Johnson upon the passage of the Voting Rights Act
It is time for the religious left to become a stronger force for equity and justice in the US. We do our best: We take to the streets. We volunteer. We feed one another. We vote. We work for fair wages. We give back. Yet despite these varied efforts, the sand keeps eroding beneath our feet.
What are our ethics? What is the firm ground we can stand on? As a Pagan, my ground is a profound experience of the Sacred infusing all things. It is a sense of divinity here with us, in every face, voice, tree, insect, drop of water, and distant star. This causes me to seek out connection and to center my actions around love as much as I am able.
The radical Christians I work with – and the Muslims, Buddhists, and Atheists – may not use the same language as I, yet we share a common ethic of action based on equity and justice. In each of them, too, I see the great returning to love. We can carry this love outward and take a stand for the disenfranchised, the poor, the oppressed, and those whose voices – singly – do not carry far. Together, our voices can become a harmonious concert singing a song for the present and for the future we are orchestrating.
Structures in Place
Those who run the world don’t want to give up their position. Those who have had advantages gained from a history of oppression sometimes want to think that they have no advantages, or that they are entitled to advantages. Some even believe that measures taken to make things more equitable give others an unfair advantage. These people swim in the waters of privilege and do not see that the rest of us are too often parched with thirst.
Think of the complaints of some Christian, or wealthy, or white who see the rise of pluralism as an attack on their way of life. They are correct.
In a pluralistic society one group of people does not have more power or influence than any other. The society is woven together from many strands, each contributing color and texture to the whole. Those who are used to being the predominant color or texture in the fabric can start to feel pushed out by these greater levels of equality. Those who are used to always being heard can feel dismayed by increased diversity of voices. This is what Doug Muder aptly names “The Distress of the Privileged.”
The distress is real. Things are changing. White supremacy is being challenged, as it should be. Christian hegemony is being undermined, as it should be. Some of us with greater levels of privilege adjust, and learn to live within the shifting landscape. Others fight back.
One fighter is Edward Blum. Blum wants to take away race-based concessions in the political system, treating everyone equally. This can sound like a noble venture. The trouble is that the playing field is not level. Systemic racism and sexism are very real things, creating a structure of disenfranchisement and oppression. People may cry out, “My parents didn’t own slaves. That was a long time ago!” while never realizing that the systems put in place during the brutal regime of slavery still affect us today.
Blum has a lot of money. The recent Supreme Court decision came about because he bankrolled Shelby County vs. Holder leading to the striking down of Section 4b of the V.R.A. last week. Blum’s money and influence give him a loud and disproportionate voice. A political system built around those who have the most money is not democratic. A democratic system, if we are to have one, requires that all are represented in an equitable manner.
Equity means fairness. It does not mean that two rich white Christians get a louder voice than 30 poor whites, 25 Latinos, 40 African Americans, 4 Pagans, 5 Hindus, 1 Bahai, and 12 Atheists.
The Voting Rights Act offers a chance of full participation in government. Its passage ensured that states with a history of voter suppression could not change voting laws without checking with the federal government. The VRA is an attempt at establishing equity.
This article by Paul Shepard states: “with 13,000 separate voting districts around the country, there are 13,000 different ways that elections are conducted, opening the doors to discriminatory practices to disenfranchise minority voters.”
Disenfranchisement in the US is real and present. If a high percentage of poor people don’t have IDs and my state decides to pass a Voter ID act, then poor people have less of a chance of true representation. The power of their voice decreases. If district elections help Latinos get governmental representation, then district elections support the process of equitable government.
“One person, one vote” is a good policy, but is not sufficient to build systems that foster fair treatment, health, and happiness for all. As long as we are living within cascading systems of racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and religious intolerance, we are hard pressed to build an equitable society.
Systemic racism is a consistent force of disenfranchisement. So is classism, which often goes hand in hand with racism. This racism isn’t the ugly face of the screaming bigot, but rather is embedded in the interlocking systems that uphold the status quo.
“[Justice] Ginsburg quoted an F.B.I. investigation of Alabama legislators who referred to black voters as ‘Aborigines’ and talked about how to keep them from the polls: ‘These conversations occurred not in the 1870’s, or even in the 1960’s, they took place in 2010.'”
The ability to enforce the Voting Rights Act on a federal level ensures that all citizens have an equal chance to vote in federal elections. Without that – without section 4b – disenfranchisement will rise once again:
People like Blum say that they are working to eliminate racial bias. However, acting as though skin color (or economic class) has no place in civic decisions is naïve. We are not a “post-racial” society. Young black men in my community are killed at an alarming rate, often by police. Young black and brown men are stopped and frisked constantly. Young black and brown men are prosecuted four times as often for marijuana possession as young white men. This prosecution leads to jail time. Jail time leads to difficulty getting jobs. Felony convictions mean a person cannot vote. This systemic disenfranchisement is only compounded by tactics designed to make voting more difficult for those not part of a rapidly shrinking white majority.
The Religious Left
The neo-Conservative religious right has banded together, even in the midst of doctrinal disagreements, becoming a force of political clout in the U.S. They are wreaking havoc on our society, impeding our ability to build an equitable, just, and beautiful world. They want to maintain their privilege, but the cost to our society is high.
The religious left, in all of our plurality, would do well to make common cause with one another and with activists working for justice. We cannot build a just society as long as we allow differences or varied agendas divide us. We cannot build a just society by minding our own business. We have to reach out our hands, and find the places of connection where that which we hold sacred dwells.
Working in coalition to solve the current predicament of a toothless Voting Rights Act is one place to begin.
I’ll meet you in the field of love. I’m holding out a hand.
Note: though I consider myself an Anarcho-Socialist, I choose to participate in the voting process. I’ll work for justice by as many means as are at my disposal.