Voting is a matter of faith, citizenship and democracy. It is a kind of prayer and faithful testament to the belief that every citizen bears a responsibility and equal right to determine the future of governance in society.
A personal reflection
As a young woman in South Carolina, I vividly remember the first election in which I could vote. Living two hours from my home in Greenville, I drove one Monday night from Winthrop College, where I was studying, in order to vote the next day. This was only a few years after Aug. 6, 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which outlawed discriminatory voting practices adopted in many states after the Civil War. Southern states predominantly had employed literacy tests, poll taxes, grandfather clauses and other tools to keep African-Americans from voting.
As a young woman born and raised in the South, I was no stranger to the racism that fueled these practices and the difficult work it took to defeat them. While landmark political and legislative outcomes were born out of the struggle, the Civil Rights movement did not begin as a legislative revolution. The passage of the Voting Rights Act followed the tireless and bold actions of countless individuals, communities and organizations – including many churches – standing up for voting rights.
I remember the sense of responsibility and consciousness of my own human dignity in contributing to society. My family and The United Methodist Church had instilled in me the value of making the world better through voting. As an 18-year-old, I knew that my grandmothers, my mother and my aunts were born into a world in which they could not vote. When I first did so, other communities had just recently secured the enforcement of suffrage: the right to vote in political elections. We might know the word suffrage to mean the right to vote, but the second definition is worth noting: suffrage is also a series of intercessory prayers and petitions. Voting offers a way to create change, but it can also be an act of prayer and faith.
Voting in United Methodism
The right to vote is not simply a democratic value. It is a United Methodist one. Our Book of Discipline regards political participation as the privilege and responsibility of citizens. It explicitly affirms voting rights as the basis of the form and function of government (Paragraph 164). The right to freedom and the responsibility to God and to each other frames voting rights as vital to our participation in society.
Ensuring all people have equal access to voting is of the utmost importance. The United Methodist Church affirms the right to vote by any adult citizen as a basic freedom and human right. It is predicated on the basic dignity and respect of all people. Voting can be a channel for people of faith to influence the world in which we live.
Clergy like Joseph Lowery, James Lawson and Anna Howard Shaw – Methodist leaders in movements pursuing civil rights – understood this.
The United Methodist Church supports and calls for the implementation of non-discrimination in voting practices. This right is precious. Christian values teach us that we must prevent discriminatory actions and policies aimed at silencing individuals and communities.
Voting today: faithful civic engagement
Today, however, this right to vote is not secured for all. In the United States, threats to voting rights are emerging. They range from limiting polling hours to requiring documentation that costs money to the stripping of voting rights from formerly incarcerated people to the Supreme Court's decision to strike down Section 4b of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. All are antithetical to the statements of the church and the historic work of United Methodists.
Our belief as Christians and United Methodists in restorative justice calls us to care for the incarcerated and those returning to life in society. Returning citizens have a right to be seen, heard and to take part in the political process; they have a right to exist fully as a part of society. Voting rights are commensurate with full restoration.
Because as Christians and United Methodists we believe in racial justice and non-discrimination, we are committed to ensuring African-Americans, immigrants and other minority communities have equal access to voting. The targeting of minority communities with voter ID laws, intimidation, purging voter rolls and other tactics must be stopped. "All people are created equal" – and this extends to voting rights.
Because as Christians and United Methodists we believe in economic justice, we must work to ensure everyone, especially the working-class and those in rural and inner city communities, has the opportunity to vote regardless of access to paid time off and accessibility of polling locations.
Casting the vote, transforming the world
On Election Day and in the spirit of suffrage, I always utter a little prayer for my grandmothers and the women of that era who worked for their right to vote, for the civil rights leaders who pursued prayer and voting rights, and for all of the clergy, laity and other citizens who are engaged in the ongoing efforts to preserve this right for all.
The mission of The United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. One way to transform the world is through the enactment of policies aimed at fostering justice and peace. As people of faith, we must never take for granted the right to vote and must honor the memory of those who fought for suffrage.
May we remember both definitions of suffrage and continue to vote prayerfully at all levels and for all offices so that we might transform the world.
The Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe is general secretary of the General Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church.
Originally published in Interpreter Magazine, November-December, 2016.