Wake Up From Slumber: Civic Hy

“Elections belong to the people. It is their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.” – Abraham Lincoln

“And do this, understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber.” – Romans 13:11

A brilliant, dedicated emerging community leader confessed privately last month that he had never voted in any of the eight elections since he became eligible. This was one week after a similarly brilliant, dedicated emerging leader admitted the same thing. Nor had they registered. Both admissions came shortly after they hosted a voter registration drive.

These are not street “thugs” or uneducated paupers, but rather twenty-something professionals, well-educated advocates of public service and civic engagement. Both are active leaders in their churches and have been for years. Both are informed, impassioned champions of social justice, personal responsibility, public safety, education reform, and a host of issues that directly impact the public good. Yet neither had ever exercised their most fundamental right as American citizens to participate in the process of self-government. And they are not alone. Nationwide, voter turnout in the 2000 presidential election—one of the closest races of all time, ultimately decided by fewer than 600 votes—was a meager 54.7 percent, which is only marginally better than the 1996 presidential election at 54.2 percent. Among Latinos and Asians, the numbers for 2000 drop precipitously to 27.5 percent and 25.4 percent. In the 2002 midterm election, a paltry 39 percent voted nationwide. (Source: U.S. Census, Current Population Reports.) Most alarming of all, only half of all Christians are registered to vote, and only 25 percent actually vote.

Voter apathy is not new; since 1964, turnout for Presidential elections has fallen from 69.3 percent. But historical dysfunction does not justify dysfunction. Not voting in a nation where political power is premised on the exercise of its citizens’ right to vote is the height of civic hypocrisy, especially when eligible nonvoters invoke the right of free speech to complain about ineffective public policies and political corruption.

We live in a nation that has been a grand experiment since its inception. Breaking from millennia of history where despotic individuals or a powerful few ruled the many based on ambition, greed, nepotism, military might or other personal preferences, our founders crafted a system built of, by and for ordinary people. Marred though it was by slavery, gender, class biases and other shortcomings, they nevertheless provided ways to grow and evolve into a more just and inclusive system.

And it has evolved, through hard fought social, legal and military victories. In roughly 100 years after the Civil War, four Constitutional amendments extended the right to vote to Blacks (1870), women (1920), all citizens age 18 and older (1970) and further eliminated tax and other impediments (1964). The Voting Rights Act of 1965 provided federal enforcement of the new rules. Institutional barriers thus removed, we have no excuse not to get out of our Lazy-boy recliners and vote.

Whatever justifications we may offer—lousy candidates, feeling like our vote doesn’t make a difference, busyness, ignorance of the issues—the fact remains that voting is our ticket to participate in the process. When we fail to vote, we fail to earn the right to choose candidates, debate issues, demand justice, or advocate with integrity. Even worse, we trample the sacrifice of those who have given their lives to secure us the privilege and inspired nations around the world to adopt it as well.

The Apostle Paul indicts Christians who neglect this duty when he writes that our government is sanctioned by God, and that those who rebel against its precepts by choosing not to participate invite judgment on themselves. “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. … Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves” (Romans 13:1-2).

That’s not to say that there is one right way to vote as a Christian or that reasonable God-fearing people cannot disagree as to which candidates or issues to support. (Can Christians agree on much of anything?) But that’s the genius and beauty of our system. Political disagreement and debate are welcome. One last thought, convicting as it might be: what finally compelled the aforementioned young leaders to register to vote in what is arguably the most important election of a generation? Was it a Romans 13 kind of message by a contemporary preacher, the inflammatory rhetoric by a “profit” of a different sort or the rousing polemics of the respective political conventions?

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No.

What persuaded them was the well-crafted voter awareness campaign by evangelicalism’s favorite cultural whipping post, MTV, and its annual Video Music Award show. One after another, the prophets of pop culture —Jay-Z, Andre 3000 and even hair-brained Jessica Simpson—made the case that it’s our moral duty to go to the polls on Election Day. Regardless of which candidates you may support or what your reasons might be, do yourself and your nation proud on November 2. Understand the times, wake up from your slumber, and exercise your right to vote.

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