Sermon: Our Faith in the Vote

Seven months ago I recounted to you an amazing moment in my life and ministry that embodied in the photo you see on the cover of your order of service. Having come for the 50th anniversary celebration of the Civil Rights marches in Selma, Alabama I found myself crowded together with hundreds of others along the Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of the Bloody Sunday beatings a half century before, in one of the most diverse assemblies of people I’ve ever been a part of. Despite being pressed together, though, there was an easiness among us communicated in smiles and casual banter amid the singing of freedom songs and the laughing of children that gave me a glimpse of what racial peace and racial justice might look like in this country.

Selma was a focus because as a result of actions there, accompanied as they were with hardship and tragedy, one of the greatest victories of the Civil Rights movement was won: the adoption in 1965 of the Voting Rights Act.

Federal protections for Civil Rights had been passed the year before, but they were largely toothless until African-American had the unfettered right to vote. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made the point, as you heard earlier, eight years before the March on Selma in his first speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1957: “So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote I do not possess myself. I cannot make up my mind – it is made up for me. I cannot live as a democratic citizen, observing the laws I have helped to enact – I can only submit to the edict of others.”

African-Americans had been given the right to vote in the 15th Amendment adopted in 1870, but Jim Crow laws passed across the South in the next couple of decades that enacted poll taxes, literacy tests and other restrictions took most blacks off the voting rolls.

The Voting Rights Act swept those restrictions away, and the impact was dramatic. In following decades, the percentage of blacks in the South registered to vote rose from 31% to 73%, and the number of black elected officials increased from fewer than 500 to 10,500 nationwide. In future years, the act was expanded to lower the voting age to 18 and provide protections for language-minority groups such as Hispanics in Texas, Asian-Americans in New York and Native Americans in Arizona.

So, there was much to celebrate in Selma, but not without concern, too. For what has gained less attention since the Voting Rights Act was adopted is that just as Southern lawmakers in the 19th century passed laws to frustrate the effect of the 15th Amendment, laws passed across the South since 1965 have chipped away at voting rights to the point that today many of its protections no longer have the effect they once did.

Many voting districts were gerrymandered or switched to at-large voting to dilute the African-American vote. At the same time, a new wave of voting restrictions have emerged in the South and many states beyond, that while they no longer specifically invoke race, have the effect of reducing the voting by minorities, particularly blacks and Hispanics.

They have curtailed early voting, purged voting rolls, denied the vote to ex-felons and required proof of citizenship or government-issued photo IDs to cast a ballot. This trend culminated with a decision by the Supreme Court in 2013 that hobbled the most effective tool in the Voting Rights Act to protect free access to the vote.

It is technical tool of sorts with an unassuming name – Section 5. What it did was targeted states where in 1965 less than 50% of blacks were registered or where voting restrictions were in place. It said that these states – largely though not entirely across the South – could not change their voting laws unless the changes were reviewed by the US Department of Justice. And it had been invoked repeatedly since 1965.

In the Supreme Court decision, though, Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, argued essentially that Section 5 was a relic, that conditions in the states that were targeted by the Voting Rights Act had changed, that in each state strong majorities of African-Americans were now registered to vote. So, he said, the formula that targeted those states, which was based on conditions in 1965, no longer applied and should be discarded. The court’s 5 to 4 decision freed those states from federal oversight.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg led the dissenters She pointed out that while black voter participation had improved, it wasn’t for lack of legislators working to dilute and reduce the black vote.

She noted that in 2006, when Congress reauthorized the Voting Rights Act for another 25 years, hearings documented that since 1982 the Department of Justice had blocked more than 700 instances in those targeted states where attempts were made to keep blacks from voting. Also, she said, while there are now fewer instances of bald discrimination, there was an increase in what she called “second generation barriers” like gerrymandering that reduce black voter participation.

Eliminating this tool of enforcement when it is working to reduce voter discrimination, she said, “is like throwing away your umbrella in a rain storm because you’re not getting wet.”

Our focus now shifts to the state level. Three weeks after the Supreme Court decision essentially neutralizing the Voting Rights Act, the North Carolina Legislature acted.

The Republican majority had already been debating some of the toughest voting restrictions in the country, such as strict voter identification, reducing early voting, and changing same-day registration rules. With the court’s decision they were put on a fast track and adopted.

North Carolina is an interesting case when it comes to voting rights. In 1965 with only about 47% of blacks registered to vote, it was one of the states given federal oversight under the Voting Rights Act, though only 40 of its 100 counties were covered.

Even then, overall voter turnout remained low. As late as 1996 we ranked 43rd in the nation in turnout. But due to reforms such as early voting and same-day registration voter turnout increased to 11th in the nation by 2012.

In debate on the bill, North Carolina’s legislative leaders claimed that the changes were needed to prevent voter fraud, but they provided essentially no evidence of it, and certainly none linked to the reforms. The North Carolina NAACP sued, arguing that the law was intended to silence black voters, since African-Americans were twice as likely to use same-day registration and early voting as whites. In 2014, they lost a bid for an injunction in circuit court, then won a reversal in the Circuit Court, before the Supreme Court reinstated the restrictions. The full case was argued to the district court judge in Winston-Salem last July, and we now await his ruling.

It was Dr. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, whom we hosted in this pulpit last month, who dubbed this moment “Our Selma,” and the parallel is apt.

For we remember that in Selma in 1965 we faced people in power determined to twist the tools of democracy to shut others out. So in North Carolina in 2015 we find people in power once again using the machinery of government to shut others out.

If nothing else, the struggle we are in is proof of the power of the ballot. For where democracy holds sway, the ballot trumps all.

Give us the ballot, Dr. King said, and we won’t have to worry about people securing their basic rights.

Give us the ballot, and we can have confidence in the leaders we call to serve us.

Give us the ballot, and we have cause to join in the mighty work of building a beloved community that serves us all.

The principles at play here go back several hundred years to the thinkers who influenced the founders of this country, particularly the philosopher John Locke. Locke argued that “the state of nature,” the way things are, is a state of perfect freedom and equality. That is to say, no one is naturally better than anyone else.

To get things done, though, he said, we need government. And government, in his understanding, takes the form of a social contract where equal persons agree to serve a common good that is determined by the will of the majority. For government to be legitimate, he said, it must operate with the consent of those it governs. That means people must have a way of influencing the decisions of government, and the vote is how that happens.

We Unitarian Universalists embrace this notion in our fifth principle, which invites us to affirm “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” There’s a bit to unpack here. To affirm the right of conscience is to say that we trust in an inner guide that we each possess to help us find the right way, the ethical way to be with each other. We don’t make any claim as to the nature and origin of that guide – there are many opinions on that. But we trust and respect what it teaches.

And this connects directly to the second half of this principle, that we affirm “the use of the democratic process” as a way of deciding things that gives each person a say in the deciding.

And we regard the opportunity that we each have to influence how matters are decided in our lives not just as a nice thing to have, but as a fundamental right: it is something we are each owed simply by being present in the world. Another way to say this is that we have faith in the vote. It is our conviction that a vote is something that we each as individuals of inherent worth and dignity are owed and that it is through the vote that our hope as individuals in society will best be served.

It’s true that there is a great leap of faith embedded in this way of thinking because it means that we accept that whatever is decided is outside of our control. We can put our oar in, but in the end there’s no predicting where democracy will take us, and that’s OK.

History is full of doubters of that claim, people who distain others they consider less worthy than themselves who they seek to push past to wrest power for themselves. We reject that. We say that the uncertainty of democracy is a price worth paying because it’s grounded in a deeper trust.

John Lewis, the Georgia congressman who 50 years ago led the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday and took some of the first blows among the marchers, speaks to this. In his recent book, “Across that Bridge,” he mused on what for him were the lessons of that time. “All our work, all our struggle, all our days,” he said, “add up to one purpose: to reconcile ourselves to the truth, and finally accept once and for all that we are one people, one family, the human family.”

Our dedication to democracy carries with it a deep respect for and belief in the inherent worth of each of us, in a fundamental goodness at our core, and our belief that for all our foibles we are capable of making decisions that will serve and save us all.

Walt Whitman was known as the poet of democracy in that he saw in it not simply a style of governance but a vision something like Lewis’s. It is a way forward, he suggests in the poem you heard earlier, that depends on “the love of comrades,” on “companionship thick as trees,” on “inseparable cities with their arms about each other’s necks.”

It’s an image that carries me back, again, to the streets of Selma last spring. Too much to hope for? Well, there was a moment, a glimpse.

It is easy, I know, to throw up our hands at the electoral process. There is much in it that’s a mess, but thankfully I believe there is nothing wrong with our democracy that can’t be repaired by applying more democracy. The trouble comes when we absent ourselves and check out of the game. Because when we do that, all it means is that we give over our power and leave the decision-making to others

Instead, let us be faithful agents to bring about the change we want to see, to bring into being a society that makes room for all, that serves us all. Won’t you join me in the work of this congregation. Get out and vote yourselves, and help us make sure that every woman and man has access to the precious franchise that is the hallmark of our democracy: all colors, all ethnicities, all people.

Rev. Barber offers us the call:

Forward together, not one step back

Forward together, not one step back,

Forward together, not one step back.