US Catholic Faith in Real Life

COMMENTARY: Religious communities can do more to get out the vote

By Tom Ehrich | Print this pagePrint |

c. 2014 Religion News Service

(RNS) Much is at stake in this year’s midterm elections.

* A low voter turnout would be disheartening. If people get the government they vote for, then not voting at all distorts the outcome. The stay-at-home party can’t be read, can’t be responded to or taken seriously. African-Americans in Ferguson, Mo., haven’t been voting there, and the result has been a white government employing a white police force.
* A do-nothing Congress must be called to account. Trying to undermine a president and selling out the nation to get re-elected aren’t acts of governance. They are a mockery of legislative duty.
* The world has grown more dangerous. We need wisdom in office, not ideological fervor. We need statesmen, not partisan hacks. We need people who know how to work together and to compromise.
* The U.S. economy is struggling. People are suffering from unemployment, subpar wages, lack of opportunities and anger over perceived unfairness. If we slide further into oligarchy, the entire nation will pay a stiff penalty in further inequities and further inefficiencies in the marketplace.
* Some legislators are itching to undo the social safety net. Among the targeted programs: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act and certain basic regulatory practices that rein in irresponsible banks, polluters and monopolists.

If this is what the voters want, then fine. Majority rules. But in the absence of voters’ voices being raised at the polls, those serving the rich can claim their actions are helpful to all, not just to their patrons.

I know religious communities get squeamish about venturing at all into political matters — even though Jesus himself devoted two-thirds of his teaching to wealth and power, the very essence of politics.

The threat of losing tax-exempt status seems to paralyze many religious leaders.

So does the threat of offending their own constituents. Imagine preaching radical generosity to the wealthy, as Jesus did. Imagine preaching justice to the intolerant, as Jesus did.

That squeamishness isn’t going to vanish soon. But religious communities still can contribute by working in voter registration drives and get-out-the-vote campaigns on Election Day. That isn’t a partisan exercise, though some ideologues always want to paint it that way. It’s basic patriotism.

The more Americans who vote, the more we have a stake in the system.

Voter support is especially important in areas where one party is working to discourage voters, in some cases enacting regulations that make voting more difficult by, say, African-Americans and immigrants.

Imagine churches that do more than open their doors as polling stations, but also send registration teams out in advance to get voters on the rolls, and then Election Day teams to help voters get to the polls and, in some cases, endure hassling by partisans.

This is a variant on a larger theme for churches: Get outside and help people; don’t just open building doors and wait for people to come in.