Week 28: American Democracy: Individual Liberty; Equal Vote
“Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains or slavery? Forbid it. Almighty God! I know not what course others will take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
— Patrick Henry
“Those who deny freedom for others deserve it not for themselves.”
— Abraham Lincoln
Individual liberty and equal vote are two principles at the very core of our democracy. And both are at greatest risk at times of the greatest division. Indeed, our divides are deep. To encounter them, I need to turn no farther than to my friends. It pains me: I’ve seen divisions weaken the bonds of lifelong friendships. How important it is, now in our hour of maximum division, that we manage these sharp differences within the vessel of a strong and resilient democratic system.
America’s changing. When I was born in 1955, America was 87% non-Hispanic white and 91% Christian. Today, America is 58% non-Hispanic White and 65% Christian. It seems to me our divisions stem in no small part from the tensions arising from our ever-growing diversity.
Like tectonic plates, “old” America and “new” America are in slow-motion collision. The old must slowly, inevitably give way to a rising new; the inexorable force of it makes that certain– but the jolts and tremors and earthquakes along the way are shaking our very foundations. That is why, as the ground shifts, our five core pillars of American democracy (individual liberty, equal vote, equal justice, equal opportunity and truth) must show both strength and resilience. Especially so for the first two of them.
246 years ago, the Declaration of Independence was passed by the Continental Congress. Its signatories pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honors to the cause of liberty. Ever since, the notion of individual liberty has been central to our evolving American experiment. What is liberty, exactly? To have meaning, it must be attached to a “from”. “From” is a relational word. From tyranny… from excessive government… from those who would compel or censor us. We Americans value our independence; it’s woven into our constitution, history and stories. We are protective of our freedoms and distrustful of big government. We value free speech. We value our rights.
But as we declare our right to speak our truth, do we embrace the responsibility to hear the truth of others? As we declare our right to believe what we believe, do we respect the beliefs of others that run contrary to our own? As we pursue our right to economic opportunity and justice, do we demonstrate concern for the right of others to access equal opportunity and justice?
Each of us has our vantage point. As a white, Anglo-Saxon American living in the suburbs west of Minneapolis, I enjoy, largely unimpeded, many fruits of handed-down liberty. But I have a friend– a fellow Christian who has served with me in prison ministry work– whose shoulders are not as unburdened as mine. My African American friend lives near Santa Monica, CA. He boasts an MBA, a rising-middle-class job and a nice car. And about once every three months, as he drives around his neighborhood, he gets pulled over by the police. His shoulders are (unlike mine) weighed down; his liberty hemmed in.
Of course, liberty cannot mean freedom to do whatever we want. Individual liberty does require boundaries — though never due to police bias, such as my friend has experienced. As the free swing of my fist meets the end of your nose, my right to liberty ends. Yours takes over. Time and again in our diverse nation, liberties sought by one group have come into conflict with liberties claimed by another. It seems to me that as important as individual liberty is, we must hold it humbly and carefully– recognizing the need to balance ours with others’. Ultimately, this balance can only be found within the workings of our democratic system.
As I have repeated throughout this Rising Leader Series, all people and things exist in relationship– with God interwoven. Yes, we are unique– but we are also interdependent. This is why equal access to the vote is so fundamental. Voting rights and individual liberty are two sides of the same coin. In our liberty, each individual exerts the freedom of thought and speech so essential to a healthy democracy. Each of us has the right to express our needs and views. Doing so enriches the contest of ideas so central to the democratic process.
But that process must also be free and fair. As important as individual liberty is, we must also respect that every American is of equal worth– worthy of an equal vote. To seek to lessen the voting power of a competing group is to attack the foundation of our democracy.
As I write, active efforts are underway to suppress the vote and to place 2020 election deniers into election oversight roles. This is dangerous. Going further: gerrymandering, voter suppression, and secretive vote-counting are also wrong. Yet all of these are happening right now, right before our eyes. Where is our righteous, universal condemnation? Who will mobilize a bipartisan movement to push back on such fundamental threats? Perhaps it falls to you, good leader. So much does.
We make democracy healthy when we debate our competing ideas and claims in free and fair elections; when we cast our votes (via mail or in person) unimpaired by complicated steps; when losers concede and winners win as determined by transparent vote counts; when victors are sworn into office without disruption. As I said in my last letter to you:
American democracy is more important than party, more important than policy positions.
Our American citizenship comes with the duty to fight for everyone’s liberty; everyone’s equal vote. When these are threatened, we must take notice and act.
As for me, I’ve made a decision. For at least the next two election cycles, my vote will not be based on policy at all (in spite of deeply held beliefs). I will base my vote on just one simple question: which party, which candidate, most supports the strengthening of American democracy? If we all were to do the same, even for just two election cycles, our democracy would quickly heal. Whether it be by this path or another one, America needs leaders of goodness to rise up– now– in defense of American democracy.
One more word to my fellow Christians. You and I believe God gave us both free will and equal worth. Consider this. Other than democracy, no governmental form keeps these in balance. All others are despotic. Yes, “of, by and for the people” comes from God; democracy is sacred. And so, my Christian friend (whether Republican or Democrat), can you see that it is our divine call to protect the vote? Protect the vote. To those who call themselves “Christian”, yet seek to tilt the scales to give their side an edge, I say “God forbid”. For to rig democracy is to slap the face of Jesus Himself.
Next week, we will explore the third of the five core American ideals: equal justice.
“So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality…” — Acts 10:34
P.S.: The vote: it’s sacred. It’s fundamental to our constitutional, representative, republican democracy.
What shame I felt when witnessed Jesus flag
waved high by mob that knocked down freedom’s door
What pain to see my Savior on a rag
as if He’d led events deplored, abhorred
Is it not clear democracy best fulfills
God’s twin benefactions bestowed at birth?
For with His gift of dangerous free will,
God gives us also love-kissed equal worth
This is why “of, by and for the people”
is the most sacred governmental form
The elected establish what’s legal;
Their job to debate then enact our norms
The vote! The vote! Fair, pluralistic, free
This, only this, will safeguard liberty
Previous Week’s Letters: