Can’t see the poll for the pulpit


Article VI, paragraph 3 of the U.S. Constitution reads, “The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

The last phrase is of special interest in recent days as a number of black clergymen have admonished their congregations not to vote in the upcoming presidential election.

While Constitution poses no religious test, these congregational leaders insert their own.

The footnote of their directive is that they should specifically not vote for Mitt Romney, out of political and perhaps religious motive; and that they should not vote for Barack Obama — their presumptive favorite (although this paints with an overly broad brush) — because he supports gay marriage. The church leaders report that their congregations want to know how a true Christian could back same-sex marriage, as Obama did in May. As for Romney, the first Mormon nominee from a major party, congregants question the theology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — and its former ban on men of African descent in the priesthood.

While there’s little question which candidate is expected to win the black vote (in 2008 he got 95 percent of the black vote) the nation’s first African-American president can’t afford to lose any voters from his heretofore solid base.

Well-intentioned as these clergymen may be (sidestepping the whole anti-gay bigotry dimension), this tactic is flawed in innumerable ways. While one may wish to use an appraisal of a given candidate’s perceived religiosity as a selection criteria, when doing so causes an overly-narrow view, the process becomes distorted.

Foremost, it must be acknowledged that all candidates represent compromise. To align oneself in perfect lockstep with any candidate is to submerge oneself in the cult of another person. As history amply demonstrates, this is a path to destruction. Disagreement is healthy. Disagreement perturbs us out of complacency. It causes us to defend the beliefs we hold and the positions we take. Moreover, a little disagreement keeps us from blind idolatry and political fetishism.

This clarion to forfeit one’s franchise is also flawed because it rebukes the sacrifices of those who paid for you to have it. It brushes aside that bridge in Selma, that balcony in Memphis and all those lesser monuments of struggle that were no less costly.

Moreover, sitting at home naively allowing others to decide your fate is anathema to the canons of participatory democracy.

Yes, we elect others to represent us, but their election should be as a consequence of our direct participation in their assent to office.

Beyond that, allowing others to subsume your franchise abdicates your moral privilege to dissent. In other words, if you don’t cast your lot one way or the other — then you have no right to gripe about the outcome. There is no democratic consolation prize for sitting in the corner, breath held like a petulant child.

Frankly, that learned, Godly men would so casually cast aside, not just their obligation, but yours as well is deplorable. It’s one of those moves that sounds like bold civil disobedience, but is in reality, little more than cutting off one’s own nose.

The right to vote is bigger than two men and their putatively dubious beliefs. When you fail to perform your duty — regardless of the motive — you have failed yourself and your nation. Moreover, if you believe that this nation exists as a consequence of God’s will, you fail to honor that as well.

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Matthew Pate, a Pine Bluff native who holds a doctoral degree in criminal justice, is a senior research fellow with the Violence Research Group at the University at Albany. He may be contacted via pate.matthew@gmail.com