Americans will pull out Old Glory this weekend to celebrate Independence Day. Coming off a war in Iraq and with soldiers still dying there, the mood is highly patriotic this July 4. In addition, we are only a couple of months away from the second anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11.
I applaud genuine displays of patriotism by citizens, but I have to wonder whether some are hypocritical.
The last time my small county in south Georgia went to the voting booths was during the primary runoffs last September. As I cast my ballot about two hours before the polls closed, I was stunned to learn that I was only the 29th person to vote. The runoffs were few and admittedly not very interesting, but that is not the point. The fundamental principle of participating in the democratic process is so important that we should vote if Daffy Duck were running against Bugs Bunny. How sincere is our flag waving if we don’t care enough to go to the polls on Election Day?
Imagine living in a country where you had no voice regarding the election of individuals who make the laws. We forget too easily the people who paid a high price for our voting rights.
In the 1840’s, Thomas Dorr sought justice for non-landowners–poor people of his day who were prohibited from voting. Though the Declaration of Independence stated “all men are created equal,” Dorr knew that in his state of Rhode Island, all were not treated equally. One place this was evident was at the ballot box. Through his revolutionary efforts, the way was paved for the poor man to vote. All states eventually removed land ownership as an obstacle to suffrage.
Women in the early part of the 20th century were considered intellectually inferior and incapable of participating in complicated politics. Alice Paul, a Quaker with a Ph.D., knew differently. Her protests in Washington, D.C., led to a jail sentence, from which she was pardoned seven months later by President Woodrow Wilson. Two months later, Wilson came out in favor of a suffrage amendment to the Constitution. Within two years, women had earned the right to vote.
In the early 1960s, Bob Moses left his high school teaching job in New York City and went to Mississippi to fight against unjust laws “made by white people, enforced by white people, for the benefit of white people.” In return for his efforts to help blacks gain equal treatment at the ballot box, Moses was beaten and shot at. He eventually left Mississippi and returned home, having seen very little progress. A few months later, though, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, ensuring equal access to the ballot box in the South for African-Americans.
When we do not vote, we dishonor these and others who have sacrificed to secure our right to vote regardless of financial status, gender, or race.
Through the ages, God’s hand has been seen at work through those who labor on behalf of the oppressed. The Christian faith teaches that God is a God of justice who notices the oppressed and judges the oppressor. “To deny a man his rights before the Most High, to deprive a man of justice–would not the Lord see such things?” the writer of Lamentations asks.
The right to vote is a privilege extended to Americans that has come at a price. But I wonder if Lady Liberty sheds a few tears when so few of her citizens exercise their right to vote. It seems a bit hypocritical to wave the flag during holidays while waiving our right to vote during elections.
Michael Helms is pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie, Ga. A version of this column appears in The Moultrie Observer.