Treat the People’s Needs as Holy

By: Leah Daughtry

April 7, 2020

Ethical Questions for the Religious Voter

A few short weeks ago, the American political landscape was consumed with the news coming out of Super Tuesday. Over just 72 hours, voters from South Carolina and the 14 states that voted on March 3 upended the Democratic presidential nominating contest and put one candidate clearly at the forefront. Since then, the presidential election cycle has taken a back seat to the coronavirus pandemic, as the nation’s attention focuses on containing and managing the spread of this deadly disease.

These may seem separate and distinct issues, but they are not. Both events—the nominating contest and the pandemic—highlight issues of leadership and of policy, the things at the very heart of our election decision-making. 

Stripped bare, elections are ultimately about people: how we live together in a civil society, and how we care for each other and tend to our needs. Viewed through this lens, they are a near tailor-made platform for people of faith to engage and translate their values into concrete action in the public square. After all, at the core of all major religions is the idea that our connection to a divine creator informs, shapes, and guides our interactions with the world around us and the people in it. 

Nevertheless, however pure our faithfulness, the evidence shows that our life experience and social location also inform our electoral decisions. Often, particularly in the case of race, gender, and income, these factors influence our ultimate decisions about what policies to prioritize and which candidates to support. How else to explain why Black and white churchgoers, sharing similar faith and doctrines, and equally fervent in their devotion, wind up prioritizing different policies and supporting different political candidates?

I am an African-American woman, a fifth-generation pastor, and a third-generation Pentecostal—a denomination known for its socially conservative bent. In my whole life, I have heard exactly one sermon on abortion and none regarding LGBTQ issues. These two particular issues, which rank high in importance among white conservative churchgoers, are a mere flicker on the register in Black church circles. Do Black churchgoers have opinions about these issues? Yes. Will these issues make or break a candidate? No. 

For example, while white churchgoers advance “sanctity of life” concerns as a primary value, and therefore see the ending of legalized abortion as key, Black churchgoers take a broader view and include other economic, civil, and social issues in their definition of “sanctity of life.” That is to say, their concern for the sacredness of life includes both the unborn and the born, and therefore as much attention—and maybe more—needs to be given to quality of life concerns for the people we encounter every day. 

So then, for Black churchgoers, who are a significant segment of the most consistent voting bloc in the nation—Black women—the definition of moral issues is broader and more expansive than the two normally ascribed to the “culture wars.”

Ranking far higher on the scale of concerns are issues that affect the day-to-day lives of the communities and people entrusted to our pastoral care: accessible healthcare, affordable housing, good schools, personal and public safety, a fair justice system, economic stability, and increasingly, creation care. On these issues, there is much debate on what policies will best serve our communities and which candidates’ values best ensure progress.

We have refused to narrowly limit morality or moral voting to just the two issues of abortion and same-sex marriage. Instead, morality or moral voting encompasses a far broader set of concerns that includes how we care for our neighbor and our communities. Even here, we have decisions to make, policies to advance, and candidates to support. 

So how do we, the faithful, navigate these waters? What guidance can help us to make thoughtful decisions that align with the values of our faith?

First, accept responsibility. We are citizens of this world, at least at this moment. (Consider this a nod to those with a strong Christian eschatological bent, including me.) Every area of our lives is impacted by the decisions made by politicians and policymakers, whether directly impacting the church corporate, the people who comprise the church, or the communities where we live. Our American democracy allows us the opportunity to imprint our values on the policies that impact those whom we are called to serve, by electing people who will advance those policies. We would be remiss, indeed negligent, if we did not take advantage of this opportunity to affect policy. This means accepting the responsibility of engagement in the public square, with the first step being to know the issues and then to exercise our franchise and vote. 

Second, “treat the people’s needs as holy.” This phrase, coined by Obery Hendricks in his book, The Politics of Jesus, references human beings as creations of the divine, imbued with the breath of God’s own self; the things they need to survive (food, water, air, love, justice, economic stability, etc.) must be treated as essential and consecrated, or “holy.” This being the case, the faithful must be prepared to pray and fight for the values and the policies that ensure that these needs are met. 

Third, get understanding. “In all your getting, get understanding,” writes the sage (Proverbs 4:7). Effective engagement requires knowledge and understanding of the needs of the community you serve, as well as knowledge and understanding of the issues of the campaign season so that you can weigh them against the values of your faith. This is the quintessential “what would Jesus do” nexus. And while Jesus is not on the ballot, his values are. What does your faith and sacred text say about creation, poverty, equity, healthcare? What policies best reflect these values and/or which candidate would best advance these values?

Lastly, take action. It is not enough to believe and to understand. Taking action is critical. After all, “faith without works is dead.” Translating our faith into action, working to imprint our values on public policy, and representing our faith in the public square is necessary to ensure a society that reflects the equitable and just world that our faith demands.

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