Get Ye To The Polling Place! Voting As Civic Sacrament

A group of people stand in line waiting to vote early outside the North Miami Public Library on Friday, Nov. 4, 2016.
A group of people stand in line waiting to vote early outside the North Miami Public Library on Friday, Nov. 4, 2016.

Get Ye to the Polling Place! November 5, 2016

As election day approaches, two images surface in my imagination. The first is of my mother, born in 1920 to Swedish immigrants, who delighted in election day. “I voted today and no one tried to stop me,” she said every time. The second is of my neighbor here in San Francisco, Ryan. When our polling place was the entrance area at the Starbuck’s around the corner, he used to come with his two, then small, children and vote. I often came in while he was treating his boys to an after-voting snack. So there we were, sharing a neighborhood and sharing citizenship. Ryan and his boys in San Francisco connected by this public liturgy, this civic sacrament to Margaret, and her children in Iowa, all Americans.

I am comforted by these images of my mother and Ryan and me attending our American form of “going to church.” It is particularly comforting during this election when what should have been sacramental, communitarian actions have devolved into mob actions that destroy our shared American experience. Instead of animating and stabilizing and widening the trusses that support our common life, Trump’s “speeches” (I hesitate to place Trump’s jabbering into the hallowed category with Washington’s Farewell, Clinton’s words at the Oklahoma City Memorial Service or Obama’s talk on race), deny that there is any common life, any shared human dignity. Trump does not address a community; only a collection of aggrieved individuals. He speaks not to audiences but to mobs. And those mobs want no part of my American landscape where boys in San Francisco with glossy, black locks remind me of pale, blonde kids similarly initiated into the practice of voting. Our politics have been invested with this contagion. We will have to exterminate it. It will take vigilant work but we do have the tools. We have the political sacraments and doctrines that we can use to disinfect the spreading rot that these mobs have bred.

Lest “sacrament” remain a kind of “inside baseball” Catholic term, St. Augustine still provides a good definition: a visible sign of an invisible reality. I wear my “I Voted!” sticker with pride because it is a teeny sacrament of my citizenship. It is a visible sign of my relationship to our Constitution and to the identity I share with all Americans. Have you worn yours? People smile, give a wave, connect, and tell you, “I voted too!” Like left-over ashes as Lent begins, that sticker is a lapidary signal that invites community.

Our desire for community is not arbitrary. We are wired for community; we are on the alert to belong just as I am fitted to make the connection between a father and sons at the polling place and my own mother and her children. And it isn’t just the belonging that draws us; it is the shared values, shared language, and shared experience. We humans live in a constant pivot between how we think about our experience and how we express that thinking. The Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan called that process “appropriation.” That is, he described how we navigate our self-awareness to “grasp” our own personal identity. We don’t simply develop into human persons; we make all manner of decisions that massage us into who we are.

Sacraments are implements for this grasping, this appropriation, for the pivot between our inner life and our outer-life, our expressed identity. The most robust sacraments rise to the level called liturgy: “the public work of the people.”

We witnessed liturgy on Tuesday in Cleveland. With rally caps, and colors and singing, and standing up for the entire game, we celebrated our nation's great sport. I am not the first one to compare a ball-park to a church. That said, during this election that has been enslaved to personal selfishness by a gluttonous narcissist, it is worth drawing attention to the connection between public political actions and public spiritual (religious) actions. They are deeply related. They spring from the same humane impulses. The voting sticker, the ashes to begin Lent, the rally caps on the heads of young and old alike are signs of the affiliations that we run to when we want to express our deepest, best selves. Community is the playground of goodness; mobs the wasteland of malice.

Affiliation has also been thick on my mind this election, especially when the discussion turns to the “Millennials” or “Generation X’ers.” They are often described as “unaffiliated” or “nones.” I spend my days with them and I do not find them so. Indeed, I find such a description disrespectful and condescending. When I see them, as I do in their Santa Clara gear in class at Santa Clara, I am reminded of the same when I worked at Notre Dame. Obviously they go to SCU but they also want to express it, to affiliate with their academic home.

Lots of silly ink has been spilled about the escape from religious affiliation as though the church, the mosque, and the synagogue were antiquated, dried-out places that stifle our spirits. How pop; how silly; how uninformed; how spirituality illiterate. Certainly there are churches and mosques and synagogues where the practice has become stale but that is a function of implementation. A poor institutional expression does not mean that institutions are inherently useless.

And look what un-affiliation has done to our politics: it has created mobs. Un-affiliation, where the community answers to no shared wisdom, allows the public-preacher to spew hatred that masquerades as policy. Just as sacraments have political forms, so do doctrines. Doctrines are the conceptual trusses of a shared identity. They are the truth-claims that gathered communities make about the reality that they share. Our Constitution contains its own “doctrines” calling them “truths.” They are well-crafted discursive anchors that stabilize our form of self-government.

In religious institutions, doctrines function to translate the community’s understanding of God’s character into specific historical actions. Christians and Jews and Muslims answer to their tradition’s teachings about God’s relationship to all reality. If I asked the woman I see in the grocery store with ashes on her head, she can tell me what doctrine is being expressed in that public sign.

Doctrine has gotten a bad name as though it is a collection of rigid ideas written by power-hungry men. Far from it. Doctrine means “teaching” and if we are anything, we are the teachable creatures. We first open our eyes hungry to learn, yearning to be taught, listening to hear the familiar voices un-muffled at our birth.

Of course our world is saturated with bad practitioners of teaching. But it is also gloriously alive with rich teachers. Did Ms. Obama not lately take us all to school about human dignity and our American values?

The answer to poor teaching is not to burn down the school but to renew it, to enrich it precisely by affiliating with it. The response to un-affiliation is not to praise it as though this new crop of persons knows something about community life that previous generations have not discovered. Just as it has always been, un-affiliation is merely a signal that our institutions, like all things human require intentional care and constant renewal. Without institutional affiliation our humanity shrinks. Look what has happened without a strong institutional Republican Party. Because the wise leaders relinquished their teaching role, a viper moved into the vacant space. If we have learned anything from this nominee it is that communities matter; affiliation unmoored from liturgy and doctrine is dangerous.

We affiliate because we know we must answer to the human community writ large, including our earliest sisters and brothers, the ones who discovered the itch to create. They knew that the animals whose images they painted could not engineer the lighting as they did nor could they source and craft the ancient art supplies that mark but an early step in human liturgy.

They knew they did not share all the features of the animal figures they recreated on caves deep in the earth. But they knew they shared some features. Herding, hunger, as well as violence and fear.

When our humanity emerged so did the conundrum that we still face: just what is it we share with the herds and flocks and swarms? Are we simply rough beasts? Is the only difference that some of our appetites are insatiable, like the search for knowledge or love or beauty? Whence those longings? How is our hunger for food and safety related to our hunger for joy and relationship?

So what did they do? They affiliated; they created communities, institutions. And in turn, those communities worked out wisdom in both conceptually anchored doctrines and imaginatively anchored rituals. And here we are, a long way from Lascaux, still making use of the same scaffold for the same puzzles of human existence, unless of course, we ignore the wisdom, unless we decide not to affiliate.

Learn a lesson from our religious institutions. They guard wisdom; they protect and proclaim it. Our political parties should do the same with our American wisdom.

So voting is prayer service of our great Constitution, where we proclaim our American wisdom. That wisdom emerged from the intersection of vast natural resources and the psychological liberation from ancient class systems. Those conditions allowed us to craft a new way of being a people. The American “doctrine” is that we must self-govern towards the common good because human dignity demands it. Those conditions allowed us to craft a new way of being a people.

But remember, the truth claim about human dignity and the common good was long since recorded by the Jews as the essential wisdom with which they formed a people out of competing tribes. Their genius alerted us to the dehumanizing character of the tribe. And following them, Christians and Muslims crafted their own distinct notions of how a people can be formed. But the key word is formed. We have been formed into a people; we are not simply a collection of individual beasts like the herds that our ancestors tried to understand by painting them on the walls of their homes.

Mosques and synagogues and churches help our spirits flourish. Our spirits shrink without the care of a gathered community. The glorious 7th game was better at the park than alone with the TV.

Practicing our civic and religious liturgies and doctrines leads to goodness. Goodness grows in community. It becomes more robust, stable, enduring. Without communities of wisdom, those features that we share with animals are not elevated towards goodness; they remain basic functions of self-preservation and selfishness.

We Americans remain "groups" at our peril. The so-called "nones" risk shrinking the human search for meaning into idiosyncratic practices that are not readily shared. Or to small clusters of the like-minded who never have to answer to voices other than their own. Such practices un-moored from the wisdom of a community are a breeding ground for selfishness, fertile ground for tribalism to re-emerge. Our institutions do their best work by creating communities that answer to hard fought wisdom.

The polling place is our civic church, mosque, synagogue. Exercise your American spirituality, help get out the vote. Wear your “I Voted!” sticker with pride. By acting like an American, you will have done the public work of the people. Vote. It is both a civic and a religious act.

So I repeat, Get Ye to your polling place! And while you are at it, give a church or mosque or synagogue a chance too.



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