God in the Voting Booth

Aside from the obvious jokes about how crowded it can get when God joins us in the voting booth, many religious people bring their faith with them when they cast their ballots. In fact, how could it be otherwise? Voting shapes the culture and society in which we live. For people whose religious beliefs are not simply about personal salvation or getting into heaven, but actually have aspirations for how life in the here and now is shaped, turning toward their chosen tradition is a given, as it should be.

Religion is not something we check at the voting booth door and it would be oddly oppressive to ask people of faith to do so. What is not oppressive is insisting that those same religious people not demand that all people follow their chosen faith.

Religious people need an ethic of voting which both honors their tradition, including its views on specific policies, while also honoring that we live in a country built upon the notion that all people are entitled to the same respect, regardless of the tradition they follow. They also need to think carefully about what it means to honor their chosen tradition.

For example, if more children would die from lack of healthcare than from abortions, assuming one believes that a child dies when an abortion is performed, which is really the sanctity of life issue? In that case, one could argue that supporting a candidate who favors radical healthcare reform and a woman’s right to choose is actually the more “Catholic decision!”

I know that various religious groups have tried to own specific issues as defining the acceptability of a candidate, but buying into those definitions reduces rich traditions to single issues. How sad for the followers of those traditions.

There are Jewish teachings on pretty much everything, and narrowing the definition of what makes a candidate more Jewishly acceptable to those issues which either primarily effect Jews, or which Jews have tried to own, turns a thousands-year-old tradition into a short list of talking points. Talk about tragic!

But it’s not only religious folks who turn to their most deeply held beliefs when voting; don’t many secular people bring their commitment to secularism with them when they vote? And despite what many will claim, the two are not so different from each other.

As in the case of religious folk who turn to the teachings they hold most dear when they vote, secular people do the same thing. They may call it their conscience or “doing what they think is best”, but it’s no different simply because they don’t appeal to God.

In all cases, the issue is not who or what we bring with us into the voting booth. The real issue is how much respect for others we bring with us when we vote, and how much appreciation of the fact that commitment to any world view is always more complex than one’s position on a single issue.

Responsible voters, religious or secular, should not bracket pieces of who they are when they vote. In fact, they need to expand their understanding of who they are and what their chosen tradition teaches. When they do that, they will not have to choose between respect for their faith and respect for the rest of us who do not share it – at least not nearly as often as we are led to believe we must.

Brad Hirschfield is the author of "You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism," and the President of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

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