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Remembering 'We, the people' as community of voters, faithful

By Whitney Bodman
Special to the American-Statesman
The Rev. Dr. Whitney Bodman is past president of Texas Impact and retired professor of comparative religion at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

I am a proud Congregationalist, member of a Christian tradition that goes back to, and beyond, our Mayflower ancestors.  It is a free church tradition, governed by neither bishop nor creed. Christ is our bishop, and the Bible our creed.  

Congregationalists were prominent among the founders of this nation, and the congregationalist philosophy helped shape our Constitution. The first words of the Constitution, “We, the people,” reflect the inclusive egalitarianism that is the Congregationalist ideal.   

Jesus said, “wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I among them.” Our gathering makes Christ present.

 As a community, we work constantly to understand who Christ wants us to be, what he wants us to do and what a Christlike world looks like. When significant decisions need to be made, we gather, we discuss, and we vote. 

Voting is a hallowed tradition for us. We take it seriously, both within the church and in the public square.  

Abraham Lincoln summarized the Constitution in 10 words: “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”  This ideal is at the heart of my church tradition. 

Of the people. Like our congregation, our legislature is not reserved for the elite. There is no one “holier than thou.” All of God’s people are cherished. 

By the people. Just as we do not leave our major church decisions to pastors or elected boards, we cannot leave governing to legislators. The Holy Spirit rests fairly upon us all. Governance of nation and state is the responsibility of every citizen, every day, not just on election day. We participate by phoning, writing, tweeting, visiting, lobbying, and even rallying on the south steps of the Capitol. Silence is the mistress of tyranny. 

For the people. People of faith understand that we work not just for ourselves but for others, the “least of these.” Our Christian responsibility is to treat their needs as our own. The power and policies of government are one means to ensure that needs are met. 

My work as a member of my church and as a citizen of this state and nation are thus closely entwined. 

Given the high attention focused on election policy, I read Senate Bill 1. 

I help people in my church get mail-in ballot applications, follow the directions, and send them in. For this I could, under Senate Bill 1, be subject to criminal prosecution.   

Some of the older folk, and some with disabilities, cannot produce identical signatures every time. Their ballots could be thrown out. Simply giving people a ride to the polls requires filling out a form. 

Partisan poll watchers will be freer to pester voters and even watch their voting.  They pledge not to do so, but experience tells a different story. Election judges (one from each party to remove partisanship) are tasked with monitoring the polls. If there is a disagreement, if judges rebuke an overaggressive poll watcher, the judges are subject to civil penalties, even jail, but partisan poll watchers are not subject to any penalties at all.  

There is impediment after impediment to free and fair elections. 

It would be unjust for “we, the people,” and irresponsible for “we, the faithful,” to allow our elections to be so burdened.  It violates the congregational principle that values the precious participation and inclusion of all God’s people. 

The Rev. Dr. Whitney Bodman is past president of Texas Impact and retired professor of comparative religion at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Doing Good Together is compiled by Interfaith Action of Central Texas, interfaithtexas.org.