Saturday, November 6, 2010

Is it ironic for a church to be a polling site for voters?

During this last Tuesday's election day I noticed an interesting post on Facebook by one of my friends. She commented on how ironic it was for her to see a church as a polling site for elections. I'm going to take the bait on this one.

I'm wondering if it really is that ironic for a church to be a polling site. I guess the real question is - is it constitutional? Let's think through it. One major objection is that there is a governmental stance about separating the interests of the state and the church.  And a related objection is that people who end up having to vote at a church may feel compelled to vote based on the interests of the church. I'm not really sure how that follows, unless church members are actually standing outside telling you how to vote. But even if that were the case, is that really any different at any other polling site?

So I'm wondering if there are more people out there up in arms about church buildings being used as polling sites?  Or is it a cultural thing for a more diverse city like Chicago? (I've voted in other small towns in Illinois where polling sites were churches, and I never heard anyone complain.) Or is it just a couple of people out there who are ticked off at church?  Either way, this situation brings up an interesting scenario about the separation of church and state that I'd like to discuss. Granted, I'm much more of a theologian than I am a political scientist, so consider all my thoughts accordingly. Nevertheless, three questions come to mind for me.

1. What is the true scope of separation of church and state?
What originally inspired separation of church and state were circumstances in which politics and religion were so entangled that citizens were discriminated or tortured if they did not adhere to denominational stipulations supported by those in office.  The fathers of the constitution, however, held that the freedom of conscience is an inalienable right to every individual. So with respect to religion, people should have the right to exercise their religion according to the dictates of their conscience, without coercion from the government.  So the separation was a way to prevent government from souring the authentic expression of religion.  And so the policy evolved to where it is now understood that government and religion work best if they just stay out of each other's hair. (A couple of good reads about this are Michael Sandel, Democracy's Discontent, and Paul Griffiths, Problems of Religious Diversity).

But it seems that the government assumed a passive stance toward religion, preventing itself from engaging in religion (i.e., it is "neutral" and doesn't take a religious view). However, it does not follow to me that government initially took an active stance to prevent religion from engaging in politics. I think the founding fathers assumed that religion would necessarily be part of society, and that even "religious" citizens would have to voice citizenship through things like voting. But that in public, religious citizens and faith abiding political figures should have the sophistication to harness their religious view for the sake of political and civic dialogue. 

However, I think the modern interpretation of separation of church and state, that religion should be privatized and out of public sphere, is false.  I've written at length in other places for why this is so, but I won't get into it here. (Although, it's not very exciting reading.) I'll just say that if we privatize religion and prevent a community center, like a church, from participating in civic duties like being a voting center, then we discriminate our citizens who have inalienable rights to participate in government according to the dictates of their conscience, and offer their place for public use. Using a church as a polling site does not violate the constitution. The contrary is actually unconsitutional.

2. Are there really neutral, non-religious places?
So maybe you're upset that you had to go to an agenda-laden religious center to vote. But when you think about it, everyone and everything has some kind of religious stripe. Based off of my adventures in studying sociology, my understanding of religion is that it is anything that is comprehensive, centrally important, and that help helps a human being transcend his or her biological nature.  I don't believe that there is anything in life that is really "neutral" or "non-religious", except for the base functions of our biology. So sports, athiests, politicians, and public buildings are technically just as "religious" as church goers and church buildings themselves.  And, therefore, a statement like "there should be a separation between church and state" is technically a religious statement.  And when people say that others should keep their religious views to themselves, they are actually making a religious statement which they are (ironically) promoting others to believe.

And besides, you know that elections are not neutral. On election day you can't even walk 5 feet out of your car without being bombarded by someone telling you which way to vote.  Election seasons are the most "proselytizing" times of the year!

3. What is the appropriate way for a church to host a polling site?
So really, what this boils down to for me is two things:
a. Since religion is inevitably part of life, then people have to practice proper etiquette to engage their politics with respectful dialogue. We are entitled to have our own views of things, but we live in a pluralist and democratic society where others actually have views too.

b. Since we live in a consumeristic and marketing driven culture, we possess both the skill and the responsibility to make choices on our own, and not complain about who's telling you what to believe. It happens all the time and everywhere - it's how you end up eating at Burger King, buying a pair of jeans, or drinking your favorite beer. But fortunately we still live in a country where no one forces you to believe or choose one way or the other. At least that's what the founding fathers meant.

Hey, but I'd love your thoughts too. Anyone want to take the bait?

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