Ten Days for Democracy

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Ten Days for Democracy:
King, Heschel, Voting Rights, and Praying with Our Legs

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow*

During the five-week struggle over the Florida and national dyslections, public discussion was driven almost entirely by lawyers and politicians. Rarely were the voices of religious faith, universal ethics, or spiritual search heard above the fray.

That voice is needed.

Imagine that our religious communities begin this coming year by shaping Ten Days for Democracy: the ten days from Friday, January 12, through Sunday, January 21, into a sacred time for reflection, affirmation, and action on behalf of electoral democracy.

And imagine that we make the Inaugural moment, noon on January 20, into a time of prayerful presence in Washington DC and in the centers of our major cities.

Why those days, and what would we be doing?

As the struggle over who gets to be installed as President ends and the country absorbs how closely divided we were (not only in the voting booth but in the courtroom — crucial 4-3 and 5-4 decisions by the Florida and US Supreme Courts), we might take a breath and consider whether there is any role for our religious communities beyond the battles over partisan advantage and political interests.

I think there is: The role of setting forth the deepest values of the American religious communities concerning the nature of electoral democracy.

If the religious communities do take on this role, it is very likely that the people will respond. For out of the furnace of our national bafflement and anger there is arising one glowing redemptive recognition: The electoral status quo is dangerous. If our electoral system is not to slip even further into undemocratic shoals, we must take vigorous action to make it far more democratic than it is now.

Is this a question for religion to take up? We have done so before. For the last 225 years, movement after movement has arisen to broaden and democratize electoral democracy in America. When Americans first began to vote, most states restricted the ballot to property-owners, whites, males, often to people over 30. In the most recent great struggle for voting rights, the one that opened the ballot to African-Americans in the South, the religious communities were prominent.

It was no accident that in 1965, at the climactic march for voting rights in Selma Alabama, two of the key leaders were the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. It was no accident that on returning home, Rabbi Heschel explained, "I felt that my legs were praying." It was no accident that the involvement of hundreds of clergy in demands for voting rights helped win passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

This coming January, the celebration of Dr. King's birthday (real and official) will fall on Monday, January 15. The celebration of Rabbi Heschel's "yohrzeit" (the anniversary of his death, which Jewish tradition celebrates rather than the birthday) begins on Friday evening, January 12, and continues on Saturday, January 13. And the inauguration of the next President takes place on Saturday, January 20.

So we have a crucial opportunity to focus public attention on the immorality of an electoral system that rewards great wealth, penalizes the poor whose ineffective voting machines operate to disfranchise them, punishes the creative exploration of new policy, and enhances the power of local machines through winner-take-all votes for the electoral college. An electoral system that even now, 36 years after passage of the Voting Rights Act, lets some states turn African-Americans away from the polls in greatly disproportionate numbers.

Imagine that we begin this coming year by shaping Ten Days for Democracy — the ten days from Friday, January 12, through Sunday, January 21 — into a sacred time for action on behalf of some real demands for real change to renew electoral democracy:

1) Either abolishing the electoral college or dividing each state's electoral vote in proportion to the vote inside that state;

2) Requiring and paying for uniform, safe, accurate, and effective voting mechanisms for all federal elections.

3) Requiring "clean money elections" and campaign finance reform: Public financing of political campaigns, with strong incentives to forego private money and soft money, as recently adopted in Maine, Vermont, and Massachusetts.

4) Providing Instant Runoff Voting (IRV): Voters name their second and third choices, who get their votes if their first choice does not get a majority. This encourages the creativity of third parties without penalizing the leading parties or the voters themselves if they want to build support for an alternative.

5) Other specific reforms, such as investigating and ending violations of the Voting Rights Act; free access for candidates to radio and TV; restoring voting rights to former prisoners; requiring states to allow "fusion" candidacies, in which third parties may co-nominate the same candidates as the leading parties (as in New York).

What could our churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples do?

We could make many or all these reforms the focus of sermons, congregational meetings, teach-ins, town-meetings, and other such forms of citizen education during the Ten Days for Democracy.

We could even make the Inaugural moment, noon on January 20, into a time of prayerful presence in Washington DC and in the centers of our major cities — Proclaiming it is God's work to make sure that when we assess the will of the people, everyone is able to take part, without corruption or confusion, coercion or connivery.

Marching once again alongside Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel; marching once again for the right to vote and vote fully. Not simply marching: praying as they did, with our arms and legs.

*Rabbi Waskow directs The Shalom Center , was among the original Fellows of the Institute for Policy Studies, and is the author of From Race Riot to Sit-in (Doubleday), Godwrestling — Round 2 (Jewish Lights), and Down-to-Earth Judaism (Morrow). Several secular organizations are pursuing these questions and can supply educational materials — especially the Independent Progressive Politics Network at 973-338-5398 or indpol@igc.org and Public Campaign at (202) 293-0222 or info@publicampaign.org.

Copyright (c) 2000 by Arthur Waskow. Please do not circulate without permission.



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