The whole history of the progres of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle . . . if there is no struggle, there is no progress.”Frederick Douglass
I voted early, and it’s not the first time I voted early. So, what’s the big deal about voting? Whenever I cast my ballot and go back to my car, it takes me a moment to compose myself. To be forthright, it takes effort to keep from crying as I think about those who gave their lives to be able to do what I did.
My mind goes toward a time when someone like me wasn’t allowed to participate in our democratic process.
I think about all the times I didn’t vote because of my religious beliefs, and I get angry. How could I allow a religious construct to keep me from doing something so many Black people gave their lives for?
When I was young, both of my parents were strong in their faith, and my father was an elder, and I was on track to move up in the Church and eventually become an elder, so I did what I was told. Which forced me to quiet the inner voice that screamed at me when I was younger and saw people who looked like me being sprayed with high-pressure fire hoses, attacked by German Sheperd dogs, and beaten to the ground by the local police.
For what? The right to vote. The right to participate in the government many fought and died for. The right to be seen and heard through their vote.
I witnessed the struggle from afar, and every time the subject of voting would be discussed at Church, our pastor admonished us to remember that voting was the affairs of men and that we should keep God’s grander purpose in mind. God would make all right in the world and usher in a new order, and if we were faithful would be part of that grand plan.
While most of the people in our congregation adhered to what they heard, I suspected congregants from the south who nodded in agreement but secretly went off and voted. While they believed in the teaching of the Church, they also understood what it took for their family to obtain the right to vote, and that God would forgive them for exercising this “blood right.” I had no proof, only my suspicions. But honestly, I would have nothing but admiration if I had actual knowledge.
We were taught that God, through his son Jesus Christ would put an end to all earthly rule through the battle of Armageddon. So, I reasoned, if all the earthly governments were to be replaced, why would he care if I voted? I wanted to ask my father those questions, but because of benign control, I kept my questions to myself.
Benign control is one of the most effective tools any religion has. Simple in its concept and execution. If a church member’s action or conduct requires the pastor’s attention, he starts the conversation along these lines, “why would you ask such a question? [your question is the benign part] You know that God loves you; is this how you show your love for him? [is this how you show your love for him, is the control part]
The mere implication to the church attendee that their actions would disappoint God is all it takes for a priest, pastor, or elder to quell any questions and have a church member back in compliance.
Take a moment. You no doubt recall an experience with your pastor, priest, or elder where you had questions, and they asked you: why would you ask such a question? You know God loves you. Is this how you show your love for God? When that occurred, did you press your questions or walk away feeling you somehow offended God?
Benign control kept me from asking the questions I had on voting. I didn’t want to disappoint my parents, my fellow parishioners, the pastor, but, most of all, God. For years, I was dutiful and compliant. But I wrestled with my inner thoughts around the incompatibility of my faith and voting. A right for which so many gave their lives.
But then, one day, things changed. I was summoned to appear before the congregational elders for a reason I don’t remember.
From what I recall, they chastised me for something I considered trivial [the benign issue] but, in their minds, significant to the level they felt the need to humble me. Then they brought out the tried and true ‘is this how you show your love for God.’ [ the control]
It had the intended effect and drew the tears of remorse they wanted. There I was, a grown-ass man humiliated for some stupid trivial thing the elders felt they had to chastise me for.
As I replayed what took place on my drive home, I remembered the character Pedro Cerrano in Major League. He had a lousy hitting streak. He was talking to a wooden image of a voodoo god in his locker, telling him he prayed asking for his help but received none. He said, “fuck you, I do it myself.” That’s when I raised my middle finger and said fuck you to my religion.
Giving the middle finger to religion freed me in a way I could finally reconcile my feeling around voting and my former religious beliefs. I decided I would no longer be held in the grips of a religious derivative of Protestantism, which is a less restrictive version of Catholicism.
After casting my ballot today, sitting in my car, and reflecting, I felt a sense of guilt. How could I, for so many years, allow religion to control me in such a way I would turn away from voting, an inalienable right denied to Black people, because my religion thought it was contrary to the will of God?
Life indeed goes on, as do I. As I move forward, observing what is taking place since that meeting years ago, my decision to vote has been constant. But not my relationship with religion.
For me, religion has become a morass of conflict, confusion, and contradiction. It binds its adherents in a manner they stop thinking for themselves and follow church teaching without questioning.
I freed myself from those bonds and now see religion for what it is. Religion isn’t about God; it is about control. Controlling your mind, life, what you do and how you do it.
I extricated myself from that self-imposed restriction some thirty-seven years ago. I feel embarrassed it took me so long to pull myself away and shed the religious chains that held me back. I realized my struggle was nothing to what those who came before me had to endure.
Being ignored when they showed up to register, paying illegal poll taxes, being forced to take a citizenship test, and counting jellybeans in a bowl. My struggle was nothing compared to what they had to endure.
The history of their sacrifice kept gnawing at me all the years I caved to religious dogma. Their struggle haunted and helped me with my own struggle to get past the restrictive religious doctrine I held to. Fredrick Douglass wrote:
The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle … If there is no struggle, there is no progress.
I did not struggle like those who came before me; my struggle was different, but I had to overcome it. This is why I have come to a simple realization: voting is precious, and we should let nothing get in the way of exercising our right to vote. Especially religion.