Tag Archives: Supreme Court

What it Really Means to be on the Right Side of History

Presumably, by

Presumably, by “traditional marriage,” these folks mean the right have roughly 700 wives — just like King Solomon did in the Bible.

The “right” side of history. It’s a refrain we’re hearing a lot these days, especially since the tyrannical, unelected, black-robed demon horde known as the Supreme Court decided to scoff at the biblical interpretation of foamy-mouthed Fundi-gelicals everywhere by legalizing the rainbow plague of super-gay Homo-Sexxican Devil marriage across the formerly free-but-now eternally damned United States of Sodom and Gomorrica.

Predictably, fire-and-brimstone wingnut stalwarts went apoplectic over the Court’s decision. Perennial presidential candidate and last-remaining Ted Nugent fan Mike Huckabee blew about fifteen gaskets and advocated mass civil disobedience against the impending Homo-Hordes. “When we believe that the civil government has acted outside of nature, and nature’s god, outside of the bounds of the law, outside of the bounds of the Constitution,” Huck winged, “we believe that it’s [civil disobedience] the right and the moral thing to do.” Not to be outdone by the Huckster, Bryan Fischer — the Mississippi-based gonzo-wingnut radio jockey for American Family Radio — described the Supremes’ ruling on same-sex marriage as “the new 9/11,” and claimed to witness “Satan dancing with delight” over America’s newfound gayness. The Dark Lord Himself could not be reached to verify Fischer’s comment.

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Obamacare: The Ultimate American Wedge Issue

The pro and anti-Obamacare protesters at the the Supreme Court epitomize the ultimate divide in American politics.

Obamacare is dead; long live Obamacare. Or maybe not. Early in 2015, thanks to incessant conservative teeth gnashing, the Supreme Court will once again gird up its robe-covered loins to make a major ruling on Barack Obama’s signature law.

The plaintiffs in the upcoming King v. Burwell case claim that, according to the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) statute, the IRS exceeded the limits of its regulatory powers by allowing for both state-run AND federal exchanges. It’s a classic right-wing “states’ rights” argument. 22 states have already balked on setting up exchanges, and conservatives are betting that weeding out the federal cash that’s picking up the slack in red states will undermine the entire structure of Obamacare. No matter that blocking federal subsidies could yank insurance coverage away from upwards of 11.8 million people: after all, are there no prisons, no poorhouses?! Continue reading

Hobby Lobby and the Real Meaning of Religious Liberty

You have a right to religious beliefs that are scientifically inaccurate, but you don't have a right to make others subscribe to those beliefs.

As these protesters recognize, you have a right to religious beliefs that are scientifically inaccurate, but you don’t have a right to make others subscribe to those beliefs.

Ah, yes, America: it’s a country with no official state religion in which people of all backgrounds can practice their respective faiths without the government deciding which faith is “true” via legislative action. Well, at least that’s the kind of country the United States is supposed to be, but thanks to the right-wing Catholic dude-bro contingent of the United States Supreme Court, “religious freedom” apparently now constitutes the right to make other people (especially women) accept as fact your own particular religious dogma via laws that sanctify (in more ways than one) those beliefs.

I am, of course, referring to the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that allows closely held (ie., non publicly traded) corporations to be except from the Obamacare mandate that employers provide contraceptives as part of their female employees’ heath plans. In keeping with a millenia-old tradition in which “religion” has too often been a code word for men controlling how the wimmin-folk use their lady-parts, the court’s conservative, male, Catholic justices made up the majority decision, with Justice Samuel “The Catholic Crusher” Alito opining that closely held corporations have the right to deny women contraceptive coverage simply because said corporations believe that contraception is the same damn thing as abortion, which it ain’t.

As I discussed at length in an earlier post, the case was instigated primarily by David Green and his family, the fundamentalist Christian owners of the arts and crafts store Hobby Lobby. The Greens believe that certain types of birth control, specifically Plan B, Ella, and a pair of intrauterine devices are, in fact, “abortifacients;” i.e, they cause abortions. This belief, however, is completely, utterly, false. It’s wrong. It’s not right. It’s scientifically falsifiable. As Mother Jones’ Erika Eichelberger and Molly Redden note, “Alito and the four other conservative justices on the court were essentially overruling not just an Obamacare regulation, but science. According to the Food and Drug Administration, all four of the contraceptive methods Hobby Lobby objects to…do not prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg into the uterus, which the owners of Hobby Lobby consider abortion. Instead, these methods prevent fertilization.”

Hobby Lobby’s position makes a weird kind of sense when you consider that the hallmark of religious fundamentalism is its obsessive rejection of secular-scientific advancements that contradict “traditional” faith beliefs regardless of the empirically verifiable validity of those beliefs. But that said, let’s be clear: the Hobby Lobby folks are free to believe whatever they want, truth and reality be damned (or not damned, if you subscribe to their point of view), but they don’t have the right to impose those beliefs on other people. This is what we mean by the phrase “religious liberty” in America, and it’s why the Supreme Court’s decision is dunder-headed and just plain wrong.

The idea of “religious liberty” is a concept that was debated during the earliest days of the Constitutional era following the American Revolution, and it’s a concept we still struggle with today. In his book Religion in American Politics: A Short History, historian Frank Lambert identifies the core point of division between religious and secular forces in America. “[R]eligious coalitions seek by political means what the Constitution prohibits, namely, a national religious establishment, or, more specifically, a Christian civil religion,” he writes.* But those wishing to make U.S. laws abide by particular religious codes have run into the problematic reality of secular forces and other religious groups that also want, and deserve, a voice in the public sphere. As Lambert writes, “the result is sometimes a clash between the country’s secular laws, which reflect the tenets of liberal capitalism and the free exchange of goods, and the ‘higher laws’ that religious groups cite to condemn certain goods and services offered in the marketplace.”*

These six Supreme Court justices are Catholic. But guess which one didn't vote in favor of Hobby Lobby, and then guess why.

These six Supreme Court justices are Catholic. But guess which one didn’t vote in favor of Hobby Lobby, and then guess why.

Science is one of those secular forces that challenges religion in the public sphere, and it has the weight of empirical evidence behind it that sometimes runs afoul of religious groups’ by-definition evidence-free ‘higher laws.’ Because religion often relies of these ‘higher laws,’ some types of religious folks — especially Christian fundamentalists — are thoroughly convinced that their laws should be EVERYONE’S laws, because who would dare argue with the TRUTH?! It’s these sanctimonious scallywags — not religious people in general — that the Constitution wisely prohibits from establishing a theocratic government in America. And it’s this prohibition that fundamentalists like the Hobby Lobby goons want to challenge.

No figure in American history recognized the threat posed by overly self-righteous believers better than the most Founding Father-est of all the Founding Fathers: Thomas Jefferson. Ole’ T-Jeff eloquently detailed the problem posed by unshaken religious dogmatism in his 1786 Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom, a key document that he drafted in response to religious coercion by the Anglican Church. Before the American Revolution, the Anglican Church of England was the state church of the Virginia colony, and as such, all Virginians were legally compelled to attend church services and support its operations through taxation.

The Anglican Church’s domination of state laws pissed off renegade sects of Baptists and Presbyterians, and, in an effort to liberalize Virginia’s religious liberty laws in accordance with an independent, republican state — and to gain non-Anglican groups’ support for the Patriots during the fight against Britain — Jefferson, with much input from fellow Founding Father James Madison, drafted the Virginia Religious Freedom Statute in 1777. The Virginia General Assembly then adopted the statute in 1786. That’s right: Jefferson drafted his statute in support of religious pluralism in part to protect the rights of minority religions against the heavy-handedness of a state religion. He recognized that nothing dampens religious liberty more than Theocracy.

Among the key arguments in Jefferson’s statute is the timeless observance that some über-pious pilgrims just can’t help but force their particular beliefs onto others, and that American law must guard against this tendency. Jefferson warned against “all attempts” to influence the free human mind through “temporal punishments or burthens” imposed by “the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical.” He recognized that religious people, like ALL people, were “themselves but fallible and uninspired.” When these theocrats “have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible,” Jefferson wrote, they had only “established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time.”

Jefferson realized that forcing others to abide by YOUR particular brand of religious dogma is, you know, kind of tyrannical. Establishing any kind of state religion was “a dangerous fallacy which at once destroys all religious liberty,” he wrote, because the person wishing to force his beliefs on others “will make his opinions the rule of judgment and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own.” This is precisely what Hobby Lobby is doing by effectively trying to turn a purely religious belief into a state law.

Thomas Jefferson. He wasn't perfect, but on occasion, he did write some good material.

Thomas Jefferson. He wasn’t perfect, but on occasion, he did write some good material.

Justice Alito’s argument highlights this absurdity while at the same time sanctioning it into law when he writes that, “the owners of the businesses have religious objections to abortion, and according to their religious beliefs the four contraceptive methods at issue are abortifacients.” As Wonkette’s Kaili Joy Gray writes, “does it matter whether their ‘religious beliefs’ are in any way, like, scientifically accurate? Nope, writes Alito, because ‘it is not for us to say that their religious beliefs are mistaken or insubstantial.'” She thus reaches the disturbing conclusion that Hobby Lobby has “a First Amendment right to believe whatever they want…and that First Amendment right is far more important than, say, a woman and her doctor to choose the best method of contraception for her.”

And there’s the religious rub. By demanding that the highest court in the land recognize, through law, the utterly non-factual belief that “abortifacients” cause an abortion, Hobby Lobby is forcing its employees to tacitly accept the “validity” of their religious beliefs. This denies Hobby Lobby employees, as well as other workers now placed at the whims of their potentially wingnut boss’s non-factual religious notions, the right to be free from religiously based coercion. This is the kind of coercion Jefferson warned was a direct threat to actual religious liberty.

But perhaps I’m putting too fine a point on the whole “religious liberty” angle and taking Hobby Lobby a bit too much at their own word. Why, you ask? Because this whole Supreme Court brouhaha may have nothing to do with “religious liberty” and everything to do about promoting a patriarchal culture that keeps men in control over women’s most personal rights. As Mother Jones details, Hobby Lobby has for years included contraception in employer retirement plans and has invested in them via manufacturers of all kinds of birth control. Perhaps those who are the most vocally self-righteous are always Pharisees in disguise. Jefferson would probably agree, dammit.

And as far as the Supreme Court goes: the five-justice majority that decided the Hobby Lobby decision are Catholic, male, and conservative. Is it wrong for me to suggest that subscribing to a religion that opposes contraception may have influenced these justices’ votes? You be the judge of that.

* See Frank Lambert, Religion in American Politics: A Short History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 5,7.

Greece v. Galloway and America’s Long Sacred/Secular Mix

Where to drawn the line between the sacred and the secular in American society has always been a point of debate, and it probably always will be.

Where to drawn the line between the sacred and the secular in American society has always been a point of debate, and it probably always will be.

America has always been a deeply religious country. That’s just a plain fact. But saying that the U.S. is a religious country isn’t the same as saying that it’s a country with an official state religion. America has never been a theocracy, and trust me, we’re better off that way. This is why, despite the pipe-dreams of would-be modern theocrats on the Religious Right who want to impose their brand of fundamentalist Protestant Christianity onto every aspect of American life, the U.S. Constitution explicitly forbids the recognition of any state religion.

And while some religious-minded folks work themselves into an apocalyptic tantrum over this inconvenient truth, they should consider that church/state separation is beneficial to both entities. Think about it: let’s say you want to make Christianity the official religion of the United States. Well, which version of Christianity do you mean?

Surely you don’t mean those cracker-munching, incense-huffing, indulgence-selling Catholics and their sinister Papal overlord — right? Or what about America’s home-grown Appalachian snake-handlers? How’d you like to make a serpent-fondling suicide cult the centerpiece of your national spirituality? Or what about the Church of Latter Day Saints (aka the Mormons)? Sure, they say they’re Christians, but did you know they’re technically polytheists who wear weird, Minnesota ice fisherman-style long underwear? What about the Amish?! Okay, forget the Amish, they’re wise enough to generally avoid politics, but as for the rest of these groups: are these the “official” Christianities you want enshrined into state law?!

If you’re the typical, non-denominational, fundamentalist, white bread ‘Murican WASP, the idea of any of the above “Christianities” gaining state recognition should scare the (literal) Hell out of you. Wouldn’t it be better to have no state religion so that ALL faiths, regardless of their level of weirdness, can flourish in private — including yours? Of course it would better. That’s why it IS better that we have church/state separation.

This is why the recent Supreme Court decision in the case Town of Greece v. Galloway is really, really dumb. The case came before the Court after Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens — two persnickety, anti-God crusaders who are doomed to roast in the flames of Hell while listening to an endless loop of John Tesh playlists — claimed that the podunk city of Greece, New York violated the Constitution’s Establishment clause by opening its legislative session with a prayer. Galloway and Stephens had Americans United for Separation of Church and State on their side, but nonetheless received a legal smackdown in the form of a 5-4 decision — authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy — arguing that “Greece does not violate the First Amendment by opening its meetings with prayer that comports with our tradition and does not coerce participation by nonadherents.” This is legalese for, “Yeah, they’re praying to God, but no one’s forcing you to pray along.”

Susan Galloway (left), an atheist, and Linda Stephens who is Jewish, recognize that in Greece, they're prayin' to a VERY specific God.

Susan Galloway (left), who is Jewish, and Linda Stephens, an atheist, recognize that in Greece, they’re prayin’ to a VERY specific God.

Despite Kennedy’s claim that opening a governmental session with prayers is fine ‘n dandy as long as the prayers invoke “traditional” themes and are “addressed only to a generic God,” this decision is a cheap way to slide Christianity into official state recognition because, to absolutely no one’s surprise, the prayer offered in Greece, NY was a Christian prayer. As Slate’s Dhalia Lithwick observes, “What Kennedy did here…was to announce that as a matter of constitutional law, some religious traditions that are universal and longstanding are basically Christian.” Because Kennedy deemed that “Christian values are basically universal,” Lithwick writes, he “drew a line between ‘traditional’ and accepted religions, and religions that are ‘other.'”

The biggest problem with the Supreme Court’s decision in Greece v. Galloway is that it essentially sanctions non-Christian religions as “others” in the public square while suggesting that “traditional” Christian beliefs should be given some form of state recognition. This is counter to the entire American legal precedent of promoting religious pluralism. In terms of numerical representation, America may indeed be considered a “Christian” nation, but it’s never been just that — and has never been defined as such by law. Multiple faiths have always thrived within U.S. borders, including versions of Christianity — such as Mormonism — that were once violently persecuted by “mainstream” Christians before finally gaining acceptance (for the most part) after the passage of time. Prohibiting a state religion ensures that minority and upstart groups like the Mormons can thrive rather than submit to persecution by the state.

This unique relationship between the sacred and the secular in American life helped forge a country in which religions could flourish and influence public policy while never explicitly directing public policy. In his excellent book Touchdown Jesus: The Mixing of Sacred and Secular in American History, historian R. Laurence Moore describes the U.S. as “a secular state indifferent in formal ways to all religious institutions but dependent for its survival on their health.”* Indeed, the health of religious pluralism reflects the health of American equality. “[I]n the United States the expansion of equality has always involved the erasure of difficulties attached to being different,” Moore writes. Because religion has always been a “constitutionally privileged form of difference,” he adds, “religious pluralism has played an important role in advancing the struggles of many Americans held back because of their race, or ethnicity, or sex, or national origins.”*

C'mon folks, do you REALLY want teh government to give preference to this guy's religious beliefs?

C’mon folks, do you REALLY want the government to give preference to this guy’s religious beliefs?

In other words, by not privileging one religion over another, the U.S. has historically allowed different belief systems to grow and influence the public sphere in ways they could never do if there were an official state religion. The separation of church and state, then, has historically been less about the exclusion of religion and more about its unofficial inclusion. As scholars Marjorie Garber and Rebecca Walkowitz explain in their book One Nation Under God?, “those who use the language of secularism would have to speak to a secularism of presence, not absence.” What they mean is that, while the U.S. is unquestionably a secular nation with secular laws, religions always have — and always will — play a role in the pubic sphere “negotiating for voice and influence in public discussion.”*

The important thing is that Christianity shouldn’t get special treatment in the public sphere via the state’s Christening (see what I did there?!) of it as the one-true religion. The decision in Greece v. Galloway tramps all over religious pluralism like a drunk, cleat-sporting golfer on a putting green. By claiming that Christian prayer, no matter how generic and “traditional” it may be, can be used to open government functions — even local meetings in upstate New York — the Supreme Court is getting uncomfortably close to saying, “Christianity’s fine, but everything else isn’t cool, bro.” American religious pluralism has long protected and expanded the rights of religious minorities, both of the Christian and non-Christian variety. This is a tradition worth holding onto — unless you’re fine with taking up poisonous serpents as a prerequisite for voting.

* See R. Laurence Moore, Touchdown Jesus: The Mixing of Sacred and Secular in American History (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2003), 6, 5.  

* See Marjorie Garber and Rebecca L. Walkowitz, eds., One Nation Under God? Religion and American Culture (New York: Routledge, 1999), 17.

Hobby Lobby, Religious Liberty, and American Exceptionalism Gone Bad

Hobby Lobby is a a craft store run by veout Christians whose adherence to bibical teachings is so strict that they sell blasphemous Pagan paraphenialia.

Hobby Lobby is a craft store run by devout Christians whose adherence to biblical teachings is so strict that they sell blasphemous Pagan paraphernalia just so good Christian shoppers know what such forbidden items look like and therefore do NOT buy them.

Who’d have thought that a middle-of-the-road arts and crafts store run by religious nutballs would provide the most formidable challenge yet to Obamacare? Strange as it may seem, this is what’s happening as the U.S. Supreme Court holds hearings in the case Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Inc..

So what’s sticking in Hobby Lobby’s craw about Obamacare (aka The Greatest Abomination in the history of history)? Superfically, it’s about religion and birth control, but on a deeper level, it’s about power relations in U.S. culture. Mother Jones provides a fantastic breakdown of this bizarre case and details its significance in terms of shaping the future of American health care and employee-employer relations. But this case is also important for bigger reasons. Hobby Lobby’s crusade against providing emergency contraception coverage to female employees demonstrates the waning, yet still formidable power of religiously motivated American Exceptionalism.

As Mother Jones’ Stephanie Mencimer writes, Hobby Lobby is a privately held, Oklahoma City-based corporation owned by a trust managed by CEO David Green and his family. The Greens are hardcore Jesus Freaks who run their company in accordance with so-called “biblical principles,” and they’re suing the Obama administration over provisions in the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or Satan’s Law, if you prefer) that requires employers to cover emergency contraception, known as Plan B, in employee health insurance plans. The Greens believe that emergency contraception is a so-called “abortifacient” — a made-up word that means Plan B causes an abortion — and that mandating emergency contraception coverage therefore violates their pro-life religious beliefs.

No matter that the “Plan B=abortion” notion is pure hogwash — and no matter that other conservative Christians accept that plan B doesn’t=abortion — what matters to the Greens is that they believe that emergency contraception causes abortion, and that this belief should exempt them from full ACA coverage on religious freedom grounds. This would be akin to securing endangered species protection for Bigfoot based on the mere belief that Bigfoot exists, but Hobby Lobby’s case has proved attractive to the right-wing troglodyte majority on the U.S. Supreme Court — I’m looking your way, Scalito.

Much of the controversy over this case, as Mencimer notes, stems from Hobby Lobby’s assertion that “a for-profit corporation can have the constitutionally protected right to the free exercise of religion.” This previously asinine notion gained credence thanks to the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case, a decision that effectively granted corporations “personhood” via full first amendment rights. That’s right: corporations are now people, my friend! And some of these people don’t like the women-folk using birth control because Jesus…or something.

What tyhese protestors are fighting against is the assertion of religious dominance over personal, secular affairs.

What these protestors are fighting against is the assertion of religious dominance over personal, secular affairs.

But if you look at the broader assertions that the Greens are making, their Hobby Lobby case is about much more than a spiritual squabble over contraception. No, what we’ve got here is a contest over power — specifically, the power of religiously motivated American Exceptionalism to still hold sway over an increasingly science-dominated American culture.

Let me explain a bit further. As scholar Deborah Madsen writes, American Exceptionalism has been at the center of every major American historical event. It’s also been at the core of debates over what constitutes American cultural identity. Madsen defines American Exceptionalism as the idea that “America and Americans are special, exceptional, because they are charged with saving the world from itself” while simultaneously sustaining “a high level of spiritual, political and moral commitment to this exceptional destiny.” This idea dates back to the Puritans who described America as “a city upon a hill” that should serve as a redeeming beacon to a spiritually fallen world.*

Indeed, there’s no separating religious belief from American exceptionalism. The Puritans, as I noted in a piece for Salon, came to North America to establish a new heavenly kingdom on earth. Rebelling colonists fought the American Revolution based, in part, on the belief that Old King George was disrespecting their Creator-endowed inalienable rights. Nineteenth century westward expansion was driven by Manifest Destiny: the idea that Americans were chosen by the Christian God to conquer their land from sea to shining sea. Both sides in the American Civil War claimed to be acting on the will of God. And during the Depression and World War II, Americans were quite literally convinced that they fought in God’s name to save the world from the evils of fascism and communism.

In the twenty-first century, legal fights over “religious liberty” involve the same notions of American Exceptionalism, as conservative religious Americans struggle to maintain their long-established cultural dominance over a society that’s slowly but surely becoming less religious and more secular. Those convinced that a belief in God makes America morally, politically, and culturally exceptional interpret any challenges to religious authority as a challenge to their vision of American identity. Therefore, it doesn’t matter that, scientifically, Plan B contraception doesn’t constitute abortion. For religious authoritarians like David Green of Hobby Lobby, even the mere whiff of a secular challenge to the cultural domination of Christian fundamentalism can’t be tolerated. In Green’s mind, the literal soul of America hangs in the balance. 

It’s no coincidence that the rise of the American Religious Right happened after World War II and the triumph of the modern scientific age. In his book Redeeming Culture: American Religion in an Age of Science, historian James Gilbert notes that in the years following the Second World War, scientific secularism rose to its highest level of prominence in American culture, and it hasn’t looked back since. “Not only did science and technology provide the material of progress,” Gilbert writes, “but in their intellectual process, standards, and professions, they offered enticing and convincing ways to discover and organize knowledge.”*

A Hobby Lobby in Stowe, Ohio. Screw these jerks: just go to Michael's.

A Hobby Lobby in Stowe, Ohio. Screw these jerks: just go to Michael’s.

The rise of science to a previously unheard-of level of prominence in American culture proved problematic to religious folks who saw belief in God, not adherence to the scientific method, as the foundation of American exceptionalism. Religious Americans reacted to the rise of scientific secularism in different ways. Some accepted it. Some sought to improve on it. Others, however, dug in their heels and resisted it when they could. The Hobby Lobby folks and other modern Christian Fundamentalists fit squarely in the latter camp. “For reasons of self-preservation and expansion,” Gilbert explains, “American religions have been deeply concerned about the impact of scientific law and discovery,” and the long-running strategy of religious conservatives has been to resist marginalization at every turn.*

Thus, while Science and a secular government may say that emergency contraception doesn’t equal abortion, God says otherwise, and the Almighty’s Hobby Lobby holy warriors will be damned if they don’t put up a worthy spiritual — and legal — fight.

Hobby Lobby is contesting the ACA requirements because a victory in their case would mean a victory over the colluding forces of liberalism and scientific secularism, all of which they see embodied in the power of the secular state to institute universal health coverage. For Green and others, the fight against Obamacare is part of larger fight for the soul of America, nay, the soul of an exceptional America. They see themselves as generals on the front lines of the culture wars fighting to uphold their long-held, God-sanctioned authority in American culture. In their minds, losing the battle over Plan B coverage would constitute a major defeat in the larger war over the right to define the meaning of American Exceptionalism.

So make no mistake: Hobby Lobby doesn’t really care about “religious liberty.” What they do care about is the right to continue to define American Exceptionalism on their own terms and, by extension, the authority to decide the fates of women and employees in the broader socio-economic hierarchy. After all, those groups oughta know their submissive place — the bible says so.

* See Deborah L. Madsen, American Exceptionalism (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998), 2.

* See James Gilbert, Redeeming Culture: American Religion in an Age of Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 5, 16.

The Radicalism of Suffrage: Why Voting Matters in America

From Harper's Weekly: An example of racially-based intimidation of voters during the Reconstruction period. The caption reads, "Of Course he Wants to Vote the Democratic Ticket." As the party of southern white supremacy following the Civil War, Democrats feared the power of enfranchised, Republican-voting African-Americans. This is because voting symbolizes power and agency.

From Harper’s Weekly: An example of racially based intimidation of voters during the Reconstruction period. The caption reads, “Of Course he Wants to Vote the Democratic Ticket.” As the party of southern white supremacy following the Civil War, Democrats feared the power of enfranchised, Republican-voting African-Americans. This is because voting symbolizes power and agency.

Voting is a radical act. That’s right, you heard me. If you’re one of the roughly fifty, to sixty percent of Americans who actually vote in presidential elections, then you’re a committed radical. If you’re one of the even fewer who vote in off-year midterm elections that decide boring stuff like congressional representation (you know, the stuff that actually matters), then you’re downright revolutionary.

Of course, the idea that voting is radical might seem ridiculous. After all, a good many Americans have, for a long time now, been convinced that their vote simply doesn’t count. They look at a political system that is infested with the wriggling worms of corporate lobbyists and “dark money” special interest peddling, and, understandably conclude that the vote of any individual Joe or Jane Six-Pack won’t make a dent in the system’s corruption-infused force-field.

You can’t entirely blame them: it takes some serious fortitude to look askance at the American political landscape, in which everything from state legislatures to the Supreme Court are corporate-owned, and not throw in the suffrage towel out of sheer despair. But even if you think that voting doesn’t matter, some of the most powerful interests in the country disagree with you — and that’s why they’re working so hard to curtail voting. As Norm Ornstein recently noted in the Atlantic, the U.S. is in dire need of a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to vote. The June 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder overturned decades of voter protections going back to the Civil Rights movement. This decision by a conservative Supreme Court once again opened the floodgates of voter suppression, allowing Republican-controlled state legislatures to enact of series of voter ID laws and other similar impediments to suffrage explicitly designed to deny the vote to minority groups and the poor, who tend to vote for the Democratic Party.

Why is the contemporary Republican Party, the de-facto political arm of corporate America and the defender of the privileged classes, so concerned about limiting the vote to filter out non-conservative voting constituencies? Because voting, as an act, symbolizes agency and power. Voting is the fundamental characteristic of republicanism and the fuel of democracy. Modern-day Americans might not think of democracy as a particularly radical concept. But when measured against the vast scope of human history, in which every form of tyranny — from theocracy, to monarchism, to oligarchy, to military juntas — has been the norm, democracy, with its emphasis on the broader population’s right to elect its own leaders, is indeed radical.

The idea of equality underpins democracy, and equality is the most revolutionary of all ideas. As psychologists Jim Sidanius and Felicia Pratto observe, human organization throughout history can be examined via Social Dominance Theory. This theory argues that “intergroup oppression, discrimination, and prejudice are the means by which human societies organize themselves as group-based hierarchies.” Within these hierarchies, “members of dominant groups secure a disproportionate share of the good things in life, [such as political power], and members of subordinate groups receive a disproportionate share of the bad things in life.”* Group-based hierarchy seems to be a universal human system; its footprint is observable is all of the above-mentioned forms of tyranny. The idea of democracy, via the concept of equality, was an ideological product of the Enlightenment, and it emerged to challenge human systems that bended towards tyranny.

Consider this passage from Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic 2 volume work Democracy in America, wherein the French historian explains exactly why democracy, via its system of mass suffrage, is so darn radical:

It is possible to imagine an extreme point at which freedom and equality would meet and blend. Let us suppose that all the people take a part in the government, and that each one of them has an equal right to take a part in it. As no one is different from his fellows, none can exercise a tyrannical power; men will be perfectly free because they are entirely equal; and they will all be perfectly equal because they are entirely free. To this ideal state democratic nations tend. This is the only complete form that equality can assume upon earth.*

The key line in de Tocqueville’s passage is his observation that equality is a preventative measure against those who wish to “exercise a tyrannical power.” In light of how Social Dominance Theory reveals the underlying tyranny that has shaped human organizations throughout history, the notion of equality has been — and continues to be — anathema to various ruling powers who do not wish to lose their grip on power and the “disproportionate share of the good things in life” that such power grants.

Alexis de Tocqueville understood that voting was a radical, and necessary, act.

Alexis de Tocqueville understood that voting was a radical — and necessary — act.

It is precisely because democracy is such a radical historical concept that, despite the Declaration of Independence’s claim that “All Men are Created Equal,” the concept of equality has been challenged throughout American history by those fearing that equality would invert “traditional” power relationships. In his massive book The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States, historian Alexander Keyssar notes that “it is by no means self-evident, as one looks at modern history, that individuals who possess political power will (or can be expected to) share that power with others, millions of others.”* With this in mind, Keyssar observes, “the history of suffrage in the United States is a history of both expansion and contradiction, of inclusion and exclusion.”*

Keyssar’s observation helps explain why American history is replete with periods in which non-property holding white males, women, African-Americans, Native-Americans, industrial workers, Chinese-Americans, and other groups have been denied the right to vote. In different historical eras, ruling groups feared that expanding suffrage to minority groups would threaten traditional power structures.

After the Civil War, white southern Democrats feared the expansion of voting rights to newly freed slaves and other African-Americans because these groups voted overwhelmingly for the Republican Party, which had abolished slavery during the war and passed the equal rights amendments during Reconstruction. White supremacists knew that suffrage allowed blacks to express their agency and directly participate in the allocation of political and social power. For white southerners, enfranchised blacks entailed a loss of white power in the domestic and political spheres. The fear of losing power led them to vehemently oppose back suffrage.

Similar fears about losing both domestic and political power drove groups who opposed women’s suffrage at the turn-of-the-century.  In a 1910 pamphlet, for example, the New York-based group The National Association Opposed to Women’s Suffrage claimed that “in some States more voting women than voting men will place the Government under petticoat rule.” The fear of “petticoat rule” was, in fact, a fear of the inversion of traditional gender roles and the accompanying loss of male dominance that such an inversion portended. Anti-suffragists feared that granting women suffrage would take them out of the home sphere, where they were under the dominance of male authority, and give them political power, which they would use to undermine male authority.

Anti-women’s suffrage advocates also claimed that voting was not an inherent right, and that women therefore had no legitimate claim to it. In May 1912, Oregon-based (female!) anti-suffrage speaker I.T. Martin claimed that “there is no such thing as an inherent right to vote. Voting is a duty, not a privilege, and women have been exempted from this duty, and not deprived of a privilege.” Martin also claimed that:

There is more work to be done in the world today than there are women to do it, and work that can only be done by women unhampered by the ballot. The economically free and independent woman is not needed in politics. She is needed to do woman’s work in the world.

This so-called “woman’s work” not coincidently included child-rearing, cooking, and cleaning — all inside the home. Martin and others wanted to keep women confined to “traditional” roles as subordinates to men in the domestic sphere, and they described voting as an undesirable privilege precisely because enfranchisement threatened to offer women an outlet outside of the home that placed them on equal footing with men. Anti-women’s suffrage advocates’ claims that voting was a privilege, not a right, continue to echo in contemporary debates over whether suffrage is a right entitled to all citizens. These debates, however, are less about constitutional legal theory than they are about preserving existing power structures. As historian Eric Foner told the Atlantic, debates over voting as a right have historically been debates over whether voting is something “that only the right people should do.”

These protestors understand that Voter I.D. laws and other similar measures aim to make sure that the "right" people vote.

These protesters understand that Voter I.D. laws and other similar measures aim to make sure that the “right” people vote.

Like the anti-women’s suffrage advocates of the past, modern-day conservatives who are enacting voter suppression laws are, in fact, opposing the very notion of equality, because equality threatens their hierarchical power. They believe that a certain group of the “right people” (pun intended) should vote and the rest should not. In their less guarded moments, conservatives have been explicit about this position. In 1980, religious conservative activist Paul Weyrich told a gathering of like-minded troglodytes: “I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of the people. They never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”

Over the last two years, Republican officials have seconded Weyrich’s argument when discussing voter I.D. laws. In 2012, a Pennsylvania GOP official stated that “Voter ID” would “allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.” After the election, another Pennsylvania GOPer claimed that the new voter I.D. laws “helped a bit” since they “cut Obama by five percent” during the 2012 election. Trumping both of those statements in sheer audacity, the always illuminating Phyllis Schlafly stated that “the real reason the left wants to make sure that individuals without voter ID are allowed to vote is because they are expected to vote for Democrats,” and proclaimed that the elimination of early voting would benefit the GOP.

Schlafly and her ilk understand that voting is a radical act because empowering the majority of the populace to participate in the daily workings of their government and society directly challenges the power of dominant ruling groups. Nearly all of the major struggles in human history have in some way revolved around the tensions that inevitably arise when a powerful minority rules over a less powerful majority. Democracy as a system has, since the Enlightenment, served as a way to check the power of tyrannical minorities by offering the broader citizenry the chance to have a say in how their societies are run. Such a challenge has always been opposed by conservative elements that view only a certain portion of the population (themselves) as fit to lead.

Thus, voting is a radical act because it challenges the central organizing principle of human societies, in which less numerical dominant groups control far larger subordinate groups. Of course, democracy has not destroyed hierarchies, nor was it intended to completely do so. Yet, for all of its flaws (and there are many, to be sure) democracy still offers an effective way of tempering human hierarchies, and for that alone, it remains a deeply radical — and deeply necessary — tool. This is why those who have power wish to curtail voting, and why their attempts to do so should always be vigorously combated.

* See Jim Sidanius and Felicia Pratto, “Social Dominance Theory,” pg. 418.

* See Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Section 2, Chapter 1, Vol. 2, 1840. Available at Project Gutenberg.

* See Alexander Keyssar, The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States (Basic: New York, 2000), xxiii.