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January 14, 2012

How and why I vote religiously

Daily Star

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Now that it is 2012 and the election season has started in earnest (the Iowa Caucuses and New Hampshire Primary already behind us -- only 10 more months of campaign ads and political commentary to go), I feel compelled to admit a deep dark secret: I vote religiously.

I do not mean to say that I vote only for candidates of my religion (considering the relative size of Unitarian Universalism, my candidate pool would be somewhat limited -- though impressive, I'm sure ...). I vote religiously in that I vote "scrupulously, faithfully, in a conscientious manner." I vote in every election I am able to. I hold dear the principles and practice of democracy. Unitarian minister Theodore Parker in 1850 described democracy as "a government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people; of course a government of the principles of eternal justice, the unchanging law of God; for shortness' sake I will call the idea of Freedom."

Modern-day Unitarian Universalists hold as one of their core principles the affirmation and promotion of "democratic practices in their congregations and society at large." And so, I vote religiously. I wear that "I voted" sticker with deep pride.

I do consider faith when choosing whom I vote for -- but not in the way most people seem to these days. I don't care what religion a particular candidate claims to follow or what church he or she claims to be a member of. Atheist, Baha'i, Baptist, Buddhist, Catholic, Evangelical, Hindu, Humanist, Jewish, Lutheran, Methodist, Mormon, Muslim, Pagan, Presbyterian, Quaker, Taoist, Unitarian Universalist or Zoroastrian -- I don't care. I DO care about what the candidates believe. I care about how they live their beliefs on a daily basis. As a Unitarian Universalist, I believe every person has a right to their own spiritual path AND we have a responsibility to help one another find those paths and live them authentically. Having a set of beliefs is meaningless unless those beliefs help guide your daily actions. So, by all means, tell me what faith you identify with if you like ... but, more importantly, tell me what you BELIEVE.

How do you see your fellow human beings? How do you understand living and dying? How do you address pain and suffering for yourself and for others? What do you feel is your responsibility as a person on this planet? What makes you laugh? What makes you cry? What makes you feel inadequate in the larger scope of things? And from that deep, lonely place, what inspires you to stand back up and keep on going? These are all questions of belief. Different religions put forth different answers to them, but ultimately everyone, however they identify, has to answer them on their own -- and then live those answers on a daily basis.

There's been a lot of talk about the religious identities of the candidates in the news. What religion is President Obama? (Christian … in case you were wondering. His grandmother was a Unitarian; his father was a Muslim and then became an atheist.) Can we have a president that is Mormon? (The same question was raised about President Kennedy and his Catholic faith.) Religion continues to be a major card played by candidates to win votes. As a minister, you would think I would find all this talk of religion in politics to be engaging and rewarding. I do not. I find it to be political posturing at best, and abusive and divisive at worst.

It is fine to identify what faith you follow as a political candidate. It is even understandable that some people would vote along religious lines. But claiming to be religious or claiming to be of a particular faith means little when compared with one's actions. We are all human, of course, and we all fail to live up to the high ideals we set. When we fail, we do our best to make amends, we recommit to doing better, and we move on. Such failures are what make us human. Those failures are a far cry from the hypocrisy exhibited by so many of the candidates vying to be our next president. Claiming to follow a faith based on love while saying hateful things is not living one's faith authentically. Claiming to be a champion of family values while destroying families or denying some their right to be a family is not living authentically. It is these actions, these abuses of faith, that give religion such a bad name in some circles.

There is one religious test I do have when I enter the voting booth -- one religious litmus test that all candidates must pass in order for me to vote for them in good conscience. I need to know if they will use their religion as a guide or as a weapon. Will they look to their faith for answers and support when they are lost and confused or will they seek to impose their faith on me and the rest of the country? There is a big difference between the two -- a difference this country was founded on, a difference that makes us stronger, a difference that every elected official is sworn to uphold. Religion is one of our most cherished freedoms. Faith is an individual choice, an individual response to the many challenges and questions of life. Such matters are not the purview of elected officials or our government. The government's job, the job these candidates are applying for, is not to impose a particular faith, but to protect our right to choose and practice our own faith -- be we Christian, Muslim, Mormon, Pagan, Humanist or even Atheist. Freedom is the core principle we all share.

So practice your faith -- but allow me and others to practice ours. Together we walk our spiritual paths -- and together we will help one another walk and live authentically. Religiously.

That is, "scrupulously, faithfully, in a conscientious manner."

We can't ask for any more than that in our voting or in our daily living.

The Rev. Craig Schwalenberg is the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Oneonta.