By David Paulsen
Episcopal News Service
The election in November should catch no one by surprise at the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Philadelphia, Pa. Dozens of church members are participating in voter-education drives, and the congregation’s goal is 100 percent parishioner turnout on election day.
Civic engagement also is running high at Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Decatur, Ga., an Atlanta suburb. The congregation is sending parishioners to canvas the neighborhood around the church in support of statewide efforts to register up to 1.2 million new voters.
And the Diocese of Indianapolis has hosted voter outreach events where church volunteers are part of an interfaith initiative seeking to reach more than 100,000 Indianans who haven’t voted before.
These are among Episcopalians’ efforts across the nation to engage voters in the November elections.
“We often talk about how Jesus’ life shows us to be politically active. … We need to care about the most vulnerable members of our community,” said Deacon Carol Duncan, who is coordinating St. Martin-in-the-Fields’ participation in election-related efforts. Episcopalians like Duncan have been outspoken in their call to “vote faithfully” because they say the church alone cannot change unjust systems. “You can’t do that unless you vote,” Duncan said.
Although Episcopalians may be motivated by personal political beliefs, church-based election efforts are necessarily nonpartisan. Those efforts also are grounded in church policies established by General Convention, which in July passed resolutions calling Episcopalians to greater political engagement. That engagement has the continued support of the church’s Office of Government Relations in Washington, D.C.
“Voting and participation in our government is a way of participating in our common life, and that is a Christian obligation,” Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said in a video statement before the 2016 presidential election. The Washington office’s Episcopal Public Policy Network referenced Curry’s comments Aug. 7 in an updated message about the upcoming elections.
The message provides voting resources, including links to voter-registration information, states’ voting policies and polling locations. It also links to the Episcopal Church’s voter “toolkit,” which provides further guidance on individual action and how to mobilize communities in ways guided by faith.
“We encourage Episcopalians to engage in the democratic process this fall by promoting voter registration, learning about candidates on the ballot in your area, making a plan for yourself to vote on Election Day and helping others to do the same,” said Office of Government Relations Director Rebecca Linder Blachly. “Our Vote Faithfully Toolkit provides resources for parishes and individuals to get involved and to participate in our civic duty.”
The Aug. 7 message was perfect for adapting for an upcoming newsletter in her diocese, where not everyone has time to volunteer with voter-engagement drives, said the Rev. Fatima Yakuba-Madus, missioner for community engagement for the Diocese of Indianapolis.
In her former role as a deacon at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Speedway, Ind., she regularly participated in neighborhood canvasing — knocking on doors, encouraging people to vote and helping them register if they weren’t yet registered.
As missioner, she is active in the collective of congregations known as Faith in Indiana, which is leading the effort to reach more than 100,000 unregistered voters and persuade them to vote on Nov. 6. Church volunteers have called some of those residents during phone banks the diocese has hosted at Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis and St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church, located north of the capital in Carmel. The Episcopal volunteers specifical focus on reaching residents in a legislative district with historically low voter turnout.
Civic action is rightly influenced by faith, Yakuba-Madus said. “We have to participate in voting.”
Government agencies have unparalleled capacity to fulfill the Christian mission of serving people living on the economic margins of society, and “nobody’s going to if we don’t vote,” she said.
General Convention regularly affirms the church’s commitment to political engagement.
“Our church has policy that urges all of us to advocate for the right to vote, including eliminating barriers to voting,” Blachly said. “Voter-registration issues are addressed at the state level, so we encourage you to get involved.”
In July, General Convention approved two resolutions addressing voting rights. Resolution C047 commits the church to advocating in support of the principle of “one person, one vote.”
Resolution D003 condemns measures that result in voter suppression and supports steps to increase voter participation, such as “policies that will increase early voting, extend registration periods, guarantee an adequate number of voting locations, allow absentee balloting without the necessity of having an excuse, and prohibit forms of identification that restrict voter participation.”
The resolution also criticizes partisan gerrymandering and urges the National Conference of State Legislators to develop a fair process for establishing legislative and congressional districts.
Gerrymandering is the tactic of drawing districts that will favor one party over the other in elections, usually by packing similar voters into just a few districts or diluting them across several districts where they will remain in the minority.
The debate over gerrymandering is complicated further by gerrymandering’s use, under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, to ensure greater minority representation in Congress by drawing district lines to create “majority-minority” districts. Critics have argued that this has had the long-term effect of pooling more Democratic voters together and ceding more districts to Republicans.
“For the follower of Jesus, gerrymandering undercuts our fundamental vow to respect the dignity of every human being,” the Rev. Jarrett Kerbel, rector of Philadelphia’s St. Martin-in-the-Fields, wrote in an October 2017 article. “Participation in shaping our common life is a Christian duty and something Christians regard, respect and protect for all people regardless of affiliation, belief or nonbelief.”
At the time, Pennsylvania was grappling with a gerrymandering controversy. In January, the state Supreme Court ruled the congressional district boundaries were unconstitutional. The court followed up with a map establishing new district lines that will take effect when the next term of Congress begins in 2019.
St. Martin-in-the-Fields, meanwhile, has turned its focus to voter education and voter registration.
“We know how important voting is, particularly this year,” said Duncan. Her church has partnered with a group called POWER, an interfaith coalition of more than 50 congregations focused on community organizing in southeastern and central Pennsylvania.
POWER organizers led a forum in July at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, and about 40 parishioners attended to learn more about voter-mobilization efforts, Duncan said. Training was scheduled Aug. 26 to coincide with the kickoff event for a voter-education drive.
Other examples of Episcopal engagement across the country include Good Samaritan Episcopal Church in San Diego, which will host the League of Women Voters on Sept. 29 for a presentation about state propositions. The Diocese of Texas’ Episcopal Health Foundation partnered in 2016 with Mi Familia Vota to register Latino voters, and similar efforts are planned for this election cycle in metropolitan Houston and Atlanta.
“People’s votes really do matter,” said Soyini Coke, a member of Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Decatur, who is coordinating the congregation’s voter-registration efforts in the Atlanta metropolitan area.
Coke never voted and was disinterested in the political process — until the November 2016 presidential election, she said. She was disheartened by the outcome but committed herself to turning her anger into action, she said. “It is not sufficient to just complain.”
She and about 20 parishioners met at Holy Cross on Aug. 4 for voter-registration training, followed by making direct contact with voters. Some broke into teams of two to knock on doors, guiding unregistered voters through the process of signing up. Others remained at the church to call potential voters on lists provided by the New Georgia Project.
The nonpartisan project has been registering Georgians to vote for several years, with a goal of full participation of all eligible voters. It identified 400 unregistered residents within a two-mile radius of Holy Cross, Coke said. The Aug. 4 registration drive generated 396 phone calls, 97 contacts with voters and seven new voter registrations.
Holy Cross hopes to organize similar drives before the November election, Coke said. It is a majority black church, and such activism has deep roots in the black church tradition, she said.
“It’s very natural there,” she said. “If you’re going to talk about activism in the black community, the church is at the center of that and always has been.”