WASHINGTON (RNS) – US Senator Raphael Warnock and United States Representative Terri Sewell, both Democrats and an ordained minister, pleaded for the protection and extension of voting rights on Thursday, November 18, defending the “sacred” right to vote in a broad discussion that also addressed the question of whether God is black.
Both lawmakers appeared at “Race, Religion and the Assault on Voting Rights,” the inaugural event at Georgetown University’s Center on Faith and Justice, led by Reverend Jim Wallis, founder of the liberal-leaning Christian group Sojourners .
“Voting rights must also be branded as a matter of faith – even a test of faith,” Wallis told the crowd.
Warnock expressed a similar sentiment throughout the session, at one point describing the act of voting as “a kind of prayer for the world we desire, for ourselves and our children.”
The Georgian senator’s point of view on the vote, he said, is linked to his beliefs about salvation, which he sees as an “enlargement of community space”.
“I believe that (voting) is sacred, because at its core, voting is about your voice and your voice is about your human dignity,” he said, adding that voting is an “alliance we have with each other. others as the American people “.
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But he warned that the multitude of state-level ballot bills backed by Republicans pose an existential threat to the franchise and, ultimately, American democracy itself. It’s a position taken up by faith groups – many of which are led by black pastors – who have staged massive protests or threatened to boycott laws passed throughout 2021.
Protesters – including Warnock – have expressed particular opposition to provisions such as requiring voter ID, reducing voting hours, banning average citizens from distributing food and l water to people queuing to vote and allowing more partisan oversight of the voting process.
“Instead of people choosing their politicians, politicians trying to choose their people,” Warnock said.
As a remedy, the senator referred to the Freedom to Vote Act, which would institute broad protections for the right to vote. He called it a “compromise bill” developed after another larger bill – the For the People Act – failed to win the support of moderate parties such as Senator de West Virginia Joe Manchin.
Warnock expressed frustration with Republicans who continue to block passage of the new bill using filibuster, a Senate rule that requires a qualified majority of 60 votes to pass many major pieces of legislation.
“I’m a preacher – it’s never too late to be saved, to have religion,” Warnock said of his fellow Republicans.
Sewell, who represents Alabama’s 7th Congressional District, called for passage of the John Lewis Voting Advancement Act, which she has presented to every convention since 2013. The bill, named after civil rights icon and Georgia Congressman John Lewis, would restore and strengthen aspects of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was gutted by a pair of Supreme Court rulings over the course of the last decade.
“Ultimately our democracy, this Constitution, this exercise in form of government, if you will – the basis of that is the right to vote,” Sewell said. “It’s fundamental – as John (Lewis) would say,“ It’s almost sacred. “
In a question-and-answer session, a student invoked Black liberation theologian James Cone to ask if God, who “sides with the oppressed,” is also Black.
Joking that he wanted to have a “longer theological conversation” with the student afterwards, Warnock responded by appealing to a Christian faith that focuses on the poor and marginalized.
“I’m coming out of a tradition, the black church… it’s the anti-slavery church. This is the Church of Liberty, ”he said. When other Christians attempted to use the Bible to justify the institution of slavery, he said, the black church “has ensured a vision of humanity that embraces us all – and it did it when, in the words of the spiritual elder, “We couldn’t hear anybody praying. “
RELATED: In the Sunday sermon, Warnock, now a senator and pastor, said he heard “echoes of the spirit” during the oath.
When asked how she navigates as the only Democrat, woman and person of color in the Alabama delegation, Sewell quoted Eleanor Roosevelt, saying, “No one can make you feel inferior unless you do him or her. give permission. “
Growing up in Selma, surrounded by the legacy of the civil rights movement, Sewell said, “My job is to use my voice in this seat and create more chairs around the table that are filled with women” and people. of various origins.
“I sit on seats to use the voice that God has given me,” she added.
Warnock, for his part, has signaled that his faith remains central to his life and work. “I am not a senator who has been a pastor. I am a pastor who serves in the United States Senate, ”he said.
He recalled times when faith failed to imprint a moral vision on society.
In Nazi Germany, he said, “the church did not stand up.”
“He fell back on some sort of island vision that says, ‘It’s none of our business,’ or they’ve given in to some kind of Christian nationalism,” he said. “The truth is, slavery would not have lasted so long, and segregation would not have been so insurmountable, without the cooperation of the people who worship every weekend.”
A defining question of the moment, he said, is “I know what you sing about in your hymns, but who – and what, really – is your God?” “
Asked by Wallis to offer a “blessing” to close the event, Sewell provided attendees with a list of ways to protect voting rights in the future.
“I want you to vote, to volunteer, to organize, to participate and to elect people who will do the right thing,” she said, triggering a standing ovation.