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April 16, 2008: Do Better

"Do better," seems to be the summation of Recommendation #41, ACSWP's policy statement (in partnership with the Advisory Committee on Racial-Ethnic Concerns), "Lift Every Voice: Democracy, Voting Rights, and Electoral Reform."

Yes, there are some specific recommendations -- give Washington, D.C. representation in the federal government; give voting rights to convicted felons who have served their time; stop deceptive practices, etc. -- but the gist is that there is a problem with civil elections and we need to "do better."

Is anyone against "doing better"? Well ... no, of course not.

It is easy to tell someone else to do better. But there has to be more to it than that -- there has to be a reason why this is important enough for a General Assembly to approve. What is the money portion of it? The last recommendation: "Call on ACSWP and Racial Ethnic and Women's Ministries-Presbyterian Women, in consultation with ACREC, to sponsor regional conferences on the electoral process and people of color, antiracism issues and systemic discrimination." Ahhh...shared mission dollars used to promote conferences.

I understand the need for the church to bear witness in the community, to pursue justice and righteousness in all aspects of life. To the end the report was written to "address at least two dimensions: improvements in legislation and options for practical engagement," it accomplishes those goals. There are a number of good ideas for ways Presbyterians can get involved in the public square.

Even so -- I do not have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy -- I struggle with "institutional prophecy."

1. There seems to be a presumption among the writers of this report that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is standing on some moral high ground from which to issue such great pronouncements and judgment upon civil affairs. Yet, it just feels like we are looking to remove a speck from the civil government's eye (as big a speck as it may be) while ignoring the log in our own. Seriously, if I were an election official, my first question back to someone giving me this report would be, "Why should I listen to you when you are unwilling to abide by your own constitution?"

2. I hate to keep on beating this drum, but exactly who is going to read this stuff? I would be frustrated to spend my week in San Jose as commissioner debating whether convicted felons deserve the right to vote in civil elections or if they have so violated the responsibilities of society to permanently forfeit the privileges of citizenship. (How edifying! How wonderful! Let's discern between one-time and repeat offenders, the reality of recidivism and -- oh, boy! -- about the significance of any disparity in racial demographics between violent and non-violent felons.)

I would be frustrated, but I would do it -- if that is the committee to which I am assigned. That said, I would have no realistic expectation of anyone in San Diego Presbytery taking up that debate when I got home. And, yes, a positive vote at the General Assembly makes policy on behalf of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.); but is there really a sense that the whole church has weighed in on these issues?