One morning I was walking to my job at a Christian college when I saw a bumper sticker on a parked car. Surrounded by red stars, the sticker proclaimed, “I’m a Christian, and I vote.”
I could have reacted, “Hey, me too.” But I didn’t. My first reaction actually was, “Ugh. Now that’s a scary thought.”
Even I was surprised at my own disgust and disdain. Of course this response was not without context — earlier that week I had overheard two disturbing exchanges that were still fresh in my mind: One day, I was checking out at a Christian thrift store when the man in front of me at the counter started spouting anti-Muslim rhetoric out of the blue, anger in his voice. “I don’t know what they believe but I know they ain’t right. Allah ain’t Lord. Jesus is Lord. It’s evil.” The checker said nothing. Neither did I. He seemed irrational and dangerous, but he was the most vocal in the room. His was the vote cast.
The next day I dropped off some packets at a church. As I walked in the doors, I heard the office workers chatting. “Yeah, I don’t know about the ‘he’ and the ‘she’ and whatever. But a ‘he’ is a ‘he,’ and a ‘she’ is a ‘she,’ and that’s all it is, nothing else.” Her vote was cast.
Islamophobia and transphobia, from people in my faith tradition, in the course of 48 hours. I felt my faith had been co-opted, disenfranchised. And so the next day, when I saw that Christian voting bumper sticker, I didn’t think “Hey, me too.” I thought, “Yuck.”
What does it mean for me, a voting Christian, to cringe when I see this? Presidential election aside, I was elected to represent my conference as a voting member at the 2016 Evangelical Church in America (ELCA) Churchwide Assembly in New Orleans this August. And I’m thrilled! I will quite literally be a voting Christian voting about Christian things. But I bet if I had one of those bumper stickers on my own vehicle, people would not assume that I meant “I’m a Christian following the example of the Gospel made alive by Jesus as it presents full inclusion and love of all people, lifting up the lowly, welcoming the stranger, prioritizing the oppressed, turning the tables on existing structures, questioning our long-held beliefs. Oh, and I vote.”
No. They’d probably be more likely to assume I’m of the anti-Muslim, transphobic ilk. And that’s because these days within Christianity, the loudest shouters with the biggest platforms are the ones who have a narrow view of heaven, who is holy and who is not, who is our neighbor and who is not, how to follow Christ and what to say about the Bible and justice.
I have grappled with if and when and how to discuss my faith with my college-age students. But what if my students see and understand who I am — my commitment to justice, my critique of systemic inequality, my care for them, and then understand that there are many people who hold these principles within, and sometimes because of, Christianity? What if seeing me as an example encourages them to reconsider a life-giving faith in a tradition that welcomes and nurtures them, instead of turning them away? What if they are already religious and see that justice can fit into their existing tradition? What if my example gives them the green light to practice faith and reason, truth and love, inclusion rather than exclusion?
When I was 21, a faith leader told me that if I questioned Jesus and his divinity, then I should self-select out of the youth program that I coordinated and been part of throughout my childhood. Not long after, my dear friend was told that because he was gay, he could no longer run the youth group he had facilitated for years. Thank God both of us went on to have positive faith mentors who showed the radical hospitality of God’s love, and taught us how to emulate the table-turning justice of Jesus. If I did not have their welcoming, challenging example, I likely would not be adding my voice to the church body or imagining the work of justice within a Christian context.
I might still be seeing visions of bumper stickers and protest signs in my mind. Because vocal Christianity has meant narrow Christianity, has meant I’m-in-and-you’re-out Christianity.
What is at risk when we come out as Christian? And what is the risk for those of us committed to justice if we don’t?
On April 5, I’ll join thousands of voters and cast my ballot in the Wisconsin primary and get my sticker. In a few months I’ll be at the Churchwide assembly, considering resolutions and praying — working with thousands to faithfully figure out the nitty-gritty together. Both in the presidential election and at the Churchwide assembly, I participate in the body of Christ. I am one with that body and help to make it live each day.
There is joy and power in the vote. I have come to realize that the vote is in fact sacred. It was fought for by real people who worked so that all might participate in the body politic. And we know there was a time when a woman’s vote counted neither in our country nor our churches. I am a daughter of this legacy in our nation and in our church, a beneficiary of past political struggle. For the first time I will be formally representing my Synod’s conference as a voting member. But of course we know we are always representatives.
As Christians, our actions and our words represent our faith. I don’t need a bumper sticker to tell you that. Let’s make sure the loudest voices are the ones for equity and transformative love across difference. Because each day as a Christian, you cast your ballot.
I’m a Christian, and each day, I vote.