Jesus is My Co-Voter

Why do you suppose we have the secret ballot?

The answer is something most of us understand instinctively. In the one vital moment when a citizen gets to express his/her own individual political opinion, no one – not mom and dad, not your wife or husband, not your boss, not the local sheriff, not stern-faced community or union leaders, not your well-meaning neighbor – gets to loom over your shoulder and help you vote “right.”

The principle is enshrined in election law all over the world. Here in the U.S., various measures prevent overt campaigning within a certain distance – as much as 300 feet in some places, the length of a football field – of the polling place. Not only can you not stand outside the door and hector people entering, in many places you can’t even wear your own quiet campaign buttons as you go in to vote.

It’s really an issue of freedom, isn’t it? On the theory that every woman and man has the right to wrestle with their own political conscience and vote their heartfelt private values, we protect from outside influence those final moments prior to voting.

Except when we don’t.

I have a postcard on my desk telling me there’s a county primary election on September 13. Among other details, the card reminds me of where I vote. In a few days I will be required, once again, to enter the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in order to cast my ballot.

Last November when I was there, even I, unbeliever that I am, found myself emotionally affected. In my case, the goddiness projected from the billboard-like walls at every hapless voter – “MESSIAH, LAMB OF GOD, TEACHER, SON OF MAN, REDEEMER, ALPHA, OMEGA, PROPHET, EVERLASTING FATHER” – plus the “Saved By Grace / Its Awesome” (sic) roadside reader board – served to irritate me. But I have no doubt that others felt something distinctly more moving.

And feeling, the experiencing of emotions, is definitely the issue.

I couldn’t guess how it might play out in any individual voter, but I can safely predict that with certain ballot measures, here and elsewhere, what we feel when we enter a church WILL have a powerful effect on how large numbers of us mark our ballots.

Should women have the private right to determine their own adult reproductive choices, or should those baby-killing sluts be prevented by law from alternately getting knocked up and then disposing of millions of precious unblemished souls in bloody abortion clinic trash cans? Should Adam and Steve be allowed to marry whomever they please, or should those disgusting beasts be prevented from prancing around in public making a mockery of God-given American family values? Should our innocent schoolchildren be taught the beautiful truth of the talking snake in the Garden of Eden, or the ungodly fiction that we all descended from fornicating monkeys?

One thing’s for sure: If you believe, in any measure at all, that the Almighty Creator of the Universe is looking over your shoulder as you make such decisions, it HAS TO affect your vote.

And I think we all know it.

Because how, really, do we make decisions? Two ways: emotionally and rationally. Reason and passion go hand in hand, generally speaking, in decision making. We like to think that reason informs each daily decision, but at the same time we know that our feeling selves will have to live with the results.

Some of us depend most heavily on passion as the basis of decision making. Given a choice of the emotional “Oh my gosh, I want this piece of chocolate cake!” and the rational “I probably shouldn’t eat that right now; I’m already carrying 35 extra pounds,” the presence of large numbers of overweights among us testify that Heart frequently wins out over Head.

And what is faith but passion? Anybody who grew up in the Deep South as I did, and got to see the shouting and arm-waving, the screaming and weeping – and yes, occasionally, what appeared to be transcendent joy – that was a part of every Sunday service, really understands that religion is about emotion.

Just walking into a church affects some of us extremely deeply.

In the final analysis, either church sways you, your opinions, feelings, actions – and your vote – or it doesn’t.

Those pro-faith people who would say that standing in the same room with an exquisite marble representation of the Blessed Virgin Mary has absolutely no influence on voter choices are in the novel position of arguing that church has a powerful effect on people … every day except that certain Tuesday in November.

In truth, I think one real reason churches volunteer to be polling places is that they expect it will have an effect on voters passing through those saintly portals. Whether the question is between a sinful “liberal” candidate and an anointed godly one, a ballot measure offering rights to gays or women, or larger issues of separation of church and state, the churchly community seeks an extra edge over the secular one.

And I think the practice is out of line and should be stopped.

Surely each voting district has value-neutral places – such as, in my case, a  YMCA only a mile away from Good Shepherd Lutheran, or a public school even closer, plus a nearby public library and town hall – where citizens of all faith traditions, and no faith at all, can be free of the intrusively goddy influences looming over us as we enter the voting booth.


Hmm. On the other hand, since I’m REQUIRED to go to this church to vote … I wonder what would happen if I showed up in this:

Zoning Out on Liberal vs. Conservative Issues
Goodness and Guilt on the Dark Edge of Life
Beta Culture: Seeing The Brackets
The Book of Good Living: How to Avoid Being Killed By A Train
  • Rob

    I love it! Go for it!

  • unbound

    If Jesus is their co-voter, doesn’t that constitute election fraud?

    But I do agree. Peer pressure (including in the form of the environment you are located) is a powerful force to most people. Local priests are well aware of this effect. If it doesn’t serve to reinforce the peoples vote, it will reinforce that you should be going to church (which will lead to more donations).

    In my county, the voting places are either schools or community centers only. The conditions where there isn’t a school handy will be exceptionally rare (e.g. retirement community), but even those places typically have community centers that can be used.

    Time to ditch the local delusion centers at voting places…

  • otrame

    Actually I’d feel more or less obligated to wear an as offensively atheist shirt as I could find if I had to vote in a church. And I’d feel it necessary to attend on actual voting day (here in Texas we have ‘early voting’ as an option) so as many people as possible could see it. Maybe if enough people in your precinct did that, or even wore “I’m tired of these motherfucking snakes in this motherfucking Garden!!!”* t-shirts the church would decide to stop volunteering.

    *just made that up. Like it? 8-)

    • Hank Fox

      Ha! I love it!

  • Ed S.

    Our local church voting location uses meeting rooms devoid of symbols or messages. Lately, they started bringing voters into the building through a side entrance that does not have any religious bulletin boards or banners.

    Is this good enough? I have the early vote option, but on Election Day, folks in my precinct still vote under a steeple.

    • mbj1

      My polling location looks a lot like the photo in the post. I’ve always found it personally annoying, but never really followed the line of thought that those who are nominally believers, but would generally vote more liberally, may be swayed to vote more conservatively by such surroundings. So, thanks to Hank, for giving a better argument against holding polling in churches than my basic distaste of having to enter a church for any reason.

  • barbrykost

    I have worked elections in my county, and polling places are not that easy to get. You need a lot of polls for presidential elections, and they have to be handicap-accessible, not to mention within the boundaries of the precinct. The Registrar doesn’t have to pay rent to use tax-exempt properties such as schools, fire stations and churches, but other locations have to be offered a fee. There are usually a lot more churches around with unused space than any other location.
    So I can see why churches are frequently used. They are cheap, accessible, and not interrupted by small children and emergency vehicles.
    I REALLY like the atheist T-shirt idea, though, and I think a campaign to get atheists to wear atheist T-shirts to vote sounds like a great idea that should be pursued.

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  • sinned34

    When I was an evangelical Christian, I remember our pastor used to try to get our church listed as a polling location, for two specific reasons. The first was a “get-out-the-vote” campaign, in that the pastor would always encourage his flock to “vote their values”, and the church members would feel more comfortable if they were voting in the same place they worshipped, with the added bonus of peer pressure (“We didn’t see you at the polls to vote last week. Everything okay?”). Second, it was a way to get the unchurched in the building, and hopefully the Holy Spirit would work its magic and convict the heathen masses.

    In our last election, they closed the previous polling station in a local school gym, and forced everyone to go to a local evangelical church’s school gym, with gaudy, 20-foot “Jesus is Lord” posters everywhere.

    It was inappropriate in the extreme. I’d complain, but I doubt I could even make much of a splash in the insanely conservative area I live in.

  • Lauren Ipsum

    yep, we vote in a church too, and it’s made my skin crawl for ten years. Hasn’t stopped me from voting, but it sure pisses me off.

    And considering the size of the room, and that there are only two booths, it could really be moved down the road two miles to the municipal building, or two miles the other way to the elementary school.

  • Makoto

    I think that shirt is awesome, and you need to wear it. I know you aren’t allowed to wear shirts endorsing a certain candidate (or even associated causes in many cases), but surely an atheist shirt wouldn’t be a problem. Just make sure that your vote isn’t “accidentally” dropped in the trash.

  • Sara K.

    When I lived in the United States, when I didn’t vote absentee I either voted at a) City Hall (voters from any part of the city could vote at City Hall instead of their designated polling place if they were so inclined) or b) the hospital two blocks away from where I lived. The polling happened in a quiet administrative part of the hospital so it wouldn’t interfere with the flow of patients and medical personnel, but I realise that not all hospitals might not have a sufficiently quiet and out-of-the-way place to host a polling place. I’ve also seen polling places hosted in people’s garages. I realize that people’s homes are not tax-exempt, but could people a) refuse the fee and b) could people volunteer their garages as a secular alternative to hosting a polling place in a church?

    • Cor (formerly evil)

      I wouldn’t mind voting at my local hospital if it wasn’t plastered with gigantic portraits of elderly nuns frowning. Also MRSA.

  • Chris

    Great post Hank. This is an effect known in social science as “priming,” and there is quite a bit of empirical evidence as to how it effects people in any number of situations. Even on social surveys of the US, if questions about religious belief precede questions about religiously “hot” topics, like abortion, gay marriage, what have you, there is a statistically significant difference in answers toward the more religiously “correct” choice. I never thought about voting in churches but it certainly follows the same lines.

    • Surgoshan

      Just want to second this reply.

      I’m glad I have a good memory, else I might not have remembered a thing on NPR from 3 years ago. TLDR; people who vote in schools vote in favor of schools. People who vote in churches vote church values.

      In order to overthrow the religious right, we must fight to have all our polling places be not in churches but in Gay Childrens’ Roller Discos.

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  • Katherine Lorraine, Chaton de la Mort

    The last time I walked into a church was a communion service where my sister was singing. She asked me to come and I did. While I sat there listening to my sister and listening to everyone else around the area, it felt… weird. It was very emotional, but now since I’m an atheist, and I’m in a relationship with a guy (which to the outside world as I only crossdress in private is a homosexual relationship) the only emotion I felt was an unwariness and fear.

    I honestly felt that if any one of those people in that church then knew of my atheism and knew of my being in a technically gay relationship, they would turn on me. My friends in the church would look at me with either pity, anger, or hate. It scared me. I was so overwhelmed that I ran to the bathroom to just calm down before going back to my seat.

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