Many Friends feel called to political activism, whether it’s supporting a specific candidate or a particular issue they feel strongly about, and I for one am no exception. However, after working for Rhode Island Gubernatorial candidate Robert Healey in 2014, I had personally felt that party affiliations, candidate endorsements, and even voting were actions that ran contrary to my faith as a Quaker. I had no intention of supporting a candidate in the 2016 Presidential election until a well-known activist in Rhode Island suggested that I might reconsider. He believed that faithfulness and politics were not mutually exclusive.
I decided to enter the fray as an experiment of sorts. And, like any good scientific study, I sought to disprove my assertion that electoral politics and faithful living were incompatible with one another. So, for the past year or so, I have been an enthusiastic supporter, advocate, and activist for the Gary Johnson campaign. Governor Johnson was a natural choice for many reasons, chief amongst them his commitment to a peaceful foreign policy. However, this experiment was less about how the candidate’s views fit with my beliefs and more about how the act of supporting a candidate, joining a political party, and voting might align with my faith.
In endorsing Gary Johnson, I felt that I was showing a certain amount of trust in that of God in him to do the right thing, to use the power of his office in ways that were in line with the Quaker values of simplicity, peace, integrity, community, and equality. It wasn’t really that I was putting my faith in him as much as I was putting my faith in that of God in him. However, what I realized was that while I may have been showing faith in that of God in Governor Johnson, I was also, by default, showing a lack of faith in that of God within the hearts of any of the other candidates.
The belief in spiritual equality is essential to my faith as a Quaker. If I claim to believe that every person has equal access to that of the Divine within, how can I, in good faith, endorse one candidate over any other for elective office? In doing so, I am showing less faith in that of God in some candidates than I am in the candidate of my choice. It has become quite clear to me at this point in my experiment that supporting any candidate, for any office, over any other candidate, is akin to passing judgment on those I haven’t chosen to endorse. If I am to have faith in that of God in everyone, then that faith must be shown to all people equally. For me, this realization strikes at the very heart of the Quaker testimony of equality.
What has also become clear to me is that supporting a candidate in an election is, whether I like it or not, an act of taking sides. Doing so disrupts my ability as a Friend to serve as a peacemaker and corrupts the process of building a loving community. Furthermore, I cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that registering as a member of a political party has the exact same effect. I am currently registered as an unaffiliated voter, however, during this experiment I have toyed with the idea of joining the Libertarian Party. Unfortunately, I cannot escape the truth that political parties by their very nature are entities that promote conflict in society, and as a Quaker, they are not something I feel I can be a part of in good conscience at this time.
It has also become hard for me to ignore that these concepts extend to voting itself. Casting a ballot is, quite literally, the act of signing your name in endorsing particular candidates. If advocating for a candidate and joining a political party are incompatible with my Quaker faith, then voting is incompatible as well. It is important for me to note here that voting on ballot initiatives, referendums, bond issues, etc do not feel to me to be against my spiritual values. Issue based activism, to me, feels totally appropriate and I believe it is an important way of witnessing to my faith. The work of the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) is a good example of issue-based activism. They are an organization that lobbies elected officials on certain issues in a non-partisan way and they do not hand out endorsements. There is a whole other issue at play here in regard to the faith Friends place in government to act on our behalf, but that is a discussion for another day.
It’s quite comforting to me that the Quaker process in general seems to back up my beliefs on political afflictions and endorsements. When making decisions and conducting business, Quakers seek consensus, and do not take votes. This process fosters community-based decision-making and encourages cooperation in reaching a consensus, as opposed to politicking towards reaching a majority decision. It is the perfect marriage between individualism and collectivism. Trust and faith is placed in each individual as well as the community as a whole to seek clearness on any given issue. So, why wouldn’t I, as a Friend, seek to cultivate that very same sense of faith and trust in civil society and the political realm?
I have found much peace and inspiration from Edward Burroughs’ letter (dated 10/20/1659) to “The Present Distracted and Broken Nation of England” (https://ericpalmieri.com/portfolio/tothepresentdistractedandbrokennationofengland/). Written during a time of Civil War, the letter speaks to many of the sentiments I have expressed in this article, of course, in a way much more eloquent than my own. He writes,
“Oh! Poor distressed Nation, and full of Troubles; How art thou broken and divided? How hath Divisions and Distractions compassed thee about, and entred into thy Bowels? And how are thy Inhabitants and thy People divided, even to hatred one against another? And how are they filled, as with Mischief, one towards another, even as it were thirsting for the Blood of one another? Oh! How are thy Rulers and thy Subjects, thy Great Men and thy Poor, confounded amongst themselves? And how is the Wisdom of thy Wise men turned into Folly, and their Union into present Contention? And how do they seek the Overthrow one of another? And how do they lie in wait to be avenged one against another? And how are the Hearts of many filled with Envy, Contention and Revenge; and Love, Peace and Unity are far away; Meekness, Patience, and Long-suffering, which ought to be among thy People, seem to stand afar off? And oh Nation! This is the Day of thy Trouble, and the beginning of thy Sorrows.”
Although it was written almost 400 years ago, the letter paints a picture very similar to what our society looks like today: divided, distracted, and broken. He continues,
“…and having suffered the Rulers and Great Men to overcome and break down one another, and to rend and tear one another from off the Throne, pulling down others, and setting up themselves, even through their Ambition and Vain-gory, and for corrupted Ends to themselves, whereby this our Nation is brought into present Confusion; and many are begotten, through these things, into Fury, Heart-burnings and Maliciousness, as if men were ready to devour each one his Neighbour and their Brother about Government and Rule, being greatly divided and distracted in this matter; some crying up one way of Religion and Church, and Civil Government, and some crying up another way; being each one sort of People seeking themselves; and the prosperity of their own Interests, and to have their own desires accomplished; but few seeking the Lord, and to advance him in Truth and Righteousness”
This Friend speaks my mind.