Cathy stands there, slack-jawed, stunned in her American flag tee shirt and jean capris, salt-and-pepper bob riffling in the breeze that makes door monitor duty bearable on a Texas day with temps around 100 degrees. Taking my measure, as I take hers, only our eyes with lifted brows visible to each other over masks.
I have just revealed that I vote Progressive, and it lands upon her like a wrecking ball. She is knocked off balance by my conviction, a conviction that was informed, not ignorant. Not accidental. My purpose, my work and writing, have always been about grace. Resilience. Healing relationships. For me, faith and political ideology are intertwined in my purpose. But that’s not so for everyone. We should all have a deep appreciation of the beautiful mosaic of our diverse worldviews.
So then came the arguments: Muslims are in charge of our schools and Christians are being sidelined, the Founding Fathers had no intention of keeping religion out of government, that was only meant to be a one-way street that protected churches from government interference.
This lanky, opinionated, perhaps lovely person and I crossed paths this week when I worked as an election clerk in my local primary runoff election. She’d arrived a little late in the pre-dawn morning, Old Glory mylar balloon affixed to her purse strap, ready to help set up tables or clean. I had already hung all the various postings about ballots, voter rights, social distancing, and concealed carry. At 6:55, I headed to the exterior door at the school entrance so that I could redirect voters to the gymnasium at the rear of the campus. Though I was initially meant to sit in that spot for only a couple of hours, I enjoyed my post. I could easily maintain a safe distance (I am at high risk for Covid, as I have an autoimmune thing) while being friendly and helpful. So I stayed put. It was hot, but I am pretty tolerant of heat if I am adequately hydrated. My husband had brought me an ice chest filled with Diet Dr. Pepper, sparkling water, and snacks. I had a Sue Monk Kidd book to read.
Around lunchtime, Cathy escaped the heavily air-conditioned gym to sit outside and warm up. She perched on a corner of a wooden bench and commenced to chat. Now, we weren’t wearing party affiliations on our name tags, and she had arrived after the election judge checked me off the list as being the Democrat clerk, but living in a county that skews heavily Red, I imagine she assumed I was one of her kind. That happens a lot around here.
There’s this interesting thing that happens to folks like me, folks who are highly empathic. People talk to us. And I don’t mean they chat about the weather. They share. Before I knew it, I was hearing about her alcoholic father and how Al-Anon and Adult Children of Alcoholics had made her life so much healthier and happier. That’s fine, I am always glad to listen. She wasn’t unburdening, her spirits were high, she was simply being frank about things. I’m frank, too. I talked about my kids a bit, my grandkids live with us and I told stories about their personalities. In the course of the conversation, I mentioned my daughter and her “partner.” Cathy’s eyes widened. She couldn’t let it pass.
“Your daughter’s partner? What does that mean? Is she…?” She couldn’t say it. She just couldn’t. But I could hear the unspoken words floating in the air: a lesbian…? I confess I let it hang for just a second longer than was strictly necessary, her squirm was delightful. “Oh, she and her boyfriend are planning to get married. Their relationship just hasn’t followed the traditional timeline, they’ve done a few things in a different order! Hahaha!” Relieved, Cathy showed no interest in my grandchildren. She showed a lot of interest in my daughter’s relationship choices. Marriage was to be achieved, posthaste. She conceded that our country’s tax codes are not supportive of marriage (score one for the covert liberal sharing space with her).
I moved the conversation along, told her a little about my older daughter, the one who divorced after seven years in a relationship that resulted in just one year of marriage to a man who was tormented by an addiction to opioids and lying. Cathy had sympathy for that situation, she understood about addiction after all, and she applauded my daughter for giving it a go. Yet she was firm, “the traditional family unit is the foundation of this country. We cannot survive without it.”
My daughter has a vibrant family of origin. But as a single woman living in LA, she also has a family of her own creation, friends and companions who uphold each other in times of strife. Family comes in many forms. It is not only and always mom, dad, and 2.5 kids. I thought, too, of my single son, who may or may not ever marry. I decided not to even bring him up. I clenched my lips tight and let my eyes glaze over. It was time to disconnect. My empathy had run out.
She was sufficiently warm, so she went back inside and I was relieved. I continued to read and highlight my book about feminist divinity between offering instructions to the assortment of voters, “You can reach the gym at the rear of the building by driving to the next left turn, or you can walk on this sidewalk, just follow the red signs posted on the fence. Thank you for voting!”
When it was Cathy’s turn to vote, she came out to get her ID out of her car, and she paused at the curb, clearly wrestling with some thought. She turned back to me, compelled to ask if I had actually read the platforms of both parties. I suppose my tolerance of unmarried daughters had prodded her concern.
I didn’t know it, but on the day in 2016 when I slogged through pages and pages of dry political jargon at my computer in anticipation of the conventions, I was being prepared for this day. This very exact moment in time.
“Yes. As a matter of fact, I have. And what I found, as I read them both, was that the Democratic platform aligns with my core values. The Republican one doesn’t. At all.” And there was that stunned look. I could almost see the wheels turning, the assumptions crumbling. I am white. I am middle class. I have nice clothes. I am educated. I am not the sort of person she assumes votes Democrat. “But, the Democratic Party isn’t pro-Christian!”
“I am not a Christian,” I reply, straight-faced. Calm.
She stammered. She argued. She tried to make a case and I was having none of it.
I am not a Christian. Certainly not an American Evangelical. I have a deep, abiding relationship with the Divine One that has absolutely nothing to do with contemporary American churches. I endeavor for that relationship with my Creator to imbue my treatment of the people I meet; it informs how I vote and donate money so that the people I don’t ever get to meet are treated compassionately. I am not perfect at it, but I try.
This woman had, in just two short conversations, canceled the lives of my daughters, my son. She’d negated my own value and worth as an American citizen because I don’t share her faith.
So right here, for the world to see, I am making a statement of political, civic faith:
My grandchildren, who are eligible for the Daughters of the American Revolution while also being first-generation Americans of Mexican descent, are equal participants in the American pursuit of happiness.
Single Americans are equal participants in the American pursuit of happiness.
Couples who live in partnership, whether married or not, are equal participants in the American pursuit of happiness.
People of different, or even no, faiths are equal participants in the American pursuit of happiness.
BIPOC are equal participants, as are LGBTQ+, First Nation, convicted prisoners, and even people who love cats. Perfume-scented drivers of Mercedes and smelly pushers of shopping carts containing all their earthy possessions, all equal participants. Those who watch MSNBC get a seat at the table. So do those who watch Fox.
I contend that traditional families as traditionally defined, are not the foundation of this country. Relationships, connections, caring for our fellow humans are. This country’s foundations are built on the rock of diversity, service, and activism. Freedom is our foundation, grace is the scaffold, and the whole structure ascends upon “ladders of opportunity:” authentic equal opportunity. The house of this country has rooms for all of those who yearn to create their own life stories. And I will, to the best of my ability, wield my gifts and my voice in honor of those stories.
In the words of national treasure, Dolly Parton, who has herself wielded her inimitable voice for good:
“Oh, sweet freedom, may you stay
In our land and lives always
And may peace and beauty fill our hearts anew
And may we all stand up for you
May our thoughts and deeds be true
And be worthy of your stripes…red, white and blue.”
May the Divine One bless America and its citizens. All of them.