November 1, 2022
Rev. Adam Russell Taylor believes exercising our right to vote is a commitment that unites all our faith traditions.
Rev. Adam Russell Taylor is president of the Christian social justice organization Sojourners and the author of “A More Perfect Union: A New Vision for the Beloved Community.” He and Eboo discuss how Sojourners’ voting rights work and Interfaith America’s Vote is Sacred campaign are inspiring faith communities to protect participatory democracy. “If we’re serious about following Jesus,” Taylor says, “we have to recognize that following Jesus has profound social, political and economic implications.”
Rev. Adam Russell Taylor is the president of Sojourners, a Christian nonprofit organization focused on the biblical call to social justice. Taylor previously led the Faith Initiative at the World Bank Group and served as the executive director of Global Justice. He was selected for the 2009/2010 White House Fellows to serve in the White House Office of Cabinet Affairs and Public Engagement, and currently serves as a member of the inaugural class of the Aspen Institute Civil Society Fellowship. Taylor is ordained in the American Baptist Church and the Progressive National Baptist Convention and serves in ministry at the Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Va.
Receive funding for your own intentional reflection or for hosting conversations about the podcast.
Is protecting voting rights a sacred value?
Eboo Patel: This is the “Interfaith America” podcast, and I’m Eboo Patel.
Eboo: Reverend Adam Russell Taylor is the president of Sojourners, a Christian nonprofit organization focused on the biblical call to social justice. Adam has led the faith initiative at the World Bank Group. He has been a White House fellow. He is currently part of the Aspen Institute’s Civil Society Fellowship. He is ordained in the American Baptist Church and the Progressive National Baptist Convention and serves in ministry at the Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia.
In this conversation, we will talk about why the American project of diverse democracy is holy. Adam believes, like I believe, that we safeguard America. We make it even more sacred by building more diversity into the American project, not less, and we believe the central pillar of American democracy is voting. In this episode, we will talk about lots of things, including why the vote is sacred. Incidentally, that’s the name we’ve given an important new initiative at my organization, Interfaith America. I’m very proud that Adam is not only talking to me about this but working with Interfaith America on this project.
Adam Russell Taylor, I cannot tell you how happy I am to welcome you to the “Interfaith America” podcast. I cannot wait to talk to you about the holiness of voting rights, which is something that you’re a national leader on and that you have helped to inspire my organization, Interfaith America, to make a central part of our work. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about your work? Tell us what you do as an ordained minister, as the head of Sojourners. Tell us a bit about what brought you to that.
Reverend Adam Russell Taylor: Yes, thanks, Eboo. It’s really an honor and a privilege to be with you. The feeling is mutual. I really admire you and your work at Interfaith America. I really feel like this is, in some ways, providential timing, put in religious terms, to be able to speak about the sacredness of voting.
My particular call to ministry was not necessarily to be a pastor of a church. It was really to try to revitalize a commitment to justice and protecting human dignity within the church broadly, but also within other faith communities as well. I’m grateful I get to do that at Sojourners. We’re actually turning 50 years old this year. For 50 years, we’ve been inspiring Christians of all stripes but also working with many other faith traditions to really help people put their faith into action for justice and peace and done a lot of work on poverty and economic justice.
We work on immigrant rights. We’ve done a lot of work on policing and transforming our justice system. Increasingly, our work is focused on the need to protect the right to vote and to safeguard our democracy because, in many ways, we are facing one of the most perilous moments for both the right to vote and our democracy right now, which is a little bit crazy to say, particularly over 50 years after the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965.
I have really come to understand the words that the great abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, once said when he said, “There is no progress without struggle.” I think in the context of our democracy, it has to be constantly defended. It has to be constantly protected. That is the work that we’re engaged in now and excited to be able to share more about that.
Patel: Right, and a huge part of what we’re trying to do at Interfaith America right now is, say the diverse democracy of the American experiment is holy. You can’t have that without securing voting rights. Tell me, why is protecting voting rights a central value for you as an ordained Christian minister?
Taylor: Yes. Well, first, let me just say, I’m really excited about Interfaith America’s Vote is Sacred campaign. Got to be a part of the launch of the campaign. I think it is so critical that young people and college students are in the vanguard of social change. Again, protecting our democracy is probably the most important thing that we could be engaged in, in this particular moment.
For me, I try to remember the long arc of history that our nation was founded on some really precious and cherished ideals of liberty and justice for all, of equal justice under the law, but we know that those ideals were fatally flawed from the beginning because they were constrained. They were limited initially to white land-owning men, who were the only Americans that were allowed to vote when this country was founded.
There has been a constant struggle, if you will, to expand the weed or extend those ideals and those rights and privileges to a greater number of people. There was the women’s suffrage movement that extended the right to vote to women. There was the civil rights movement, the struggle to extend the right to all people, including African Americans, which were viciously denied that right for so many years. I think it’s actually helpful to think about our country as only being a little over 50 years old. Because before the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, voting was so severely constrained.
We couldn’t really call ourselves a true representative democracy. It was, again, a democracy that was so blemished and so compromised by who was given that right and who was denied that right. In that context, it makes it a little easier, I think, to understand some of the struggles we’re in now, that these are growing pains of becoming a more multiracial, a more inclusive democracy, which I think is the future, but that future is not guaranteed. It’s not inevitable. Again, it requires our agency.
The reason that I really feel that voting is a faith issue, and I would argue even a faith responsibility, is our voting in a democracy is how we exercise our voice. It’s how we exercise our agency. It’s how we are able to protect the most vulnerable and the most marginalized in our midst, which is the commitment that unites all of our faith traditions. When we don’t vote and when we stand on the sidelines, we are essentially endorsing the status quo with all of its injustice and all of its challenges.
When we exercise the right to vote, it’s not the end-all and the be-all of how we engage civically, but it’s, in many ways, the starting point. It’s crucial for how we’re able to hold elected officials accountable, how we’re able to project our values in the political system, and, ultimately, how we’re able to choose our leaders and, again, hold them accountable for the things that we think are most important.
Patel: You mentioned faith. I love how you talk about faith in relation to voting and democracy. In one of your pieces, I think, for Newsweek, you cite Dr. King in saying that voting rights are not a political or a partisan matter. They’re a spiritual matter. What was the case that Dr. King made for that and how would you expand on that now 50 years later?
Taylor: Yes, Dr. King understood that as long as people were denied the right to vote, they were denied their agency, their ability to affect the decisions that directly impact their lives. There’s a reason that the flagship achievement of the civil rights movement was the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, many politicians thought that we were done with civil rights.
Dr. King, in a famous meeting, went to President Johnson and said to him, “We are not done. We have to pass the Voting Rights Act because until we do that, so much of the civil rights gains will be built on sand and can easily be taken away.” Because of violence in the South and intimidation in the South, because of poll taxes and a whole series of Jim Crow barriers, most African Americans weren’t able to exercise the right to vote, therefore, electing representatives that would represent their interests.
He understood that that was the linchpin of how we’re going to be able to transform our country going forward. President Johnson at the time said that he had expended all of his political capital in getting the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed. Dr. King said, “Okay, well, we’re going to go back to the South, organize Freedom Summer, and ultimately organize in Selma and organize the march from Selma to Montgomery in order to generate the political will and to stoke the conscience of the country to ensure that we could pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act.”
I’m just sharing that little tidbit of history because it just illustrates how critical voting rights is to being able to not only sustain our democracy but to actually give its credibility and its legitimacy. I think Dr. King understood that this is fundamentally a faith issue because, in a similar way to the way I really defined this issue, he understood that voting is the way in which we are able to honor and protect the imago Dei in every single person, the core belief in Judaism and Christianity and in some parts of Islam that we are made in the image and likeness of God.
That means that if there are efforts out there to deny someone their right to vote, it is really affront on the imago Dei. It is a way of undermining their very worth and their very dignity. Again, one of the most powerful commitments, I think, within our faith traditions is understanding the inherent worth and dignity of every single person and wanting to respect that and protect it.
Through the work that we’re doing now through a campaign called Faiths United to Save Democracy, we are centering the imago Dei as the starting point of the campaign. The right to vote has become so politicized sadly that it has become this kind of partisan issue. This really is a nonpartisan issue. It is a faith imperative to ensure that everyone is able to exercise the right to vote without barriers, without restriction, without intimidation, without the threat of violence.
Yes, we want to make sure that our elections themselves are free and fair and that there’s no fraud or abuse, but I think we have to be really clear in this moment that the kind of accusations of election fraud has been used as a pretense to justify efforts, to restrict the right to vote, particularly within communities of color. That is where we have to just be really crystal clear about what’s at stake and what we as people of faith need to do in response.
Patel: I want to take this in two different directions. One is I want to continue to get theological with you for a second. This is some of my favorite conversations with you is when you share with me what from your Christian faith inspires you to work for inclusivity and pluralism and justice and when I get to share from my Muslim faith, what inspires me to do the same. You talk about imago Dei, the image of God. In Islam, the analog would be the breath of God.
We believe that God creates prophet Adam, the first human being, the father of us all, so to speak, by picking up a lump of clay and giving it his breath and makes Adam his abd and khalifa, his servant and representative, His steward of creation, and makes creation deliberately diverse and gives Adam the gift to steward and nurture that diversity. I think America in its fourth founding, this 50-year-old experiment of diverse democracy, it is made holy when we invite people’s participation and when we secure it.
Therefore, when we don’t do that, when we exclude people or restrict it, it’s not just a crime. It’s a sin. It’s a sin against the sacredness of the American project. The fact that so many of the ways we imagine the nation are through sacred terms, city on a hill, beloved community, almost chosen people, cathedral of humanity. I like to call this “American Medina” using a Muslim term. There’s a reason for that, right? There’s a reason because a participatory democracy is not just precious, it’s holy and it’s our job to secure that.
Taylor: Yes, well said. Absolutely right. One of the ways in which I really lean into this work is understanding that if we are really serious about, in Christian terms, caring for and protecting the least of these, if we’re really serious about using the commitments of the biblical prophets to protect the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and those that are living in poverty, which were kind of their core priorities, then we have to be able to ensure that those marginalized and vulnerable people are able to participate fully in our democratic system and that we are able to advocate and to participate through our vote in order to ensure that their needs are treated as holy.
I’ll just share just a quick piece of my own biography because I think it links to what you just shared. As you know, Eboo, I grew up as you did in the shadow of the civil rights movement. My parents made the controversial decision to get married in 1968, just a year after interracial marriage became legalized across the country. My mother’s Black and my father’s white. They really decided to put love over so much of the bigotry that they encountered that time.
They instilled in me this belief that our generation, Generation X, but I think this is true in other generations too, inherited the unfinished business of the civil rights struggle. They instilled in me this belief that our racial and religious and ethnic diversity as a country was, and I’m putting this in my own terms, our greatest superpower. I’m a huge Marvel universe fan. Yet there are so many in this country that treat it like it’s kryptonite, that it’s the source of weakness. There are so many efforts to stoke fear and to stoke anxiety around the vastly changing demographics in this country, which I actually think should be a source of hope and should be a source of excitement, right?
I think that was one of the underlying fault lines that contributed to the 2016 election. It wasn’t coincidental that the census bureau was starting to report a lot more publicly about the changing demographics in this country and that, within about 20, 30 years, we would become a country in which white Americans would be in the minority and that people of color would be in the majority. Well, that statistic alone was seized upon by many politicians, including President Trump or then-candidate Trump, and used it as a way to stoke a kind of anxiety and fear about the country we’re becoming and that white Americans would lose their privileged status and would lose their core identity.
That flies in the face of the core teachings of our faith traditions. I think one of the things that we have to do in the context of protecting our democracy is to be able to paint a picture and to make a strong argument that not only our efforts to suppress people’s votes or to erect new barriers counter to our democratic commitments, in other words, they’re anti-democracy, that they’re also anti-faith, that they disrupt and undermine and denigrate the kind of vision that our faith casts of people welcoming and embracing diversity as a strength.
Patel: Yes, a sin, not just a crime.
Taylor: That’s right. There are sins of omission and sins of commission. [chuckles] We’re committing both in the context of what’s happening right now. You’ve got people that are being omitted from our political system because of new barriers. You’ve got sins of commission that are happening that are causing injustice and harm to people of color. I think framing it in that context is important and is one way that we can, in some ways, transcend the kind of broken political debate that has currently ensnared this issue.
Patel: Let’s talk a minute about the sins of commission. How did we get here? Didn’t we fight these battles in 1962 and 1963 in that fourth founding process? Can you just give us a very brief history of the last 10 years or so of restricting voting rights?
Taylor: Yes, I take it back a little bit further. We all probably can remember the 2000 election. Critical election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. That election was controversial in lots of ways. That came down to a razor-thin margin and a very controversial recount in the state of Florida, particularly in Broward County and in Miami-Dade. When that recount happened, there were a group of Republican political operatives that traveled to the courts to basically stage a protest and were alleging that there was electoral fraud that had taken place.
Remember the hanging chads and all these challenges with counting the votes correctly? In many ways, to his credit, then-Vice President Gore initially challenged the results but ultimately conceded because he believed that the unity of the country was more important than him dragging out a long political fight after he lost that battle in the courts. Literally, the opposite of what we saw in 2020.
Well, that election started this trend where some factions of the GOP or the Republican Party started to seize upon this idea of electoral fraud and started to ratchet up their rhetoric that our election system was insecure and that we needed to prevent fraud and abuse from happening. The reason I’m starting there is because you’ve seen this kind of grow over the course of the last 20 years.
The next critical change moment was in 2013 when, through a case called Shelby County v. Holder, essentially, the Voting Rights Act that we talked about earlier, was weakened. It was gutted. There was what’s called Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which is the pre-clearance section that required Southern states that had a history of voter suppression through Jim Crow laws, et cetera, had to clear any new changes to their election laws through the U.S. Justice Department.
It prevented them from putting in place discriminatory barriers that would make it more difficult for people of color to vote, et cetera. The Supreme Court basically decided that that was no longer necessary, that, yes, the Voting Rights Act should still try to prohibit discrimination, but there was no longer a need for this pre-clearance provision. Literally, after 2013, within days and months, you saw this flurry of new bills being proposed not just in Southern states, but also in many states of the Midwest that started trying to erect new barriers making it more difficult for communities of color to vote.
They showed up limiting early voting, moving polling sites, making it easier for states to purge their voting rolls. A whole series of new restrictions that started getting put in place after 2013, we saw the impact of that in the 2014 election and in the 2016 and ’18 election. Then it really came to a head in 2020 where you had a president, President Trump, who literally before the election was even conducted, alleged, without any real evidence, widespread voter fraud and claimed that the election was stolen.
Then, of course, he rode that lie all the way through to January 6th and the insurrection that was conducted in large part because of that lie. We have seen, as a result of that big lie, not only the majority of Republicans now believe it, which is just a really coercive force for faith in our democratic system and our election system, but you’ve seen a whole series of bills being proposed around the country to try to address a problem that was never real in the first place. Of course, we all want to ensure that our elections are secure and that they are run in a free and fair way.
But in many ways, these bills that have been proposed and– As of now, according to the Brennan Center, there are 30 laws in 18 states that restrict access to vote. Everything through making early voting more difficult as we have said before, imposing harsher voter ID requirements, making faulty purges more likely and more. I’ve tried to say really clearly, and I’ll say it here, that voter suppression efforts are real in this country. Widespread voter fraud is a fabricated lie that is being used to justify these new efforts. Then if we care about democracy, we need to not only push back against these laws, we have to further empower people to still exercise their sacred right to vote.
Patel: Let’s talk about one of the ways Interfaith America is doing that with your help and inspiration and, specifically, our Vote is Sacred initiative. There are three big parts to this initiative. Part one is really to develop a powerful interfaith narrative for voting rights, a narrative analogous to the Judeo-Christian narrative of the civil rights movement. Largely Christian, but with Jewish input from folks like the great rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, articulated why voting and participatory democracy was holy.
We live in a much different country now, 50 years later. There are as many Buddhists and Muslims as there are ELCA Lutherans. The median age of Buddhists and Muslims is some 20 years younger, right? We want Buddhist and Muslim and Jain and Sikh and Baháʼí and secular humanist language in the conversation about voting rights. We’re bringing together a council of religious and civic leaders from atheists and agnostics all the way through the spectrum, Buddhists, Jains, et cetera, et cetera, to tell us from their tradition why voting and participatory democracy is holy. Tell me what power you think this might have in the efforts to secure voting rights.
Taylor: I think this could have incredible power. One, because I think we do need to infuse, to supercharge the fight for our democracy, the fight for the right to vote with our faith. Again, I do not see this at all in partisan terms. I want Republicans, Democrats, independents, and everyone in between to want and be committed to defending our democracy because the right to vote is such a cornerstone to our democracy.
That’s the place where we have to start although, certainly, lots of other things that we also need to address, which we could talk about later if you’re interested. You’ve got to prevent so many of the gerrymandered districts that are making elections essentially decide in the primary, not in the general election, and are favoring the most extreme candidates and much more. When it comes to the right to vote, I think we need that faith framing because, again, it helps to both trigger more of the values-centered conversation we need and it helps to get it out of this often very crippling partisan agenda.
One of the things that I like to contrast is what I call the politics of division and the politics of the common good. Politics of division is what we have right now. It is literally being fueled by an us-versus-them mentality, which is often very racialized in this country, but it could also be very religious. It’d be kind of a white Christian nationalist perspective against the multifaith vision of America that we both share, right?
It’s also fueled by zero-sum understanding of our politics, which means that if the other party or my opponent gains in any way, then I automatically lose. It’s this all-or-nothing sense of our politics. Then you combine that with a degree of contempt and dislike for the other and a desire to defeat them, not to persuade them or to convert them. You get this really toxic politics that we’re stuck in right now. Of course, disinformation and social media is also contributing to this and some other factors as well.
Well, to me, the politics of the common good says that I want to see the humanity, let alone the divinity, that might be inside my opponent that I want to try to persuade them onto my side and to see why my sense of good policy would be good for them too and that I will universalize my faith appeals and the language that it’s going to resonate with the broader electorate, right? Then I’m going to try to compete for as many votes as possible that this, again, us-versus-them mentality is just very corrosive.
I think, in this moment, it is imperative that we infuse this struggle with faith. We need to emphasize that young people could be the most decisive change agents and game-changers when it comes to this process. Not only are some of these new voting barriers making it more difficult for communities of color to vote, they are also often targeting college campuses and young people in the state of Texas. Their new law is making it almost impossible for college students who go to school in Texas but are going to school in a different part of the state than where they live to be able to vote.
That, again, is an intentional recognition that young people are voting often in a more democratic way, even though I think the Republican Party could easily appeal to those young people if they change their outreach and some of their rhetoric and some of their policies. There’s a lot at stake for young people right now in order to be able to fully access their right to vote. If they use their advocacy voice and they infuse that with their faith, I really believe that we could see dramatic reforms in our democratic system that would help reinvent and revitalize our democracy.
Patel: I love the transpartisan way you talk about this. This is not a way for one political party to defeat the other. This is a way for us to “achieve America” to use James Baldwin language. I especially love the emphasis on young people. It’s actually a big part of our work and the Vote is Sacred. I’ll get to that in a moment. It’s the first part of the Vote is Sacred, is to weave together this interfaith narrative around participatory democracy and voting rights that welcomes in Muslim and Jain and Jewish and Buddhist and Baháʼí and Hindu language, et cetera, et cetera.
The second part is to expand the number of people who can sing the song. People often decry preaching to the choir. Look, you don’t have a song if there’s no choir, but you got to expand the choir. You got to teach those people to sing the song and then you have to help more and more people be choir directors. We’re looking at curricularizing this narrative. Just as you would teach people to sing a song in a church, we’re hoping that videos and prompts and the right kind of fun quizzes and the like can teach more people about how different religions believe that participatory democracy is holy and how we can work together on it. I’m curious in your long history as an organizer and as an institution builder, have you seen ways that curriculum can do this well?
Taylor: Yes, I’m really excited that this is the second pillar of your campaign. In Christian terms, you’re trying to figure out how to evangelize a commitment to devoting. [chuckles]
Patel: I love that. Yes, that’s right.
Taylor: One of the things that Sojourners has done a lot is really try to develop these pithy slogans that help to capture attention, but also to reframe how people understand voting. I know you remember probably one of the most famous ones by the founder of Sojourners, Jim Wallis, back in the 2004 election where he and we as Sojourners said, “God is not a Republican or a Democrat.”
It was just a very simple way to challenge the sense that one party has a monopoly on God, which is just a ridiculous notion, and yet it become so pervasive within our political civic life. I think sometimes just being able to find those really effective slogans just from a communications point of view is really important. The other is some of the deeper-level training. We have had a curriculum that’s evolved and had different iterations to it, but it’s basically been focused around what we call “faithful discipleship.”
Really trying to make this case to Christians that engaging in our political system, including voting, is not just some kind of optional activity of faith. It’s not some kind of extracurricular activity of faith. It is actually part and parcel to what it means to follow Christ, that if we’re serious about following Jesus, we have to recognize that following Jesus has profound social, political, and economic implications.
One of the things that I think has been a real disservice in my faith tradition, the Christian tradition, is we have often sanitized and deradicalized Christ. Now, Christ was not political in the way that we necessarily understand it today. He actually rejected the political parties of his time, the Sadducees and the Pharisees and the Zealots and the Essenes, but he did engage in challenging authority. He did engage in efforts to promote justice and to protect the most vulnerable.
What we argue is that being engaged in politics is a critical way that we live out our faith. It’s integral to our faith, and that if we stand on the sidelines, again, we are basically giving license to many things happening that are affront on our faith. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great German theologian who ultimately resisted the rise of Nazi Germany and got killed for it, he once said that “Not to act is, in fact, an action and not to speak is, in fact, speaking.” I love that quote because it gets to the heart of how we can pretend that we are going to somehow be pure in our faith and avoid corrupting our faith by standing apart from our political system and not engaging in it.
In the process of doing so, again, we are basically endorsing the status quo and we’re endorsing a lot of things that we disagree with. We put together a whole series of what we call guidelines and guardrails on how Christians can effectively engage. They include things like being principled but never ideological, being engaged but never used by politicians and by politics. Those are a couple of examples, but really trying to provide tools and resources for Christians on not only why but the how they should engage in our politics.
Patel: Well, we look forward to learning from your toolkit and doing an interfaith version of it because there are Jewish and Buddhist and Baháʼí and Muslim analogs to a lot of these things. As I said earlier, I think some of the most wonderful conversations I have is when people share their particular faith or philosophical inspiration with me and that it reminds me of things in my own tradition. These things need to be taught. That’s why this curriculum is so important.
All right, so you’ve already talked about the role of young people and college campuses. King was introduced to Gandhi when he was a college student and a seminary student, introduced to the idea of Gandhi and nonviolence. John Lewis was a seminary student in Nashville when he did a lot of his great work, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC. Obviously, college students, right?
That’s who we want to animate and elevate with the action part of the Vote is Sacred. We’re looking at giving mini grants to college campuses so that those students can run their own Vote is Sacred initiative, bring together theologians and civic leaders from different religions to talk about how voting and participatory democracy is sacred to them, have voter registration drives, et cetera, et cetera. Tell me about the hope that that image gives you.
Taylor: It gives me incredible amount of hope. In some ways, you are recreating the ethic and ethos of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Obviously, it was a different time. But in some ways, that kind of ethic is more needed now than it has been for a very long time. What I loved about SNCC is while a lot of leadership certainly was Christian, it drew in Jewish leaders.
It was intentionally multiracial. It was intentionally multifaith. I know we might talk about this in a second, but it had this North Star, this animating vision of the beloved community that really helped to bind it together. I think what is so critical in that is that young people were willing to sacrifice their time, their energy, and sometimes their very lives in order to protect something that is greater than themselves.
In this case, it was protecting civil rights. It was protecting and trying to secure the right to vote. Even if some of the young people that are involved in the Vote is Sacred don’t directly feel the effects of these ongoing assaults on the right to vote, from a faith perspective, this impacts all of us. Of course, from a practical democracy perspective, this impacts all of us. I really hope that will be an emphasis as you go forward.
Patel: I’m seeing these cathedrals of pluralism, so to speak, on campuses all over the country, right? It was Ella Baker who hosted the first SNCC conference at her alma mater, Shaw University, and all these great heroes of American democracy. Diane Nash and John Lewis showed up and they built a student movement that not only saved our democracy but actually built it. I think that’s the wind at our back, right? That’s the kind of heroes of America saying, “Go on and do your work.” Let’s talk about beloved community for a second. Can we have beloved community without initiatives like the Vote is Sacred and without protecting voting rights?
Taylor: That’s a good question. I don’t think we can. Really quickly, the way that I define the beloved community in my contemporary remix version is it’s building a nation and a society where neither punishment nor privilege is tied to race or religion or to gender or to sexual orientation. It’s building a country where everyone is respected and valued, where our diversity is seen as a strength and not a weakness, and where everyone is enabled to thrive.
I think that there’s a struggle going on in the soul of America between these very competing visions of the future. One is of essentially white Christian America, which has never been a reality. Certainly, there’s been efforts to make that the dominant and the only identity of America. There’s a struggle between that and the truly inclusive and just multiracial, multireligious democracy that, ultimately, I believe we are becoming even if there’s been some setbacks and regress in the last number of years.
Now is the time, because of some of that regress, to redouble our commitment to protecting our democracy. I think young people have to be engaged even on the front lines of that struggle. We’re both huge fans of SNCC. I was just going to remind you of their founding statement, which says, “Through nonviolence, courage displaces fear. Love transcends hate. Acceptance dissipates prejudice. Hope ends despair. Faith reconciles doubt.”
I think that commitment to, of course, nonviolence, but a commitment to political engagement, maybe even at times, civil disobedience as at least one tactic that sometimes is necessary, but at the very least, sacrificing some of your time and some of your energy to ensure that not only can people vote, but they’re motivated to vote. Here’s one of my deepest fears about all these new efforts to restrict the right to vote is that even if the actual laws don’t make a big impact, the psychological impact could be even worse.
Because if they convince people that it’s not even worth voting or their vote’s not going to matter, they will have won even if the actual barriers didn’t prevent people from voting, which is why young people have to be on the front lines of helping to convince people that you’re not helpless. You’re not powerless. The right to vote is still there and that it might be more difficult, but it’s even more of a reason why, let’s overcome these barriers, let’s exercise that right, and then let’s continue to ensure that our country chooses multiracial, inclusive, just democracy, because that is what our fate demands.
Patel: That’s so well said. It reminds me of something so simple but so important. You have to believe for a democratic nation, right? If you don’t believe that you can make a positive change, if you don’t believe that your vote or your voice matters, you don’t do it, and then you don’t have a democracy. A democracy requires the participation of its citizens and inhabitants. If you convince people that their participation doesn’t matter and they don’t participate, you don’t have a democracy.
Let’s end with this question, that beautiful statement from SNCC. John Lewis was there and he might likely have held the pen that penned that. The great John Lewis who believed so much in democracy that he would preach to the chickens in his parents’ backyard about Jesus and the Constitution and American democracy. He got his head cracked open on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma because he believed in American democracy.
I think to myself, the heroes of the civil rights movement of which John Lewis is front and center, they could easily have said that America was a lie. Instead, they said it was a broken promise and they gave their bodies and their blood to fix it. We inherit their legacy. You were friends with John Lewis. He wrote the foreword to your book. A lot of who you are, you’re, kind of in some ways, a ray of life from the son of John Lewis, right? That is the path that you walk. Tell us what John Lewis would think of what the Vote is Sacred is all about, and what Sojourners’ work around voting is all about.
Taylor: Well, first, that’s one of the highest compliments you could give me that I am a ray from John Lewis. He certainly is a hero. A number of people have said the vote is sacred, but one of his most famous quotes is, “The vote is sacred. It’s the most powerful, non-violent tool we have in our possession in a democracy.” I think that he is literally leaning over the balcony of heaven, cheering on Sojourners and its Faiths United to Save Democracy campaign partnership with the National African American Clergy Network and others.
He’s cheering on the Vote is Sacred because I think he still believes in the power of young people to be able to transform their reality and set the course of our nation’s history. I think that he would be encouraging us to both stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, but he would also be encouraging us to develop new wineskins on how to do this work in ways that are going to harness the power of social media that are going to organize in some new ways in order to ensure that we can have a greater impact.
I’m just grateful that I learned so much about the beloved community through him. I think that’s a vision that the vast, vast majority of Americans agree with and would resonate with, but we’ve got to figure out how do we not only paint that moral vision and that picture for them but create the on-ramp so they can join a growing movement that I think will, again, help us to live into a more perfect union. The emphasis is always on the “more.” It’s never on just “the perfect.” It’s about the striving for the more, right?
Patel: Right, all I can say to that is “inshallah,” God willing. Thank you for that. Thank you for this time, Adam. Thank you for your work. Thank you for your example. Thank you for your friendship. Thank you for your faith. Thank you for being an inspiring part of the Vote is Sacred. May our efforts and your efforts work well together and actually help build this 21st-century multiracial interfaith democracy. Adam Taylor, thank you for this time.
Taylor: Thank you, Eboo.
Patel: I always love talking to my friend, Reverend Adam Russell Taylor. He lifts me up and he teaches me new things. I love this idea that American democracy is, in a true sense, only just about a half-century old. It’s only in the 1960s that all people here were welcomed into our most fundamental right, and that is voting. It is a right that is currently being threatened, which is precisely why we need initiatives like the Vote is Sacred, which we are running at Interfaith America in partnership with campuses and civil society organizations around the country.
I love Adam’s idea that excluding people is a sin against the American project. A diverse democracy is holy and we make it even more sacred by welcoming a diversity of participants into that project and nurturing positive relations between them. Thank you, Adam, for reminding us why what we do in America matters so much, why it is not just a civic project but a sacred project. If you want to learn more about my organization or the work of diverse democracy in America and why it is a holy project, check out www.interfaithamerica.org. I’m Eboo Patel.
Intro/outro music provided by Mysterylab Music and composed by Mott Jordan.
Credit music provided by Die Hard Productions.
Meet the team who made this podcast possible.
Want to share feedback, suggest a future guest or ask a question? Email Us.