Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states,
Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives … The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.
In the light of the recent push to institute racist voter suppression laws across the United States — which follows upon decades of attempts at suppressing the vote of black and brown Americans — the U.S. is in clear violation of this mandate. This morning, clergy and people of faith assembled in front of New York’s City Hall to rally against racist voter suppression laws. Gathering under the banner of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival and led by PPC co-chairs Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II of Repairers of the Breach, Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis of the Kairos Center, Union Theological Seminary, and Auburn Seminary, we held a press conference to announce that our democracy has been hacked from the inside, and to call the U.S. to task for violating our basic human rights (if you missed it, view the video of the press conference here).
As Rev. Barber demanded, “We want the Voting Rights Act fully restored and an end to racist gerrymandering.” Rev. Barber and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove recently devoted an entire episode of their podcast, The Gathering, to an extensive analysis of the history of voter suppression, the moral dimensions of voting rights, and voter suppression’s direct links with poverty and racism.
After the press conference, we made history by sending a delegation from the Poor People’s Campaign, led by Rev. Barber and Rev. Theoharis, to the United Nations to deliver an open letter on voter suppression to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. The letter describes the way the U.S. is violating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and (illegally) disregarding the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, especially through the recent formation of the Trump Administration’s offensively named Election Integrity Commission. It explains how voter suppression laws disproportionately impact people of color, and hearken back to Jim Crow-era attempts to disenfranchise black and brown Americans. The letter concludes,
Since we can no longer count on our Justice Department to act on behalf of the disenfranchised, we turn instead to the international community, that you might move to hold the United States government accountable and call for an end to its violations of its own citizens’ human rights.
The suppression of voting rights has a toxic impact which lasts far beyond election season. Voter suppression laws contribute directly to poverty, a lower-than-average minimum wage, and a lack of Medicaid expansion in the states in which such laws are passed. As Rev. Theoharis explained, “We see the connections between child poverty, minimum wages and voter suppression.”
Clergy and people of faith proclaimed today that we will no longer accept what Rev. Barber calls a systematic hacking of our democracy “from the inside,” and, with the new Poor People’s Campaign, called for a moral revival that will no longer tolerate poverty in the midst of the richest country in the history of the world. Voting rights are human rights, and the fact that our human rights are under attack means that we require a “revolution of values” in this country to overturn the racist structures that are harming our families, our neighbors, and ourselves.
People of faith have a powerful role to play in this process, but often fail to utilize their literal and metaphorical pulpits on this issue for fear of appearing too partisan or “political.” Yet Rev. Barber reminds us that ensuring voting rights, ending poverty, and providing healthcare are moral requirements, not just “political” demands. As Rev. Jacqui Lewis of Middle Collegiate Church exclaimed at the press conference, “If you’re at a church that’s not talking about voter suppression as a moral issue, find a new one.”
Yet the moral requirement for us to oppose voter suppression and its attendant evils is rooted deeply in the soil of all our faith traditions, even in those of us who have no faith tradition at all. Voting rights are human rights, and as Kairos co-director Larry Cox explains in a recent essay, governments are “not the source of the power of human rights . . . the foundational idea of human rights is that they are not the creation of governments.” This is because human rights “are not created at all but discovered, usually through the fight against their violation”: “human rights are inherent in every human being at birth. All governments can do is formulate, recognize, and respect them.”
Cox concludes, “This proclamation that every human being is born with inherent rights shared equally with every other human being is as astonishing as it is radical.” In our fight to ensure our human rights, we must be radical as well — this is why the Poor People’s Campaign has taken up the struggle for voting rights as integrally related, not distinct, from its mission to abolish poverty. The right to take part in government is not separate from the right to not be poor, nor from the greatest commandments of our religious traditions.
Indeed, drawing on the language of the Bible, our letter to the UN High Commissioner ends by lamenting that “Too many people have died in America’s long fight for voting rights for all. Their blood cries out against this evil.”
In the Biblical Book of Revelation, John sees the martyrs who have died under the persecution of the Empire cry out from the altar in the throne room of God:
I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; they cried out with a loud voice, ‘Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?’ (Rev. 6:9-10)
We must take up the legacy of those who have gone before us — sometimes giving their very lives — to struggle for voting rights, to end poverty, and to ensure healthcare and fair wages for all. By building a new Poor People’s Campaign, we affirm that these issues are not unrelated, but are interconnected — the result of a sustained effort by the powers and principalities in this country to suppress our innate, God-given human rights.
The martyrs exclaim, “How long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood?” We must not make them wait any longer. In unison with the blood of the martyrs, the Poor People’s Campaign cries out against the interrelated evils of disenfranchisement, racism, and poverty. Together, we will reclaim our inherent human rights. As Rev. Lewis said during the press conference, “When poor people have the chance to use their voice and vote, they change the texture of America.”