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Democracy as a sacred endeavor — a conversation with Adam Russell Taylor

The president of Sojourners talks about the connection between voting and faith, and how voting protects the image of God in every person in a democracy

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Editor’s note: This Q&A has been adapted from the podcast “Interfaith America with Eboo Patel.” Patel is a Deseret contributor.

A diverse democracy is not just a political framework; it is a sacred endeavor. I recently talked to my friend the Rev. Adam Taylor, CEO of Sojourners, about what makes American democracy holy. Sojourners is a Christian nonprofit organization focused on the biblical call to social justice.

Taylor is an ordained minister in the American Baptist Church and previously led the Faith Initiative at the World Bank Group. We talked about the ongoing need to defend American democracy as a matter of faith and how the right to vote honors and protects the image of God, or imago Dei, as the Rev. Martin Luther King believed.

The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Eboo Patel: You believe, like I do, that we can 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. Tell us a little bit about your work at Sojourners.

Adam Russell Taylor: 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: A huge part of what we’re trying to do at Interfaith America right now is (to show that) the diverse democracy of the American experiment is holy. You can’t have that without securing voting rights. Why is protecting voting rights a central value for you as an ordained Christian minister? 

Taylor: Well, first, let me just say, I’m really excited about Interfaith America’s “Vote is Sacred” campaign. I got to be a part of the launch, and I think it is so critical that young people and college students are in the vanguard of social change. 

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 allowed to vote when this country was founded. 

There has been a constant struggle, if you will, to expand 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, who 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. 

Patel: Can you elaborate on that?

Taylor: 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. 

Patel: What does voting have to do with faith?

Taylor: The reason that I 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 in many ways, it’s 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: I love how you talk about faith in relation to voting and democracy. In one of your pieces, you cite Dr. Martin Luther 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: 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, “OK, 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 are to being able to not only sustain our democracy but to actually give it credibility and 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. 

Eboo Patel, the founder and president of Interfaith America, is a contributing writer for the Deseret News, the author of “We Need to Build: Field Notes for a Diverse Democracy” and the host of the podcast “Interfaith America with Eboo Patel.” The full episode of this podcast is available on Interfaith America, Spotify and Apple. New episodes are released every Tuesday.