Freewill, Sacred Duty, and Rights

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I have a friend who is not voting in today’s presidential election. He’ll go to the polls and cast his ballot, marking his choices for some of the other races, but he’s so disgusted with our presidential candidates he’s opting out. This is a guy with a long military career who normally votes Republican (he did vote for Clinton twice) and who has voted in every election since the early 1960s. He’s opposed to Obama’s economic policies and philosophy of government, and he tells me Romney is such an opportunist he can’t be trusted.

His refusal to vote for president is his choice, and, importantly, not an abdication of responsibility. In fact, his decision to forego casting a ballot for president is, technically speaking, his expression of both free will and free speech. It is, simply put, his right as an American and his moral obligation as a citizen of this country to choose whether he votes.

My friend’s willingness not to vote is important to remember on election day 2012. The San Antonio Express News today ran an editorial titled “Election Day Brings Sacred Duty, Right” in which they, like so many other news outlets, admonished people for not voting. They tell us it’s our right and our duty. If that doesn’t work, they try to guilt people into voting because our men and women died protecting that right.

Unfortunately, this strikes me as an awful and dangerous mis-reading of, well, everything. We’ll take the low hanging fruit first. Voting is not a “sacred” duty. In a country whose first amendment establishes the Jeffersonian wall between church and state, we must remember that “sacred” duties are those associated with religious doctrine. For instance, sacred burial grounds are those whose importance is tied directly to religious or theological importance. We hold sacred rituals in observance of religious duty and to honor whatever deity we use to justify our existence. Voting in America, then, is only a sacred duty if it’s held in conjunction with some religious event and the very nature of America’s stability as a country is keeping the sacred out of our public requirements and duties. To be blunt: look at a map and tell me which countries require religious affiliation as a public duty and as a marker of citizenship. Which countries, for instance, deify their leaders or “elect” religious men (yes, they are all men) to positions of power. Which one do you want to live in?

It is worth noting as well that we don’t have a “right” to vote. One of the most amazing things about our Bill of Rights and our Constitution, when you read them closely, is that they don’t actually require or compel you to do anything. Our government is such a mess because our founders crafted a governmental system designed around freewill. (This is, by the way, a great thing. Democracy is messy business. Listening to all those voices and opinions tend to slow things down.) You have a right, for instance, to free speech, but you are also protected from being required to speak freely. You have a right to bear arms but you are not required to bear arms. Voting works the same way. The 15th Amendment doesn’t give people a right to vote. The 15th Amendment restricts the government from stopping people from voting. In essence, the Bill of Rights and Constitution is more about government responsibility and less about personal rights.

These are subtle but important distinctions promised us as American citizens. It is, then, our right, not to vote. In fact, one might argue (as my friend does) that his “duty” in an election such as this is not to vote. (In the same way, we might argue not voting in those races where you are totally ignorant about the candidates is a greater act of responsibility than simply voting for the sake of voting.) My friends only real “duty” as an American is to use his freewill, that which is guaranteed by the constitution and voice his opinion by not participating in what he sees as a flawed and corrupt system of choosing a national leader. In choosing not to choose, he is, to paraphrase the lyrics from a different Rush song than the video above, making a choice.

Mark Twain once wrote “The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” Our “sacred” duty is tied to our religious affiliation (if we have one) not our public responsibility. Our only duty as American citizens is being informed enough to choose the manner and extent of our participation in the public arena. If the public arena is corrupt, our refusal to participate in that arena does not constitute a lack of duty or participation.

As American citizens we have the “right” not to be forced, bullied, or guilted into participating in elections. We don’t forfeit our right to complain about the government if we willingly refuse to participate whether by well-informed choice, laziness, or disenfranchisement. The beauty of America, and the reason immigration into our nation far exceeds emigration out, is that our minds “are not for rent / to any god or government” unless we make that choice.

Be a citizen today. Demonstrate your freewill and do your duty.

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

One Response to Freewill, Sacred Duty, and Rights

  1. Pingback: Consistently Contradictory

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