Letters to Peregrinus #21 - On Voting as Solemnly Promising

Dear Peregrinus (11 AM):

You expressed to me what I have heard spoken almost constantly by others – that you find it distasteful having to choose between two (un-) presidential candidates. I know what you mean. But voting is something much deeper and more significant than merely choosing.

Our English verb “to vote” derives from the Latin verb vōvere meaning “to vow; that is, solemnly to promise or formally to consecrate something” to God. How interesting, isnʼt it, that “to vote” references something within each of us that causes us to want to give ourselves completely to someone we love or for a cause truly worthy of our life. For example, my religious Vows say (in part):

 Therefore, by your boundless goodness and mercy, and through the blood of Jesus Christ, I humbly ask that you judge this total commitment of myself acceptable. And as you have freely given me the desire to make this offering, so also may you give me the abundant grace to fulfill it.[1]

What is significant is that at election time we speak of voting ... rather than choosing. Words matter not only through what they mean, but also through what they remind. Choosing is a decision we take; voting is about being a kind of person – in this case, an American – and claiming our responsibility, which is very great, to be a good one.

Recall the trenchant and warning words (in part) of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn spoken at Harvard University on 8 June 1978 to the graduating students:

The defense of individual rights has reached such extremes as to make society as a whole defenseless against certain individuals. Itʼs time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.... If humanism were right in declaring that man is born only to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to die, his task on earth evidently must be of a more spiritual nature. It cannot be unrestrained enjoyment of everyday life. It cannot be the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then cheerfully get the most of them. It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that oneʼs life journey may become an experience of moral growth, so that one may leave life a better human being than one started it.

And, as to obligations, rather than rights, remember that Thursday, 19 November 1863, when Abraham Lincoln challenged us to vote/vow/solemnly promise with him on that hushed field of Gettysburg, saying (in part):

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate – we cannot consecrate – we cannot hallow – this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Now that is a presidential person, who also happened to be chosen President, who reminds us who we are, and who we are expected to be, and for what most sacred of reasons.

You and I, Peregrinus, can long for a day when we have placed before us a worthy candidate for President. Such a one will speak to us all about our responsibilities, not gulling us with promises to give us what we want. Such a one who will make us see America, rather than compelling us endlessly to look at him or her. Such a one will remind us of how high a calling it is to become a good American, and prove to us by his or her example that he or she is actually deep enough, and a good enough person, to know what America means, and means to the world.

Peregrinus, I will choose a candidate, but I will vote to remember my country, “never forgetting what they did here,” and “dedicated to the great task remaining before us.” And, as once we all said with conviction to each other in a time of greatest crisis: “And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”[2]

God bless and keep you, old friend,

Rick, SJ


[1] Taken from the First Vows formula spoken by a Jesuit at the end of his two-year long Novitiate (time of testing his vocation and training his capacities for a life as a Jesuit).

[2] http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/documents/1776-1785/the-final-text-of-the- declaration-of-independence-july-4-1776.php

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