Voting Rights and Responsibilities: Making Reasoned Choices

by Steven Carr, August 16, 2020

— “Come now, let us reason together . . .”  Isaiah 1:18 (King James Version).

In a season of racial unrest and civil rights protests that led to violence and death in American cities, 55 years ago, President Lyndon Johnson came to speak to an extraordinary joint session of the House of Representatives and the Senate.  He was seeking to persuade the Congress to adopt legislation that came to be called the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  The speech, delivered on March 15, 1965, occurred just a few days after the Selma “Bloody Sunday” march on March 6.

Historians note that Johnson often quoted the passage from Isaiah 1:18, a favorite Bible verse of his father, “Come now, let us reason together . . .” In his speech on March 15, Johnson alluded to the Isaiah verse, stating “I am grateful for this opportunity to come here tonight at the invitation of the leadership to reason with my friends, to give them my views, and to visit with my former colleagues.”  This was classic Johnson, and this speech was a classic and lyrical expression of what Johnson believed and what he strived to achieve as both a powerful Senate leader and as President.

At his inauguration earlier that year, his address was described as “a ringing call for national unity and noble deeds couched in almost biblical language.”  He declared that “the oath I have taken before you and before God is not mine alone but ours together. … For every generation there is a destiny. For some, history decides.  For this generation, the choice must be our own.”

In the March 15 speech, he returned to the themes of “the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy.”  In pressing for the Voting Rights Act, which had been rejected in the 1964 Civil Rights Act he signed into law the previous summer, Johnson was persuaded that Black Americans were being denied their right to vote and to register to vote by certain voting suppression practices in Southern states, and that Federal law was required to insure equal voting rights for all people and to affirm our country’s founding principle and purpose of equality of opportunity for all.

For President Johnson, this equality of opportunity meant that each citizen shall “share in freedom” — the opportunity to choose leaders, to educate our children, and to provide for our families “according to [each person’s] ability and . . . merits as a human being.” Johnson said: “Our fathers believed that if this noble view of the rights of man was to flourish, it must be rooted in democracy.  The most basic right of all was the right to choose your own leaders.  The history of this country, in large measure, is the history of the expansion of that right to all of our people.  Many of the issues of civil rights are very complex and most difficult.  But about this there can and should be no argument.  Every American must have an equal right to vote.  There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right.  There is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to ensure that right.”

This month, we celebrate the achievement of voting rights protections for citizens of color 55 years ago.  We also remember and celebrate the right of women to vote, secured and ratified in our Constitution on August 18, but only 100 years ago.

And as we exercise our right to vote in the coming national and State elections, let us do so celebrating not only the right to vote, but also acknowledging and affirming our responsibility as citizens – to be knowledgeable and well-informed on the issues of our day, to make good and reasonable choices, and to seek to persuade each other and to achieve compromise and consensus on the best ways forward for safety, health, opportunity, economic prosperity, justice and peace for all Americans.

In this season of pandemic, racial unrest, anarchy and violence in American cities, and even now a new debate about voting and voting methods, this is also a time for all Americans — Democrats, Republicans, Independents, liberals, progressives, conservatives, libertarians – all of us, to come now to reason together.  In this time, we must choose, and we must come together in common cause.

We must summon the power of science, and reason, to find better and effective ways and technologies to detect the coronavirus with speedier and more effective testing, and to defeat the coronavirus with effective vaccines and cures.

We also all must come together, and reason together, to choose a better path and a better way of speaking with each other and dealing with each other — justly, compassionately, lawfully and respectfully.  As President Johnson did 55 years ago, we must speak and reason with each other, as fellow Americans and fellow citizens of the planet, for the dignity of humankind and for the destiny of democracy.  We must speak with each other and reason with each other, and we must choose peace, opportunity, and plenty, and security and safety on our streets and in our neighborhoods.  We must choose and strive together for peace, prosperity and good health among the community of nations and peoples all over the world.

We must demand that our elected leaders – 435 Representatives, 100 Senators, Governors, State and local representatives, and our President and Vice President — also must meet, exchange views and negotiate, compromise and reach consensus on the policies and the laws and the appropriations for technological advances for the greater good for all of us.   They must come together, and reason together, to do their jobs, and to serve us, and to help make us a more perfect union.

What does it mean “to reason together”?

In the law of North Carolina, contracting parties are expected to exercise their discretion “in a reasonable manner based on good faith and fair play.”  What does “reasonable” mean?  I read a lot of statutes and court decisions to get a practical definition, and sometimes I get good instruction on Sunday mornings.  I rely on my learned pastor for theology, religious instruction, and often for new insights gained from her skillful use of words.  In one of her recent sermons, she noted that “to be reasonable is to be logically consistent.” That rings true. But what does “logically consistent” mean?  Logic is defined as a branch of philosophy concerned with analyzing the patterns of reasoning by which a conclusion is properly drawn from a set of premises, or a system or principles of argument or reasoning.

The word logic derives from the Greek logikos, concerning speech or reasoning.  The root of logikos is logos, the Greek word for “word” and, in theological uses the word logos, as used in the first chapter of the Gospel of John describes the divine word – or reason incarnate.  The word is akin to legein – to choose, gather, recount, tell over, or speak.   Thus, to be reasonable is to choose words carefully, and to draw good conclusions from an agreed upon set of facts or premises.

And “to reason” means “to think logically” and “to draw logical conclusions from facts or premises” and “to urge or seek to persuade by reasoning.”

President Johnson once said: “the only real power available to the leader is the power of persuasion.” Although his record as president was marred by the quagmire of the war in Vietnam, Johnson was often powerfully persuasive and effective in achieving compromise and practicing consensus politics, to advance the causes of civil rights, voting rights, a war on poverty, and forward progress on his vision of justice, liberty, unity, and a Great Society.

As our national election in 2020 approaches, and the opinion polls continue to show how divided we all are, and in the midst of mask mandates and social distancing guidelines, is it realistic to expect that we can come together and reason together?  Are we so hopelessly divided and entrenched in our viewpoints and our beliefs that we have no realistic chance of achieving consensus and persuading anyone of anything?  I don’t know, for sure, but I believe we must try.  I believe in the promise of this country, and in the blessings we can secure for all Americans if we come together to move forward together and to defeat our common enemies:  disease, poverty, and ignorance.

In that 1965 speech, President Johnson implored his friends and former colleagues: “I say to all of you here, and to all in the Nation tonight, that those who appeal to you to hold on to the past do so at the cost of denying you your future.  This great, rich, restless country can offer opportunity and education and hope to all. … This is one Nation.  What happens in Selma or in Cincinnati is a matter of legitimate concern to every American. … In Selma as everywhere we seek and pray for peace.  We seek order.  We seek unity.”

Biblical scholars say that the Isaiah passage that Johnson was fond of is better translated as a warning and an injunction of the prophet from God – “come, let’s settle the matter.”  Humankind are on trial, and God is patiently reaching out and asking his covenant people to choose to obey and to leave behind our idols and our mistakes and our bad decisions.  I think this translation works well for a renewal of the American covenant also.

Let us choose to settle the matter.  Let us choose to seek each other out, and to learn from, and to listen to, each other, to employ science and to make good decisions, in order to preserve and unify and rescue our country and our fellow citizens.  Let us learn, and reason, and seek to persuade each other and our elected leaders about how we can best achieve the most powerful and effective solutions to common problems and agree on the most effective ways to defeat our common enemies.