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Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) webinar brings out important election issues for 2024

From women’s rights to the environment, the voices of people of faith and indigenous people matter, panelists say

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Arnaud Jaegers via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — With a presidential election ahead and many other political offices up for grabs, the Presbyterian Office of Public Witness (OPW) held a webinar Thursday that reminded viewers about the power and responsibility they have as voters.

“Our individual efforts make a difference,” said the Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, a member of the panel assembled for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) webinar, “Faith, Democracy, and Justice: Understanding Why Election Issues Matter in 2024.”

Hawkins, PC(USA)’s advocacy director, also explained why it’s imperative to be “very intentional” about who you vote for, even at the local level.

“It is of vital importance that we understand that the candidates that we vote for in our local elections will oftentimes wind up later running for state elections, will later wind up running for governor and then for Congress and even for president — that these individuals are the ones who are making the determinations” on which directions the society goes in, Hawkins said.

Hawkins, who leads OPW and the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations, was joined by two fellow panelists: the Rev. Jed Koball, who is World Mission’s Joining Hands catalyst for Extractive Industries, Human Rights and the Environment, and Salina Brett, a member of the PC(USA)’s Advocacy Committee for LGBTQIA+ Equity.

The Rev. Jimmie Hawkins (photo by Rich Copley)

In response to a question from webinar host and OPW Associate Christina Cosby, Hawkins noted several states have passed voter suppression laws in the last several years that make it harder to vote, especially if the person is African American, Hispanic, older or from another marginalized group.

“These laws are significant burdens for eligible voters trying to exercise their most fundamental constitutional right,” Hawkins said, adding, “We’ve had several engagements in our offices over the last month where students are finding it harder and harder to vote, and then people with disabilities as well.”

On a more positive note, several states have strengthened voting laws, and some nonprofits are helping to reduce barriers to voting by, for example, giving rides to the polls and doing church outreach to encourage church members and friends to educate voters and help get out the vote, Hawkins said.

“We need to make sure that we use our places of worship as voter registration locations, as places wherein people can be educated about the different standards in their own community,” Hawkins said. “This is an important year for us to be engaged in the right to vote and to make sure that we do all that we can in order that this election is done in a fair way. … Everyone has the right to vote for the candidate of their choice.”

Brett expressed concern about the erosion of women’s reproductive rights and limitations on their access to healthcare that can inhibit their ability to fully participate in elections.

“When women are grappling with traumatic circumstances, whether it’s due to restrictions on their reproductive rights, their health care or domestic violence, they’re going to find it very difficult to engage in the political process,” Brett said, and diminishing women as a voting bloc ultimately can affect their personal freedoms.

Salina Brett (contributed photo)

Brett also expressed concern about various efforts by states to target LGBTQIA+ people through book censorship, discriminatory school policies and personal identification suppression and health care restrictions.

“Once again, if we’re concerned about our physical health and well-being, voting isn’t going to be on the top 10 of the (priority) list,” Brett said.

The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles recently issued a memo saying that transgender people can no longer change their gender on their driver’s licenses. Brett explained that such measures can be stumbling blocks when affected individuals try to vote.

“We need to fight against this kind of suppression,” Brett said, because “when you begin to suppress any group of people, then we all lose from this.”

Brett also noted that there is a fundamental right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in this country. But “if we inter Japanese Americans because there’s a war going on, if we jail minority people because we figured that they probably committed the crime and then use them for forced labor … If we obstruct immigrants from coming in and doing work that they would like to do, then we lose a part of our soul and we lose a part of our nation.”

Koball shared his experience as an official observer, representing the PC(USA) at a United Nations climate change conference (COP28) in Dubai in December. He also stressed the importance of listening to the voices of Indigenous people on the issue of climate change.

“You want to solve the climate crisis, listen to indigenous peoples, and the solutions being proposed by the nations and industries most responsible for climate change are not doing that,” Koball said. Historically, institutional churches also have not done a good job of listening to indigenous voices, so “I think it’s imperative that we start paying close attention.”

He noted that some indigenous peoples are concerned that the transition to a green economy could lead to massive mining on their sacred land and want the final say.

The Rev. Jed Koball serves as a mission co-worker in Peru. (contributed photo)

“Indigenous peoples, they are protectors of 11% of the world’s forests, 85% of the world’s biodiversity, all of which is essential in capturing carbon emissions — and let’s face it, indigenous peoples around the globe have been living in harmony with the land for millennia. They have answers,” Koball said. “As people of faith, I believe we have a responsibility to listen, to learn and to lift up the voice of indigenous peoples.”

He also stressed “recognizing one, the importance of our vote, our voice in both national and local elections, saying, ‘Yes,’ to phasing out fossil fuels, ‘Yes,’ to building up renewable energies and infrastructure but with great caution, remembering that we cannot heal the destruction of Creation with more destruction of Creation, and indeed, if this transition to renewable energies is not a just transition for the most vulnerable populations, then ultimately, it will not be a sustainable transition for any of us.”

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