On the whole, I’m an imperfect Catholic, but there is one particular area of my Christian identity in which I excel: guilt. Jews talk a lot about the concept, and have even built some cultural traditions around it, but, to my knowledge, no one else has actually created an entire sacrament devoted to cleansing your culpable soul. Again. And again. And, my mea maxima, again. I can feel guilty about stepping on the cracks in the sidewalk (my mother’s back was quite fragile,) guilty about killing the mosquito that is harpooning my upper arm, guilty, even, about the homeless person who looks at the sandwich I’ve offered and says, “I don’t eat meat.”
If guilt were quantum physics, I’d be Stephen Hawking.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about my father, and, if you bear with me, you will see the seamless symmetry of my introduction. Daddy wasn’t the sort of person to wallow in guilt, although I’m quite certain he was well acquainted with this shadow friend. He just didn’t talk much about it. Instead, he internalized his feelings and manifested whatever penance he thought he owed through action.
My father was not a privileged man, and he didn’t have a privileged childhood, but he did understand that even the hardships of living with alcoholic parents on the wrong side of West Philadelphia were still less than the hardships suffered by young blacks down south during Jim Crow. So when he graduated from law school, he took time off before joining that white-shoe law firm and went to Mississippi to register blacks for voting, and public office. I’ve written about that before, many times, and I don’t have to go into much detail about the run in with the Ku Klux Klan or the young Philadelphia lawyer’s horror at being called a “white n — ” by little children. Daddy did his job, came home, and didn’t say much more about it until the year he spent dying. That’s when he started to write his memoir, never finished, and put those flashes of sad and bitter remembrance to yellow onionskin. Reading them after his death, I realized two things: (1) Daddy was a gutsy man and (2) his highest religion was the Constitution and its imperfect, but unequivocal promise of equality.
But as I said before, his daughter’s religion is Catholicism (as was his) and along with the majesty of the Mass and the glory of the Trinity comes the obligation of guilt. And now I’ll tie my father and my faith together for you.
Daddy risked his life to make sure other Americans not as blessed as he was could vote. He could have spent the summer of 1967 enjoying his new baby boy or making serious 1960s money at the firm, or even yawning his way through an extra year as a Nationwide Insurance adjuster. He could have gone to baseball games (although in 1967 the Phillies finished a mediocre fifth in the National League standings), could have taken a road trip with some buddies, could have rented a hut somewhere in Seaside Heights, one without plumbing. But instead, he went to Mississippi one year before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and three years after young civil-rights workers were murdered in that other Philadelphia. Voting meant that much to him.
It means that much to me, because of him. I never walked across my own Edmund Pettis bridge, and I never had to fight to get to a polling place. No one ever tried to deprive me of my birthright, which, had I been born in 1861 and not 1961 would have been unthinkable. In this country, voting is the most precious incident of citizenship, and when I see how my immigration clients fight to earn it for themselves, I wonder how anyone could ever take it lightly.
But then, this year happened. I was presented with the most mediocre candidates this country could extract from its bowels, a man and a woman who reflect the basest and most troubling aspects of our identity. The man wants to use false labels to turn foreigners into criminals and terrorists, while the woman lies and says that abortion is “health care.” The man ridicules war heroes, and the woman calls Republicans and other political opponents “terrorists.” I could go on, and I have in other columns, where I’ve lamented the putrid quality of the candidates, but I don’t really have the stomach.
It has gotten to the point that I’ve said I will not vote for either of the horror shows presented for daily inspection. That has elicited the usual partisan flame-throwing from both sides, and I now expect that no one will be happy with whatever I say about anything, anytime, anyhow.
But that’s not the point. I don’t really care what other people think about my “non-choice.” I care about what I’m doing if I don’t vote. I think back on my father, who is likely looking down upon me with a bemused Irish smile, and saying, “Christine, I’ll kick your freckled ass if you mess this up.” My mother is probably sitting beside him saying “Ted, leave her alone.”
The truth is, I feel guilty at the thought that I won’t be able to vote for president this year. I feel ashamed that I would voluntarily relinquish the gift for which my father fought to give to others less privileged than a white suburban college-educated professional who never had to fight to get to a polling place. My Catholic guilt is engaged as I think about people who marched through the streets of Cairo and Tehran and Baghdad, courageously saying, “We are here.” And I think of my father in Hattiesburg, telling those little, white children with the dirty mouths, “I am here.”
So, I’m voting this year. Not for him, and not for her. Both are so soiled and damaged as candidates that billions of Hail Marys would not wipe the stain from my soul if I supported either one. But I am voting, for an as-yet undetermined person whose name will be written in that space left open for me by my father, and those who went before.
And, my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee by even considering staying home.
Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.