You know those Americans who were born to love the excitement and global influence of our nation’s politics, and who are energized every election season by opportunities to sell their party’s platform and candidates to the presumably less enlightened masses?
I’m not one of them. As a young girl, it was not entirely clear to me whether John F. Kennedy was my relative, a movie star or a saint. Framed portraits of him — respectfully hung near family photos and crucifixes — were commonplace in my home and the frequently visited home of my grandparents. The notion that this JFK guy was worthy of love and admiration was reinforced by such household books as my mother’s 1964 high school yearbook, which featured somber photographs of his funeral and words likening the tragedy of his assassination to the demise of the mythical Camelot.
By the time I realized JFK was not directly connected to my family, I had already accepted him as an inextricable element of the romantic, proud Italian-Irish-Catholic-Democrat culture from which I was being sprung. Never mind that when I left home to start my adult life I was three generations from Ellis Island; religious only in the vague, selective way of lapsed Catholics; and knew nothing about politics except that Democrats were right, though left, and Republicans were wrong, though right. Such was my learned identity when I entered freshman year at the University of Iowa alongside thousands of other 18-year-olds touting their own identity packages — all of us at that liberating, impressionable age of life when the most vulnerable are rife to lose their way.
Working at my uncle’s Italian café in downtown Iowa City, and later taking Italian as an elective course, I found it easy enough to honor at least half of my ethnic heritage. The Catholic component was more problematic because I knew no one who talked about God or went to church services of any kind, and my own catechism had ended after the fourth grade; besides, conforming to a religious code of conduct was at odds with my lifestyle as a single college girl.
As for upholding myself as a cradle Democrat, politics and the news simply bored me to tears. I had never understood the political rants of my adult relatives who drank too much wine on Christmas Eve, and I wasn’t about to reveal this ongoing ignorance by debating with the more politically minded among my work and school peers. Just how was my daily life directly affected by anything the government did or didn’t do, anyway? I was content enough extolling poetry for its idealism and beauty, detesting war for its oppression and murder and avoiding situations that would compromise my integrity or control. What did politics have to do with any of those things?
Little did I know that what I regarded as political apathy during those years was actually the infant stirring of my evolving power as an American woman with a personal agenda and a voice to vote — infant, for sure, because I cruised and toddled at the humbling pace of real time and personal experience: those nagging factors that inevitably shape one’s perspectives, values and sense of responsibility to society.
Throughout my voter-evolution, I skipped certain local elections because I failed to educate myself on the complicated issues and candidate choices. While I did make it a point to vote during the mac-daddy presidential elections, there’s at least one president I helped elect in my younger years not on the basis of his proven character but on whether his media-glamorized platform points justified the more selfish aspects of my then-platform.
However awkward or pathetic my journey into politics, I now consider myself a conscience-driven, engaged voter. I no longer assume that informing myself during an election season means taking a daily dose of mainstream media headlines or following the advice of family and friends. I have been there, done that — and witnessed our country hurting because of it. I regularly strive to tune in to both liberal and conservative voices, taking time to “shop” for my political candidates.
In 2016 America, we thankfully still live as citizens privileged with free will in a free country. We have freedom. And it’s when we exercise our right to vote that our freedom is perhaps at its most powerful. Every age and society testify that there is no power without freedom, and there is no freedom where power is not used responsibly for ourselves and our posterity.
As a Catholic American, I pledge allegiance to no particular party because I understand that my responsibility is in preserving the dignity of every human life — a topic that has typically crossed party lines. I value freedom and take very seriously my responsibility in standing for it. Life and freedom — two issues that demand my conscience at the polls. This November, that voting booth just might be one of the last places on this social-networked earth where Americans of all backgrounds can voice our sacred conscience privately yet openly — free from being ridiculed, threatened or otherwise discounted in an increasingly hostile public square.
It’s a big election year, Charlie Brown. Time to get your conscience on.
Lani McDonaldis a wife and mom who writes news articles and literary nonfiction from a new-feminist, wholistic Catholic perspective. Her work has appeared in newspapers, poetry journals and various business and diocesan publications. Follow Lani on Twitter @catholicchick13 and on Facebook, or e-mail email@example.com.