Why I see gerrymandering as a sin that people of faith should oppose

Rev. Jarrett Kerbel

Rev. Jarrett Kerbel is rector of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church in Philadelphia and a member of DTL's east regional steering committee.

"So what is the ‘church’ reason for getting involved?" When a community organizer asks to meet with me, that is my first question.

I may be in complete agreement that something political, economic or social needs to be reformed.  To take your issue to my congregation, however, I need to articulate the particular theological case for church engagement.

The objection typically arises that the church should not engage at all. To that rejoinder I simply ask, “Would you have said the same to the churches when they were deeply engaged in the abolition movement, the women’s suffrage movement or the civil rights movement?”

We could also include the Prohibition movement, which had profoundly mixed and ambiguous motivations while being rooted in the church’s concern for vulnerable women.  In the case of the civil rights, abolition  and suffrage movements, it is hard to argue that the church was wrong to mobilize against evil enshrined in law.  So why not continue in that fine tradition?

Simply put and expanded below, the church is called to be engaged — to lend voice, moral authority, resources and organized effort — to resist evil and to reorder our common life in ways that protect the most vulnerable and enhance human dignity for all people.

To be clear, under the tax code and also for other good "church" reasons, we are called to be engaged in a non-partisan way, eschewing electoral-party politics for a focus on issues that any person could potentially endorse regardless of party affiliation.    

The scourge of gerrymandering in Pennsylvania is a concern an organizer recently brought to my door.

Without a doubt gerrymandering is socially and politically destructive  — whether practiced by Republicans, Democrats or hypothetical third parties.  Gerrymandering  (the practice of drawing voting districts to ensure the election of candidates of one party) demoralizes and disenfranchises voters, fragments communities, contributes to the hyperpolarization and ideological segregation of our politics, and undermines trust in government. 

Gerrymandering is a tool of domination wherein a majority party seeks to enshrine their advantage and dominion over time by rendering powerless any voters with dissenting perspectives.   

Domination breeds despair and despair breeds low voter participation rates and the cycle of disempowerment devolves from there.  Apathy is not an unreasonable response to a system that wastes my voting potential even before I get to the ballot box.

For the follower of Jesus, gerrymandering undercuts our fundamental vow to respect the dignity of every human being.  Self-determination and active communal solidarity are both crucial components of human dignity.  Therefore, anything that discourages meaningful participation in the politics that shape our common life is an affront to human dignity.

Participation in shaping our common life is a Christian duty and something Christians regard, respect and protect for all people regardless of affiliation, belief or nonbelief.

Reading St. Paul for our times

Biblically, we turn to St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans in chapter 13 where the apostle writes:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement.

Traditionally this scripture is mobilized to encourage Christian quietism — the passive acceptance of political domination.

Professor John Bowlin of Princeton Theological Seminary showed me another reading of the text.  In the American context, the "authority given by God" is that of a constitutional democracy.  To be authentically "subject" to democratic authority means the Christian must participate in the making of the laws as a citizen.

So, to deny any person their rightful participation in shaping their destiny and that of their community is to alienate a person from their God-given duty and to participate in sin.

Yes, I said it, sin.

Sin describes every force, habit, activity and social structure that serves to destroy, degrade, corrupt and separate people from each other and from God. Racism is a sin, for example.  So is gerrymandering. 

Gerrymandering is the manipulation of our political system to destroy a representative system and to put in its place a system that serves political parties rather than the people. Furthermore, in our divided nation, people on either side of the partisan wall increasingly have a hard time seeing people on the other side of as fellow citizens of good will, or even as fellow beloved souls.

The church is called in this moment to protect the right of people to participate meaningfully in the shaping of our common life and destiny.

We must insist on a fair system for redistricting; a system that takes the mapping of districts from partisan forces and elected officials and gives that power to a balanced group of citizens.

For "church" reasons,  I encourage pastors and priests to make the fight for fair districts in Pennsylvania part of your community engagement agenda.

Fair Districts PA is a good partner for this work as is the Draw the Lines PA initiative from the Committee of 70.