Vail Daily column: Pursue happiness by casting your ballot |

Vail Daily column: Pursue happiness by casting your ballot

Jack Van Ens
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Jack Van Ens

Vote in upcoming local elections. Casting ballots is a prime sign of your happiness.

Sounds strange, doesn’t it, to link being happy with doing your duty to vote? That’s because “happiness” has taken on a different meaning from how Thomas Jefferson used it in June 1776, when he composed the Declaration of Independence. His soaring challenge, then and now, engages citizens in their “pursuit of happiness” on the public square.

When they expressed “happiness,” founding fathers had a bigger vision in mind than filling our minds with bliss. Today, happiness connotes a cluster of cozy emotions. We attach “happiness” to exuding a sunny disposition. Some writers send upbeat emails and attach a yellow smiley face emoticon. When our insides beam, we happily smile.

When Jefferson wrote about pursuing happiness, it was in the spirit of reforming society, opening a happy social standing to more citizens. In “Inventing America,” a classic 1978 book on the Declaration, Gary Wills writes, “When Jefferson spoke of pursuing happiness, he had nothing vague or private in mind. He meant public happiness, which is measurable; which is, indeed, the test and justification of any government.”

Jefferson tied the “pursuit of happiness” to “doing,” by voting in elections rather than feeling good. We are put on earth to accomplish more than building self-esteem. A life devoted to creating the common good produced happiness, Jefferson believed.

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In his essay “Free to Be Happy,” Pulitzer prize-winning historian Jon Meacham writes, “Given the Aristotelian insight that man is a social creature whose life finds meaning in his relation to other human beings, Jeffersonian eudaimonia — the Greek word for happiness — evokes virtue, good conduct and generous citizenship.” Pursuing happiness thrusts citizens outside the tiny circumference of their lives, making their work intersect what’s happening in public arenas.

Meacham alerts readers to happiness’ focused on public life. “(H)uman reason was leading Western thinkers to focus on the idea of happiness, which in Jefferson’s hands may be better understood as the pursuit of individual excellence that shapes the life of the broader community.”

Happiness springs from diligent voting as much as it resides in a heart full of delight.

Tea Party activists have shattered social happiness by getting their candidates elected to local school boards. Now is the hour for citizens to rise up in their pursuit of happiness and right this wrong.

Why does a Tea Party take-over of local school boards threaten Jeffersonian happiness? Writer Frank Herbert pinpoints what’s wrong when ideological purists use big money from hidden donors to capture school board seats. “The people I distrust most,” warns Herbert, “are those who want to improve our lives but have only one course of action in mind.”

A few years ago, three candidates running for the Jefferson County school board said they wanted to improve public education. That’s what the public heard. Once in office, they have implemented an “education reform” agenda that promotes for-profit charter schools, vouchers, using tests scores to grade teachers and educational higher-ups, and drastically altering teacher compensations through performance evaluation. They offer teachers short-term contracts to erode union influence and drive top-notch educators fed up with Tea Party politics out of the Jeffco school district. Voicing snide retorts, they reject objections from the community.

Their funding has come from anti-public school activists like C. Edward McVaney, co-founder of the software company J.D. Edwards. He is principal funder and founding trustee of Valor Christian High School in Douglas County, a GOP bastion outside Denver. McVaney supports school board candidates who favor vouchers. He endorses this method of funding for-profit charter and Christian schools because it closes the gap of Jefferson’s wall of separation between church and state.

The Tea Party ideal for educational reform started strong but quickly got knotted in controversy. Good intentions do pave the way to hell when rigid ideologies corrupt them.

Biblical “idols” worked in the same way. Ancient people embraced a noble purpose — a good cause — but let it completely control their lives. For example, irked conservative board members allege that public schools lack innovation. When others question this sketchy claim, they go ballistic. They bow before the “god” of righteous indignation that consumes their disposition. Every debatable educational issue turns into a fight. Their object is to win at all costs.

Then, Jefferson’s challenge to pursue happiness shrivels up. Citizens witness school board meetings turned into verbal shoving matches in which conservatives enforce their highly-charged educational agenda.

Acting like Apple’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” founder Steve Jobs, the school board majority is charming at first. Once elected, however, they are cunning, cold and cruel to citizens who cross them. Like Jobs, they act like zealots for their educational causes. They resent opponents who suggest compromise on a divisive agenda. Conservatives’ ideological gods forbid it.

Upcoming local elections reaffirm more than citizens’ right to vote. Casting ballots is a way to pursue happiness and restore civility, courtesy and confidence in public education that benefits all students. Certainly, citizens will act on Jefferson’s legacy. They happily vote.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (, which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.

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