I was recently asked how and why my politics changed. Aside from the years when my first husband forbade me to vote, I was once a right-wing conservative voter. I now vote mostly blue and I’m vocal about my heartache over professing Christians supporting Donald Trump and his administration. There are people from my past who don’t understand how I could change. After all, they know me from where we mutually came from. And so, fairly often and always during an election, I get asked.
The place where most of us came from was one of the first and largest megachurches in America. It’s where we were taught right from wrong and how to be “fruit inspectors” when analyzing whether or not someone else was really a Christian. We were taught to walk the narrow road and to make moral decisions. We were encouraged to stand out for Jesus at school, to resist “fitting in” with worldly degenerates headed for hell. We were taught rules for righteous living and to pray for the day when our nation would be led by these values.
We were all the same.
Our church was made up of 20,000 mostly white, mostly middle-class, all Republican evangelicals. Every now and then you’d see a brown face––but they fit into our culture and we knew nothing of theirs. And, every now and then there’d be a poor family we’d rally around to support as part of our good Christian duty. There were many wealthy families. But mostly, we were all just slight variations of the same kind of person. Fathers went to work. Mothers stayed home. Children went to school and youth group. My friends and I went to church or a church activity five days out of seven.
Our “missions trips” were weeklong concerts performed in churches around the country. Every Christmas break our youth group went on a ski trip to the mountains; a reward for a season of Saturdays spent witnessing door-to-door. If you don’t know, witnessing means asking people if they are sure they will go to heaven when they die. They can only know this for sure if they’ve prayed the Sinner’s Prayer and asked Jesus to come into their hearts. Our job was to lead them in prayer. We called it “soul-winning.”
When politicians would visit our congregation, the pastors would ask them to stand. I remember one Sunday Dr. Vines said something along the lines of, “As your pastor, I can’t tell you how to vote and keep our tax-exempt status. But I can tell you I like this man. I can tell you he has my vote.”
We were patriotic Americans. We asked God to protect our country…first from hussies and jezebels, then from perverted gays, then from Arabs and Muslims. Rock music and R rated movies were forbidden. Our testimonies were to be protected. One day they told our youth group that we should avoid Blockbuster Video in case a lost person saw us and assumed we were renting R-rated movies. We had to be the light for the world.
Of course, we voted for Bush. I was nearly fired from my first job at a daycare center for my reaction after my co-worker told me she was voting for Bill Clinton. I couldn’t understand how a daycare worker could support the murder of babies through abortion. I’d never met a democrat before. I’d spent very little time with anyone else not like me. I flew into what I considered to be “righteous indignation” and my co-worker said I was acting “holier than thou,” which I’d never heard before.
When the internet entered every home, I connected with other women on forums over common interests: homeschooling, books, music, art. Birds of a feather flock together. The homeschool movement was multiplying rapidly in evangelical churches. But it was also growing in Catholic and Presbyterian churches. This meant the women I was dialoguing with online shared many of the same interests as I did but they weren’t the same kind of Christian. We baptists weren’t sure Catholics, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians could be trusted to be real Christians. They might think works save them. Or communion. They might let women lead or even preach. I was sure they’d see my side––if only I could explain it all well enough.
So, I spent hours explaining. Then hours more when they didn’t change their lives according to my revelations. Then hurting because I was struggling to reconcile how I could be close friends with women who didn’t love God the same way I did.
Simultaneous to this tension was my home life. I was married to a devout man whose hobby was theology. He was also prone to extreme mood swings and paranoia. He was violent when things didn’t go his way or weren’t under his control. Everything he read in scripture and heard at church confirmed his suspicions: God was a male, patriarchal leader who chastises those he loves, sometimes painfully. Women are dangerous and emotional and must submit. Narrow is the way to righteous living. He felt it best if we become more and more puritan. He always had all the right answers. God was solved.
People are more important than ideas.
My homeschooling world widened and our forum family did as well. The friend who’d begun the forum I frequented wanted to diversify her life. She wanted friends who were different from her. She wanted non-believers to feel welcome in our space. Not to be converted––but to be equal and respected. The conversation was shifting.
Clinton was impeached but remained in office. Then W was president. The towers fell. Anti-Arab sentiment spiked. Fear of “other” increased at church. Our mission was preached with fervor. We are a city on a hill. An example to the world. Our way is the best way, the right way. “Our” being white evangelical Christian.
Since my husband wouldn’t allow me to vote unless I agreed with his (and even then it wasn’t necessary since he was the Head of Our Household), I decided to try living without politics. I tried not to have an opinion lest I disagree with him and where we went to church because doing so resulted in physical, emotional, and sexual consequences. But getting smaller didn’t fix it or seem to be working and I was painfully learning that the men in control didn’t always have everyone’s best interest at heart.
Online, I kept meeting lovely women who didn’t think like me about everything. I was becoming friends with people who had ideas I sometimes disagreed with. My best friend came out of the closet and I had gay neighbors who were kind, not monsters out to make me gay too as I’d been taught. I started reading books about other cultures at the library and in our homeschool. I started shutting up when someone told me about their life. Maybe I didn’t need to do all the talking. Maybe I could listen to their reality and just let it be.
Funny, how when one thinks they can just blend in and go with the flow, something comes and shakes things up. Disrupts the pseudo-peace of a head buried in the sand. Denial. What happened was a Wiccan woman joined our forum.
Actually, a woman named Kim joined our forum. She was artsy and smart and liked folk music. When she heard I was having a hard time, she mailed me CDs of music she’d burned for me. Online, we discussed motherhood, nature, marriage, paintings, cooking. She instantly fit in well with our community and I loved her. And then, she joined the theological chat.
We pounced. Some witnessed to her. Some corrected her. Some listened and held space for her experience. I think it’s safe to say none of us had any exposure to a Wiccan before. We’d had varying experiences with Muslims, atheists, other world cultures. Kim was the first Wiccan for all of us and none us knew anything about what she believed. I imagined she had a cauldron and listened to backmasked music while chanting spells because I’d been told that’s what witches did.
My righteous indignation flared like angry, triggered eczema, irritated at her otherness and utterly compelled to change her so I could still love her. I corrected her. Witnessed to her. Explained the rightness of my way and the wrongness of hers. I joined the collective in hurting her feelings. We apologized. She held space for us and went toe-to-toe and didn’t let us put our pre-conceived and ignorant notions of witchcraft on her. She fought back. Asserted her autonomy, which was completely foreign to me at the time. Kim was a good person who carried herself through those conversations with integrity and kindness.
She did unto others as she’d have them to do her.
The irony of a Wiccan behaving like a better Christian than actual Christians has stuck with me better than exact memories of how it all went down.
Eventually, Kim left the forum and shortly after that year, for many reasons, the forum folded. My husband moved us to a small country church. We were Covenant Reformed Presbyterians by now, which was as close to Puritan as he could get us. The pastor wanted me to put my writing in my husband’s name. There were church discipline meetings over ideas I was writing about and then we were excommunicated. A turbulent, violent year later, we were divorced. I sat in the ruin of all those rules and good intentions a shamed woman, a failure.
It’s humbling to have your life fall apart when you thought you were right all along.
I didn’t have the right answers. Our churches hadn’t had the right answers. I felt sure my idea of who God is was as broken as my heart. I had four hurting children to raise. America was at war again, fighting fundamentalism in other countries that looked an awful lot like the hell I’d just lived through inside my home.
Slowly, I started making changes. The first thing had to be finding a new equilibrium and healing. Everything about our world changed. It felt like deep wounds constantly growing new skin that stung brightly every time I exposed them to the air. Nothing was going to remain the same, starting with the people who sprang up around me in community.
My children went to public school and our world instantly widened as they made friends with kids from all kinds of backgrounds. I went to DV support groups and Al-Anon and listened to other peoples’ experiences, no cross-talk allowed. I went to therapy and started working on my own issues of collapse, confronting what happens when you aren’t holier than anyone––you’re just another screwed up person with no self-worth and tons of trauma. We moved into an apartment complex where my neighbors were Iraqi doctors now working as housecleaners, a single lady with seven cats who’d never been to church a day in her whole life, and a whole lot of hardworking people trying to stretch a paycheck without a bootstrap or handout in sight.
I tried to set the big ideas of “God” aside and just read the actual words of Jesus, the ones in my bible written in red. An Orthodox priest told me my job was to “love God, love people. It won’t get any harder or easier than that.”
What does it look like to love other people?
Is it loving to knock on a stranger’s door and out of the clear blue ask them about their spiritual condition and tell them that if they don’t agree to what you’re saying right there on the spot, they could die that very night and burn in hell?
Is it loving to impose my own viewpoints on other people without considering their own life experiences, autonomy, and traditions?
Is it loving to decide I know how it should be for everyone else, and use a Great Big God as my reinforcement, while I conveniently ignore all the ways I’m wrong every day?
Is it loving to treat half the population (the female half) that they are less-than? Or the brown population? Or the poor population? Or even the rich? What about the gay ones? The autistic ones? The differently-abled ones?
I understood what the priest meant when he said loving others wouldn’t get any harder than that. Just loving people would take everything.
To love someone, you have to see them. Hear them. Hold space for them. If you’re trying to change someone, you aren’t loving them. That was my realization.
My politics changed when I stopped trying to change people. When I decided it wasn’t my job to be their evangelist or Holy Spirit, conscience, or guide. When I might not know all there is to know about how others should live, or face their own unique life challenges. My vote changed when I realized my voice and my vote has the ability to represent someone else without a vote or a voice, and that I have a human responsibility to care about other humans.
When I started looking beyond the rhetoric and rules preached from pulpits, and even in the pages of scripture, to what agenda could be gained if those rules were followed, I gained insight that was missing before. When I started reading facts and looking at sources and using critical processes to analyze information, I grew in understanding.
When I remembered Kim, and how she conducted herself, and how I behaved, my politics changed. I hope I’m never that kind of asshole to another human ever again. I had to reckon with my blindspots, burnspots, and general arrogance. I’m sad I can’t remember her last name or how to get in touch with her. But, she might not even be interested in reconnecting and I’ve learned to be okay with that. Boundaries are where one person ends and another begins, and I finally have some of those stop-and-start lines in my life. I respect them in others.
I still read the news on both sides and in the middle. When I want to understand where a person’s differing viewpoint, I listen. I read what they read. If I can, I go where they go. I listen to their own version of their experience in their own voice and try to emphasize where they’re coming from. Otherwise, I leave it alone. No comment. If I’m not willing to understand, then I haven’t earned the right to engage.
I’m not saying that conservative evangelicals don’t, as individuals, do the same. I’m sure some of them do. I just know that I did not when I was one, and I wasn’t taught by our leaders to do so, and I didn’t know anyone who did. Empathy was kind of dangerous. It led to slippery slopes and situational ethics, they said. I recognize that same resistance in my social media feed now. There’s an unwillingness to be open and listen because of where we came from. I’ve heard that the church has changed. The place where I grew up is noticeably more ethnically diverse. There are probably some shades of purple thought creeping in as their worldviews expand. I’m certainly not the only one who has changed her mind. But…the evangelical voting base did choose that president. They have stood by him. And they are positioned to elect him again. That’s their chosen standard-bearer out of all the candidates in the sea.
I didn’t grow up thinking I was a “red voter” or a “republican.” I grew up thinking I was right. I was on the right side and everyone else was wrong. Not only were they wrong, but it was my job to fix them. Plenty of them are appalled when red voters turn blue and that’s the funny part. I’m a purple voter. I see value on both sides and I make independent decisions with thoughtfulness, information, and personal agency based on each election. I’m not a single platform voter or a single-issue voter. I don’t vote the party line. I believe Donald Trump has been a damaging experiment and is a danger to our country. It will be a heartbreak for a long time coming that the people who taught me why don’t seem to think that too. What happened to the fruit-inspection and light to the world and love for the poor and creation we were supposed to value? I can’t explain it but maybe that’s where true freedom lies: I no longer have to try and explain. It’s not my job to change them.
Purple means I make up my own mind against my moral conscience, experience, beliefs, and priorities. I didn’t learn that at church.