If you’ve known me for any period of time, or from any distance, you probably know that 1) I’m opinionated, 2) I lean left, and 3) I lean left. In these times it would be easy to assume that I was born this way. Well, I was definitely born opinionated, but you might be surprised to hear that once upon a time…
…I was a Reagan Republican.
Yes, it’s true. You see, I haven’t always been a raging liberal I am today. There was a time, when I was much younger, when I was a conservative. And I changed.
I remember when I was in second- or third-grade writing “Nixon Now” on my notebook. The year would have been 1972, and yes, my parents were pulling for Nixon, and therefore I was too. I grew up in a good, Southern, conservative family. As many were at that time, my parents were complex people. In the summer of 1974, I remember watching the Watergate hearings on the family TV and my mom laying on her bed reading John Dean’s “Blind Ambition” along with the transcripts of the Nixon tapes. I learned that critical thinking was a desirable activity. As party-loyal as we were, we could still critique wrongdoing when we saw it.
In 1984, it was morning in America. In the first Presidential election since I became of voting age, I proudly voted for Ronald Reagan.
In my economics classes in college, I learned of “trickle down economics,” and most notably of the Laffer Curve, the theory that said explained that taxes were too high to encourage investment and that if we lowered taxes, we would see higher growth. I fell for it, even when I also knew that the boom of the 1980s was likely to have been caused by the high fiscal/deficit spending of Reagan years along the rise of consumer credit. It all made sense to me: conservative values were the basis for my faith and my politics.
When I went to seminary in 1986, I was one of a handful of conservative evangelicals at Candler School of Theology, a part of Emory University. There I met Dave, a personable guy who was as “liberal” as the day was long. We had a lot in common. We shared many of the same classes, as well as a love for Varsity chili dogs, which we would occasionally run off-campus to consume. When I say Dave was “liberal,” I mean he was a yellow-dog, New York Times-reading Democrat. And his religion was as liberal as his politics. He hated Reagan, loved social justice, and was constantly frustrated by the Church which he saw as complicit in many social ills of the day.
Our favorite lunch was “wings and rings,” a healthy feast of Buffalo Chicken Wings and onion rings. A beer might accompany (“sure we have class this afternoon! Who cares?”). But the main course was always the lecture we just heard in the last class before lunch. We would viciously devour our professors, whom we vehemently agreed and disagreed with. We would argue, insult, and cajole each other, and go away filled and fulfilled.
At the core of nearly every discussion was this exchange: I would say something that parrotted the evangelicalism of the day, and he would correct my position with, “But Steve- JESUS said…”
Over time, Dave’s daily reminders that the teachings of Jesus were at odds with Pat Robertson won out. I became clearer and clearer that Christian faith boils down to the commandment to love God and neighbor, and that my love for the Sermon on the Mount that brought me into faith in the first place was still the place to focus my understandings.
I began to see many of the issues the so-called “liberal church (I have rarely, if ever, discovered a congregation that’s truly liberal)” as central to my own faith. I came to see the death penalty as unjust, war as evil, poverty as immoral, the prison-industrial-complex as reprehensible, and racism as this nation’s original sin, not because they were liberal issues, but because the Bible says so. It took time, but it happened. And it’s important to note that I didn’t always see it that way.
What happened to Dave is one of the great puzzles of my life. During seminary, he had developed an interest in guns, and as we graduated and went in separate directions, he joined the NRA and bought the whole narrative. We reunited briefly in the Bush years, and after he sent me a couple of Ann Coulter books, we lost touch. I just could not fathom how this guiding light of my seminary years, who was so instrumental in my change of mind and heart, renounced everything he had formerly believed and could so powerfully articulate.
Perhaps this is all evidence that we, as human beings, are victims of subjectivity. It’s also evidence that we can change our minds, sometimes radically.
Oh, and I almost forgot: 1984 was the last time I voted for a Republican presidential candidate. Yes, that means I voted for Dukakis and others. I hang my head in simultaneous shame and pride when I think about it.