How Religion Controlled My Political Views
I was recently asked how my politics changed. Aside from the years when I was forbidden to vote by my complementarian first husband, who believed in head-of-household voting, I was once a right-wing conservative voter. I now vote blue. Fairly often and always during an election, I get asked how my vote changed.
Notice, I said, “how,” not “why.”
The questioners are people from my past who don’t understand how I could change and there’s a level of accusation in the question itself. They know me from a mutual background: an evangelical environment that’s suspicious of evolution, both the scientific and the personal.
We had safeguards in place to prevent change. Rules. Mandates. Covenants. A change in politics indicates a backslide into sinful thoughts and behavior because a blue vote undoubtedly means I’ve softened towards baby-killers and homosexuals and probably climate change too. To do that, I’ve broken the rules, mandates, and covenants. What they’re really asking is, “how could you do that?”
We come from 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 even if it means standing alone. We were encouraged to resist “fitting in” with worldly degenerates headed for hell. We were taught rules for righteous living and to pray for the day when these values would lead our nation.
There was a strategy in place, we were told, for when our values would lead our nation. How could I live against that?
Evangelicals want a world where we are all the same.
Our church was made up of 20,000 mostly white, mostly middle-class, all Republican evangelicals. Now and then, you’d see a brown face — but they fit into our culture, and we knew nothing of theirs. And, now and then, there’d be a low-income family we’d rally around to support as part of our good Christian duty. There were many, 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 groups. 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. Our youth group went on a ski trip to the mountains every Christmas break, a reward for a season of Saturdays spent witnessing door-to-door. If you don’t know, witnessing means asking people if 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.”
As patriotic Americans, we faithfully 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 all voted for Bush. I was nearly fired from my first job at a daycare center for my reaction after my coworker 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 different. I flew into what I considered to be “righteous indignation,” and my coworker said I was acting “holier than thou,” an insult 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. 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 their “works” (choices, actions, behavior) could save them instead of the blood of Jesus. Or they might believe communion was actual instead of symbolic. They might let women lead or even preach. I was sure these women would see my side — if only I could explain it all well enough.
And so began a habit of compulsive explanations online. Then hours more when they didn’t change their lives according to my revelations. Then heartache over the struggle to reconcile how I could be close friends with women who didn’t love God the same way I did.
Because they were different kinds of Christians. Most of them had gone to college. They wore pants. Sometimes they had jobs. All of them were allowed to vote.
My friends expressed concern for me. They said it seemed I lived in a very controlling, erratic, and sometimes chaotic home. That’s what my life with a domineering, ego-sensitive man in a highly prescriptive religion looked like to them. I’d never thought of it that way before. My home life wasn’t so different from all the others I knew at church. And I’d never considered what our denomination looked like to the outside world before.
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. Our group conversation was shifting, and I was starting to keep my involvement a secret.
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, the right way. “Our” being white evangelical Christian.
Since my husband believed his vote spoke for our household, I’d tried to be apolitical. Disinterest became a defense mechanism because I didn’t like sitting with how it felt disallowed to vote in 2000.
I tried not to have an opinion, lest I disagree with him. Any disagreement was dangerous and would have physical, emotional, and sexual consequences. But getting smaller didn’t fix it. Pretending I didn’t think or have opinions or preferences proved futile. Eventually, words came out of my mouth, and I paid the price for them. And the more I was abused or rejected for those words, the more it started to dawn on me that this system didn’t have my interests at heart.
Asking “Who does this system serve,” was the most dangerous question of all. If one question unlocked my mind the most, it was realizing the beneficiaries of female silence were at odds with all I’d been taught about Jesus and the freedom found in Christ. For women, there was no such freedom. Nor for anyone outside of those in control. Power, privilege, and equality belonged only to the straight white men, and they didn’t want to share.
My heart opened to people who weren’t like me. But also were like me, because we were both outside of that straight white evangelical male freedom that sought to dominate the world. I craved diversity and threw little parties in my heart when these experiences didn’t match what the power-men had taught me they would:
- Gay people who valued family
- Feminists who were in happy “egalitarian” marriages
- Women who limited family size because their bodies were tired or their finances were tight, not because they hated babies
- Friends who could agree to disagree without pressuring me to conform to their thinking
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. I was growing rapidly, evolving my way of thinking, and becoming less rigid, more accepting. It felt healthy, balanced, and whole.
Until a Wiccan 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. While we may have been different kinds of Christians, we were all still Christians. None of us were prepared to accept witchcraft in equal measure.
Some witnessed to her. Some corrected her. Some listened and held space for her experience. We’d had varying experiences with Muslims, atheists, other world cultures — so some were able to compartmentalize Wicca as another form of that. None of us knew anything about what she believed. Very few were open enough to ask. I imagined she had a cauldron and listened to backmasked music while chanting spells because all my life, I’d been told that’s what witches did.
My righteous indignation flared like angry, triggered eczema. I felt 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. She held space for us and went toe-to-toe and didn’t let us put our preconceived and ignorant notions of witchcraft on her. She fought back. This woman asserted her autonomy, a completely foreign concept 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. With her example, she golden ruled a community that claimed to own the corner on golden rules.
The irony of a Wiccan behaving like a better Christian than actual Christians reverberated in my nightmares. This was the world upside down. I was ashamed of my behavior but I had to unpack why. I knew I’d hurt someone who’d tried to be my friend and, perhaps for the first time, I fully understood hurting someone because they refuse to be controlled or coerced by you was wrong. By following the evangelical model, I myself was becoming a controlling abuser.
The following year, my life blew up. As my husband descended into violent mental illness, I barely escaped with my children. We moved out of state. The forum of friendships shut down. As I sobbed on the bathroom floor, I knew I was facing an opportunity to rebuild my life from the ground up. Very few of the Christians I knew from the past were interested in getting involved. I’d broken the rules, mandates, and covenants. I’d gotten divorced, and more than a few of my old “friends” suspected my opening mind and mouth were to blame. I’d stopped serving the system.
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 rubbing off old scabs that stung brightly every time I exposed them to the air. Nothing would 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 domestic violence 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 collapse issues, 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.” That put much of my background in direct opposition to the evangelical system.
What does it look like to love other people? I knew what it wasn’t.
- It wasn’t 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.
- It wasn’t loving to impose my own viewpoints on other people without considering their own life experiences, autonomy, and traditions.
- It wasn’t 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.
- It wasn’t 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? Love that isn’t equal isn’t love; it’s favor and coercion.
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 don’t love them. That was my realization, and that one single reason is “why” my politics changed.
“How” change occurs is a process. “Why” is a reflection of values.
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 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 understood. I grew.
When I remembered Kim, 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, burn spots, 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 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 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. Today, the church where I grew up is noticeably more ethnically diverse. It’s no longer a mega-congregation. 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 fact remains…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. He serves their system as much as he spear-heads it. Donald Trump is a reflection, product, and example of the white straight male evangelical base. To see one is to see the other.
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.
The irony of Christian appall over red voters who turn blue is that many of them are actually purple. In my observation, rather than a wide sweep to the opposite extreme, voters who leave the conservative right temper their viewpoints, become moderate and balance into the middle. They take the issues and candidates one at a time. Purple voters make up their own minds in consideration of moral conscience, experience, beliefs, and priorities while most of the reds (and some of the blues) make assumptions about them.
These voters are actualized individuals who don’t want to be controlled by either an agenda or personality.
Maybe that’s what makes them so threatening to the evangelical church –– a population conditioned to avoid both “how” and “why.” Because questions trigger stories and may lead to answers that open a mind to growth.