I was raised in conservatism. I don’t have specific memories of my parents’ political ideology, and I know their views have evolved over the years, but I suppose that it was of a “Republican” nature. My church congregation and my geographic community were predominantly conservative as well. In high school I loved my American Government class, and I argued in class debates in favor of private education tax credits, in opposition to gun control, and of course lower taxes and less government involvement. In college I took a political science class and received praise (from my liberal professor) for a paper I wrote in support of the death penalty. I don’t say that to boast, just to acknowledge that my political beliefs DID have thoughtful and articulate roots. Shortly after marrying Richard, he and I became interested in, and I would even say supportive of, Glenn Beck. After a couple years both Richard and I became disillusioned with Glenn Beck’s sensationalism and contentious pot-stirring, but still I considered myself a conservative. I took pride in my stalwart values, and frowned upon the “immorality” of liberal ideas.
Looking back, if I could simplify my conservative values in words and phrases I would use self-reliant, morally superior, independent, punitive, economically responsible, self-interested, practical, frugal and just.
This is the part that is hard to pin down. But as far as I can tell, my political foundations began shifting a few years ago when circumstances of a personal nature brought me into a community of women who have become dear friends. We formed bonds unlike any relationships I had ever known. A love developed between us that made our little community a safe, accepting, non-judgmental, forgiving and supportive place. There was nothing political about my new group of friends, in fact we were about as politically diverse as any group I know, but our relationships were based on compassion, support, generosity and mercy. These women made me feel closer to God than I had ever felt before, and I started to wonder if my “conservative values” weren’t accurately reflecting this new-found charity that I felt.
What Pope Francis articulated for me so well is that my number one obligation (beyond my obligation to my God) is to my fellow man. As a conservative I found myself always turning inward, my values directed my obligation back toward myself; toward protecting MY rights, MY way of life, MY children’s education, MY money, MY convenience, MY prosperity.
What has appealed to me from the liberal perspective is an obligation to my fellow men, a love and compassion that calls me to action on their behalf and my interests become directed outward; an obligation to the impoverished, to the oppressed, to the immigrant, to the uneducated, to the Earth. These are the ways I feel closer to God.
Isn’t this what my religion has been teaching me all along? To love God first, and my neighbor next? I have no problem reconciling my new political philosophies with my faith, rather my faith compelled me to change my political philosophies.
In a recent episode of Downton Abbey the Dowager Countess asks Isobel, “Does it ever get cold on the moral high ground?” Conservatives love to take their place on the moral high ground. I loved it too. But morality is more than just sexual sin and abortion. Morality includes our obligation to all of God’s children. Conservatives do not have a monopoly on morality.
The acceptance, forgiveness, generosity and mercy I’ve felt in my relationships has made me look differently at the death penalty, at drug testing for welfare, planned parenthood, race issues, and immigration. If I am pro-life, that means I value the life of the fetus and the life of the convicted criminal. If I am going to sing “Because I have Been Given Much” at church on Sunday, I’m going to offer my charity with no strings attached. If I really want to prevent abortions, I want to support an organization that helps vulnerable women prevent pregnancy in the first place. If I want to love my neighbor as myself, I have to cut through my denial about the way my society has treated and continues to disrespect my Black or Latino neighbor. And before I call for the deportation of people who cross over a man-made border, I simply cannot forget that but for the grace of God, I could have been born in Mexico or Syria.
The compassion and empathy that drive my political beliefs are the same traits by which I try to live the non-political parts of my life. They are as much a part of me as my love for travel and my insatiable need for validation. And for the people who are reading this who know me personally, intimately, I would hope that I’ve offered you this same compassion and empathy when you’ve needed it from me. I think I have, not perfectly, but I know that when those I care for come to me in difficulty or sadness it is in my nature to respond in love. So I hope that I’m putting my money where my mouth is so to speak, and I hope I am backing up my claims to my fellow men as much with my friends and family as I am with strangers and my “neighbors” in the broader sense.
I know that reading this you might feel frustrated, I understand. Our political climate is one that fosters an attitude of “us” against “them”, demanding that we move further and further apart and dig in our heels. I’ve used words like liberal, conservative and Republican because they are the vocabulary of our system, but I would rather not lump people into over-simplified categories. I believe that in our living rooms and in our hearts most of us really feel more comfortable somewhere in the middle, but the media and society make no place for people in the middle, and there is a lot of name-calling for our politicians who dare to venture there. In closing I want to share this quote, and my plea that we can embark in the upcoming political seasons with compassion and compromise, seeing each other as individuals and not labels, sharing ideas and not categorically dismissing them.
“The call of conscience — whether religious or otherwise — requires no secular justification. At the same time, religious persons will often be most persuasive in political discourse by framing arguments and positions in ways that are respectful of those who do not share their religious beliefs and that contribute to the reasoned discussion and compromise that is essential in a pluralistic society.”
– Dallin H. Oaks (emphasis added)