A few years ago, I was at a gathering of progressives in a remote county in Montana, a state where 65 percent of voters pulled the lever for Trump. A decade and a half prior, my first job out of college was as a pollster. I had avoided politics since then. But, for some reason, that night I spoke up. Oddly, I spoke up as a Christian even though I was so far removed from the evangelical tradition in which I grew up.
“I think we need to do a better job speaking to our values, wherever they come from. We’ve left a values void. As an individual — as a citizen — I need to do a better job speaking up about how my religious and philosophical values inform my civil values. I think … “
Before I could finish, I was interrupted by someone who had just lost a state senate seat. “No, Obama showed us that what we are doing is working. He won twice.”
I was so flabbergasted I couldn’t respond. Her perception was a world away from the facts on the ground. In the same time period where Obama “won twice,” the GOP won more than 1,000 state House and Senate seats, a reality that will have implications for decades from now even if we can reverse this tide.
What I wanted to say that night was that the Left has left a huge void that has been filled for decades by so-called “values voters.” We’ve completely ceded the high ground of religious and “values-based” language to white, conservative, evangelical Christians.
Growing up Southern Baptist, where the church hosted “prayer breakfasts” with politicians and had massive Fourth of July celebrations, I saw the ascendancy of the Religious Right in the 80s and 90s. I never once heard a counternarrative. What if I and others had heard a counternarrative? What if more people has spoken up about the fundamentally political message of Jesus Christ, who preached radical bold empathy and commanded his followers to love the unlovable?
What is so odd is that many politicians on the Left are highly religious. Yet, so many politicians on the Left don’t express their religious values publicly. I know this silence comes from a good place. It comes from a more cosmopolitan worldview and also from civic values that honor what Jefferson called a “wall of separation” between church and state. But,we’ve left this “values” void to be filled by those with fundamentally un-Christlike values. While the institutions of church and state obviously should be kept separate (for the benefit of both church and state), that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about how our religious or philosophical values inform our political values.
Because of this void, we’re now faced with the fact that 81 percent of evangelicals voted for Trump, a thrice married racist and probably the most un-Christlike personality imaginable. He’s almost a cartoonish caricature of the exact type of person Jesus railed against. But something that night made me want to speak up.
Like George W. Bush, my favorite political philosopher is Jesus Christ. Even though I departed from my Southern Baptist upbringing, I still think about the amazing teachings and parables of Jesus. Yet, Jesus informs my civic values in a much different way than Bush. Jesus called for a bold, radical, preemptive empathy that the world needs badly right now. He called for us to love the unlovable. So after that night, I decided to run an experiment and have difficult conversations. I decided to speak up and write.
To the surprise of many of my liberal friends in our very conservative valley, I got articles published in the “conservative” paper quoting Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. I had theological debates about the true meaning of the parable of the Good Samaritan with the editor of that same paper, a man who many of my liberal friends only had disdain for. I might not have changed his mind, but I did walk across a cultural bridge. I refused to cede the high ground of “values” to those who seem to have an abridged Bible that doesn’t include what Jesus actually said. Then the more liberal weekly magazine published the same article.
So I aimed a bit higher. At the statewide level in the Montana Post, I outed Congressman Greg Gianforte (the same guy who famously sucker-punched a journalist) and many other Montana politicians for giving money to a white supremacist in my town. But I went further than just saying that giving money to a white supremacist is bad (that used to be a given just a few years ago). I also said that a so-called Christian is being “un-Christlike” for supporting hate. Then, in another article, I went a step further and explained that everything I need to know about Congressman Gianforte I learned in Sunday School. Now, my spirituality is vastly different than Gianforte’s fundamentalism. I didn’t change his mind. Yet, I was approached by many people who thanked me for not leaving the values void to be filled by people who think the world was created just over 5,000 years ago, that immigrant families should be separated, and their kids locked in cages.
I’ve since moved to Oregon, but I’m sharing this because I learned a lot about my fellow citizens and myself when I decided to have difficult conversations. Democracy is the ultimate DIY project.
I can bear witness that a bit of effort to speak to your values and to have some uncomfortable conversations will transform you and others. Once I spoke up, a few of my friends and relatives were influenced to speak up in their own lives. I can’t measure the outcome of these conversations, but I do wonder what would be the net result of only a few thousand people making “what would Jesus do” arguments in the public sphere.
Maybe this so-called Christian nation could actually be slightly more Christlike. Maybe we could change a few minds. All it takes is to increase the 19 percent of evangelicals who didn’t vote for Trump by just a few percentage points. Perhaps it is what Jesus called “faith like a grain of mustard seed” which can grow to move mountains.
But I was even more shocked by the transformation in my life after I spoke up. A few friends from across the country would see my posts on social media and would reach out to me. I had many profound conversations with a friend from North Carolina who had a similar upbringing to me, but with whom I had until then avoided speaking about religion. But she turned me on to a national community of ex-fundamentalists who share my distaste for fundamentalism, yet share a love for what Jesus preached. Before I spoke up, I felt utterly alone and confused (e.g. why do I always feel such a strong need to speak up against hypocritical Christians who are being so un-Christlike). But once I spoke up, I found my community. (If you are a recovering fundamentalist, stop what you’re doing and check out both the Liturgists podcast and Red Letter Christians.)
Democracy isn’t only based on voting every two or four years. Rather, it’s based on difficult conversations in between. If we don’t fill the “values voters void,” someone else will. It’s time to save the message of Christ from the Religious Right. Enough is enough.