In 2003, I was a senior in college. I had recently returned from a semester spent studying in Nairobi, Kenya. September 11,2001 was still fresh in my mind, and I was exploring Christian pacifism. Two short years earlier, I began to develop a sense of my own politics and I was surprised to find, when opinions began to emerge, that I slanted strongly left.
I had a job at a small, family-owned motel. It was my favorite job; some days when I’m deep in grading papers, or behind on a deadline, I wish to be back there. My office was in an old New England house in an old New England town. During the off-season it was quiet and I could read or write or listen to music. It was peaceful.
Except when my boss came in. He was this gruff and loud kind of guy. Lovable in a strange way, actually, but not very likable. He was also extremely conservative. One of the few disturbances in this tranquil space was a signed photograph of George W. and Laura Bush smiling at me from across the room that he bought with campaign contributions. Another disturbance was when he stormed into the office.
He’d turn off the radio, which was either set on some quiet, folky station or NPR. He’d grab the remote and flip the television on to Fox News. He’d talk at the television, grumbling about what this or that democrat did or didn’t do. I kept quiet.
But there was one day that I didn’t. This was in the early weeks and months of the Iraq War. I hated that war with a passion I didn’t know I could conjure for anything beyond myself. The words “shock and awe” literally moved me to nausea. And on this day, when my boss’ friend, who also happened to be the motel’s plumber, joined him in front of Fox News, joined in his chorus of rants and raves, I finally spoke up.
I can’t remember quite what the plumber said, but it was something about how he wished we could just wipe them all out and start over to repay them for what they did to us on September 11. In awkward, stumbly sentences, I pointed out that Iraq had nothing to do with the tragedy of 9/11. My boss turned to me, surprised to hear me speak up, but I could tell he wasn’t surprised by my view. This time, it was he who kept quiet.
The plumber and I exchanged some words. He was enjoying himself; I clearly was not. Finally, my boss mercifully intervened; he said something like, “Okay, back to work.” And the plumber left me with his parting words. He quoted the old adage, sometimes attributed to Winston Churchill, that “If you’re not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you’re not a conservative at forty you have no brain.” And then they left. Without turning Fox News off.
I sat there fuming. A million things I could have said rushed into my head and evaporated just as fast.
I have often thought about that day, about that plumber and the sentiment he expressed. And, of course, I’ve heard it many times since. That same flawed reasoning, that same acquiescence to world-weariness. The way we are all supposed to justify our inevitable fall to selfishness and pessimism.
Last night, I read that same argument again — this time, from David French, prominent Patheos evangelical blogger. In response to recent dialogue about what it might look like to move beyond the culture wars (as in my friend Jonathan Merritt’s new book and my latest Patheos column), French steps in to tell us naive youth that he was once like us. Idealistic. Wanting to be nonpartisan.
But then, through “encountering life,” he realized that “nonpartisanship had a steep price.” Essentially, he learned it was too difficult to take positions that are not clearly black or white. He learned that people find it challenging to classify a person — that they may even misunderstand him — when he doesn’t fit neatly into a prescribed category. And, of course, in true culture warrior fashion, it was the abortion issue that made this clear. Abortion, to him, is a black and white issue, and thus must everything else be.
He ends his condescending “open letter” by posing a couple of questions to those who attempt to be “post-partisan.” He asks, “are you willing to forego any effective voice at all for unborn children? Are you willing to keep silent when the secular world demands your silence?” Because, he concludes, the “true price of non-partisanship” is silence. Finally, we’re supposed to read Jesus’ death on the cross and “tiniest handful of followers” as justification for being partisan prats.
French tells his story, but he doesn’t make an argument. Rather, we are supposed to accept his implied point because 1) he was once like us and 2) now he’s “a religious liberties lawyer, a pro-life activist, the founder of Evangelicals for Mitt, and the most recent winner of the American Conservative Union’s Ronald Reagan Award.”
But the point that French’s story ends up making is that when he wandered into life’s grey areas, when he couldn’t say for certain in an op-ed or talking point where he stood on a particular issue, it just got to be too hard. When he began to look into same sex marriage, for example, from the position of a lawyer, he saw that the issue was going to become complicated in areas such as religious liberty. He wrote an op-ed to announce that he was anti-gay marriage.
Reading French’s post last night conjured up the same feelings I had, almost a decade ago, when my boss’ plumber friend dismissed my view as the naiveté of youth. You’ll grow out of it, they both say.
I haven’t grown out of it. I don’t intend to. And, if I do, it will be a great loss — an assent to my fallen nature and that of the world around me, rather than a persistence against that nature. When you hear people make this argument — and if you’re young and progressive, you will — listen to them. Smile and nod. Disagree respectfully if you feel so bold.
And then pity them. They lost something precious in losing their idealism. They lost hope that things can be better. They gave in to the pressures to fit neatly in a jingoistic box. They saw for a moment the fog that envelops all of life — all the issues and questions — and they backed away into the safety of an artificially clear environment.
You don’t have to follow them there. Their journey needn’t be yours. Becoming conservative, a culture warrior, or a partisan is not a foregone conclusion. Rather, seek out an elder who remains idealistic in her advanced years. Meet a progressive octogenarian. You will find love and beauty and encouragement. You’ll meet an example that you’ll want to follow into the grey.
Finally, when the plumbers or the David Frenches of the world condescendingly dismiss your idealism as the naiveté of youth, you too can conjure the image of Christ on the cross. You can point to a man who died to show us the way toward an idealized world — the kingdom come. French’s telling of the story ends with Jesus on the cross with just a handful of followers, but we know that’s not where the story ends.
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