09 July 2012

Recovering conservative.

It’s not easy to talk with my Republican friends sometimes. You see, I’m a recovering conservative. I was a knee-jerk conservative for a lot of years. Then I read up on conservatism and became a knowledgeable conservative. And now I’ve gone moderate. Or, as my conservative friends call it, “liberal.”

But I do know exactly where they’re coming from. They can’t believe it, ’cause they can’t imagine anyone would move away from conservatism. To them it’s as if a Spirit-filled Christian decided to become atheist: How, considering what you’ve seen and experienced, could you quit? The only explanation is you were faking those experiences: You were never really a Spirit-filled Christian. And thus they apply this very analogy to ex-conservatives: You must’ve been faking conservatism; you never really were one.

Well, if you’re saying my religion never really was conservatism, you’re quite correct. That’d be Christianity. Conservatism was something I was into ’cause I was raised to think it and Christianity are compatible. They’re not. And don’t get the wrong idea: Liberalism and Christianity aren’t compatible either. No philosophy that can stand outside of the Kingdom of God—that doesn’t care whether your allegiance is to the Kingdom, so long that your allegiance is always to it—is compatible with Christianity. None. Don’t fool yourself.

I did. That’s why I left.

A fellow Sac State alumnus was very surprised to discover that, at the time I was going there, I was a conservative. Which is kinda understandable. I went there from 1990 to ’92—kinda the perfect storm of ambiguous politics.

See, the 1988 presidential election was long over. There wasn’t much to discuss about that, ’cause my guy was in office. And if you recall during the first Gulf War, everybody liked him. Pete Wilson was governor, and despite his being a Republican, I didn’t care for him, ’cause he was too corrupt and liberal for me. At the same time, he was too corrupt and conservative for most of the folks I knew—so we wound up agreeing that he sucked. Most of the issues that came up at Sac State were campus-related, like Wilson’s appointment of corporate raider Barry Munitz as the CSU chancellor, and Wilson’s 40 percent raise in tuition. (Which CSUS called “fees” so they could continue to claim CSUS was tuition-free, but they charged a fee per unit—so come on.) The rest of the politics had to do with the usually-dysfunctional Associated Students Inc. senate, how the fraternities and sororities were out of touch with reality (which is of course their raison d’ĂȘtre, n’cest pas?) and the usual this ’n that of any large university.

At the State Hornet I was known for being the “Mr. Squish” cartoonist. Or for being the jerk who didn’t realize when to stop it with the ridicule. But I had more fans than foes. And this blew the minds of various people who knew me at my previous school, Solano College: I had the knee-jerk conservative column in the Tempest, so I had more foes than fans. Things flipped around completely at CSUS. I never hid my politics; they simply never came up.

Until they did. I remember ridiculously late night when the paper wasn’t done till about 4:30 a.m. Often we’d head over to Denny’s for a cheap dinner, but it was morning, so we decided to go to Pancake Circus. Like the name suggests: They specialize in pancakes, and the decor is as garish as a circus. Anyway, one of the editors got to talking about some issue that she was passionate about—I don’t recall which one—and she made the mistake of asking what I thought. And I told her.

“My God,” she replied, stunned, “you’re a conservative.”

She’d had no clue. Nor did she know what to do with this information. You see, most of the conservatives she knew, she could see them coming, and could carefully avoid friendships with them. That way, she could preserve all of her stereotypes about what conservatives do and think. But that didn’t happen with me. She liked me. So like I said, she didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t hate me. So she tried to convert me… which didn’t work, but she gave it a shot.

Now, had I written a column for the State Hornet, it’s quite possible I would have outraged as many people as I had at Solano. But probably not. There were a lot of Republicans there. Thing is, people of all political stripes liked me: They read my comic strip, projected their own political views onto it, assumed I thought as they did, and that was that.

In early 1993 I moved to Dixon. Dixon is fairly Republican, so I could get away with writing weekly right-wing columns for The Dixon Newspaper (now called the Independent Voice) and writing the occasional bit for the Tempest again, once I started taking some Solano classes part-time in fall 1994.

And while I was there, I began to get heavily involved in Republican politics. I went to fundraisers, I went door-to-door stumping for candidates, I went to the state conventions, I joined the Young Americans for Freedom, I even bought and read Rush Limbaugh’s second book. I went hardcore.

Problem is, I began to recognize the differences between social conservatives and economic conservatives. I am, then as now, a social conservative. I’m not a materialist, never have been, and began to object strenuously to economic conservatives who only cared about the bottom line, and would sell out their few morals for a tax break or a profit. And other folks in the party would tell me, “Would you shut up? We need their money.”

That didn’t “cure” me, so to speak, of conservatism. I still believed in it. I still believed in the party, too—pragmatically. It was the only political party in the United States that could, and would, get a social conservative elected. I was no longer under any illusions about the motives of the party’s monied elements, but I figured if my candidates could stay true to their principles, who cares where the dough comes from? It’s like the pastor who took an offering from a gambler, and replied to one of the deacons who complained it was tainted money: “That’s right. ’Tain’t yours; ’tain’t mine. It’s God’s now.” Then as now, I have no problem with special interests pouring money into elections. I object only when the candidates allow strings to be attached.

I got fired from my column in February ’95, when the editorial board decided a twentysomething was too young to be a political columnist. I quit the paper shortly afterward, and went back to college full time, this time for a degree in biblical and theological studies. That’s when my politics really changed. Theology will do that to you.

Politics is not an agent of social change. Anyone who thinks so has it backwards. Liberals try it, and when they push people farther ahead than they care to go, they get overthrown—unless they go totalitarian. Conservatives try it too, and suffer the same consequences. California tried gay marriage before the general public was ready, so as a result the most liberal state in the Union (well, tying with Massachusetts) voted in Proposition 8 and banned it.

In the early ’00s, Republicans had held the Congress for half a decade. They had the presidency. They had, as Bush v. Gore made it clear, a majority of the Supreme Court. They held the government like no single party had since the New Deal. What, then, did they do to ban abortion on the federal level? Something between jack and squat. What were they waiting for? A mandate from the masses; a social climate that insisted something be done. They didn’t get it, so they did nothing.

Yet I know many Republicans that would never, ever leave their party, and would defend any deviant thing it does, solely because it’s pro-life. Yeah, right. That’s the lip service they pay you to keep your votes.

You want to work social change? You have two possible routes: The Kingdom of God, and the mass media. The Kingdom is less flashy, but it works. It changes one life at a time, one community at a time. It changes hearts, which goes a lot further than changing laws. It brings God to people and lets him transform them.

The media works too. It can either work, as journalists would like to think it does, by informing the public about what’s going on in their communities and government, and mobilizing them to act. That’s assuming they care to. You see, there’s the other way it works—to entertain the public into insensibility. Karl Marx figured religion was the opiate of the masses, but where that analogy falls apart is that opiates get you to do nothing. True religion gets you to follow Jesus and love your neighbor. Entertainment, however, really gets you to do nothing: You just sit, and watch, and listen, and consume, and feel happy—and don‘t think, don’t create, don’t act. Just as if you were on heroin. Marx never imagined the entertainment industry; the best example he could point to were the bread and circuses of the Roman Empire, but that was small potatoes.

Government reacts to disasters, to the threat of war, and to whatever the masses demand in order to maintain their happiness. It initiates nothing. Whenever some hyperactive candidate tries to get it to, the initiative’s momentum slowly grinds to a halt—and people blame bureaucrats, but the reality is the public doesn’t consider that initiative to be the government’s job.

In a democracy, government reflects the people. When the people are fat, lazy, wasteful, stupid, and easily distracted, so is their government. Who’s gonna convince Americans to not be pathetic losers? Not the government—it reflects them, remember? Not the idealists who want to be elected—they get ground down. No. Like I said, if you want social change, you have the Kingdom of God and the mass media. Become the media, or join the Kingdom. Or both. Up to you.

So. My main reason for getting knee-deep in Republican politics was because I wanted to effect social change. But it isn’t gonna happen that way. Politics won’t initiate it. Churches will initiate it, and politics will follow. Or the media will initiate it, and politics will follow. Either way, that party was the wrong route to take to achieve my ideals. (Or God’s; as a Christian, my ideals have to conform to his, as I perceive them.)

So where does that leave me, politically? Well, it means my only interest in politics comes down to fiscal policy: I want a government that runs itself efficiently. Not small government so much as functional government. Limited government, but not so limited it refuses to regulate lest swindlers, con men, and deviants cheat Americans out of their hard-earned money in the name of capitalism.

Yep, that makes me sound like a Democrat.

I spent about five years in denial about it, too. I was still registered as a Republican, but arguing with Republicans all the time how borrow-and-spend governance is not an improvement on tax-and-spend, or how deregulation assumes the innate goodness of human nature when we all know better. Well, Christians know better, anyway. But political Christians, when I challenge them in this way, don’t fall back upon Christian theology, but upon conservative mantras. Or libertarian ones. Or objectivist ones.

I know the feeling. I used to be blind to it too. I didn’t care to look into it. I was right, everyone else was wrong, and that was that. And whenever I went to church, my conservative Christian friends would congratulate me for all the noxious liberal-bashing things I was writing. “Good job,” they’d tell me, egging me to continue to hate my neighbor, heap scorn upon him, and seek his ruin.

After graduating, I was pretty much non-political. I moved to the outskirts of Grass Valley, helped start a newspaper, and let slip that I was a Christian. Consequently the locals wrongly assumed I was a conservative Republican. I had to quickly correct them of that: I wasn’t a conservative Republican. I was non-political. I had realized my political behavior had, in many ways, become a form of idolatry, so I was backing out of it completely. I was working social change through the newspaper—and, less prominently but still publicly, through my church. No more party animal I.

In 2000 I became a history and English teacher at a Christian junior high. There, I was dragged kicking and screaming back into politics: The publishers of our textbooks were trying to work social change, but not through Jesus: They were trying to slip their philosophies into our curriculum. Now, conservatism and Christianity overlap frequently: We say the same things. But not always for the same reasons. Conservatism often wants to perpetuate the status quo and “heritage” and “tradition.” Not because they are moral, but because they’re familiar with these things. But “tradition” is far too often a conservative buzzword for “institutional racism and sexism,” and that is when I object. When our textbooks, all of them published in the American South, started defending the southern way of life in their Civil War units, I was forced to spend far too much time teaching around the textbooks.

Other history teachers were fascinated by worldview studies—Francis Schaeffer’s discussion on the Christian Weltanschauung over and against the secular and pagan views—especially as Charles Colson (i.e. his ghostwriter, Dr. Nancy Pearcey) had just come out with his update of Schaeffer’s series, How Now Shall We Live?, rewritten to include a lot more conservative politics. I have since discovered that most of the folks who are fascinated by comparing worldviews, are not so much interested in the Christian worldview as they are in a Calvinist one—adapted, conveniently, to fit conservative economic theory. The reason they believe there’s only one way for a Christian to look at the world is because this is precisely what Calvin and his attendants taught. Theology studies taught me otherwise.

When I moved to Santa Cruz, I decided I was tired of being a “liberal Republican,” and changed my registration. Now I am a conservative Democrat. My family may never forgive me for voting for Barack Obama, either. But as much as I respect John McCain, his utter lack of understanding about the economic crunch (blaming it on Fannie Mae instead of credit default swaps), combined with his utter lack of understanding that his vice president shouldn’t suffer from an utter lack of understanding, forced me to vote for the knowledgeable guy. McCain’s actions since have done little to show me I didn’t do the right thing.

To single-issue voters—who will, as my mother so often reminds me is her case, never ever vote for someone who’s not pro-life—this act of mine was apostasy. It was beyond the pale. I am going to hell. Well, not really—it had to do with politics, not religion, and to some small degree they still recognize a difference—but some of them do doubt my salvation, just as much as they doubt Obama’s.