How many times have you heard a story begin with the phrase “I grew up Christian?” This is one of those stories, but sped up to the college phase of life.
I went to a Christian college. Picture a Christian college in your head, and then change nothing. All the trappings were there: mandated chapel three times a week, no rated-R movies, strict dorm visitation rules, and a strong overtone of Republicanism.
That last bit, the strong identification with the Republican party, slowly drove me crazy during my time in college.
I was in college from 2001 to 2005, which means that 9/11 happened during the first full week of classes my freshman year of college. Our country started two wars and two subsequent occupations during that time. This is relevant to the story.
I chose a Christian college because I believed I wanted to be a pastor. My mother gave me some very judicious advice: you can go to a Christian college, but don’t get a degree in “ministry,” because you limit your job prospects too much. So I chose history and biblical literature. My study of both would make me question everything — which is what college should make you do. But they don’t mention how painful that can be.
The social sciences department was run by a conservative ideologue. The Republican party was not only right, it was the party that represented God’s will on Earth, and carried the City on a Hill vision of the Puritans into the present. I wrestled with that representation a great deal. I was relatively conservative coming into college, not merely because I was a “product of my environment” but also because that was where my political thought began.
I knew that many other Christians such as myself identified as Republican. I learned early on what the values of these Christians were, even if I couldn’t articulate them as I can now: right to life issues, nuclear family structure, strict sexual ethics, and religious liberty.
At the time, I didn’t necessarily disagree with conservative ideas about economics or social issues. What got to me was the religious argument for war — and what was front and center during the W Era? War. It undermined my belief, it not in God, then at least in God’s people and their ability to understand what God wants.
My understanding of God was Christocentric, and Jesus represented peace and forgiveness. Aside from a few “naughty verses” — the term my New Testament professor would use to describe verses that didn’t coincide with a particular argument — the overall depiction of Jesus throughout the gospels jives with a God who loves and forgives. So to hear arguments and to simply feel in the air a rousing endorsement of war from my fellow Christian students and professors, and for it to be the default stance was alarming. It shook my faith.
Things weren’t so rosy on the biblical literature side of things, either. Nothing will undermine your belief in the Bible quite like studying the Bible with intense scrutiny. During my Bible courses, and especially my Greek courses, the doubt crept in. I was not prepared for my understanding of the Bible — the supposed foundation of my Christian faith — to be so thoroughly dismantled and remade. But that is what happened.
I learned the historical background of the manuscripts that were used to form the basis of today’s English translations — the earliest known texts, the manuscript process, how changes and comments found in scribal marginalia can be traced through time, and even the great degree of information we know about Paul and his writing process. I learned about the wide array of scholarly interpretations of the Koine Greek, and how an interpretation can lead to vastly different teachings, some of which are used to oppress women and other marginalized groups. (For instance, the interpretation of Paul in his letters to Timothy & Titus to justify complementarianism, a patriarchal view of gender and family roles.)
The faith I had come to use as a comfort had become no comfort at all.
All of this was a pressure cooker. I would ultimately be outspoken against the war efforts in Iraq in particular, which put me in the minority on campus. I had begun to call myself a moderate, and found myself leaning more toward Democratic politicians and candidates.
As the 2004 election got into swing, I moved beyond my dislike for George W. Bush’s policies and toward actually liking John Kerry. He had spent much of his life serving in the government. He was reasoned. He was a credible candidate by any measure, and the scandal surrounding his short tour in Vietnam feels so innocent compared to today’s politics.
On a weekend trip home, I made a point to stop by my polling center and vote early. It was the first time I was old enough to vote. As I stood in the voting booth, I took my time looking at the long, cumbersome sheet of paper, and cast a vote for John Kerry.
As I walked to put my ballot in some oversized receptacle and walked out, I felt a pang of uncertain and ambiguous guilt. Why did I feel that way? I had merely voted my conscience and my convictions.Who did I feel guilty toward? My family? My church? Fellow Christians? God? I didn’t know.
Over time, that feeling would fade. But in that first moment, that uncertainty loomed so large and it colored the rest of my day. I drove back to school in silence, not even putting any music on.
In hindsight I believe that my political thought had outrun my theological thought and my personal ethics had not found a way to synthesize them yet, in addition to the fact that I didn’t want to feel alone in my peer group (I was in college, remember.)
But I wasn’t alone. I just didn’t know it.
The truth is, no matter what you think of God or what you think politically, there will be other people who feel similarly to you out there, including having the same ideas of how one should “vote their faith.” But you should never be made to feel like a heretic for how you vote.
Now from here on, I’m going to be talking of people that moved from “conservative” to “liberal” because that’s my experience, but it’s applicable to the reverse as well.
If you see the world in shades of grey, where before there was black and white, that’s ok. That’s just you recognizing the world as more complicated than you previously thought.
There is such a thing as the Religious Left. There are wonderful treatises on political ethics. There are ways to engage your faith without feeling as if you have to discard it. For me, it was through the writing of Wendell Berry, followed by many others.
I mention all this because it is a particularly American trait for us to mix up our political and religious beliefs so much that it’s hard to tell them apart — hence the religious guilt I felt from a political action. And our thoughts on these subjects do not always develop in tandem. We make do with what we have. In 2001, I was learning about a loving God while learning about the reality of states going to war. Now, in 2016, people of faith are faced with a new crisis: whether to cast a vote for a narcisstic fascist who has shown contempt for women, people of color, the disabled, veterans, and his own party — solely because he is the representative of the Republican party.
If you are young and watching this unfold and feeling a similar internal conflict inside yourself, take comfort in the fact that others have felt the same way. But more so, take comfort in the fact that God is bigger than this election (no matter how big this election feels), and that the Kingdom of God which is within you and all people is bigger than the representatives of two political parties. And your allegiance is not owed to a party, but to coming to a greater understanding of yourself, God, and your fellow human being while extending love and grace to all.
Vote your conscience. But don’t be afraid of what your conscience tells you. If your conscience is telling you to not vote for a man whose whole life runs contrary to the life of Christ, it may have a point.
Wherever you go once you step out of that ballot box and into the unknown, God will already be there waiting for you.
You aren’t a heretic.