Twenty years ago, I ran for the Idaho state legislature as a Democrat. I was contacting a former co-worker about helping on the campaign. She politely told me she could not help me because she was a Democrat. I told her I was running as a Democrat and then she said to me, “Oh, I thought you were Mormon.” I explained to her I was both a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and a Democrat. She was surprised.
I guess I was like the mythical Jackalope, she didn’t believe a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who was a Democrat existed. She was not a member of the Church, so it didn’t really bother me that she didn’t know members of the Church could be liberals. The sad thing is, if I had a nickel for every member of the Church that was shocked to hear I was a Democrat, I could have funded my 1998 campaign without a single other donation.
I did not grow up a liberal, just the opposite. I grew up in the 80’s in Idaho, so, like almost everyone I knew, I thought Ronald Regan was amazing. He was an American hero to me. I felt certain conservatism was not only the right approach, I felt it was the righteous one. Being a conservative was easy–everyone was, and they seemed certain about it. After all, Republicans were against abortion and what else mattered? My two-year mission only deepened my conservatism. I came home 90 days out from the 1992 presidential election. I remember a family member telling me she was thinking of voting for Bill Clinton. I was shocked. I remember saying, “How could you vote for him? He supports abortion!” I don’t remember her response, probably because I was too worried about her soul to listen to her thoughts and opinions. Of course, I’ve learned over the years abortion is an extremely complicated issue. To categorize someone as pro-abortion or anti-abortion is not only simplistic, it’s not true. People have much broader and deeper thoughts and feelings on that issue than our polarized bumper sticker politics suggest.
When I went to college I didn’t know what to major in, so I looked through the course catalog and picked classes I thought looked interesting. They were all political science classes. I figured I’d major in political science and then go to law school. I was actually excited about it. Bill Clinton had just been elected and I figured we needed good lawyers and future politicians to fight the evils of liberalism. So why not me?
Then I hit campus and actually started taking classes and everything got way more complicated. In college, I was exposed to Langston Hughes, Frederick Douglass, Maya Angelou, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X, freedom riders, Ruby Bridges, Rosa Parks, Cesar Chavez, the Alien and Sedition Act, Japanese internment, the Chinese Exclusionary Act, the trail of tears, reconstruction, Jim Crow, and so much more. I was exposed to political thought and theory, critical thinking, history, art, literature, and diverse political opinions I had never heard before. It felt like a different world. It was like someone opened a door to a room I didn’t know existed.
Now before you go and assume, “Oh there’s the trouble, he went to a liberal arts college and was corrupted.” I went to arguably one of the most conservative religious private colleges in the country. What added to the wonder and the complexity was just that. I was surrounded by conservatives. Only a handful of my classmates were not conservative. The problem was the liberals were by far the smartest. They spoke about issues with a depth of understanding and reasoning that was amazing to me. I felt so unprepared and foolish–because frankly, I was. I had come to college with an unwarranted certitude about what was right and wrong in American politics. I had a gut feeling but no knowledge or reasoning to give grounding to my convictions. My conservative classmates spoke with the same conviction, but lacked all the reasoning.
Now let me be clear, I think conservatism has deep theoretical underpinnings. Its roots are well grounded in rational thought. There is a strong case to be made for a conservative approach to governance. It was, however, not being made by my peers at school or frankly most of the members of the Church who were conservatives that I’ve known. I do know some members of the Church who are conservative academics and deep thinkers grounded in theory, but very few. For the most part, my exposure to members of the Church who are conservatives included people who were fat with passion but lean on evidence, theory, and reasoning.
I later joined the ragtag, almost nonexistent College Democrats club on campus. We held a few events with the six or so us who were members. Once we even held a debate with the College Republicans. There were hundreds of them. That association led me to volunteer on a state legislative race and on the gubernatorial race. By the time I left my junior college, I was leaning left. Four years later, as a recent college graduate and small business owner, I was approached by both political parties to run for the Idaho legislature. I really wrestled with what to do. I asked myself tough questions and thought deeply about my convictions. In the end, it deepened my belief that government was a force for good—a power to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
In the twenty years since then, my political convictions have deepened and so has my ability to appreciate opposing views. Make no mistake, I am not a liberal despite being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; I am a liberal because I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. My faith is the most important thing to me. It is the essence of who I am. I understand people’s shock when they find out I’m a liberal because I’ve seen firsthand the misconceptions of what that means to them. I’ve spent twenty years of seeing shocked looks when people hear I’m a liberal (and yes, I use the term liberal not progressive, I am not afraid of the term liberal, I embrace it.) In an effort to better understand why so many of the people I know and love are so dismayed when they first learn of my liberalism, I spent 3-6 hours a week listening to conservative radio from 2009-2012. I would be shocked too if I believed what I had heard on talk radio. I respect and love my family and friends who listen to talk radio, but talk radio itself is filled with hyperbolic characterizations, hasty generalizations, false equivalencies and even malice towards those on the left. I am not the freedom hating, malevolent, brainwashed dope that talk radio made me and all other liberals out to be.
My political beliefs have come from years of learning and growing. I don’t think everyone should be a liberal. I am a champion for conservatism in the marketplace of ideas. However, I have personally seen the harm that comes when members of my faith community equate conservatism with religion. I had friends, family and students feel judged and ostracized for their political leanings–some have even left the church over it. Everyone is responsible for their own faith. I believe it is unwise and harmful to blame someone else for your faith crisis. However, we also have a responsibility to treat others as we would want to be treated. The church has made it abundantly clear it is non-partisan. They do not endorse candidates or political parties. I do not judge others faith or lack thereof by their political affiliations. I have known great people of faith all over the political spectrum. I only ask the same courtesy in return. I cannot count how many times I’ve been asked the question, “How can someone be a member of the Church and a Democrat?” My questions to those who ask me that is, “What do you think the Church means when it affirms its political neutrality?” We all have the right and responsibility to be informed and involved in the political process.
We do harm when we assert that one ideology or political party is morally superior to the other. I am always happy to talk about my political identification–why I believe what I do and how I came to these conclusions. I am saddened when my deeply held convictions are met with skepticism or derision. I honestly think part of the challenge is members of my faith community may not have had a great deal of exposure to people who share their faith but not their politics. So, I hope in some small way I can help with that. My hope isn’t that people will necessarily agree with me, but I do hope they will at least listen.