Saturday, February 12, 2005

Confessions of a former...

For readers who know me well, you may want to take a seat before you continue reading, because this confession may shock you. I can only think of one or two people with whom I’ve ever shared this particular news. And I’d like to preface this confession by saying that we’ve all had our youthful indiscretions during our college years, and I am no different. People always warn you that you’ll get started with little things and before you know it, you’ll find yourself down a path and in a place you never expected.

It all started simply enough while I was in college. I went to school in a famously liberal town in northern California, and I started making friends who were involved in politics. It was all small stuff at the beginning: voter registration drives, small meetings with the Young Democrats, and the like. But then I got more and more involved. I volunteered for a local congresswoman and the state superintendent of public education. I was helping with fundraising dinners and making cold calls to constituents. And suddenly it all got out of control, my life took a crazy turn, and before I knew it, I was a registered Republican.

That’s right, faithful readers, I am a former Republican. This is a true story and I want to explain how it happened so that we can prevent other young liberals from treading the same path I had to travel.

It all started in the dank little office in San Francisco that my roommate and I visited twice a week during our sophomore year in college. We were interns working on the two re-election campaigns I mentioned above. I was particularly excited about the state superintendent of public education, because she was riding on the recent success of class-size reduction. I really enjoyed talking to current and retired teachers who were really excited about what had been accomplished during our candidate’s previous term.

But then I quickly realized that one issue ruled most conversations that took place in our little office and at fundraising dinners and during cold calls: the ever divisive abortion issue. The topic was omnipresent and there was only one acceptable way to participate in any abortion-related conversation: active and unwavering support for and dedication to securing access to safe and legal abortion.

Now, the affliction I have which will prevent me from ever successfully running for elected office is that I see in shades of gray. The abortion issue is already complex, but it is even more so for a religious lefty like myself. My good friends at Merriam-Webster define ambivalent as having “simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings (as attraction and repulsion) toward an object, person, or action”, and this is exactly how I feel about abortion. And what this means in the real world for someone like me is that I do not support overturning the Roe v. Wade decision, but I also don’t want participation in Democratic politics to require me to actively join the fight to expand abortion rights.

The whole topic makes me queasy, and in reality my feelings are somewhere between the two extremes. Nevertheless, at the end of my internship I found myself working at a fundraising dinner for the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. That night was a dizzying experience I will never forget. Sarah Weddington, the lawyer who argued “Jane Roe’s” case in front of the Supreme Court, was the keynote speaker, and she delivered an amazing speech. Much of it resonated with me: she painted a scary picture of a government that wants the authority to make such intimate, personal decisions about the physical bodies of women.

However, being the deeply ambivalent religious lefty that I am, much of it did not resonate with me. And in the end, I was so mad at myself for having been there in the first place, that I decided I was done with politics, and especially the Democrats! The fervent pro-choice stance seemed to be the glue that held the myriad liberal factions of the Democratic Party together, and I had found myself utterly unable to say the simple words, “Actually, I don’t really want to help out with the NARRAL dinner, because I don’t feel that strongly about the issue.” I was terrified that I would have been ostracized, so I said nothing.

The next day I got up and went straight to the post office to fill out a new voter registration card. In a daze rivaled only by the night before, I filled out the new card, checked Republican, and dropped it in the mail. Several weeks latter, the vanilla-colored confirmation of my new registration arrived in the mail. It had really happened. I had really registered as a Republican. I stood in front of the mailbox and stared at the tiny, dot-matrix letters which spelled, “Republican”. I took the card upstairs and buried it in my sock drawer.

As the next few weeks passed and I listened to Democrats and Republicans arguing on the daily news, I realized I’d buried my own Tell-Tale Heart in my dresser drawer. I listened to Republicans yammer on about one thing or another, and I realized (again) that I really wasn’t one of them. I knew that if I volunteered for one of these guys, I’d be attending fundraising dinners to support the active and unwavering fight to reverse Roe v. Wade. And I could think only of my voter registration card in my sock drawer.

Eventually, I tore up that card and went back to the post office to re-register as a Democrat. All told, I was a Republican for about six weeks. I believe my religious and political identities are more complicated than a black-and-white view of this one issue. We as Liberals and we as Christians are called to address more than just this one issue. If we will let this one issue define the depth and complexity of our values and concerns, then there are innumerable issues we will never address and countless people we will exclude from the solutions. Take it from this former Republican.