I was raised to believe in the significance of the culture wars.
I didn’t grow up in a particularly political household. My mom talked about how my grandmother was a lifelong Democrat who was devastated the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and admitted that under my grandmother’s influence she had initially registered as a Democrat. Over time, I came to understand that her original registration did not match the few political views she verbalized during my childhood, most of which centered on traditional pro-life issues. Our Christian faith drove many of my parents’ voting decisions, which became more obvious the closer I got to voting age. They admired Reagan and Bush 41, despised Clinton, and were relieved when Bush 43 was eventually elected over Gore. Politics in our house was discussed primarily on the idea that the United States represented all that was good in the world (especially when contrasted against the evil USSR) and it was the government’s duty to maintain a moral high ground.
As a white girl growing up in blue collar, decidedly Democratic Michigan during the Reagan administration, this really wasn’t such a hard stance to agree with. After all, our president was standing up against the Iron Curtain and by the end of the 80s German citizens would be taking apart the Berlin Wall, evidence that communism was evil, democracy supreme, and now religious freedom could once again sweep across Europe.
If only it had been that easy.
Even through the transition from the 80s to the 90s and a couple moves across the country, morality still seemed like a pretty easy basis for political decisions. The abortion question was simple because I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to kill innocent babies. As long as I didn’t have sex I didn’t have to worry about AIDS because they had figured out how to screen for blood transfusions. Two rounds of D.A.R.E. had taught me all about the dangers of drugs and alcohol and since I was averse to throwing up and every movie or television show showed that vomit was a natural consequence of drinking alcohol, I had no desire to find out what the allure was anyway. And I truly believed that racism was a thing of the past, that everyone was equal, and that events like the Holocaust could never happen again.
I was so naive.
I didn’t know about Iran Contra or the weapons being sold to the Taliban to help in their war against the Soviet Union. I didn’t understand the many complex sides to the abortion issue. I didn’t know how much harm the well-meaning purity movement was doing to my peers and myself as we would try to navigate our sexuality and adult relationships as we entered the new millenium. I didn’t know that thousands of gay men were infected with AIDS and that people were hurling hateful rhetoric their direction, espousing a view that the dying men got what they deserved. Regular viewing of The Cosby Show and Family Matters blinded me to the systemic racism that plagued my friends and classmates of color on a daily basis. While the “three-strikes you’re out” made logical sense to me and it was clear to me that OJ Simpson was guilty of double-murder, I couldn’t see how the first would impact communities of color. Nor could I understand how the reaction to the second was rooted in centuries of racial oppression. And I watched Schindler’s List while being oblivious to genocide happening in Rwanda on the other side of the globe.
In other words, the world wasn’t as simple as good vs. evil, moral vs. immoral, and the belief in the superiority of Christian ideals in American politics.
I was raised to believe that I was a Christian American. I wasn’t a Christian first and then an American. The two were connected and that was the way I was supposed to view politics. I was to look for politicians who wouldn’t just defend the constitution but who would elevate Christian standards and beliefs in the public arena. America was a Christian nation founded by Christians who believed that the United States would be strongest if we believed that we were a nation specially blessed by God to be a shining “city on a hill” for the rest of the world to see.
But life experience opened my eyes to another way to view the role of my faith in American politics.
I went to a Christian college surrounded by Christian professors who challenged that very view that I had been raised to believe my entire life. I met people who had very different life experiences than me. I spent three and half months in another country and learned about different political systems and ways to view the world. And I read. I read so much. And I never stopped reading and learning and wanting to know more about the world I was living in.
I was in college when Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky became national news. Wrapped up in my own studies and focused on college gossip, it wasn’t until a couple years ago that I realized just how young Lewinsky was when she found herself the center of tabloids and an impeachment trial. A know-it-all history major, I knew enough to tell my shocked mother that I didn’t believe he deserved to be impeached for lying about a sexual relationship with an intern, but I was still too young and naive to understand the impact that the whole investigation was having on a young woman who was only a couple years older than me. When a group of German high school students asked for my opinion about Clinton and Lewinsky while I was staying at a youth hostel in Munich, I didn’t know how to respond because I couldn’t believe that this was something that interested teenagers across the globe. All I knew was that what happened should not have happened. None of it. Not the affair, not the cover-up, not the investigation, and not the impeachment trial. Was the whole affair immoral and wrong? Yes. Did it present a clear and present danger to our country and all of our citizens? I believe that history has taught us that the answer is a resounding “no.”
And the irony of the whole situation was not lost on me. The “moral” men leading the charge against Bill Clinton were also guilty of sexual immorality. It just wasn’t impacting their political careers. In fact their supporters, who were critical of the sexual dalliances of political rivals, demonstrated a troubling ability to look past the actions of those who were in a position to further the growing political goals of a increasingly powerful and politically motivated religious right.
As a Christian who believes that the intertwining of faith and politics makes for a dangerously destructive agenda, I found myself being pushed away from conservatism and pulled towards moderation. Somewhere along the journey from high school to adulthood, I finally came to see that when the political lines are drawn around a battle for moral victory, everyone loses.
I cringe as I look at the American that my children are growing up in. America isn’t God, but it certainly feels like that is the message that I get from people who cling to socially conservative ideology all while ignoring the complete abandonment of politically conservative ideals by those running right-wing politics in America.
Our country is not infallible. America has done many great things, but her citizens have also been guilty of a great many crimes against humanity. I love my country, but I believe that loving my country doesn’t mean that I turn a blind eye to the crimes it has committed. It means I demand better of it and work to make it better for the future, in any way that I can. When we see ourselves as culture warriors defending our position of power in politics, our vision narrows to block out everyone else who may be negatively impacted by the battle. God is greater than our earthly politics and we are universally spiritually broken. Am I asking too much to want my fellow Christian Americans to acknowledge that?
I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know that when we are willing to turn a blind eye to injustice and abandonment of ethics in exchange for legal enforcement of a specific religious ideology, we become like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day who were looking for a political messiah, not a spiritual one, and it’s our souls that are in need of saving.
We are a country of many faiths, cultures, and experiences. Despite what I was taught for most of my childhood, we always have been. True love of country means demanding that our leaders do what is in the best interest of all American citizens. It means putting our principles first. And it means admitting when we have been wrong and working to remedy it.
Because in the end, it is pride that will make us fall.