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Green Pastures

A couple months back, I sat in an Iowa pasture with 14,000 others to see Bill and Hillary.

Don’t read too much into that. It is more about me being a sucker for spectacle and possible history-in-the-making, than a Clintonista. Bill was his usual empathetic and charming self. Hillary less so.

The day’s most moving moment came from the host of the event, retiring Iowa senator Tom Harkin. In a public swansong of sorts, he told about the cherished memento that hangs on his office wall in Washington. It is a postcard his father received from President Franklin Roosevelt inviting him to come to work for the Works Progress Administration. Harkin shared how his family, which until then hadn’t been particularly promising or political, became that day staunch Democrats—so much so that their son would become a United States Senator—all because Franklin Roosevelt cared for them.

Looking at the people assembled in the pasture, I surmised that many would have told similar stories. FDR’s New Deal locked in generations of future Democrats.

Impressed by Harkin’s story, I became intrigued by the way our political identities are formed by our stories. I began to listen more intently for similar anecdotes and revealing personal glimpses that account for a person’s politics. Tip O’Neill, I believe it was, who said, “All politics is local.” Perhaps even more accurately, all politics is personal. We may jabber about “studying positions” and “agreeing on the issues,” when actually our politics is much more personal, shaped by our stories.

Three good friends, all male, all about ten years older than me, all strong Republicans. In the span of only a few weeks, while trying to listen more intentionally, I heard each of them share very personally about the late 1970’s. They were young men. Each was trying to start a business, had young families, and the requisite anxiety that goes with all that. Inflation was scorching. Interest rates were crushing. They were afraid. They felt helpless. No one cared. Jimmy Carter was, to them, inept and impotent.

On to the stage rode Ronald Reagan—dashing, able, and on their side. Going Republican, supporting Reagan, was for one of my friends a form of rebellion, self-differentiation from his New Deal Democrat dad. For me, ten years their junior, a wise-fool collegian at the time, Reagan seemed sleazy and doddering, a tool of the powers-that-be. But to this day, my friends’ conversations are laced with phrases like “incentivize” and “entrepreneurial initiative.” Their stories and experiences explain why they are unfailing Republicans.

I try to piece together my parents’ stories. Neither was raised in a particularly political home. Being Republican was as certain as gravity and two worship services on Sunday. What changed? I believe it was the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King. My guess is that their first vote for a Democrat was LBJ in 1964. They just couldn’t face Goldwater’s extremism. Moreover, they had no idea that the folk music on their record player was sinking deeply into their young son—especially an album by Judy Collins, full of songs about racial struggles and coal miners’ unions.

Despite Johnson’s blunders in Vietnam, my dad always highlighted LBJ’s progress toward racial equality. Even more, he liked to highlight that Johnson’s collaborator was Senator Everett Dirksen, Illinois Republican and member of the Reformed Church in America.

Once my parents left the Republicans, there was no going back. By the end of her life, my mother was one of Hillary’s biggest backers. If mom were still around, she might have joined me in the pasture, and been more ardent than me.

If our politics is shaped by our stories rather than by studying the issues, it seems likely that our faith and religion are likewise. You’ve probably seen the studies. Today’s young-nones aren’t necessarily put off by stodgy worship or reading Hitchens and Dawkins. Instead it is more likely an experience as teenager, wondering where God was when their mother was dying of cancer or their uncle was abusing them. It is the unexplained dismissal of a favorite youth leader or the pastor who had time for conversations which causes faith to wither or flourish.

On this election day, I invite you to search your memories for milestones in your politics. And rather than debate the issues with others, listen to their stories for hints that explain their politics, and maybe their faith too.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.

One Comment

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    My dad was a strong, old-fashioned Civil-Rights Republican. But in my senior year in High School we hosted a Christian Viet-Nam vet who had become a pacifist. I was so taken that his convictions turned me away from Nixon-Agnew. Then at Calvin, the neo-Calvinism turned me away from both parties in favor of (ahem) pure Christian politics. The reigning Democrats in New Brunswick NJ were horribly corrupt. But the Hungarians of my first parish had been labor activists when younger, even a couple of Wobblies. I finally, at somewhat reluctantly registered as a Democrat.

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