What do I believe and why do I believe it? These are questions I think each of us should wrestle with on an ongoing basis throughout our lives. Many of us can say what we believe, but can we also explain the why of our beliefs? If we can only explain what we believe, then we may wind up being swayed easily by differing opinions, or we may find ourselves remaining steadfast when we should be open to considering the beliefs of others.
Recently I have been thinking about the what and why of my beliefs. It isn't always easy to put a finger on the exact reason we hold certain beliefs, but the exercise of examining the roots of the beliefs we hold can be enlightening. For a while now I've wondered how the political views of my childhood seem quite distant from my view of politics today. And so I decided to explore this topic deeper.
I believe that, at least in some senses or others, we are both a product of our nature and our nurture. All of us have been influenced by people or events or other factors in our lives. I am no exception. Yet, at some point in our lives, most of us have to decide for ourselves what we believe, and what we hold dear.
My first memories of politics come from when I was 7 or 8 years old. As a youth I was surrounded by socially conservative Republicans, and their beliefs helped to shape my beliefs early on. Rush Limbaugh was added into the mix when I was around the age of 12, and more foundation for the beliefs I was developing was built upon.
As a high school student, at a politically conservative Christian School, I received partisan instruction. I remember in an election year, when Clinton was running against Bush 41, one of my teachers held an “election” in their class, and 100% of the votes went to Bush. The teacher commented that even though we were young, we were smart in our voting. Four years later, in the spring of 1996, one of my teachers organized a field trip to take students to a Pat Buchannan rally, when Buchannan was seeking the GOP nomination as candidate for President. While this teacher was my favorite teacher in school, it is hard to ignore that their speech was unashamedly partisan in nature. As a side note, those of us in this teacher’s class knew that we could start a lengthy talk by bringing up political issues, and therefore avoid having to study the subject at hand.
One common thread throughout my political upbringing was in relation to the nation of Israel. From home, to church, to Christian High School, to Christian College I attended following high school, the thread was consistent: God is pro-Israel, so we should be too. Therefore, for many people I learned from as a youth, Israel could do no wrong. (We’ll talk about this more later).
One of the phrases I heard often as a youth was something to the effect of “if you aren’t young and liberal you are considered a fool by your peers, and if you aren’t conservative in old age you are just a fool.”
All of the teachings I took in, early on, gelled into a vocal political conservative Republican I became in my early to mid-20’s. When I decided to move to Ohio, to finish my college degree in late 2000, Hillary Clinton had just been elected as the Junior Senator from the state of New York (my home state from 1978 until early 2001). I joked with all I knew that I was leaving N.Y. because she was elected. Looking back, I am not sure where the joking ended and the vitriol for the enemy—namely Democrats in this case—started. Even in recent years, I have heard some of those who helped shape my early political philosophy say that they “hate” such and such candidate (always Democrats), and at least in one case I heard them say they wouldn’t mind if someone took them out.
The Christian high school I attended refused to acknowledge Martin Luther King Jr., and each year on MLK day, the school would be dismissed for a different reason. When I moved to Ohio and started at Cedarville University, for the first time in my life, I heard Martin Luther King Jr. spoken of in a positive light. Up until that point, I had been taught that he was a communist, a trouble maker, a womanizer, and extremely divisive. Then, on MLK day in 2001, Cedarville President Dr. Dixon said something positive about MLK. Actually, he said a lot of glowing things about the man. I was shocked. I had honestly never heard a positive word about King. This encouraged me to look more into the man, and what I saw was profoundly encouraging.
C.S. Lewis once famously said if a young man wants to remain an atheist he cannot be too careful in which books he chooses to read. There is some truth for this in regards to politics as well.
Before Cedarville I had worked for a few years at a factory in New York. The factory was a union shop. I was raised to believe the unions were bad, and that nothing good comes from unions. I paid my monthly dues, but had nothing but negative feelings about the union or unions in general. Then at Cedarville, for a U.S. History class with Dr. Mack, I was required to read “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair. For the first time in my life the value of unions became evident to me. While I still see more downsides to modern union than upsides, I do see that there are times when unions have played positive roles.
Another book that influenced me, also from Dr. Mack’s class, was a book entitled “Opposing Viewpoints in History”. The book included essays and writings by those on differing sides of key moments in U.S. history. Whereas history is usually written by the winners, this book gave insight into the mindset of those who disagreed with events/decisions/outcomes that have played a role in shaping the America we have become. While history books often paint opponents to key moments in our nation’s past with a broad brush, this book provided a more in depth understanding of those that society saw as being wrong. What I began to see was the human side of people and groups that history has dismissed as being on the wrong side of history.
While I was finishing up my bachelor’s degree, I started working for a radio network. I would spend the next five years working in radio. Looking back, I can see how my time in radio played a role in my formation of my current political philosophy. During this time, I began to see more and more the “spin” that those of all political ideologies put on their message. As a youth I was taught that spin was a characteristic of the political left. But it didn’t take me long to see that spin is not a tactic only used on one side of the political spectrum. The saying “facts never lie, but liars use facts” was on public display for all to see. Cases arose where one political party would take a strong stand on a particular issue, and use “facts” to support their position. Then when the other political side would give “facts” that seemed to say just the opposite, my questioning mind was drawn to look deeper into said “facts.” In some cases it became obvious to me that one or both side was twisting the “facts”, or omitting other facts that would be damning to their argument. Or, the “facts” were worded so vaguely that they could mean just about anything. Another problem I observed was that political stances of a party would change depending on who proposed the idea. When a party was in the majority they supported an idea, but then when they became the minority party they would oppose the same idea. I observed this going both ways by both parties. While I am not completely cynical to the point of fully believing the statement, I would say there is more truth in the phrase “how do you know a politician is lying? Their lips are moving” than I previously thought.
After leaving my job in radio in 2007 I moved to Japan to live. Living as a minority, both ethnically and religiously, in a culture much different than the culture I was accustomed to changed me. The town I grew up in was 99% Caucasian—give or take 1%-- and both colleges I had attended were overwhelmingly white. In such environments it was easy to buy into the mindset “if you come to my country you need to learn my language and assimilate into my culture.” I remember visiting a bookstore in Ohio, pre-Japan, and rolling my eyes at the foreign language section. My attitude was in America you should read English. That attitude drastically changed while living in Japan. I vividly remember going to a bookstore in Sendai, and after several months in Japan, the sight of a very small English section at the bookstore was so exciting. I don’t recall if the books were all that interesting to my taste or not. Just the sight of books that I could read the title to was excitement alone. And the grace and kindness the people of Japan showed to an outsider has greatly affected me, and how I view foreigners and those whose culture is different from mine has forever been changed.
After returning from Japan, another belief that had been part of my political upbringing was called into question. The economy crashed a few months after I returned to Ohio, and I was laid off of work. I remember hearing negative thoughts about people who are able bodied who accept government assistance. Among these handouts included things such as unemployment, Medicaid, and food assistance. As the sole provider for my family, I was unable to find work—any work at all—and had to swallow my pride or let my family (which now included a son) suffer. I applied for unemployment, and as a family we signed up for WIC. In the 3 months or so I was collecting unemployment I applied for more than 120 jobs, and only received two calls (and no job offers). I applied everywhere from McDonalds to jobs in radio to banking to grocery stores. I wouldn’t let my pride keep me from applying for jobs, even those that the thought of working filled me with dread. And going to the grocery store and being “one of those people” with the WIC coupons for milk, cheese, cereal, and so forth was another shot at my pride. After all, the political party of my youth instilled in me the need to “pick yourself up by your own bootstraps.” But sometimes in life we cannot and should not insist on doing things on our own that we cannot or should not do on our own. Sometimes we need help, and there should be no shame in admitting it. Being laid off, or being in need of food, should not be stigmatized the way it is by many in our society. Yes, there are those that will abuse programs that are intended to help those in need. But we should not throw out the baby with the proverbial bathwater. And, what my experiences have taught me is to show grace towards those who face tough situations that I have faced. And, maybe even give them a word of encouragement, saying that you’ve been there and understand what they may be going through.
One of the biggest influences on my evolving political philosophy I cannot pinpoint to a specific time or incident. This factor ties in with my faith and study of the Bible. Starting in my mid to late 20’s I began to see some inconsistencies between my political ideology and my understanding of the teachings of the Bible. The more I studied, the more aspects of my political ideology came into question. While some of the aspects that came into question were logical positions to hold, they seemed to be out of step with the teachings of Jesus. My positions on war, the use of force, Christians in the military and police force, nationalism, patriotism, materialism, self-reliance as well as other issues, began to be reshaped in light of my study of the Bible. In some cases the Bible seems to say that my former position was wrong, and on other issues I see that there is room for differing opinions among those seeking the truth. In regards to both, the former and later, I am learning the importance of showing grace towards those I do not agree with, and, if and when possible, seeking to start dialogue on the issues.
My political upbringing held the Second Amendment, and the right to self-defense, in high regard. Yes, I heard passing mention to the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ other teachings on turning the other cheek, and not repaying evil for evil, but at the end of the discussion it always came back to violence, at least when it is provoked by another, is acceptable. I am not anti-gun. I own multiple hand guns. And, I do not wish to see harm come to anyone, especially my family. How I would respond in the face of such a situation I am not sure, since in most cases we won’t know until such a time when we may face such a situation. However, whether or not I would use force to prevent the oft asked intruder question shouldn’t be the focal point. Whether it is right or wrong to attack such a person is a better question. If I use violence to stop evil, and yet my use of force is in violation of the teachings of Jesus, this doesn’t make me a good guy, just possibly the lesser of two evils.
As for war, patriotism and nationalism, my current beliefs are night and day from the beliefs of my youth. I remember cheering emphatically when the U.S. began Operation Desert Shield and later the first Gulf War. I collected the Desert Storm trading cards, and was enamored by the might and power that the U.S. had. Patriotic fervor was evident, both in the nation as a whole, in my church and in my home. America was the last beacon of hope for the world, or so it was said. But as I began to seriously study what the Bible, both Testaments, said about war, and where our allegiances are to belong, most of the beliefs on this topic from my upbringing came into question. Reagan, as well as others before and after him, promoted the idea of power through might. Men look to large armies, superior weaponry, and impressive strength to win. God often asked his people to battle with smaller, sometimes insanely small armies, inferior weaponry, and in humility, and yet He gave the victory. That way, if the people were to boast, they definitely couldn’t boast in themselves, but would have to boast in God.
As far as patriotism and nationalism, as a follower of Jesus, I am told that my citizenship doesn’t lie in the nation I dwell in, but in the Kingdom of God. I am to seek first that kingdom, and remember that I am an ambassador of God’s in this world. When a nation sends out ambassadors, the emissary must remember that even though they reside in another nation, their allegiance must remain with the land from which they were sent. God told those taken into captivity in Babylon that while they lived in exile, they should seek the welfare or good of the land where they lived. But that didn’t take away from the fact that Babylon wasn’t their home. As one living in the U.S., I should seek the good of the land in which God has placed me. However, I must remember that my ultimate allegiances are to be in the kingdom of God, and when the two are at odds, I must obey God.
Going back to the subject of foreigners, and those of different cultures, I already mentioned that for the first quarter century of my life I would have looked down on foreigners, and strongly stated that when outsiders move to “my” country, they need to learn “my” language. Looking back, as I already stated, living in a land where I was the minority, where I didn’t speak the native tongue, played a big role in helping to change my attitude. However, learning what the Bible has to say about how foreigners, outsiders, outcasts are to be treated has also played a big role in changing my attitude. God had a lot to say about those who do not care for the oppressed, strangers, orphans, widows, poor and so forth. This is why Sodom was destroyed, not for homosexual activity as I have heard many pastors say, and Jesus says that how we treat the poor, sick, imprisoned, etc., will play a role in future judgments He hands out. In the end, God shows us time and time again in the Bible that it is the downtrodden, the underdogs, the oppressed whom He chooses, and God says how we treat these as well as all mankind shows how whether or not we love God himself.
The pro-life issue was probably one of the two pivotal points in separation of right and left, conservative and liberal in my political education as a youth. However, as with many issues, there is more at play here than simply pro-life vs. pro-abortion. I have met many people who are anti-abortion, and yet not pro-life. And I have met some who support abortion in some cases, who seem to embody more genuine care for people than those on the opposite side. Ultimately, I believe abortion is wrong, because all human life is made in the image of God, and therefore I do not believe humans should discard any life as being of less value. My pro-life stance leads me to believe that we need to work with women who feel torn over whether to give birth or abort, and seek to help them in all areas of their life. I was surprised when I started doing some digging and I found out that, in spite of the rhetoric, abortion rates are higher when a Republican is in the White House and lower when a Democrat is. If the issue of abortion is the critical issue for some, maybe we need to ask if lowering the number of abortions is the objective, or talking the talk is the objective.
Being pro-life doesn’t simply mean that I oppose abortion, but rather that I am willing to come alongside the mother and help her as she seeks to care for this child that she has given birth to. I also believe that my pro-life position should encourage me to stand for life from conception to natural death. While I believe a case can be made, biblically, for the allowance of the death penalty, I believe there are enough flaws and injustices in the way it is administered that I personally oppose its use.
I stated earlier that one of the strong positions held by many political and religious conservatives in my past has been their unwavering support for the nation of Israel. God chose the children of Israel to be His chosen people, nearly 4 millennia ago, and so it has been said, anyone who stands in the way of Israel is in opposition to God. I believe there are many factors that need to be considered before we can fully understand what is at the heart of the Israel debate. First off, was the promise made by God to all descendants of Abraham, or only to those who followed Abraham’s path of faith? Secondly, are the Israelites today the descendants of Abraham, either by faith or blood, and if not does this make a difference? Thirdly, even for those who support Israel, what should be done when Israel acts in ways that are not ethical, legal, and/or humane? Fourthly, if our support for the nation of Israel becomes a hindrance to the spread of the gospel, which takes priority for us? I believe that all humans are created in the image of God, we are called to love both friends and enemies, and we must keep the good news of Jesus as the main focus.
Justice is a hot topic in some circles today, but it also something the Bible spends a lot of time discussing. Growing up, what often was taught was that the spoken gospel message was the primary mission that followers of Jesus were sent to spread. The gospel is important, yet I do not see the Bible teaching justice and the gospel as being an either/or proposition. I believe we are called to both share the gospel and promote justice. A friend of mine recently asked when someone should know it is time to leave a church. He said it isn’t when the Bible isn’t taught with as much fervor as before, but when evangelism (outreach to those who are not followers of Jesus) and social justice are abandoned. A group or church can teach teach/preach the Bible, but if evangelism and social justice aren’t actively pursued then there is a problem.
Politically speaking, many people have bought into the mindset that people face problems due to their own failures or mistakes. If they can’t pick themselves up by their own bootstraps, they don’t deserve a second chance. While some problems people face are consequences of their own mistakes, others are a result of a lack of justice in our society. For example, the percentage of Caucasians and African-Americans who use drugs is relatively close percentage wise. Studies find that 14 million Caucasians and 2.6 million African-Americans report using drugs – one in 18 among whites and one in 16 among blacks (NAACP Criminal Fact sheet and CIA World Factbook). More than 80% of the over 1.5 million drug arrest in 2014 were for possession only (Drug Policy Alliance). Yet the same report found that African Americans (who make up less than 13% of the U.S. population), and Latinos (who make up roughly 17% of the population) account for 31% and 20% of drug arrest respectively. And, when it comes to those incarcerated for drug violations, blacks and Latinos make up 77%. This is just one example of apparent social injustice in our society. And this doesn't get into education discrepancies between urban and suburban areas, discrimination of job applicants based on their name sounding "foreign," and the list can go on and on. While some who face discrimination will be able to rise above, this does not mean we can ignore that injustices that exist. Just as past generations fought injustices, followers of Jesus should seek justice where injustices exist today.
Bringing up environmental issues is another way to quickly divide a crowd into two or more groups. On the one end of the spectrum you have those who blame all environmental issues on human actions. On the conservative side, most if not all environmental issues that do exist (if any are acknowledged) are unrelated to human actions. I grew up in the later camp. If Rush said it, I believed it, and that settled it for me. Today I find myself somewhere between the extremes. I believe humans are having some impact on the environment, but I do not believe we are totally to blame for all changes. I do believe that as a follower of Jesus I should be a good steward of all that has been entrusted to me. I believe it is wrong to elevate the environment to the level of deity however. If we can change our habits and reduce the number of species going extinct, for example, we will pass along a world with many of God's created creatures for our children and grandchildren to experience. God's creation is amazing, and proper stewardship can go a long way toward sharing the planet for future generations to enjoy.
This may be one of the most difficult confessions for many people I know to take. When it comes to the “science” of Creationism, I do not subscribe. I believe in the Genesis 1-3 account as to the origins of the world, but I do not believe in “Creation science.” Yes, I had Ken Ham as a professor in college, and yet I do not believe that scientifically we can “prove” Creationism. “By faith” I believe that God created the world, and I am OK with that. I do not need the scientific method to “prove” it. And, when it comes down to it, Creationism cannot be duplicated in a lab, and therefore cannot be proven.
My beliefs and "political" positions have drastically changed since I was a young man in Alden, N.Y. As one person said of me recently, "you are a bleeding-heart liberal." Maybe. However, I would rather describe myself as one who is seeking to follow Jesus, and one who wants his following Jesus to play an active role in how he views the world around him. Are my positions perfect? No. This is in part because I am not perfect, and my understanding of the scripture isn’t perfect. Will my positions change over the next 15 years, just as they have over the past 15? I hope so. I don't want to ever reach the point where I am convinced I know it all, and therefore am not willing to learn.
Various factors have played roles in helping me change my views. And, maybe I have swung too far on some positions as I've wrestled with balancing my former positions, my education, and my experiences. When all is said and done, I don't want to hold the political positions I do simply because it gives me a favorable rendering. I want to hold the positions I do because morally, ethically and yes, even as a result of my religious faith, I believe they are the right positions to hold. In the end, if I hold unpopular positions, yet live in accordance with my conscience, I believe I will have done what is right. And, even when I do live in accordance to my conscience, I must show love towards those who do not agree with me. Otherwise, I will be nothing but a clanging cymbal.