Religion and Politics: A la Carte

The refrigerator door was lined with sleek, opaque black bottles of Freixenet champagne. The bubbly was slightly more expensive than the cheapest brands, and I figured it was the chic choice for a twenty-five-year-old graduate student savoring the first tastes of adulthood. I was renting a fully-furnished, three-bedroom house from two art professors who were on sabbatical. The champagne was for a small gathering I was hosting in honor of my parents, who were visiting from Arkansas. One of my roommates and another close friend had birthdays in October that coincided closely with my parents' anniversary. It seemed the perfect time to invite professors and friends over for a modest celebration that was sure to make Mom and Dad proud.

The plan was flawed in its very conception. Shortly after the party began, my mother's eyes began to well with tears. I had violated a sacred rule: No drinking. My parents live in a county where alcohol isn't sold, and they aren't accustomed to its presence--anywhere.

I'm the child of an ordained Southern Baptist minister. I went to church every Sunday morning, every Sunday night, and every Wednesday night. Our family life revolved around America's largest, and one of its most conservative, Protestant denominations.

And yet my parents voted for John Kerry last fall. Surprised? Confused? Those who know my family only by its outer shell are curious to discover that diehard Southern Baptists can also be staunch Democrats.

Three months have passed since the presidential election, and media pundits are still slicing America cleanly into red-state and blue-state mentalities. The East and West coasts are populated by left-wing nuts, the South and rural Midwest by right-wing zealots. It's as if every voter can be defined by a package of opinions, attitudes, and demographic markers--and as if there are only two packages to choose from. You have to wonder whether there's any room for nuance here. Aren't there some citizens who choose their political and religious issues a la carte? Well, my parents do.

My father's never been a full-time pastor. Over the years, he would take the occasional side job preaching as an interim pastor at small churches around my hometown. But his regular job was teaching social work at Arkansas State University. So does this make him a "conservative Christian" or a "liberal academic?"

Mom and Dad are old-fashioned about money. They shun credit cards, and they paid off their home mortgage early. And yet they have always embraced many of the state and federally funded programs that are the social worker's bread and butter. Are they fiscal conservatives or liberal big-spenders?

Then there are cultural values. My parents are lifelong music lovers whose main performance venue has been church, where Dad would sing solos while Mom accompanied him on the piano. They turned their backs on the secular pop music that oozed from my stereo as a teenager--but they did let me play it. And they had no problem with my going to school dances. So were they strait-laced or permissive?

In my younger years, I found it confusing that my parents didn't agree with their fellow Southern Baptists on all of the conservative "hot-button" issues. But as an adult, I've come to appreciate that their lives reflect a series of thoughtful choices. While Dad hasn't voted for a Republican in some thirty-five years, he still doesn't fit the Democratic stereotype that prevails in the press. I suspect that for many other Americans, too, the crude red and blue labels don't apply.

Which brings me to this issue of the Alumni Bulletin, with its cover story about liberalism in academia (page 28) and a look back at Gambier's exceptionally dramatic Election Day (page 40). Both articles, I think, treat politics with nuance and complexity. Both, moreover, stress the importance of something I had temporarily forgotten when I served and drank champagne in the presence of my parents: the lesson of mutual respect.

The election story shows how much we at Kenyon value community and political freedom. The cover story shows that while we have our differences, we know how to address them without resorting to name-calling or simplistic labels. Both reveal that this College is a place where you respect the beliefs of others even if you don't agree with them.

That's worth a toast--with or without champagne.

Back to Top