Recently, as I've decided to engage more in political discussions and be transparent about my views, I've had different people ask about how I've come to hold them. I live in Texas in a somewhat conservative community called Sugar Land, TX. I'm an involved member of a conservative church in the conservative Church of Christ denomination (Yeah yeah, it's "non-denominational"). And I'm what's probably considered a four-letter word in these parts. A Liberal, gasp. While the surrounding area isn't exactly ruby red, I would say I'm quite firmly in the minority of political thought in most of my circles of friends and acquaintances. Even compared to those that are more moderate or liberal, I'd venture to say I'm a bit to the left of them as well. But overall, it's something of a novelty—a liberal in a conservative niche in Texas. I think this mindset from the conservative side is more or less captured in the misattributed Winston Churchill quote:
If a man is not a liberal by the time he is 20, he has no heart. If he is not a conservative by the time he is 40, he has no brain. And if he's a liberal in Texas, get the hell out.
Okay, I added that last part. But I chuckle at this quote as it rings a little ironic with my experience. As I'll get in to, my political views were not forged in the fire of critical thought when I came of voting age and in my early twenties. Like many beliefs, I adopted those of my upbringing and just assumed they were right. I want to give a little glimpse into my journey of growing up in a conservative household, living in conservative communities, and making the choice—through a significant amount of discussion, study, and introspection—to walk away from the expected norm.
I grew up in a pretty conservative Christian family. From my earliest memories, being in the church has always just been second nature to me. My dad was a preacher for many years. While I was in early elementary school, we spent about a year and a half as missionaries in Israel. I still have vivid memories of living close to the Sea of Galilee in Tiberius, exploring Jerusalem and innocently plucking prayers from the Western Wall, taking the cable car up to Masada and imagining the Roman troops building the ramp of stones, floating in the Dead Sea, walking on the Mount of Olives and so much more. One of my earliest political memories was actually seeing a Bush yard sign for the '92 election at a camp associated with the Southern Baptist Convention while in Israel. I remember seeing some clips about the Clinton impeachment while in middle school, but I don't recall my parents ever bringing it up or seeing it on the news at home. They weren't really overtly political and I don't recall them ever really talking about politics at all during my childhood. By extension, and the fact that I was just a kid doing kid things, I didn't ever really think about politics in any way. The closest political thought I can think of while in high school was being vaguely bothered by one of my classmates disagreeing with the Iraq War. I didn't really know why other than it wasn't really a conservative position to take.
While I wasn't raised in a particularly political family, my world view was definitely shaped and formed through a fairly conservative, Evangelical lens. It was a central part of each and every day. We prayed at every meal, the local Christian radio station was almost always playing in the car, there wasn't ever a week we missed church, we listened to James Dobson and Focus on the Family tapes occasionally for family time, jammed out to DC Talk, loved reading the Left Behind series and casual eschatology talks were no big deal. When I was four or five, before we had moved to Israel, I remember kneeling by my bed one night and saying the believer's prayer asking Jesus for forgiveness and to come into my heart. So I don't have some cool conversion story or testimony; I basically don't know life without being a believer. It's been an ingrained part of my life for almost three decades.
By most measurements, my upbringing and childhood were pretty great. I have so many fond memories and so few negative ones. My parents were very loving and their faith was a genuine one that did not come across as hypocritical. It guided their every decision and was central to their (our) way of life. It may be because I was the youngest of four, but I did not have a particularly strict childhood. Yeah, I remember being told no a couple of times when I asked to go to rated R movies in junior high, but all in all I felt like I had a pretty great experience. Especially once I got to high school, I felt like my parents trusted me and we had a pretty fluid concept of things like curfew. I never really took advantage of their trust and was pretty straight edge.
Now back to politics. My first election I participated in was during my freshman year of college in 2004. My parents had just recently sent me off to Abilene Christian University and my mom ensured that I was registered to vote and directed me to cast my vote for Bush/Cheney. I didn't think twice about it. I most certainly didn't watch a single debate, read any articles, policy papers, etc. But of course I was going to vote Republican! That following summer at an internship, I remember seeing CNN on a television at work and thinking to myself, ugh, they need to turn that liberal trash off. It was truly an emotional, knee-jerk reaction. But hey, how hipster of me calling out #FakeNews over 10 years before that became a thing (it's not fake news). If questioned about that reaction, I have no idea what I would have responded with. I imagine it was just this visceral, nebulous political ideology picked up from a conservative, Evangelical environment where derogatory things were occasionally said about anything that ran counter to that belief system. In other words, it was just the right position to take. Duh.
It wasn’t until my junior year at ACU that I had an experience that caused me to truly question some underlying assumptions with my world view. It was as simple as taking a class called Philosophy of Religion and Science where I had a couple of professors who I greatly respected present some ideas as being valid that my sheltered, conservative self had labeled as “liberal” and therefore wrong. Keep in mind, up until this point I had been raised to think things like the earth was 6,000 years old, evolution was a lie from Satan, the Genesis flood was global and Noah built a big *** boat exactly as described, Christians voted Republican, the truth was black and white and conveniently that truth coincided with what I was taught throughout my childhood. In the past, I had of course come across some views that were counter to my beliefs, however few and far between, but I quickly and summarily dismissed them as wrong without much of a thought. I think the fact that these “heretical” ideas were coming from authority figures—ones I had assumed would hold confirming beliefs to my own—is what gave me pause and made them have such an impact. It was this liberating feeling as if I was for the first time given permission to question what I had always known.
Now, come my senior year in the fall of 2007, the 2008 political cycle was starting to get in full swing. At the time, I frequented a site called Digg that was basically a news aggregator where more popular stories would get voted to the top. This was the first time I had actively started to take an interest in politics. And with the seed being planted, I started to question certain things about the Republican platform. My first dissent was with the Iraq war and so I naturally got on the Ron Paul bandwagon. I was an unabashed true believer. His message of small government, non-intervention and individualist libertarianism was quite attractive as I was able to maintain my conservative credentials while having focused objections with the GOP. Being a rational, fact-based person, I certainly wasn't about to jump on the bleeding-heart, emotion-based platform that was the Democratic party! I held to the very narrow view that almost every present day action by Congress was outside the scope of their constitutionally delegated duties as explicitly enumerated in Article I, Section 8. Didn't explicitly or formally declare war in Iraq? Unconstitutional. Social Security? Unconstitutional. Medicare and Medicaid? Unconstitutional. Department of Education, Energy, CDC, FDA, War on Drugs, etc? All of it unconstitutional. I mean, do you see any of those items in the enumerated powers in A1S8?! (/sarcasm). Basically, I wanted a Federal government small enough to drown in the bath tub.
And boy was I an annoying fanatic. I told everyone I knew about Ron Paul and how awesome I thought he was. I would basically badger anyone voting for the "rigged two-party system" and couldn't understand why on earth anyone would want to prop up that sham! Every single debate, I would nod emphatically as Paul would give his typical answers about auditing the fed, preemptive wars and entangling alliances, cutting $1 trillion of spending in his first year, etc, and wonder why everyone wasn't immediately convinced by his constant mic drops. Primary election after primary election, I would get so disappointed that he'd get such low results at the polls. Don't get me wrong, some of his underlying message is great—promoting civil liberties, being against a police state, ending the War on Drugs, etc. But when you have an extremely narrow, cherry-picked view of what you think the founders' views were (how convenient that he completely disagrees with Alexander Hamilton, the single most influential founder in bringing about the ratification of the constitution), combined with a crazy uncle vibe, it's not surprising that the average person was put off by him. Looking back, it's hard for me not to be embarrassed by my support for him—not necessarily because of ideology, as I understand the appeal to libertarianism, but more so because he was such a goofy spokesperson for that flavor of libertarianism.
At any rate, I graduated in the spring of 2008 at a pretty insane time for our country. Really, I was extremely fortunate. I had a job lined up right after graduation at a Fortune 500 energy company before everything truly hit the fan. People love to rag on Millennials, but for those my age where the timing of finding a job just didn't line up or those younger than me, they got dealt a massively crappy hand. However, at the time I was clueless about the true scope and magnitude of the global economic crash. I remember watching Congress vote on the bank bailouts in the kitchen at work and when they voted "Yea" on TARP I thought to myself, "So this is how liberty dies...with thunderous applause." Yes, I freaking quoted Revenge of the Sith. I can't help but facepalm at my 22-year-old, melodramatic, libertarian self. I held the belief that this was a problem that the free market should take care of. The banks over-extended and issued loans that were too risky? Well, they should take responsibility and be allowed to fail to be taught a lesson. Otherwise, how on earth could we avoid such a situation again (hint: something that rhymes with Grass-Seagull)? I was barely a year into actually dipping my foot into the political pool, so it's understandable that I didn't have even the slightest grasp of global financial markets, monetary systems, fiscal policy, etc.
Moving on, during the healthcare debate in 2009 and 2010, I remember vehemently arguing with liberal friends and on political forums that healthcare was not a right, it was up to the free market to provide a better healthcare system, and the Federal government had no constitutional power to dictate it. After all, a natural right is something you have despite any outside influence. It's a natural, passive state. From the get go, you have the right to liberty and free speech. No one gives you those things and they can't take away those rights; they can only be infringed (I'll get into the absurdity of this in a later post). So, how can someone have the right to healthcare? At the end of the day, healthcare is dependent on someone else's services. If I'm on an island all by myself, I have the right to liberty. It's the default state of being; I'm free by nature of being bestowed such a right by our Creator. How can I have the right to healthcare since no one would be there to provide those services to me? In my conservative mind, I felt like it was infringing on the autonomy of healthcare providers to force them to provide healthcare to people. This classic view of "Natural Rights" was what framed many of my arguments on issues. If something was not a "natural right" and the constitution didn't explicitly enumerate a power, then it was not any of the federal government's business getting involved and encroaching on the autonomy and self-determination of individuals. Leave it up to the states!
I more or less held on to this conservative world view through the 2012 elections and a little into the 2014 cycle. I generally voted libertarian in local and congressional elections, but in 2012, to my everlasting regret and shame, I supported Ted Cruz in the primary, primary runoff and general election. I thought he swept the floor with Dewhurst any time they would discuss the issues. He was able to masterfully articulate the case for small government better than someone like Ron Paul ever could. As a particularly logic-driven person, I was partial to the type of intellectualism that Cruz portrayed. Admittedly, I think Ted Cruz is one of the smartest members of Congress and on top of that he's able to express his arguments in a clear and precise manner. The guy is an adept rhetorician and polemicist. However, the 2012 version of Jon didn't quite understand, nor particularly care about, the extent to which Cruz was personally a repugnant character. Additionally, I was too biased towards his ideology at the time to see through some of the more nuanced ways he would skew facts to make his case. It was not until I started my shift towards the left that I was able to shed some of the blinders that kept me from seeing through much of his...bovine excrement.
Now, there are certain events that occur in people's lives that have a tremendous impact on the way they view the world, view themselves and view other people. As mentioned earlier, one such event was the Philosophy of Religion and Science class I took while at ACU. Another event that was quite a bit more influential happened towards the end of 2012 and I believe it was likely the impetus responsible for the near complete reshaping of my entire political world view. This was the birth of my first born—my beautiful daughter Heidi. To this day, I can vividly remember the immense and nearly overwhelming wave of emotion that washed over me as I heard the sound of her first cry in this world. It was as if some deep-rooted, innate switch got flipped inside of me and all of a sudden I could feel myself physically change into something with greater meaning. A protector, a provider, a teacher, a cheerleader, a counselor, and so much more. A Father. I have to be honest, as someone who tends to consider himself somewhat of a stoic, I was shook. I am certain I didn't know it at the time, but this started the process of chipping away at the foundation of pronounced individualism on which the rest of my political views were built. It wouldn't be until a few years later that I finally started embracing the inevitable destination of this new path I was on, but there is no mistake that I was starting to take my first steps down the road that forked to the left.
As part of this series, I want to expand on this shift in ideology on a case by case basis for several of the issues that most people find important. This will not be an exhaustive review of all issues that we typically face in state and national politics, but I'll cover the topics that I have a particular interest in. I'll start with what my original conservative stance was on each one and then walk through how I crossed the aisle and took a comfortable seat on the other side of just about every one of them. It wasn't an abrupt switch and I most certainly didn't make it an overt one when it came to talking politics with family and friends. I always donned the Devil's Advocate hat to provide me cover to maintain my conservative credentials.
You see, when living in Texas and growing up in a particularly conservative Evangelical environment, deviating from that conservative vantage point can be quite intimidating. It's not abnormal to hear things repeated like "Liberalism is a mental disorder", "Liberals hate Christianity", "Liberals are destroying [this country, family values, Christmas, morality]", "Liberals do not argue with facts so they use emotion", "Liberalism is evil", etc. We're talking hostile territory here. As my views changed, it was obvious that on a paper divided into a "Conservative" column and a "Liberal" column, I was starting to land firmly in the "Liberal" column. But why on earth would I want to take up that mantle and be associated with all of those negative and terrible things? I certainly didn't think I was wrong in the head. I still loved my faith and my brothers and sisters in Christ. I definitely thought my positions actually made this country better, supported family values and were quite moral. I freaking love Christmas. And you better believe that every one of my positions towed behind them a tractor trailer worth of facts to support them. So, slowly and a bit timidly, I started to let the mask slip. As I became more sure in positions, I gathered the courage to voice the opinions that went against the current of my conservative surroundings. Some of those core issues which I'll cover are:
- Health Care
- Same-sex marriage
- Gun policy
- Social Programs, Economy, Taxes
As you can see, some pretty light-weight topics. I doubt any of these posts will persuade anyone to all of a sudden shed their conservative coats and fully embrace my position, but I do want to give my perspective and experience of my gradual change. I feel like I can empathize with those of you on the conservative side of the aisle and see where you are coming from as I held a genuine belief for those same ideals. Because of that, I hope I can be a bridge to help you get a true and honest perspective of why someone would choose the liberal side of the arguments. In so many cases in our political atmosphere today, we are too willing to prop up caricatures—or even a downright false representations—of our political "opponents" and then we attack those straw men and claim victory when they easily fall to our superior positions. But that gets us no where and just deepens the divide as we form these false notions of what we are disagreeing with. Overcoming that starts with a willingness to hear out the other side in good faith with an honest mindset that their views are valid.
For several months after Heidi was born, I would drop her off at a dear friend's house until my wife Laura finished out her final year as an elementary school teacher. At the time, this friend and I were on opposite ends of the political spectrum. Hardcore Conservative Libertarian versus Hardcore Bleeding-Heart Liberal. I do not think there was a single issue we saw eye to eye on. But just about every morning she would make us coffee and we would hear each other out with love and respect. I want to be able to have that interaction with others and at the same time encourage those who may be going through the same intimidating experience that I went through. Often times, when we stop to truly listen to each other, we realize that we want the same goal and our disagreements lie in the details on how we go about achieving those goals. For those conservatives in my life and those who may be stepping away from conservatism, I hope to make a solid case for a conclusion that took me quite a while to accept:
Liberal is not a dirty word.