I Was a Teenage Republican

I Was a Teenage Republican

This Tuesday I was proud to be among the majority of Minnesotans who re-elected Barack Obama and voted to defeat a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. I had a hard time working up the righteous anger many liberals felt towards those who voted otherwise, though—after all, I used to be on that side of the aisle. Fortunately I came around before I reached voting age, but it’s true: I was a teenage Republican.

I wasn’t raised to be conservative—quite the opposite, in fact. My paternal grandfather was a Democratic activist who managed one of Eugene McCarthy’s Congressional campaigns and headed the Minnesota delegation to the Democratic National Convention that nominated John F. Kennedy. When I told my dad that I’d voted for George H.W. Bush over Bill Clinton in my high school’s 1992 straw poll, Dad hung his head and declared that he’d failed as a father.

What had turned me into a Republican was my high school: St. Agnes, a conservative Catholic school in St. Paul. I chose St. Agnes because it was off the beaten path. The mainstream Catholic school in my neighborhood seemed like a teeming hive of bullies, the all-boys military Catholic school was out for obvious reasons, and the local public school looked like a reinforced-concrete airport terminal, so I chose the funky little inner-city school with a mix of conservative Catholics, neighborhood kids (including many black Baptists and a few Hmong), and indifferent mainstreamers like me.

Though there was more economic and racial diversity in the St. Agnes student body than there would have been at either of the other Catholic schools I’d considered, the school administration took a political hard-right line that any kid who was even nominally Catholic tended to drift toward. I never went so far as to picket the local Planned Parenthood (a first-date activity for some of my peers), but eventually I became convinced that there was a significant chance I would in fact go to hell if I voted Democratic, and that the Republicans had sounder policy ideas anyway.

St. Agnes appealed to my logical side with an argument based on absolutes: if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything. Liberals, in the St. Agnes worldview, were lazy and inconsistent people who bent the rules to suit their selfish whims whenever they felt like it. That’s no way to live your life, I was convinced. Without absolutes, without an immutable structure of beliefs, how could anything have any meaning at all?

The most immutable of those beliefs, of course, was the belief in the absolute immorality of abortion, which is regarded among conservative Catholics as being equivalent to murder. This was presented to me as the most horrific evidence of human depravity: we lived in a country where it was perfectly legal to tear innocent babies limb from limb just because they had the misfortune of not having exited the womb yet. I was shown photos of buckets full of bloody fetuses, often presented next to photos of stacked corpses from the Holocaust. It was breathtakingly hypocritical, I was taught, to condemn Hitler while voting for candidates who supported legal abortion.

That was the bottom line. Democrats’ support of abortion rights made them absolutely insupportable as candidates and tainted all their other views by association. Economic policy? That was complicated, and hardly as urgent an issue. Foreign policy? All you needed to know was that Bush wanted to make abortion illegal around the world, and Clinton didn’t. Gay rights were not a major talking point for either party in the early 90s, but if they had been, St. Agnes would have laughed them off. You want to let two penises marry each other, Democrats? Really? Typical, just typical.

Something about that absolutism appealed to me, even in a family where I was asked each night at dinner what I’d learned in religion class, just so my dad and aunt could tell me how wrong it was. My relatives would argue that more than one issue mattered in the world, but I felt confident that when that one issue was ripping babies’ heads off, I was on the side of the angels. Anyway, I still felt liberal at school. When one of my friends confided to me that he didn’t think the interracial relationships among kids at our school were appropriate, I said that he shouldn’t believe everything his parents told him and I walked away feeling like Martin Luther King marching out of Selma.

I remained a believer—and a Republican—until I went to college. After a couple of months in Boston, I started to see St. Agnes for the insular, fearful world it was. Having been taught at St. Agnes that the Catholic faith was an all-or-nothing proposition, I quite suddenly switched from all to nothing, where I’ve remained ever since. Years later, I learned that St. Agnes had tragically been among the many Catholic communities where reverence for the cloth had blinded parishioners to child abuse happening under their own roof.

Those who vote to define marriage as being between a man and a woman, and who vote to restrict abortion rights, and who favor conservative positions on other “social issues”—to use the pundits’ term—do so for their own reasons, and I can’t know what all those reasons are. I suspect, though, that many conservatives nurture the belief I once did: that it’s possible and appropriate to impose absolute judgments on people whose lives you don’t know or understand.

At St. Agnes we weren’t taught to be curious about those who believed differently than we did: they were wrong, and that was that. In retrospect, it seems to me that the religious, racial, and economic diversity of the St. Agnes student body was one of the things that made the school’s conservatism so convincing: not all the students were Catholic, but many of their families were just as conservative as the Catholics, and if not, they weren’t about to speak up and rock the boat—so, in a crucial sense, the school’s air of inclusiveness was an illusion.

My family was liberal, but we were in our own bubble. Virtually all our friends were white, middle-class, and living in traditional nuclear families. I had a dim awareness that my aunt had some gay friends, but they lived in Minneapolis, which though just across the river might as well have been San Francisco as far as my experience went. If any person I knew was in a position to talk candidly and from personal experience about the complexities of the abortion issue, she or he chose not to. Thus, it was easy for me to carry on maintaining absolute beliefs about how other people’s lives—lives I had little to no experience with—were absolutely right or absolutely wrong.

In the current post-election analysis, it’s been widely observed that one reason the Vote No organizers were able to change so many minds—making Minnesota the first state ever to reject an anti-gay-marriage amendment by popular vote—is that they came to realize the value of conversations. Straight people who know gay people—and who know that they know gay people—are much more likely to be in favor of gay marriage, or to come around to supporting it after an open and honest conversation.

With respect to abortion, sociologists have demonstrated that pro-life activism tends to spread not through spiritual epiphanies but through social networks: people get talked into it, like I did. They get pulled into circles where they’re surrounded by like-minded people, and where they can hold their beliefs impervious to what Karl Rove might call “the reality-based community.”

I’m now a liberal, but it’s not because I’ve been brainwashed into being one. My family certainly gave that their best effort, and it didn’t work. It would even be giving St. Agnes too much credit to say I was brainwashed there: they just made what at the time seemed to me to be a compelling argument, and my frontiers were so limited that I was in no position to refute it. Was abortion wrong? Was homosexuality evil? Were Democrats insupportable? It basically came down to what my parents said versus what the kids at school said, and like any good American teenager, I sided with the kids at school.

Eventually I was exposed to greater diversity, and my views changed—meaningfully, and permanently. Bipartisan agreement is hard to come by in the United States right now, but I wonder whether there’s any room for bipartisan agreement that kids—and adults, too—should be exposed to diversity early and often. Racial diversity and religious diversity, yes, but also geographic diversity and economic diversity and diversity of family structure. That seems like a pretty sound American value to me.

Shortly after I graduated from high school, there was a shake-up at St. Agnes and the hard-liners won: all the teachers except the religion teacher were dismissed on the grounds that they didn’t support the school’s administration as fully as they ought, and the already-conservative faculty was replaced with a faculty of Catholic fundamentalist true believers—people with views akin to those of Mel Gibson, Catholics so conservative that they think Vatican II was a mistake. The school’s enrollment plummeted as moderate and non-Catholic students fled; only a last-minute cash infusion from a deep-pocketed donor kept the school’s doors open. The school is still open, and I still receive alumni newsletters proudly informing me that the school’s tradition of “godly” education continues apace.

Late one afternoon, a few years ago, I went back to my alma mater and wandered through the empty corridors. Pictures of the Pope hung all over, like Chairman Mao in China during the Cultural Revolution. The St. Agnes Catholics, of course, would regard a Communist leader as a false idol, the worship of which is forbidden by the third commandment. The Catholic Bible contains another suggestion, though, one I don’t remember hearing very often during my days as a teenage Republican: “Judge not, that you may not be judged.”

Jay Gabler

Photo by Andrew Aliferis (Creative Commons)