In 2006, I read a book by Nancy French called “A Red State of Mind.” It was a light, fun read, chronicling her experiences as a conservative Southern Belle transplanted by life events to three of America’s most overwhelmingly liberal enclaves – Philadelphia, New York City, and Ithaca, NY. For the most part, it was filled with hilarious anecdotes about overly aggressive breastfeeding counselors, crazy street activists, and “indigo children.” But the chapter titled “Politics” touched on something much darker – the growing social ostracism that comes with identifying as conservative.
During her time in Philadelphia, French wrote a weekly column for the liberal City Paper in which she represented the sole conservative point of view for the publication. She got stacks and stacks of hate mail, which the paper dutifully printed in the letters section. But in her personal life, she kept her views secret, out of fear that her friends would reject her if they knew what she really believed.
“While I would argue with random liberals on the street, I always kept my conservatism close to my chest when it came to relationships,” French wrote. “Being a Republican was a deal breaker; we all knew that … I liked to think of my GOP bent as my alter ego, the smart, conservative superhero itching to burst forth any second to dispel the convoluted beliefs of my new blue state acquaintances.”
But she couldn’t keep the secret for long – her friends soon found out about the column and confronted her, asking her in hushed tones if she really was (insert dramatic pause here) Republican. When she admitted that she was, one friend looked at her dejectedly and said, “But you seem so reasonable.”
Later, after the publication of a column about which French recalled she’d “done the unpardonable – suggested materials that promote what I perceived to be the ‘gay agenda’ shouldn’t be taught in a public school kindergarten class” – even her closest friends finally turned on her. At their longstanding weekly brunch in French’s best friend’s home, they accosted her as soon as she walked in the door.
“I heard about your article,” her friend said without preface. “Why are you so prejudiced against gays anyway?”
“We’d talked about gay rights many times before, but the gleam of contempt in her eye was new,” French recalled. After a lengthy debate over coffee, muffins and cantaloupe, French wrote, “it eventually came down to this. [My friend] looked at me and said, ‘Your beliefs are so dangerously obsolete, they should be silenced.’”
“You’re forgetting the small detail that conservatives have constitutional rights,” French shot back.
“The constitution,” her friend said coldly, “should be amended.”
Wrote French, “She ended the conversation and our friendship by saying she didn’t want to discuss this further because my status as a Christian meant I lacked the mental skills to have an intelligent debate. Her last words spoken to me were ‘You only believe in faith … not logic.’”
‘You? A Republican?’
When I first read French’s book, I was living in a Northern Virginia suburb of D.C. that was transitioning from red to blue – much like the entire nation now, it was in its ‘purple’ phase. I had been working in Republican politics since 1998.
People joke that you can tell someone is from Northern Virginia if the first question they ask after learning your name is, “So what do you do?” (It’s not a joke, though. It really is the first thing people ask.) Up until the 2004 elections, I had no problem answering the question honestly. “I work for a conservative lobbying group,” I’d say, and people would just nod and go about their business. After all, D.C. is the seat of politics in this nation; it’s only natural that there would be operatives from both parties at any random social event in the area.
After 2004, however, my answer started changing. Like French, I felt I had to hide. I became more vague, more non-committal. “Oh, I work in lobbying,” I’d say. Or even just a one-word answer, “Politics,” delivered with an apologetic shrug.
There were a few reasons for that. One was the acrimony of that year’s election – Bush vs. Kerry was a nasty battle that ended with angry liberals openly calling for Bush’s assassination. At the same time, our previously politically well-balanced community was becoming increasingly left-leaning, as scores of aforementioned angry liberals fled D.C. and moved to our town in search of better schools and slightly less ludicrous housing prices. It no longer felt safe to admit what I did for a living, to say nothing of my personal views – the reactions, I feared, would be too vicious.
Normally, that wouldn’t have bothered me. I’d never been one to shy away from an argument, which is probably why I ended up in politics in the first place. But now there was more at stake than just my personal reputation – I’d recently given birth to my first child, and all of a sudden my peers were no longer mainly other political types, but my fellow suburban moms.
Gymboree, playdates, parenting classes … they all felt like minefields to me. One thing I’ve noticed about liberals is that they tend to assume everyone shares their views, so I’d be sitting there on the carpet of someone’s home, drinking coffee and watching our babies crawl around together while the other moms would openly and vigorously bash everything I believed in. These were women I considered (and still consider) friends – but I knew that for some of them, the moment they discovered I opposed legalized abortion, same-sex “marriage,” or handing out birth control to high school kids, I’d be dropped in an instant. (I was later proven right with the advent of Facebook. During the 2008 elections, when I posted something mildly critical of Barack Obama, several women I’d known for years, whose children had grown up with mine, immediately unfriended me. We’ve never spoken since.)
So, I find myself living a double life. By day, I spend my time doing everything I can to spread the truth and promote the culture of life, which means I’m immersed in politics all day long – particularly the social issues that can be like kryptonite to friendships, and even careers. But when I’m off the clock, say, visiting my kids’ school, attending a party with neighborhood friends, or just messing around on Facebook, I keep my mouth shut. Some would call it “hiding your light under a bushel.” I call it, “making sure my kids aren’t pariahs.”
I have a dear Catholic friend whose children attend public school in an extremely liberal neighborhood. At a PTA meeting, the conversation inevitably turned to an Orwellian-style “two-minute-hate” aimed at Republicans. Two minutes soon stretched into ten, and finally, my friend couldn’t take it anymore.
“You guys,” she interrupted meekly, “I sort of consider myself a Republican.”
The other moms’ eyes became huge and saucer-like. A few jaws actually dropped.
“You? A Republican?” one of them said, incredulous. “But your son seems like such a nice boy!” (When my friend recounted the story later, I recommended she buy French’s book.)
This is what we’re dealing with, people. It’s gotten to the point where politics and faith in this country are so polarized that if someone finds out you voted for Romney, your kids might end up bullied on the playground. My own kids go to a private school with a healthy diversity of worldviews, and even there, a little girl taunted one of my sons and his friend the day after the 2012 elections, gloating that Obama had won. They were in third grade.
The 21st century closet
You know, homosexuals talk a lot about coming out of the “closet.” But in the 21st century, the closet is just for show – D-list celebrities and mediocre athletes can get a huge career boost simply by “coming out.”
No, the real 21st century closet is the one that traps millions of Christians, Muslims, devout Jews and other religious believers into hiding our beliefs – or worse, watering them down to better fit the culture. The costs of coming out can be devastating – not just socially, but economically: CEOs have lost their companies, writers have been blacklisted, small business owners have faced campaigns of intimidation to drive them out of town.
It’s easy to say to people, “Pick up your cross.” After all, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:10-12) Unfortunately, the verse doesn’t say “Blessed are the children who are friendless and hungry, because Daddy lost his job for saying something unpopular.”
Some of you will probably accuse me of being a coward in the comment box, and that’s okay; maybe I am. At the same time, though, I’m not so sure that boldly advertising my views in my private life is such a great idea, if I actually want anyone to listen. Lately, I’ve observed that those who speak aggressively and frequently about controversial moral issues quickly find themselves in an echo chamber, having alienated the very people they need to reach in order to change anything. It happens in real life, and it happens even more so online – where silencing a dissenting opinion takes only the push of a button.
In contrast, my “double life” puts me in constant social contact with people who hold very different views than I do, and sometimes that presents opportunities. By blending in and choosing my battles wisely, I find that people are far more willing to listen to what I have to say when I do choose to speak up. I know St. Francis didn’t really say “At all times, preach the gospel; when necessary, use words,” but when confronted with people I know would reject me and my arguments instantly if I openly advertised everything I believe, I find the lead-by-example approach to be most effective.
Look, no one likes an unsolicited opinion. So that’s why I choose not to blow my precious social capital on armchair evangelism. I’ll work at LifeSiteNews, pray in front of abortion mills, give money to a mother in need, or counsel a friend against abortion. I’ll push Congress to pass laws to protect the unborn, and warn people about the health risks associated with hormonal contraception. I’ll do concrete things to help advance the culture of life. But I’m not going to post anti-abortion rants on Facebook, or bring up the homosexual agenda at parties, because in my experience, it doesn’t work. You end up stuck in the echo chamber, preaching to the choir.
Ultimately, by not actively seeking out controversy, I’ve found that when it does find me, I have more leeway to speak and be heard. Because I haven’t given people some flimsy excuse to pigeonhole me as a “conservative” or a “religious extremist,” those who disagree with what I say are less able to simply write me off as one of “those” people who can safely be ignored. They’re more likely to focus on my words, not my identity.
Looking at our current culture, I feel as if believers are increasingly being forced to choose between the closet and the echo chamber. The closet may be stifling, but the echo chamber is isolating. Both are traps in their own way. Both have their costs and benefits. Only you can decide which approach to take … or blaze your own trail away from the traps.*
(*If you figure out how to do that, please tell me.)