In the summer of 2004, my dad had a heart attack. My sister and I flew home to Michigan immediately, and I stayed on to help my parents adjust to their new medication-filled and cheeseburger-free existence. On Sunday morning, I drove down leafy, tree-lined Penniman Avenue to the Baptist church where I spent my childhood. I wanted to worship with the people who had been my second family. Settling down into a cushioned pew, I felt as if I were finally catching my breath. And then I tuned into Pastor Mike’s sermon just in time to hear him declare that it wasn’t possible to be a good Christian and a Democrat.
The pronouncement knocked the wind out of me. My liberal politics were, after all, due in large part to the gospel lessons I had absorbed at First Baptist of Plymouth, over years of Sunday sermons, Wednesday-evening church clubs, youth retreats, and devotions. A painfully literal kid, I took seriously Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 25 on how to be righteous. That meant constantly worrying that I wasn’t doing enough for the “least of these,” that I might inadvertently have snubbed Jesus-in-disguise by failing to share my fruit roll-ups with a classmate who forgot his lunch. Over time this impulse developed into a more concrete political conviction that citizens—and governments—had a moral obligation to take care of the poor, the sick, the marginalized.
By the time I graduated from high school, however, those gospel lessons had been subsumed by a different kind of politics. An assistant pastor rebuked me for taking a course on Zen philosophy and the writings of Emerson. Anti-abortion messages found their way into the occasional Advent sermon. I heard less about the inherent failings of humankind and more about the moral turpitude of liberals.