Let’s talk about politics. Specifically this tedious primary race. I have to start in a church nursery circa 1983. I know, it doesn’t seem to relate, but trust me with a few minutes of your time.
When I was about 9 or 10 years old I asked my mom if I could babysit with her during church. The nursery at Gospel Baptist* was in a completely different building, a small converted house, that sat adjacent to the church. I didn’t care about watching the little kids, but I didn’t want to sit still on a pew with my dad, so I sat in the baby room with my mom listening to the transistor radio on the changing table. Brother Ray’s* sermon was being broadcast over a local station and we could hear him building momentum through the tinny speakers. The toddlers in the room next to us had already built a fevered pitch so mom turned up the volume a little. Just as she did, Brother Ray hit his stride. You could practically see him wiping his face with the handkerchief. You could hear the calls of AMEN coming from the congregation.
“You can take this to the bank, my friends. This way is God’s way. God’s way is the only way. And all the other ways are the wrong ways!”
“And I’ll tell you what,” he continued. “The Catholics and all the rest… the Pentecostals speaking in tongues, they’re all wrong.”
He got quieter. I was familiar with this rhythm. The slowing and building, each swell outsizing the last.
“And brothers and sisters, I may get into trouble for saying so. No, no I may! There are those who won’t want to hear what I’m about to say, but I have to say it. God put the words in my mouth so they must be heard.”
I was riveted. There is no cadence quite like a Southern Baptist Preacher who has a belly full of righteous anger. It is captivating.
“I’ll say it now and you’ll all be my witness, you here in the pews and you out there listening on the radio.” That was me. He was talking to me.
“They are CULTS that’s what they are. The only way to heaven is through Jesus, through giving yourself to his will by repenting your sins and giving your life to Jesus, the son of God right here in this church! And I know I’ll get into trouble for saying this on the air and they might take me off the air but I WILL NOT APOLOGIZE. I TELL YOU, I WILL NEVER APOLOGIZE!”
His voice boomed through the speakers. I looked out the window to the church to see if armies of other religions had surrounded us. I worried that the radio feed would be cut for his proclamation, that the heathens would try to silence him. I was ready to defend. Let them come. We had the might of right on our side!
But the heathens never came. We went to Wendy’s for burgers after the service like usual. Still, that explosive bad boy/good boy fire stuck with me. I was intoxicated.
I didn’t stay with the church. Mom & dad got divorced and I’m queerer than they’d like, plus the higher power I serve now is bigger than a jealous god. Gospel Baptist probably wouldn’t have me back anyway. But good god, I love fiery passion. I love the underdog. I love righteous anger. I love holding back the masses to preserve the sacred. (I am a bookseller, you know.) But I also know about messiahs and how they almost always disappoint you.
And that brings me to this year’s primary race for the Presidency. Specifically the Democratic primary.
It’s easy to point to a guy like Trump and recognize his self-proclaimed deification as ridiculous and dangerous. Cruz draws from the same pool as Brother Ray. That’s familiar and easy. But Clinton and Sanders? They’re from the side of the aisle that fights over issues – not personalities. Progressives are about secular politics, about civil rights, about rational thought and science. Right?
And here we are, supporters of both candidates, loading our Facebook walls with 40 year old photos of arrests as evidence of civil rights involvement, un-vetted accusations of corruption, memes featuring the other candidate as false and untrustworthy- bitter arguments among the faithful about which messiah is going to take us to the promised land.
The Clinton camp calls Sanders supporters Bernie Bros or Bernie Bots and condescend based on age and class. Sanders supporters practically paint flames and horns on Clinton, painting her as the embodiment of the establishment, the whole problem with the world. The entirety of the Democratic base is in a competition to be the surrounded tribe whose underprivileged leader is righteous and holy and we are all convinced, CONVINCED that our choice is the only one. That all others are wrong.
And this brings me back to the church nursery in 1983. When Brother Ray shouted into the microphone that he WOULD NOT APOLOGIZE for calling all other religions illegitimate cults he had the zealot’s rage of a David spitting in a Goliath’s eye. It was Gospel Baptist Church of Effingham against literally everybody else in the world. To quote from the Tinker Tailor Solder Spy movie, “He’s a fanatic. And the fanatic is always concealing a secret doubt.” To protect himself from that doubt, he had painted himself into a corner where his religion could not survive if others did and other religions could not survive if his did. There was no room for growth. No room to bring anyone in, just to call everyone out. Incidentally, a few years later we discovered that Brother Ray had been cheating on his wife with the church secretary and he left in disgrace.
Sooner or later, one candidate will win enough delegates to be the Democratic nominee, and now I fear that each candidate’s supporters have painted themselves into the same corner. I think that one or the other candidate could end all of it all at once if instead of vilifying anyone or naming their endorsements they just answered a question about a past bad vote or bad position on an issue like this, “I’m sorry. I apologize for not being where I needed to be on that issue, but I am being the best I can be now and learning every day. I am not a messiah, but a public servant. I am a human being who learns from my mistakes and will do my best to represent you.”
The antidote to the overblown narcissism and bellicose rhetoric is humility. Simple as that. Real leaders listen. Revolutions succeed because the revolutionaries love each other as much as their cause.
I’ll vote for one or the other. It’s none of your business who. But I will say a Clinton-Sanders or Sanders-Clinton ticket would be unstoppable if the supporters of both candidates would stop burning the bridge between them.
*I changed the name of the church and preacher. Exposing that church and his family would pretty much negate the growth and humility I ask for here.