The Possibility of Conversion

By Rebecca Wilson

Recently, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross that we must stay in communion with those with whom we disagree in order to leave open the possibility of conversion.

Not too long ago, I might have heard that as spiritual pabulum—a polite plea to prevent schism. But my own conversion, a political one, began nearly a year ago, and today I hear the Presiding Bishop’s words with familiar fear and trembling.

I was an unlikely prospect for conversion. I am a lifelong Democrat, and I live in the bellwether state of Ohio, where partisan politics is nasty, brutish, and endless. The wounds of the 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns still fester here, along with those inflicted by a bloody 2004 fight over a draconian constitutional amendment that limits the rights of gays and lesbians. Two years later, a heated gubernatorial campaign resulting in the election of a Democrat was also divisive and polarizing.

So in 2007, many progressive voters in Ohio were angry and dispirited. We had gotten our governor, but also bore the shame of failing to prevent the current presidential administration and the right-wing sore on our state constitution. I was solidly in that bloc. I was civil when I encountered people with whom I disagreed, but I generally avoided situations where I might encounter Republicans. It was just too hard.

Except at church. My little Episcopal parish, a historic church in a struggling city neighborhood, generally attracts people who vote like I do. We are a community that welcomes everyone, gay and straight, and in a place like Ohio, that alone is often enough to drive Republicans down the road to a more conservative parish. But although Democrats are loath to admit it, the Republican party is not a monolith on this (or any other) issue, and our congregation includes people who are both Republican and progressive about human sexuality.

So although I was bone-weary from assault by Republican values and victories, I couldn’t entirely escape politics at church. One Republican, in particular, kept cropping up. Despite our partisan differences, we were thrown together on the cookie-baking committee, at church socials, and in the back pew.

Because we are Episcopalians, we were polite. We began talking over cookies after the service, about innocuous local events, mostly not looking each other in the eye. Soon we edged into local politics, agreeing in nervous laughter that what happened at coffee hour stayed at coffee hour. Then we took the big step from standing together in the parish hall to sitting together in church. I asked him for some advice on a civic project, which he gave freely and graciously, and we met for lunch once. I considered myself very broadminded indeed.

Apparently, however, this was not good enough for God. When I was asked to lead a Sunday morning seminar on faith and politics, I knew, in one of those fits of clarity that sometimes presages wisdom, that to escape the confines of left-wing dogma, the class needed both a Republican and a Democrat. So I took a deep breath and asked my pewmate to teach with me.

Starting with an issue of Yale Divinity School’s journal Reflections, we spent several months reading and thinking about politics and belief. We used the crutch of email to explore our own differences gingerly, feeling out painful partisan topics in writing before we talked about them in person.

The rumblings in my soul, and my stomach, began then. I became vaguely nauseous when people told jokes about Republicans that I previously would have found uproarious. I stopped conversations with fellow Democrats by offering halting answers to a rhetorical question—“what on earth are those Republicans thinking?” I began to hear the excesses in Democratic rhetoric more critically, imagining how decent, well-intentioned people might feel alienated by words that had once felt to me like a righteous shield.

Kathleen Norris writes that “…we can convert, in its root meaning of turn around, so that we are forced to face ourselves as we really are.” Preparing and teaching our class, I often felt muddled, seeing myself as I now understood many Republicans would—as an angry, narrow-minded, bitter partisan. Facing myself meant that I had to temper dialectical thinking with more complex ways of understanding the public sphere, and learn how to regard social problems without reflexively blaming them on a malevolent, scheming horde of Republicans.

I have also had a lesson in loving my enemy. Perhaps inevitably, my teaching companion and I have discovered that the depths of what we have in common make our political differences mostly incidental and often amusing. It has been frightening to trade partisan disdain for true vulnerability, but we have long since become close friends who rely on one another in ways that would have previously seemed preposterous to both of us.

Even so, conversion is sometimes lonely. In losing my partisan fervor, I have drifted from many acquaintances and some friends who regard my behavior as betrayal. Earlier this year I resigned from a client project in which attacks on Republicans—on my friend, who is active in his party, and his friends—had become so vitriolic that they were acting like poison on me. I have found myself in strange places with people I could not have previously imagined knowing, and I have been unsettled by how much I have liked them and wanted them to like me. And sometimes in a conversation, I sense my old way of thinking about an issue fall away, and I miss the comfort of righteous certainty.

Norris also writes that “some of us have found the worst parts of ourselves converted into something better, our small expectations shattered in the presence of God’s great abundance…” On the eve of this election, I think that I have been converted into something better. I am still a Democrat, and my vote for president will reflect that unequivocally. But my small expectations that politics will save us have been shattered. Whether my candidate becomes president or not, what I want most after this election is to be in communion with those who disagree—with my friend and his friends and all of the Republicans and Democrats and other voters who are grieved by the ways we have wounded one another and our country. The possibility of conversion may be all that can heal us now.

Rebecca Wilson is a member of Church of Our Saviour Episcopal Church in Akron, Ohio.

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