The GOP is Not the Conservative Party

Oath of the Horatii - Jacque-Louis David (1784) (Wikimedia)

Oath of the Horatii – Jacque-Louis David (1784) (Wikimedia)

As Donald Trump’s campaign of racism, ignorance, and misogyny collapses around him, some members of the Republican Party are now, finally, trying to distance themselves from his candidacy. Their ongoing argument, especially after Trump’s spectacular defeat in November, will be that the Trump candidacy was an aberration, and that his views did not reflect the actual, “conservative,” values of the Grand Old Party. This will only be partially true. The fact is, Trump’s vainglorious lies and pleas to radical bigotry are not “conservative” values, but they are completely in line with the longstanding Republican practice of selling self-serving rhetoric to the American people under the guise of “conservatism.” In so doing, Republicans have shifted the debate away from meaningful discussions based on both facts and civic virtues, and toward a false dichotomy between their self-interest and the hypothetical liberalism that opposes it.

Defining Real Conservatism

Real conservatism is about preserving the hard-won, received wisdom of our ancestors rather than simply embracing something because it is novel. To be conservative is to value tradition, and to care more about the substance of an idea rather than whether or not it is au courant. To be conservative is to tread lightly in the presence of elders, or others deserving respect, because their struggles have earned them that courtesy. To be conservative is to cherish, preserve, and pass on the concepts, behaviors, and rituals that elevate us above our baser instincts and bring out what is best in ourselves: as individuals, as a community, and as a nation.

I have lived and worked in a number of settings that value actual, conservative values like honor and tradition. I graduated from the U.S. Army Airborne School in 1992, and in 1994 was the top graduate from my PLDC class, making Sergeant in under three years. Although it is not how I earn my income, I am a seminary graduate and a member of the clergy, and my post-seminary, graduate work focused on preserving the historic liturgies of the Church. I am currently a police firearms instructor whose work focuses on counter-terrorism and public safety. I am, by many definitions of the word, a “conservative,” but I vote straight down-ballot Democratic because the modern Republican Party shares none of my conservative values.

Republican Misappropriation of the Term

Instead, the GOP has come to shield two completely unacceptable behaviors behind the conveniently benign label of “conservative.” The first is defending bigotry and oppression under the guise of “religious” values, in other words equating “fundamentalist” with “conservative.” The second is lying – about science, about the Constitution, about the consequences and motivations of legislation – in the interest of protecting either wealth or power. There is nothing “conservative” about either category of action, and disingenuously labeling those actions as such does a great disservice to the spectrum of political discourse in this country, a conversation that is almost always framed as a dichotomy between “conservative” and “liberal.”

As a result of that framing, and of the misappropriation of the “conservative” label, actual conservative and liberal views get lumped together in the convenient binaries of political journalism as “liberal,” because the “conservative” position is already staked out. This means that there is no viable debate between conservative and liberal arguments, but rather simply between the Republican position and “everything else.” These Republican positions, as noted above, fall into one of two distinctly non-conservative categories: fundamentalism or self-service.

Equating Fundamentalism with Conservatism

Let’s begin with the issue of Christian fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is a modern movement that grew out of the resistance of some early twentieth-century Christian groups to the ways in which science undermined their superstitious understanding of faith. By the end of the twentieth century, whether in Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, fundamentalism had become primarily a tool by which those whose personal or political power is threatened by the modern world – generally men with little or no education – clung to that power by hiding their racism, bigotry, and misogyny behind religious rhetoric. Two clear examples of this are: the fundamentalist Christian opposition to the American Civil Rights Movement (until it became politically untenable); and, the oppression of women and suppression of free speech that resulted in Iran after the takeover of their government by fundamentalist theocrats, something many modern Iranians continue to oppose.

It makes sense to tie American and Iranian fundamentalism together because fundamentalism in a monotheistic religion typically has more in common with other forms of monotheistic fundamentalism than it does with ideas from its own religious tradition. This is to say, fundamentalist Christianity has more in common with fundamentalist Islam or fundamentalist Judaism than it does with traditional Christianity. The reason for this is that fundamentalism doesn’t grow organically out of the historic beliefs of the tradition, it grows out of a desire to gain or retain power, and to justify that power with religious rhetoric.

Conservative Christianity

Actual, conservative Christianity is concerned with preserving the teachings of Jesus as recorded in Scripture and as practiced in the early Church. This should be self-evident, since – to be “conservative” – the goal should be to conserve the full breadth of the earliest records we have of what it means to be a Christian. In practice, though, this leads to such radically difficult and counter-cultural behaviors that anyone who truly seeks to live this way stands out for how bizarre they are. A conservative Christian:

That’s what conservative Christianity looks like. Anything less is just culturally-conformist Christianity. Personally, I’m so far removed from that it seems like hubris to even call myself a Christian, but my one saving grace is knowing how far removed most of us are from such a high standard. I am nonetheless compelled to point out that what the media and the GOP considers “conservative” Christianity ignores this theological reality and replaces it with a cobbled-together collection of ideas that reinforce a white, straight, male narrative that the world was better when they were in charge.

Republican Christianity

The GOP form of “conservative” Christianity claims to be counter-cultural because it counters certain social values of cosmopolitan, urban, American culture, but actual, conservative Christianity is genuinely counter-cultural – not just in New York City, but in Kansas City as well. The priorities of real, conservative Christianity are so radically different from everyone else’s that those who practice them lead lives of extreme poverty and asceticism in their desire to fully live out the clear mandates of Scripture. They fit in nowhere, because they are not of this world.

In those instances where Republicans concede that the biblical writers genuinely meant what they said on these issues, they make the disingenuous claim that Christians aren’t expected to use the tools of the state to compel the redistribution of wealth that defines Christian piety. Yet, on the very small number of issues that define “conservative” Christianity for fundamentalists and for the Republican Party – limiting women’s reproductive freedom (while ignoring the needs of those women and their existing children), LGBT rights, teaching an unscholarly approach to Scripture and myth alongside science, insisting on sexual abstinence, and controlling, in particular, female sexuality and appearance – the GOP has built its modern brand demanding that the government compel compliance with their extremely limited understanding of “conservative” Christianity. This is not because of any theological conviction on their part. Requiring political action and authority is essential to their message, because the goal is to use religious rhetoric to acquire political power.

Consequently, those who claim that fundamentalists and Republicans are preserving “conservative,” “Christian” values are committing blatant hypocrisy, both in ignoring the vast majority of Christian teachings and in building a political platform based on the government compelling compliance with their limited, sophomoric pietism. They are not “conserving” anything but a desire to impose their will, in a biblically and theologically inconsistent way, for a limited range of issues. Calling these views “conservative” does a disservice to actual conservatives, and gives these bigotries far more credibility than they deserve.

Protecting Self-Interest and Calling it “Conservatism”

This is even more blatantly true for the second category of shameful behavior that Republicans now cloak under the “conservative” label: telling lies to protect a vested interest of money, power, or both. In every instance where this happens, Republicans betray an actual conservative value while pushing forward an agenda that – while hiding behind the language of conservatism – is really just shameless egocentrism and self-preservation. Here are a few examples.

Traditionally, as Americans we believe in honoring and protecting the people who work the land, through their own sweat and muscle. Farmers built the backbone of our nation, and carved out the frontier that made our unprecedented growth and prosperity possible. Defending big corporations like Monsanto when they try to crush small farmers, especially when they try to destroy established farming practices that go back thousands of years, is not “conservative.”

Traditionally, as Americans, we value those who’ve worked their whole lives in hard jobs, not just the bosses who made millions off of them. We recognize the dignity of hard, back-breaking work, and we honor the debt we owe to those who do the jobs we cannot or will not do. Denying healthcare and pensions to coal miners is not “conservative,” especially if you shill to those same miners as a defender of the jobs created by the coal mining industry.

Traditionally, as Americans, we cherish the lush abundance of our natural resources. Poisoning the air and water, through processes like fracking, for short-term gain is not “conservative,” especially when you trample the rights of local communities to protect those resources. Denying the rights of our citizens to act through local government to protect the land that is our birthright is not a “conservative” act. Likewise, choosing profit over protecting our citizens’ health and the viability of our ecosystem conserves nothing, and destroys what we hold most dear.

Traditionally, as Americans, we privilege innovation and problem solving. The freedom that defines our nation has allowed our scientists to pursue truth, unfettered by political expediency or consequences. Silencing those scientists because their overwhelming consensus – that industrialization without strong environmental regulation is destroying the planet – hurts the bottom line of the wealthy is not “conservative.” There is also nothing “conservative” about the intentional, politicized scientific ignorance consistently displayed by the GOP, especially its members of Congress. Protecting the truth is a conservative value, no matter how high the price.

Traditionally, as Americans, we hold the right to vote as a sacred trust. Denying citizens that right through plainly partisan voter ID laws, limiting early voting, and inhibiting the votes of college students, all despite virtually no evidence of voter fraud in this country, is not “conservative” behavior. In fact, anything short of ensuring that every citizen has an easy and unimpeded access to voting, is hostile to the conservative, American value of preserving the constitutional rights of our citizens.

Traditionally, as Americans, we honor those who serve and sacrifice in the uniforms of the armed forces and of public safety. Refusing to: meet their needs, fund their physical and mental healthcare, assist them in re-entering the civilian work force, and protect them from the brutal health consequences of their heroism – that’s not “conservative.” In fact, it betrays every conservative value that defines us as a nation.

Choosing the wealth of the few over the freedom of all of our citizens whose work makes this country great, choosing short-term wealth over the long-term good of the country, ignoring facts and telling lies because they’re bad for business, denying civil rights because they are politically inconvenient, and refusing to care for our warfighters and first responders – these are the “values” that the GOP consistently defends and promulgates. Not a single one of them is “conservative,” yet the media’s acquiescence to the Republican insistence on that vocabulary and narrative creates a dichotomy where anyone who opposes this shameful agenda is, implicitly, a “liberal,” thus allowing the Republican agenda to proceed unhindered.

Concluding Thoughts

This pattern neither began nor ends with Donald Trump, but his campaign has taken full advantage of it. Decades of meaningless misappropriation of the “conservative” moniker has allowed countless Republicans to push an agenda that has consistently undermined the foundations of our country, while gleefully claiming that they are actually championing “conservative” causes. Trump is no different, he’s just more transparently fatuous than most Republicans, so his hypocrisy and doublespeak is easier to spot.

Once Trump disappears from the national stage, and the Republicans attempt to rebuild their party from the wreckage he leaves behind, it is important that the media and the general public refuse to allow the GOP to reclaim the “conservative” label that they and their party have hijacked and brutally abused. When Republican politicians argue for a fundamentalist position, it should be labelled as such: “Fundamentalist Christians assert that homosexuality is incompatible with Christianity, while the majority of mainline Protestant denominations in the US disagree, although conservatives and liberals within those denominations continue to differ on what constitutes a Christian sexual ethic.” When Republican politicians argue for a position that is patently self-serving and not rooted in fact, the narrative should be: “On climate change, those who profit from or are funded by the fossil fuel industry deny its reality, whereas conservatives are looking for ways to create new jobs through the industries supporting environmental protection, and liberal activists want to stop the destruction of the environment, regardless of the cost.”

We need to hear conservative and liberal voices in our political dialogue. The modern Republican Party has consistently demonstrated that it is neither, but is instead a curious blend of the desperate bigotries of fundamentalism with the self-serving deceptions of the wealthy and powerful. Their use of the “conservative” label for their destructive agenda is an outright lie, one that threatens the freedoms, resources, and values that make the United States of America uniquely great. And the truth is, America has been and remains, great. Now it’s time to make “conservative” conservative again.

On Talking “Dirty”

Sappho and Homer - Charles Nicolas Rafael Lafond

Sappho and Homer – Charles Nicolas Rafael Lafond (Wikimedia Commons)

I often speak in a blunt and explicit fashion about sex. I like having sex. I like thinking about sex. I sometimes meet attractive women and think, “I wonder what she looks like naked…” or “I wonder what she’s like in bed…” or “I wonder if she finds disappointing sexual performance amusing or just sad?”

I talk honestly about these things, and other sexual topics, with my friends because I think friends should talk about what’s on their mind, and what interests them. Leaving something many of us think about a lot, and are very interested in, off the table keeps us from building honest intimacy with those we love and trust.

I also think that the more open we are about our private thoughts, the easier it is to distinguish between what is healthy and what is unhealthy. Sex is a powerful desire, but one that gets channeled in countless unhealthy ways in our (and every) culture. Being open about it takes the stigma away, and allows thoughtful people to engage in real, meaningful discussions – without shame – about what constitutes healthy sexual expression.

Case in point. Some Trump apologists are referring to his jubilant claims of sexual assault as “locker room talk” or “private, boys-will-be-boys conversation.” No. Just…no. There’s a world of difference between: “Wow, oral sex is amazing. Isn’t everything better after a oral sex?” and “…when you’re a star, they’ll let you do it. You can do anything…Grab them by the pussy…You can do anything.”

One is sexually explicit, intimate conversation. The other is an endorsement of sexual assault.

We are all kinds of screwed up about sex in this culture, but listening to people confuse sexual assault with “dirty” talk is the most egregious example I have seen in a long time. We need a sexual ethic of healthy intimacy AND healthy honesty, but before we start working on that we need to draw a clear and explicit line that – no matter how wealthy and/or powerful you are – you are never, ever, under any circumstances entitled to sexually assault someone else.

Screen Time Is Time Well-Spent

Girl Reading - Charles Edward Peruigini - 1870

Girl Reading – Charles Edward Peruigini – 1870 (Source: Tumblr)

I’ve placed a bibliography on the value of computer games at the end of this article. I will continue to update it past the date of publication.

Yet another fear-mongering article about the brain-damaging effects of computer games is making the rounds of the Internet. The absurdity of its claims reminds me of the Victorian hand-wringing about masturbation – but that at least got us Graham Crackers.

Computer games – like other fun, engaging activities (including sports, sex, and solving jigsaw puzzles) – ping the pleasure centers of the brain, often in ways we do not fully understand. Consequently, most people keep engaging in those activities. Some people find those little dopamine hits addictive, so they cannot self-regulate their exposure to them.  This can be particularly true for some young people, regardless of what they obsess about (be it baseball stats or Torment: Numenera). Regardless of the pleasurable activity, good parenting is teaching your children how to recognize healthy and unhealthy behaviors, regardless of their preferred source of a dopamine fix.

The single fact that a particular activity provides that fix does not make it any more inherently dangerous than other, otherwise-safe activities. Why should throwing a baseball or reading a book be privileged over playing a computer game? I would bet that nearly all of my friends have, on more than one occasion, stayed up hours later than they should have because they wanted to finish a book. Yet we do not talk about the “dangerously addictive” nature of books.

The argument could be made that the substance and quality of books is, on average, better than that of computer games. Since, as I will note below, the caliber of art, storytelling and interactive experiences available through the best of interactive media is exceptional, arguments based on the content of computer games carry little weight. Nonetheless, even if that were not the case and all of the games out there were mindless brain candy, the issue would still be the poor choices consumers of the media make, not the inherent dangers of the medium itself.

For this reason, in our household, we did not limit our son’s “screen time” any more than we censored his books; which is to say, we did not regulate either activity. I did play the games he played, and engaged him in long, thoughtful discussions about their contents. I also read the books he read, and engaged with him in the same kinds of discussions. Many of the things he learned from games would not have come as easily through a different medium. In fact, I cannot imagine a better method than “screen time” for him to have explored many of the things he learned about the larger, adult world when he was a child.

As parents, we did not regulate those “screens” because we saw them as no more dangerous than books. We ignored the panic around the medium because it seemed, and still seems, no more justified than the expert admonitions from previous eras against letting young women read novels. The danger with novels, as with good books and good games of all kinds, is that your child’s curiosity will lead them to dangerous or disagreeable or unfamiliar ideas. Knowing your child’s strengths and limitations, and participating with them in, rather than banning them from, whatever media form they find the most engaging, allows a parent to work with their child to equip them with the skills to navigate those perilous waters.

Whether the topic is the content of the media, or the “addictive” nature of the medium itself, good parenting means knowing what a child needs and working with them within those limitations to help that child achieve the goals that they have set. That may mean teaching them to learn to regulate the pleasure they take in certain pastimes. It may mean recognizing the value of those pastimes, even if they may hold no interest for the parent. It almost certainly means sharing in the child’s own engagement, helping them to place it into a larger context, and helping them make the most of the experience.

Now that we are on the other side of that parenting stage, not only do I think that “screens” are no more “dangerously addictive” than books, I would go so far as to say that – in their potential to stimulate the brain, educate, and convey information – “screens” (PC’s and slates in particular) are better than print books. The issue is not the medium, or the activity; the issue is what content is consumed through that medium, and the degree to which involved parents discuss, analyze, and share in that content with their children.

Using a “screen” a young person can read a book above their reading level, or in another language, thanks to hyperlinked dictionaries. Using a “screen” a young person can learn about economics, politics, history, and military strategy by painstakingly shepherding their society through hours of Civilization (see it in action here). Using a “screen” a child can build a working aqueduct in Minecraft. Using a “screen” a young person can directly engage complex themes of bigotry, religious demagoguery, and political isolationism in the Bioshock series. Using a “screen” a young person can interact with one of the best novels I have ever read or played, Planescape: Torment. Using a “screen” a young person can adventure with their friends through a vast world of rich storytelling in Elder Scrolls Online, or they can travel alone through similarly artful and complex storytelling in the world of Dragon Age.

I’m young enough that – as a child – I engaged in earlier incarnations of all of these activities on a Commodore 64 for thousands of hours, so this generation is certainly not the first to have this opportunity. Nor was I any more adversely affected by those pursuits than my friends who spent hundreds of hours designing D&D campaigns or working on their fastball. I would argue that, to the contrary, the games I played on my PC and online through BBS’s enriched my knowledge base as well as the rigor of my thinking.

Until we have chips in our heads, screens are going to be how we share information and engage with interactive media. Parents would do well to quit obsessing about the perceived evils of the medium and instead learn to take full advantage of it.


For Further Reading

(This Penny Arcade comic is a handy glimpse of what happens when I bring up this topic at dinner parties. )

What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy (James Paul Gee –

Good Video Games and Good Learning (James Paul Gee –

Video Games and Learning (Kurt Squire –

Reality is Broken (Jane McGonigal –

Don’t Bother Me Mom, I’m Learning (Marc Prensky –

Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology (Collins & Halverson –

The Multiplayer Classroom (Lee Sheldon –

Video Games and Learning: Teaching Particaptory Culture and the Digital Age (Kurt Squire – Amazon)

How to Do Things with Videogames (Ian Bogost –

Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames (Ian Bogost –

Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter (Tom Bissell –

Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America (NEA)

To Read or Not To Read (NEA)

Orality and the Work of Walter Ong (Wikipedia)

Oral Tradition – Online Academic Journal

Funeral Homily for Sue Travis Villines, My Grandmother

Grandma Sue

Laura Sue Travis Villines – August 10, 1922 – March 12, 2001

My son John-Francis has learned to say “I Love You.” I’m tempted to say that he doesn’t understand what the phrase means; but at some level he does. He knows that it’s something you say to someone who is kind to you, to the person you run to when it hurts – the one who holds you and makes it better, to the person with whom you share the things you value – in his case toy trucks and chocolate candy.

On a Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago, John-Francis and I had both climbed into Grandma’s bed for a Sunday afternoon nap. I needed John Francis to take that nap far more than he wanted to, but he was more than happy to cuddle up next to his “G.G.” – which is what he and her other two great-grandchildren, Liam and Aidan, called her. After a few minutes of silence, during which I assumed Grandma had fallen asleep, John Francis turned to her, patted her on the arm, and said, “I love you G.G.” Without opening her eyes, including the ones that we all swear she had in the back of her head, Grandma found his tiny hand and covered it with her own. She smiled, and said with such confidence and strength in her voice, “I love you very much.”

It was a holy moment. John-Francis had meant what he said in as much as he understood its meaning, but never in his life will he meet anyone who more fully knows the commitment, the sacrifice, the work, and the depth of feeling that those often misused words imply. Like most of us, John-Francis was speaking as an amateur. Grandma was a professional.

There are no advanced degrees you can earn in loving people, there are no schools or universities that offer it as a major; but if you had to pick somewhere to learn it, Moore County Tennessee in the Depression wasn’t a bad place to go. Grandma was born there in 1922 to Elizabeth Gilmore Sanders Travis and Theodore Dale Travis. The youngest of five children, she worked alongside her two brothers and two sisters on the family farm. Grandma often talked about life on that farm, and how there were only seven of them in the immediate family, but even when times were at there toughest there were usually more than twenty people (including seven orphans) gathered around her mother’s dinner table. There was always enough to share, and always room for one more.

They also never threw anything away, a lesson which Grandma never forgot. In fact, one of our great challenges has been to find ways to throw things away when she wouldn’t catch us. If she did, which was most of the time, she would just shake her head and tell us one or two of the uses she could find for whatever we had in her hand. Some of you, incidentally, may still have some of the jars she used to give you pimento cheese. Keep them and use them again with her blessing. “Useless” was not a word Grandma believed in. She could find a purpose for anything or anyone.

Which may be why she married a boy from just north of Nashville who claimed to be from a farm but didn’t even know which side of a cow to sit on when you milk them. His name was Aubrey, and as she often reminded him at the time, she had other offers. But he had something the rest of them didn’t – her heart – and he never let go of it. Their lives were so intertwined, that it is impossible to tell her story without also telling some of his. He promised her he wasn’t going to go back into the Army, but the War came and she entered the first of many times when she would have to carry on with him overseas. Barbara, their first child, was born just as Grandpa returned from OCS. Grandma worked and raised their daughter, while he went on to serve in the Pacific theatre.

When the war was over, they lived in Nashville where Grandpa attended law school. Grandma hoped that the life of a lawyer would keep him by her side, but the Korean conflict came along not long after the birth of their second child Aubrey. Grandpa was back in the Army, and Grandma had two young troops of her own to manage. Not long after their third child John was born they made the decision to stay an Army family.

As a result, Grandma set up and maintained households on several continents and in several countries including Japan and Panama. With her husband gone for months and sometimes years at a time, Grandma was more than up to the task of raising three children, managing the family finances, and often working at the post or in town. She was a woman of such drive and skill, that in a time when women were often confined to the steno pool or the secretary’s desk, she was named the Vice President of McGhee Displays where she worked in several capacities. At the time, she was described in the largest trade magazine for that industry as “indispensable.”

She was, but they didn’t know the half of it. She was also tough, and fiercely protected her family. Once, returning home to find a strange woman standing in her kitchen eating tomato slices from right out of the refrigerator, Grandma grabbed a toy gun and pointed it at her telling her to leave. The woman said, “That’s a toy gun and I’m not going.” This proved the woman was crazy, because if she weren’t she would have known to be much more afraid of Grandma than whatever Grandma had in her hands. Grandma tossed aside the gun, picked up the woman, and to the amazement of her children and the gathered neighbors, pitched the lady into the back yard like a bale of hay. To this day, my father will not eat tomato slices out of the refrigerator. Of course, anyone who knew Grandma knows that that she would have gladly given that woman anything in the refrigerator if she had only asked. The mistake she made was in scaring Grandma’s family.

Retirement brought Grandma and Grandpa to Atlanta where Grandma worked as a bookkeeper and he worked for the Federal government. I say “bookkeeper” because that is what it said on her tax returns, but her full time occupation continued to be Mother with the additional title of Grandmother. Her children were grown and had left home – more or less. Her grandson William was born shortly before they came to Atlanta, and her granddaughter and namesake Laura was born shortly after. Juanita and I came along not much later, but Aubrey and Cheri kindly waited until we were well out of diapers to bring Zawn and Trey into the world.

At this point in the story, I’m no longer just passing on family folklore but my own memories as well. Over the past two days, I’ve been sorting those memories like an old shoe box full of pictures. Over and over again, there’s one place they take me back to – Grandma’s kitchen table. It’s not a large table or a large kitchen, but for thirty years it has been the center of our family and a safe haven for hundreds of friends who have become our family.

It didn’t matter why you came in, you were still invited to sit down and have a glass of sweet (and I do mean sweet) tea or a cold drink. And it wasn’t just company who sat down there. I still remember the plumber who came one day and Grandma thought he looked too skinny. Even though he billed by the hour, was on the clock, and she had never met him before; Grandma sat him down at that table and fed him. When he left, she sent him home with some homemade preserves and instructions to eat better. He’s here today as one of her pall bearers. His name is Austin, I don’t think he ever got around to billing her for the plumbing work and for close to twenty years he’s never called her anything but “Mom.”

He’s not the only one. Because it was conveniently located, many of us used Grandma’s house as a place to meet friends or co-workers. Gary, a friend who also works with my father, had stopped by Grandma’s to meet him. Gary is extremely polite, and simply sat out in the driveway waiting for my father to arrive. Grandma thought that was kind of silly, so she brought him in, sat him down at that same kitchen table, and fed him with good food and better conversation. Dad was worried about Grandma’s health, so when he got there he insisted to her that she was not obligated to entertain his coworkers. Gary has repeated her reply several times. “John,” she said, “you can just go away again. Gary and I were having a perfectly nice visit, and I’ll visit with whoever I want to.” Like many before him and since, Gary had been adopted into her family, and knew from then on he was welcome any time. To this day, Gary still calls her “Mom.” When I talked to him yesterday, he said that it truly felt like losing a mother when she died.

Then of course there’s Ann Rose, who came to spend the night and stayed for a couple months. Grandma should have known that something was up when Ann pulled in front of the house towing a small U-Haul trailer behind her. She needed a place to stay, and what she found was home. She certainly was not alone. If you are not someone who called her “Mom,” odds are the person next to you was. Whether or it was for a few moments, or a few years, Grandma offered you a home. A place to rest your body and your soul, a place at the table where there was always something good to eat, a sympathetic ear, and maybe, just maybe, an opinion or two.

There are so many clichés about the difference between a house and a home that it’s hard to find the words to explain how what Grandma provided was different – but it was. If there’s a recipe for it, I’m pretty sure two of the ingredients are iced tea and pimento cheese. For Grandma, though, the main ingredient was certainly faith.

And I mean the real thing. I don’t mean preachy faith that always tells people what they’re doing wrong; or showy faith that comes from always making sure you’re seen at the right church or with the right people – I mean the kind of rock solid faith that gave Grandma the strength to change the world around her and to carve out a safe haven where so many of us found a home.

Grandma has asked that the inscription on her tombstone read, “My Faith has found a resting place.” That is certainly true, and for the first time, because for seventy eight years Grandma’s faith never rested. For her, faith meant one thing: loving people as Jesus loved them. And love, for her, meant work and sacrifice. It meant action. Love meant getting out of a warm bed on a cold dark morning, as an almost eighty year old woman, to pick up a stranded child or grandchild who needed a ride. I’m not thinking of a specific story here because it happened so often.

Love meant having much less for herself, so her children and grandchildren could have much more. Love meant doing hard work and messy work, even when no one noticed, no matter how tired she was, just to make life easier for the people who came into her life. And always, for everyone, to Sue Travis Villines, love meant forgiveness. Over and over again, small wrongs or large, whether or not you apologized or asked for it – no matter what happened, the next time you sat down at that table you knew you were forgiven.

When I was ordained, Grandma placed her hands on my head and said, “You know how much I love you. God loves you more.” I’m not sure that’s true, but if I know anything about the love of God I learned it from her.

In our gospel reading today, Jesus gathers his closest friends, one of whom will betray him and have him killed, around a table. Over and over again he’s told them that to follow him they only have to do one thing, love everybody – and he means everybody. They didn’t really understand him then any more than we understand or do that now, but Jesus kept trying.

So when he gathered them for their last meal together, Jesus – God in the flesh – took a pitcher of clean water and a basin, and kneeling at each of them in turn washed the dirt and mud from their feet. Times weren’t that different then from today. This was a menial job, and not one that even a well-liked slave would be asked to do. It was dirty, time consuming, and profoundly kind. It’s just the sort of thing Grandma would have done.

All too soon, Jesus was gone and the very earth shook with grief. A part of me is surprised that the same thing did not happen last Monday. Such a great light, such a powerful force for love and hope has left us that it seems that the whole world should have come to a grinding halt. Nothing should ever be the same again. In the darkness that is left behind we have only our memories, and each other.

The home that she created for us is no more, and we are left with the homes that we make for one another. Where there was once so much laughter and no small amount of tears, there are now only echoes. The hands that served us, held us, knitted together in prayer for us, and blessed us are now at rest. She has gone home.

Grandma said that she did not want me to try to preach her into heaven, as if someone who labored so tirelessly to create heaven here for us would need any help finding the way. There is one promise at the heart of her faith, a faith which she passed on to us all. That promise is that a home – one as welcoming as the one she created for us here – was prepared and waiting for her as one is also prepared and waiting for us; and that the same scarred hands that washed the feet of his friends and betrayer alike, were waiting to gather her in and lead her home.

Grandma Sue and John Francis

Grandma Sue and John-Francis

Reflections on the Clinton Nomination

2016 DNC Logo

2016 DNC Logo (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

The nomination of Senator Hillary Clinton as our party’s candidate for President of the United States is one of those benchmark moments that gives us a hopeful glimpse into that just future, and reminds us how long it takes to get there.

The civil rights movement has grown to include important conversations about rights for persons of color, right for LGBT persons, rights for immigrants, and the concept of intersectionality. As those conversations continue, we must also remember that we have not completed the simple, obvious fight for equal rights for those people who are only set apart from the people in power by the fact that they still have ovaries instead of having had their ovaries turn into testicles in the womb.

At the 2016 Democratic Convention we finally saw a 102-year-old woman, whose life has spanned all three waves of feminism, declare her state’s delegates for a female candidate who is likely to be the next President of the United States. It has taken nearly the entire century since the Nineteenth Amendment has passed for her to see a major party nominate a woman for President.

I celebrate this milestone for what it represents about the progressive movement at its best – creating a world where prejudices, bigotries, and superstitions do not define people’s roles in society. I also view it as a cautionary reminder that, even on the most basic issues of equality, the work takes decades or even centuries, and the work is never done.

Even if we give lip service to the idea that we know the struggle for women’s rights in the West is an ongoing one, our practice as progressives undercuts the claim. We fight among each other as if the matter of equal rights – legally and culturally – for women were settled, scrabbling over minutiae and details and who the “real” feminists are. Meanwhile, it has taken a hundred years to go from women having the vote to a major political party putting forward a woman as their candidate.

Surely Jerry Emmett , and the other senior delegates, hoped it would happen in their lifetime and feared that it would never happen at all. I shared those hopes, and those fears. Hope, because it seemed like each generation was moving closer to the just future Dr. King spoke of in Montgomery. Fear, because – having gained some momentum and a seat at the table – whole segments of the feminist movement seemed to devour themselves and their allies.

I wonder how much harm we have done to basic progressive causes by attacking each other and fragmenting into tiny camps seeking to out-progressive our neighbors. I was born in the seventies, and saw – as a child – the victories of second wave feminism that made it possible for the leaders of third-wave feminism to have the freedom and social capital to attack each other for not being “real” TM feminists. I’ve watched people simultaneously defend gender and sex stereotypes when they found them personally affirming (and call that “feminism”) while simultaneously attacking gender and sex stereotypes when they found them offensive or counter-productive (and call that “feminism,” too).

All the while: female CEO’s, Senators, and Governors remain rare as hen’s teeth; disenfranchised men continue to vent their anger at successful women through threats of rape and other forms of violence online and in-person; and men who stay home to raise children, as well as women who go back to jobs outside their homes, face unfair stereotypes and expectations about their roles at home and in the workplace.

We turned on each other long before the fight was done, somehow thinking that our infighting would produce the final (as if there were such a thing) push into actual equality. Personally, I think we placed our energies in the wrong place, but equality means everyone should be equally free to fight for what matters to them, so I am glad that – at the very least – there is space for all of the competing voices of modern feminism to be heard. Nonetheless, the century it took to nominate a woman for President, fifty years after the Democratic party became the party of civil rights, reminds us that the original fight for basic equality of the sexes is far from over.

In this moment, then, I will celebrate this victory for what it is – a watershed moment in the long arc begun by the founding mothers of feminism when they fought back against the notion that women should have no say in how the world was run. There are people alive today who remember the era when denying even basic rights to women was “common sense,” and there are people alive today fighting to return to those good ol’ days and make America “great” again.

The nomination of Hillary Clinton stands as a beacon against the dark shadows of those days – past and yet to come. However convoluted and slow the path, we are nonetheless moving forward to a horizon that bends toward justice. My hope is that we will remember how hard-won this victory is, how long and difficult the road to that far horizon is, and that those of us to seek it will only get there if we overlook our factional differences and seek it together.