I’m a Democrat because of my parents. I’m a liberal because of the Gospel.
My parents grew up poor. Neither graduated from junior high school. Both left school to help their families get by. Mom began a lifetime of waitressing by the time she was fourteen. Dad’s parents were migrant farm workers. He dropped out in the fifth grade to work the fields between Texas and Colorado alongside his parents and five siblings.
Mom waited tables at the Plains Hotel when John Kennedy came. She sat a plate of fried chicken in front of the man who would become President. “Who are you voting for? Nixon or me?” he asked. Mom smiled slyly and said, “It depends on who leaves the biggest tip.” He left her a twenty-dollar bill.
For my mother, it wasn’t about that tip. She had a simple explanation for her political philosophy. She always taught us kids, “Republicans are for the big guys. Democrats are for the little guys.” It was that simple. Over the years, I have seen evidence that what she taught was true.
I was elected to the legislature at 22 years of age. Though a Democrat, in those days I wasn’t much of a liberal. I supported the death penalty and opposed a woman’s right to chose. I did what was expected of Wyoming politicians and opposed gun laws. I advocated for state’s rights on too many issues too often before recognizing “states’ rights” is cover for those wanting to violate someone’s civil liberties. I didn’t march against the war in Vietnam until Nixon refused to halt the bombing of North Vietnam on Christmas Day 1972.
Following a decade in the state legislature and an unsuccessful 1982 campaign for the United States Senate, I practiced law. I developed a keen interest in justice. A district court judge once called me the “patron saint of lost causes.” Lost causes too often equal justice denied. Thus after twenty-plus years practicing law, I entered the seminary and spent three years wrestling with what I really believe and why. That’s when I became a liberal.
I was enthralled by Jesus’s first sermon. “The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it was written, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim deliverance to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
While in seminary, I interviewed with a Colorado church searching for an interim minister. A board member asked whether I was a liberal or a conservative. The question was a set up. I answered, “Well, when I talk about Jesus, people think I’m a conservative but when I talk like Jesus, they think I’m a liberal.”
I didn’t get the job. But I was beginning to “get” Jesus.
You’ll recall his ministry almost ended the day he preached that first sermon. His listeners tried to snatch him and throw him off a cliff. I wanted to know more. How were his words so threatening to those in power that they nearly got him killed that day and how did they, in fact, get him crucified three years later?
It is tricky and even misleading to attribute today’s political and religious labels to Jesus. But when contemporary social justice advocates speak about feeding the hungry, ending homelessness, freeing prisoners from unjust criminal laws, compensating the wrongfully convicted, ending war, not using scripture to judge those who are different, providing health care as a right, questioning the American empire, and welcoming refugees, they are deemed liberals though they sound like Jesus.
Throughout the Gospels we learn about people living on the margins of life finding worth through Jesus’s teachings. It’s not about political agendas, platforms, or causes. It’s about a radically spiritual view of the world that remains subversive, countercultural, and yes, liberal.