For the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul.
Up until shortly after I returned to the Catholic Church in 2006, I used to be a very involved political progressive. I was truly not important nor specially influential. But in no particular order, I marched in a peace march in DC next to Cindy Sheehan and Jesse Jackson. I canvassed door to door for John Kerry through MoveOn.org, and at Madison’s biggest rally ever I was right up front. I went for jaunts in the countryside with marijuana and free speech activist and perennial political candidate Ben Masel. I interviewed John Edwards. I begged journalist Bill Moyers to come out of retirement, and when he did, he told me “your message made the difference.” I was so much a part of the big progressive website Daily Kos, that founder Markos Moulitsas-Zuniga offered to pay my airfare to their national convention, and was a founding member of the religiously pluralistic Daily Kos “faith & politics” spinoff site, Street Prophets.
Now, none of this means I was someone important, and though there are a lot of “name” people in this post it is mostly because it’s such a crazy story. I was having a good time (progressives are all about having a good time), I was an obsessive enough internet user to become well known on these online communities, I was trying to do good and to be a loving person according to what I believed then, and oh boy I was more than just a bit confused about some things, for instance an unborn child is a person from the start and marriage is between a man and a woman.
And now, I’m a daily Mass going pro life Catholic, deeply concerned about religious freedom–and yes, still concerned for the poor. Look at my blog. But believe it or not, God was forming me through my experience with the progressives.
For the feast of the conversion of St Paul, I present the illustrated story, which is highly condensed to the most interesting parts and the parts I have photos of.
A member since April of 2004, I got to be well known on the huge progressive electoral politics blog Daily Kos primarily after I became heir of a Saturday evening tradition that had been started by someone called Theoria, who one day asked “What’s your <bleeping> problem?” He meant it ironically as an invitation to, actually, talk about one’s problems, commiserate, and socialize. After WYFP caught on and became a necessity, it was carried on by someone else, then someone else, then United Church of Christ minister pastordan (Dan Schultz), then one day Dan called it quits, and though I was neither a foul-mouthed person nor was I “somebody”, I dared to post WYFP myself. I am mentioned prominently in the history of WYFP on the official Daily Kos Wiki.
As I look at my Daily Kos profile page, it is fascinating and poignant that (although WYFP was a social thread and not simply about the diary’s content) the most popular diary I ever posted (warning–language, and content of comments), which received an astounding 806 comments and 169 recommends, recounted meeting Leah Stader at St Paul’s and joining her efforts to help the elderly Eugene Kuczynski, whose funeral I just wrote about here last month:
I was an agnostic when I showed up on Daily Kos, but the kind of agnostic who prays and not too secretly enjoys reading CS Lewis, and I got less agnostic as time went on (obviously the above image is a diary I wrote after I’d actually returned to the Church, in 2006). I hung out on pastordan’s diaries and this was very helpful for exploring and talking about Christianity. Markos Moulitsas-Zuniga, aka “kos”, founder of Daily Kos, though an atheist himself, tapped Dan to start an interfaith religious progressive spinoff site which we named Street Prophets. It was considered very important to encourage and build up progressive Democrats within every religion and to lend to progressive politics the veneer of spirituality and goodness that religion can give, and Street Prophets was ideologically pure progressivism, totally pro abortion rights and pro “gay marriage” to the hilt, and every other progressive position (but those, it must be said, are truly a defining litmus test). I was in on the planning for the site and jumped the gun, which is how I guiltily wound up user #3 (pastordan was user #5).
Dan was living in PA at the time, but he grew up in Madison, where his dad was pastor of a United Church of Christ church near campus, and there was a little get together in July of 2005 when he and his wife visited town. Mrs Pastor (Jen), a fallen-away Catholic, is the one taking the picture above, I’m on the left in my t-shirt from “Camp Wellstone” community organizing training I went to (I was aware at least dimly even at that time that this was based on Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, though I found the latter rather repulsive), then “pastordan” Dan Schultz, the one and only Ben Masel, legendary marijuana activist who passed away in 2011, and Musing85, a same-sex attracted Catholic who drove up from Illinois.
Amazingly enough Ben Masel and I became friends. A while after this, I wanted to go to the progressive festival out in the countryside, Fighting Bob Fest (above–same shirts, different day! I do not remember who the woman was, some other Kossack), and via dKos he offered me a ride. Subsequently we went on a couple of lovely hiking excursions, I was about the same age as his daughter, who lived someplace else, and it was very innocent (okay he did smoke pot on one occasion; I chuckled nervously and declined) and he was easy to be around, intelligent and full of interesting knowledge of the area and its history, especially its history of hemp farming. When he ran in the Democratic Senate primary in 2006 I donated $1 to his campaign, in fact that was the limit on campaign contribution he’d accept from anyone. Though he would have been a far greater man with a fuller set of moral principles, I genuinely liked Ben. More a libertarian than simply a progressive, and actually not a scofflaw, he made a career of standing up for his Constitutional civil liberties by pushing the envelope but knowing the law better than the police, then suing them successfully for use of force or throwing him in jail. His t-shirt in the photo, which he seemed to wear most of the time, is a “notice to law enforcement officers” of his 4th amendment rights not to be unreasonably subject to being searched. Although it was not the kind of concern Ben had, I would definitely say that his example is part of what formed me to feel strongly about resisting firmly the 1st amendment religious liberty assaults–and we have far more profound reasons to stand up for our way of living. Here’s Ben’s Daily Kos obit and you can see in the comments what the Kossacks thought of him.
(I don’t think people should use marijuana recreationally though, and it’s a grave sin to get high.)
Above, you see me and (now Senator) Al Franken in October, 2004. Again, my Camp Wellstone shirt–Franken’s 2006 Senate run was explicitly to “reclaim” progressive MN Senator Paul Wellstone’s seat from Republican Norm Coleman who won it after Wellstone died in a plane crash. As you can tell from my hair which got hacked off for Locks of Love, these are chronologically prior to the above. Franken taped his Air America radio show in the Great Hall of UW Memorial Union, and in my picture below you see guest Governor Jim Doyle sitting between Al and his co-host Catherine. I saved an MP3 of that show; besides discussing prescription drug benefits, and jobs and the problem of outsourcing, Doyle touts Madison’s embryonic stem cell research. Doyle said a couple of months later he believed “the Catholic religion I grew up in is very different than the Catholic church we go to now. I grew up in (the era of) a Latin Mass and a religion that was really focused on legalisms.” He was a parishioner of Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish, and was known even to us non church going progressives to receive Holy Communion there. I’m told now that at some point that stopped, and QofP parishioners are under the impression the bishop may have quietly spoken to him. The Catholic Church isn’t actually “very different” in the way he implies, but QofP was and unfortunately still seems to be.
And less than a month after that, just prior to the November 2004 election, another such (c)atholic:
Behind the little flag is Presidential candidate John Kerry. Yes I took many unobstructed pictures of him, but I find this one patriotic. I was up front at the biggest rally in Madison ever, on West Washington Avenue. I touched John Kerry’s arm. Like my dad, a Vietnam Vet with a Purple Heart, only my dad is highly allergic to Jane Fonda for her friendliness with the Communist Viet Cong, and Kerry appeared with her at a peace rally. Prior to Kerry’s speech, fallen-away/nominal Catholic Bruce Springsteen sang. This hardly gives a sense of the massive crowd stretching back toward the Capitol:
I was deeply disturbed about the war in Iraq, as a shockingly misguided response to 9/11 and with a lot of potential for unintended bad consequences–and you know, that was not wrong. As I look back on it, my progressive friends understood considerably accurately what was going on and what might happen, and even Pope John Paul II strongly opposed the invasion of Iraq. Saddam did not have WMDs and there was never any evidence he did, the US was stuck in Iraq for a long time, the war enabled Islamic hardliners to gain power, and Iraq has subsequently been mostly emptied of Christians. Serious as this was, it actually couldn’t make him “the Catholic candidate”–Kerry supported abortion rights, but I did too at that time, sadly. I did phonecalling and went door to door canvassing for Kerry, and was a polling place monitor through MoveOn.org. When Bush won, again, I was devastated. I instinctively went the next day to the State Street Steps of the Capitol where we’d had peace rallies, and found lawyer, activist and Fighting Bob Fest organizer Ed Garvey sitting there, with a few others, shocked like me.
I stayed active online, and that picture of the little group of us with pastordan and Ben Masel was the next summer, and in the fall I joined a bus trip much like so many from all over the country are on now for the March for Life, for a big peace march in DC. This was our Daily Kos group that met up there:
To identify a few, in the orange shirt toward the right, Mrs Pastor and below her with just his head in baseball cap showing, pastordan, in the pink dress and hat and blue shawl, the famous Maryscott O’Connor (a brilliant but profoundly wounded soul, partly related to abortion, among other very broken experiences of which she spoke openly. This is someone whose moral or political views and way of expressing them we might think sick and over the top, but she was so human and as I look at these pictures I feel much compassion and sadness for her, who really is in her own person a vindication of Humanae Vitae as protective of the true good of women. I liked Maryscott. I love her), and the little boy in the front row may be her son whom clearly she loved (his dad, Maryscott’s husband, is the one taking the picture), I think the woman in the front middle in white t-shirt and jeans with orange bandana at waist is Suzq. Holding the orange flag is Rena. In the green shirt kneeling on the far right is Culture Kitchen. I’m on the left in middle row in an olive Daily Kos shirt.
On Daily Kos, comment ratings are “mojo” and on Street Prophets they were “cookies” because of the typical protestant habit of cookies and coffee after Sunday services. Here Dan gives me real cookies!:
I marched briefly next to Cindy Sheehan, the mom of a soldier slain in the Iraq war, who became a media sensation after she set up protest camp outside GW Bush’s Texas ranch, and Rev. Jesse Jackson. It makes me sad now Jackon in his Civil Rights Movement days was once pro-life in regards to abortion, but followed the liberal herd. Those dead children also had a mom.
Back in Madison the same Fall, I had the surprising oportunity to interview Senator John Edwards, when he visited UW to give a talk about poverty which even at that time I understood was basically about hoping to run for president the next time even though he denied any such thought. He told me I was the only person to ever ask him if people confused him with the 18th c American Calvinist preacher Jonathan Edwards, though people do confuse him with John Edwards the psychic. His wife Elizabeth had cancer, he talks about how he wants to “make sure she’s gonna be okay”, then just a few months after this he began cheating on her. One suspects he cared as sincerely about the poor as about his late wife. Gives me the creeps, I removed my redeye on the photo, then undid it:
And then there was Bill Moyers, the PBS journalist, who was also the maker of miniseries such as The Power of Myth with Joseph Campbell. This is one of the things I now feel the most deeply troubled about, because I fear the effect was wider than any of these other things I did. Moyers retired in 2005, and I was upset. He was a liberal Christian of a particularly noble sort, brilliantly intelligent, and on Daily Kos I could see he was well loved even by the atheists. I wrote to him arguing he was needed and that he could do good work uniting believers and nonbelievers for progressive causes. To my surprise I received from him in the mail a copy of his book of essays, and a note indicating he was very moved by my letter, glad there were young people like me, and he would consider it. And subsequently he did come back to television, and produced a miniseries that, astonishingly, was exactly what I’d written in my letter was needed. That was Bill Moyers on Faith and Reason. I sent him another letter. Then, although I’d moved and was now at an entirely different address, I received another book from him, which you see below. You can see what it says, that’s the second book on top.
Last year when the Nuns on the Bus were doing their thing, a Bill Moyers crew was embedded with them and covering their journey for PBS. Learning about this ahead of time, I wrote a substantial letter recounting my return to the Catholic Faith and how that has necessitated quitting political liberalism, particularly because of the primacy of the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death among social justice issues in Catholic thought, and why as a faithful Catholic I differ from the Nuns on the Bus and don’t agree with their critique of Paul Ryan’s budget. At the Nuns on the Bus stop in Janesville I found the Bill Moyers people, gave them the letter (and a copy for them to read) told them my story and showed them the books below. They actually interviewed me on camera, not sure if they ever used the footage as I did not really tell them what they wanted to hear, since they really wanted a story favorable to Sr Simone and company.
On the Monday before Ash Wednesday of 2006, after so much prayer, so much growth and reading, and with a key light compelling me: FAITH IN THE REAL PRESENCE OF JESUS IN THE EUCHARIST, just as Scripture says, I returned to the Catholic Church, indeed began attending daily Mass.
I was still in thick with Daily Kos and Street Prophets, though, and didn’t yet see a conflict. Kos (Markos Moulitsas-Zuniga) wrote a book about the influence of online progressive organizing and activism such as Daily Kos was doing, called Crashing the Gate, and I was excited to meet him when he and his co-author made a book tour stop in Madison in May of 2006 to give a talk at the Central Library. He clearly knew me from his site, and in my copy of the book he wrote something like “keep asking us what our <bleeping> problem is”. Afterward the Kossacks in attendance went over to UW Memorial Union Terrace to continue socializing. The major topic was the first ever Daily Kos national convention Yearlykos, to be held the next month in Las Vegas. I’d actually been part of the initial planning committee of this, but I had in mind something more within my own experience, something like a sci-fi convention, and it morphed into something far grander and costlier. When Markos heard I couldn’t afford to go, he offered to buy my airfare. I said no, that’s too much, I couldn’t possibly. But he insisted he really wanted me there. I’m still astonished, and actually still touched by his generosity. Because I sculpted horses and had won some little awards for that, I offered that in thanks, he said he’d like a giraffe for his little boy. I tried but was not successful with the giraffe and had to lamely apologize, he forgave me.
Below is the main ballroom for YearlyKos 2006 (in later years this event came to be called Netroots Nation). CSAN broadcast this thing live. I couldn’t have conceived of this event growing out of a blog community, before I saw it. There were all kinds of major mainstream Democratic political figures there, Senators, Governors,multiple Presidential hopefuls. There was Howard Dean and Joe Trippi, Ambassador Joe Wilson, Arianna Huffington, even Michael Schaivo who wanted to remarry and famously fought to legally withdraw nutrition and hydration from his disabled wife Terri, upon which she died.
This is Markos, his son, and me, I think his wife took the picture:
Street Prophets, our interreligious Daily Kos spinoff site, had a table with a big lovely quilt made by some talented members, which we were raffling off to raise money for political candidates. We were also collecting hundreds of signatures from Kossacks and famous people, on fabric pieces to be incorporated into a second quilt. This was my friend Rain, who was new-age or neopagan, and pastordan, United Church of Christ minister and founder of Street Prophets:
One signer who I was especially excited to meet was cognitive psychologist, linguist and political communications guru George Lakoff, signing a quilt piece below. Have you ever heard of “framing”, for instance, “we need to frame abortion rights as essential to caring about women”? That’s from Lakoff. The gist of his political thought, as I remember it, was that the conceptual metaphors for American conservatism and liberalism can be described as “strict father” and based on a belief that children are innately bad (conservative) or “nurturant parent” and based on a belief that children are innately good (liberal). We loved that stuff and we actually thought it was very objective and scientific! lol! With a bit more perspective, now I feel like it said the most about the way progressives think and the rich Catholic understanding of the human person, intrinsically good but afflicted by sin and concupiscence and in need of redemption, and children really essentially needing the complementary influences of both mother and father, does not fit in his over-simple scheme. But he’s sure right that language can be used to manipulate people.
Possibly the most surreal experience I have ever had was the jampacked party that Governor Mark Warner threw for Kossacks at the hundredandsomethingth floor of the Stratosphere Tower, which he rented for the occasion together with its rooftop carnival thrill rides, Elvis impersonator, Blues Brothers impersonators, and lavish spread of every kind of fancy cheese and crackers, sushi, coconut shrimp, chicken wings, and 3 foot tall chocolate fondue fountain with every kind of thing to dip in it, and I don’t know what else.
This party was rumored to cost well over a million dollars, and I didn’t doubt it. I still have no idea why except that he was very rich and hoping to run for President. It was amazing, I rode a ride on the top of the building that drops you in freefall (I just couldn’t bring myself to try the one that lurches you over the side of the building), but it was decadent and appalling. There are people starving somewhere, and we claim to care deeply about them, and what was this for? The Kossacks didn’t even especially like Governor Warner as a candidate. But the indefatiguable Rain brought a Street Prophets quilt piece which Gov Warner obligingly signed:
But even while I was intensely in the the midst of this, without fully realizing it I was already then on my way out of it. Because when I got back home I was back to daily Mass, I went to Confession, I got into spiritual direction. When I returned to the Church through St Paul’s which is right in the middle of liberal downtown Madison, I was actually expecting something like the atmosphere Governor Doyle alludes to above at Our Lady Queen of Peace Church. St Paul’s once was like that and much worse, but far more fortunately for me I landed in a place where I began to be taught the Faith for real.
I was challenged by what I learned. It began to dawn on me that liberalism/progressivism was functioning like a competing religion in my life and many of its non negotiable beliefs were at odds with non negotiable Catholic beliefs. I didn’t have a foundation for reasoning about moral questions from a Catholic perspective or even understanding that all people (not just me–I did come to believe God wanted me to be chaste, and one of the biggest epiphanies about it was realizing how unchastity was distorting how the people on Street Prophets thought about and related to God, I realized I do not want how I look at God tainted by that) are called to chastity.
There was a final postscript to the story of me and Street Prophets that even at the time seemed to me so funny and so fitting. After Pope Benedict XVI released his Encyclical Caritas in Veritate in July of 2009, I visited the site for the first time in a long time. Pastordan was on hiatus, he was now living in southeast Wisconsin pastoring a country church, parenting two special needs kids he and Jen adopted, and trying to write a book of protestant theology, and he’d appointed Rain, whom you see in my YearlyKos pictures above, to be in charge. I posted a diary about Caritas in Veritate and particularly emphasizing this:
The Church forcefully maintains [the] link between life ethics and social ethics, fully aware that “a society lacks solid foundations when, on the one hand, it asserts values such as the dignity of the person, justice and peace, but then, on the other hand, radically acts to the contrary by allowing or tolerating a variety of ways in which human life is devalued and violated, especially where it is weak or marginalized.”
There was a happy little reunion as Rain and my other old friends were delighted to see me, and told the newer members, who were suspicious that I didn’t sound very “progressive”, about me. But then someone quoted with great chagrin something they’d seen posted on a neo-pagan site, from Caritas in Veritate:
For this reason, while it may be true that development needs the religions and cultures of different peoples, it is equally true that adequate discernment is needed. Religious freedom does not mean religious indifferentism, nor does it imply that all religions are equal. Discernment is needed regarding the contribution of cultures and religions, especially on the part of those who wield political power, if the social community is to be built up in a spirit of respect for the common good. Such discernment has to be based on the criterion of charity and truth. Since the development of persons and peoples is at stake, this discernment will have to take account of the need for emancipation and inclusivity, in the context of a truly universal human community. “The whole man and all men” is also the criterion for evaluating cultures and religions. Christianity, the religion of the “God who has a human face”, contains this very criterion within itself.
I said quite simply that I agreed with the Pope that all religions are not equally true and good and that I thought that was logical. They were distressed and began to be angry. I added an example from close to “home”, the adherents of something called Thelema. We had first encountered one of these in person at YearlyKos, a normal looking clean cut young man who subsequently became active on Street Prophets and told us about his belief system and their regular practice of obscene black masses (I hadn’t even believed this was something people actually did… they do). Thelema and Wicca were both developed by Alestair Crowley, but instead of Wicca’s tenet “do what thou will if it harm none”, Thelema has the tenet “do what thou will.” Essentially it is like making one’s own will a god and is a type of satanism with many elements self consciously opposed to and mocking Christianity. This, I argued, was not as morally good as any world religion. But oh, Rain and some others were riled, and when I stated another time or two that I agree with Pope Benedict that all religions are not equally true and good, she set my account to “NO-POST”! I laughed! And I was done with Street Prophets after that, even though she did subsequently restore my posting permission.
The project of religious indifferentism for the sake of harnessing the world’s religions for the purpose of implementing progressive politics, is certainly disastrous for Christianity. But it isn’t really sustainable in itself either, everything becomes a new age type mush with no vitality. Street Prophets petered out and when I visited the site while writing this post I was surprised to find it doesn’t even exist anymore as such; the domain now redirects to a subdomain of Daily Kos.
I went to Mass this evening at St Paul’s, where the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul enjoys the status of a Solemnity. I prayed, lovingly, for everyone I wrote about here and all the others I knew when I was a progressive, particularly Pastor Dan Schultz and his family, and the late Ben Masel. All right, I’m no St Paul, for one thing, as Fr Nielsen said in his homily, St Paul already was a very morally upright man before his vision of the Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus that blinded him and (traditionally) knocked him off his horse.
By the way, I did fall off my horse literally… it was before all of the above happened, though.