Out of these stories I picked up two inviolable truths. Good people fight against poverty. Bad people live in the South. The first lesson has never left me. With regard to the second, it took me years to see that my mother left Georgia with a certain bigotry of her own.
I consolidated all these teachings in my first political letter. It was fall 1976 and I was eight:
Dear President Ford,
I hope you don't lose to Jimmy Carter. He is a peanut farmer from Georgia and he is stupid. You are the President of the United States and you were an Eagle Scout. I know you can beat him.
Ford lost, but I survived and lived to have my revenge with Ronald Reagan in 1980. At the age of twelve, I adored his military buildup. While my mother and sisters all marched together for the nuclear freeze, my father and I made models of fighter jets and bombers, and that was enough for me to support Reagan, at least in the manner of a twelve-year-old. Reagan's social service cuts and seeming indifference to the poor did trouble me, however. So by 1984, when I was still two years shy of voting age, I volunteered for Gary Hart's presidential campaign and genuinely thought Walter Mondale had a shot at becoming president. I was my mother's son, after all.
At no point in my youth did politics impact God, or vice versa. Politics seemed to be about the practical -- keeping America safe, stopping crime, rescuing the needy -- and God seemed to be about the spiritual: love, heaven, felt cutouts. They were complementary, not intertwined; the secure bookends of my childhood.
My sense of God changed in high school. Jeff Brown was the proximate cause.
Jeff was in his mid-twenties, thin and mostly nondescript. His brown hair, pale white skin, thin nose, and mustache were standard issue, as was his height, weight, and build. He was nice, moderately funny, moderately serious, and moderately smart.
He came from Wisconsin, a perfectly nice state. He wasn't charismatic in an inspiring kind of way. Neither did he possess the kind of indomitable force of will that draws people to a person. He wasn't William Wilberforce. Still, there was something enthralling about him. The Bible says that after Moses had glimpsed just a shadow of God's back, he was radiant and needed to shield his face for days. Jeff had a kind of dim version of that glow. "Dim" might sound derogatory, but in comparison to the other minister in the church, to most of the congregation, to my high school teachers, and to virtually every other grown-up I knew, that dull glow seemed like otherworldly radiance.
He came to our church to start a "youth group." I had never heard of such a thing before but I gave it a shot. The first night he gathered us all together, told us we would do all sorts of fun stuff, and handed us a questionnaire. Most of the questions were pretty basic: "What are your favorite subjects in school?" "What music do you listen to?" "What do you like doing in your free time?" Then there was number 10.
"Question 10. Let's say, God forbid, you were killed in a car crash going home tonight and you ended up at heaven's gate. God asks you why he should let you in. What do you say? (P.S. Drive safely!)"
"Die and go to heaven?" a fellow teenager, named, coincidentally, Christian, mumbled. "Don't we all go to heaven?"