Just Above Sunset
December 5, 2004 - William Nichols - The Right, the Left, and My Mother
The Right, the Left, and My Mother
By William Nichols
My mother grew up in a working class, Democratic family. Her father, a union man, drove a city bus, and the family attended a Conservative Baptist church. As a married adult, my mother joined a more liberal Presbyterian church and became a conservative Republican. Her younger sister, who moved from their home in Portland, Oregon, to Boise, Idaho, took political positions well to the right of my mother’s and for several years left Idaho to work for Jerry Falwell in Lynchburg, Virginia. Falwell is the evangelical preacher who, having said the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, were a result of God’s anger at feminists, homosexuals, abortion rights supporters, and civil liberties activists, later sought to soften his indictment by saying it was “ill-timed.” As many working class Democrats move to the right by way of an evangelical Christianity that seems increasingly attuned to the fear and loathing implied in Falwell’s words, my mother’s story, played out in the middle years of the twentieth century, has a contemporary flavor. It is a complex knit of religion, politics, economics, class, and family history, and many of the recent shifts to the right in our society must be similarly complicated.
I’ll begin the story with my own early piety and political conservatism. As a pre-adolescent I attended a religious camp chosen by my grandparents, a two-week session devoted primarily to saving campers’ souls. I wasn’t reborn at any of the camp’s many revival meetings, perhaps because I felt I didn’t needed saving, but I remember taking my Bible to an outdoor chapel in the woods and preaching to a cabin mate who then borrowed the book to preach back at me. I didn’t rebel against the camp’s fervent godliness, and in 1956, when I went off to a small Presbyterian college in Missouri; I was a young Republican who prayed silently each night before I went to bed. As a senior, I was an elder in the campus church, where I met the Irish Democrat from Massachusetts who would soon become my wife.
We began graduate school in Baltimore during the 1960 presidential contest between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. My wife and I compromised politically and began our lives as full citizens by not voting. In 1964 we were back in Missouri, and I joined my wife as a Democrat, voting enthusiastically for Lyndon Johnson. We attended the closest thing we could find to the Congregational church she had attended in Massachusetts. In 1966 we moved to Ohio, where I taught English at Denison University, and we joined the local Presbyterian Church. Among young academics in the 1960’s, I was such an obvious embodiment of moderation that I was soon invited to join the college’s administration as a junior academic dean. My informal title among younger faculty was “dean of dissent,” and my assignments included helping to design a program in Black Studies and recruiting African American faculty. Denison, a conservative institution with little diversity in the 1960’s, did not make these changes easily, but it made them carefully. In the process, I moved farther to the left.
But as my political views changed and as, a few years later, we left the Presbyterians to join the local Quakers, I held onto the commitment to moderation that was my M.O. as a young faculty member. Indeed, I still dream of someday leaving the Democrats and rejoining that endangered species, moderate Republicans. This continuing allegiance to the middle way probably has much to do with my family history.
My mother’s father grew up on a ranch in western Montana, where his father was a teamster who sometimes drove horse-drawn wagons through the mountains into Idaho and back. After my grandfather married my grandmother and they had my mother, the family moved, first to Seattle, where my grandfather worked briefly for the railroad, and then to Portland, where he was a streetcar conductor and then a bus driver. As a bus driver, he was a heroic figure in my youth. In a framed photograph on my desk he wears the uniform of the Portland Traction Company, a light gray dress shirt and dark tie with black twill trousers. His sleeves are rolled up almost to the elbow, and his right fist rests on his hip. He stands on a curb and leans slightly into the open door of his bus, his left hand invisibly resting on the handle a passenger might use to pull himself up onto the first step. His heavy driver’s hat is pushed back on his head at a mildly rakish angle, and he looks ahead, not into the camera, as though he is considering roads yet to be traveled.
My grandfather was a garrulous, energetically sociable man. He believed there were people who rode the buses with the purpose of reporting drivers who talked too much with their passengers, but he also believed he could recognize these “stool pigeons,” and he seldom stopped telling stories. One of his favorites in the years I knew him was an account of his being robbed on the bus by a young man with a pistol. The part of the story my grandfather seemed to take particular pleasure in telling was about the hearing, where someone from the bus company asked him why he didn’t grab the kid’s gun. My grandfather had been his family’s hunter for a few years in Montana when venison got them through the winter, and he knew quite a lot about guns. The question, he thought, didn’t warrant an answer, and when the company forced him to repay the stolen eighty dollars, he chalked their decision up to foolishness rather than to corporate greed.
He was a mildly flamboyant, athletic man who, as he neared retirement, used to bet younger drivers a dollar he could stand in the aisle of a bus and kick the ceiling. He seemed unworried, even a little fearless, and only his stomach ulcers and then his sudden death from a heart attack revealed that he was not impervious to the pressures of bus schedules and traffic jams.
He can’t have been an easy father-in-law for a man who was shy and quiet and Republican, a man who never lost his suspicion of Franklin Roosevelt and labor unions. My father came to Oregon during the Great Depression. He was a bookish man from rural Pennsylvania, and he took a degree in journalism from the University of Colorado partly because he was seeking a cure in the mountain air for tuberculosis, which had recently killed his mother. He traveled the Pacific Northwest as a bill collector and repo man for Grolier Society encyclopedias and met my mother in a doctor’s office in Portland, where she was a receptionist. He deliberately left his hat in the office, the story goes, and returned at closing time to ask my mother out to dinner. She accepted, and soon they were married and on their way to San Francisco, where my father continued to work for the Grolier Society and my mother worked with the Campfire Girls until my father became so ill from what may have been an undiagnosed infection left over from his tuberculosis that they returned to Portland with me, their infant son.
We lived for about a year in a tent under an oak tree on land where my grandfather had built a house at the southeast edge of Portland. My father spent much of that year in bed, and as he recovered and we moved into our own house, there was an additional period of unemployment before he found office jobs, first in the Willamette Shipyard and then in a shipyard on Swan Island. His work in the shipyards, where the federal government and private corporations collaborated in the rush to expand our navy, probably solidified his political conservatism, but I was too young to understand his complaints, if he made them. When he moved at the end of the war to the Atomic Energy Commission on the Hanford nuclear reservation, however, I couldn’t miss his criticism of governmental waste and bureaucratic incompetence because his frustration led him to resign just as our family was packing to move from Portland and join him in Richland, Washington, which was then a bedroom community for Hanford.
Although my father died in 1986, before recent revelations of nuclear irresponsibility at Hanford, the massive leaks from underground tanks containing high-level radioactive waste, intentional releases of radioactive iodine in the 1940’s that got into the milk supply around Hanford, and radioactive contamination of the Columbia River, he would not have been surprised. He would probably have blamed big government rather than irresponsible corporations. He would have listened sympathetically to the demonizing of government that has been a crucial theme in the rise of right wing extremism in our country.
But my mother’s commitment to fundamentalism, which she embraced even after she became a Presbyterian, was probably more important than my father’s suspicion of government as our family moved to the right. There was a small Presbyterian church just around the corner from our house in southeast Portland, but my parents chose to join Mt. Tabor Presbyterian Church, a large, rather affluent congregation some two miles from our neighborhood. Their preference probably had much to do with a longing for respectability, as did their later decision to move to the suburbs when I was in high school. At Mt. Tabor Presbyterian my father became a Ruling Elder, my mother a Sunday school teacher, but she was not satisfied with the curriculum, which seemed to her insufficiently Bible-centered. When they moved to the suburbs in 1955, my father once again became an Elder in the Milwaukee Presbyterian Church, but my mother did not teach Sunday school. About this time she began to struggle with a depression that was not diagnosed and treated until the last months of her life, after she had suffered a stroke that took away most of her language.
Photographs of my mother as a young woman invariably suggest sadness, a beautiful, dark sadness. The first thing I remember learning about her early life was that just after she graduated from Franklin High School, which was my school too, she went swimming in the Sandy River with two Baptist friends, and one of them drowned. My mother feared deceptive holes and currents in rivers for the rest of her life, and we generally stayed away from the Sandy River. But once, when I was eight, we stopped on our way back to Portland from Larch Mountain, and my father and a friend from the shipyard went down to the Sandy with me to cut a willow branch for making a whistle. When we returned to the car, where my mother had stayed with my little brother, she didn’t see me with the men and assumed at once that I had drowned. It was as though she had a sudden, hysterical flashback. I came to believe the drowning that haunted my mother somehow linked her to the fundamentalist faith of her childhood and youth.
In the years after my parents and two younger brothers moved to the suburbs, I went off to college, and in 1966, after graduate school, my wife and two daughters and I moved to Granville, Ohio. As happened with many families in those years, the Vietnam War damaged our relationship with my parents. My next younger brother joined the Marine Corps after he graduated from college, and he went to Vietnam as a reconnaissance officer while my wife and I marched with groups opposing the war. Although my parents were angry with my brother for volunteering for the most dangerous duty he could find and for being uncommunicative once he arrived in Vietnam, they shared his belief in the rightness of the war, and they were terrified that he would be killed.
My mother, who studied shorthand and typing and went to work right after high school, had long been an enthusiastic reader of serious fiction. In the years before I was born, for example, she read all of Thomas Hardy, whose dark vision tallied with her own. But during the Vietnam War and, later, the Watergate scandal that would lead to Richard Nixon’s resignation she began to study geology and religion. She knew earth science had created problems for fundamentalists, but her interest in geology was probably an extension of her longstanding love of nature, especially the wilderness, a love she shared with my father. Even before they began to take field trips with Oregon’s Geological Society in the 1960’s, they chose to spend weekends and vacations in backwoods campgrounds barely accessible by car. Her religious reading in this confusing time, by contrast, was surely a quest for certitude, and it was a difficult period in our relationship because she knew I didn’t share her convictions. But she reached out to me as our diverging religious and political views became more obvious by recommending some of the books she was reading.
At first she suggested Mere Christianity (1958) and The Screwtape Letters (1948) by C.S. Lewis, the British writer whose Narnia fantasy series was important to my daughters, and I was able to share her enthusiasm. But in 1970 she found Francis A. Schaeffer’s The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century (1970). Schaeffer, a Presbyterian who feared the growing power of a “left-wing elite,” shared my mother’s sense that Christians had turned their backs on “the historic, Bible-believing minority.” The assertion at the heart of Schaeffer’s writing is this: the Bible is “objective, absolute truth.” As I read the wide-ranging cultural criticism built on this crucial premise, I felt a chilling sense of ideological rigidity similar to that recently described by Thomas Frank in his book about the backlash against the “liberal establishment,” What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004). “In this tragic land,” Frank writes, “unassuageable cultural grievances are elevated inexplicably over solid material ones, and basic economic self-interest is eclipsed by juicy myths of national authenticity and righteousness wronged.” Schaeffer’s social commentary, similarly abstracted from actual experience, is steeped in righteous indignation. Commenting on campus disruptions in the 1960’s, for example, Schaeffer writes that liberal faculty members teach “man is a machine” and treat students themselves like machines, providing no ground for values. “Liberalism has committed suicide,” he says, “because it has cut away its foundation. So the faculty screamed with glee when students stormed the administrative offices, but squealed once they turned against the faculty.” The professors I knew didn’t seem to believe people were machines, didn’t treat students like machines, and weren’t screaming with glee or squealing either, but I was new to teaching, and my mother was understandably reluctant to consider me an authority.
In 1969-70, when students were shot at Kent State and Jackson State, my wife and daughters and I lived in New Haven, Connecticut, and my mother flew out from Oregon for a visit. My moderate stance as “dean of dissent” at Denison earned me a Danforth Foundation fellowship to study at Yale University for the year. Yale had responded to pressure from some of its African American undergraduates by establishing an Afro-American Studies program, which was to be the focus of my study. The terrible things that happened at Kent State and Jackson State were not isolated events; it was a stormy year at Yale too, as it was at many institutions around the country, including Denison. In New Haven there was the run-up to the highly publicized, controversial trial of Black Panther leader Bobby Seale and a student strike in which the Panthers figured importantly. There were large demonstrations against the war in Vietnam on the New Haven green.
We rented a drafty summer cottage on Long Island Sound, a location that played to my mother’s pioneering strengths. My wife and I knew our time at Yale was an extraordinary opportunity, but my mother showed our daughters, four and eight, the magic of the place itself. She slept in a room with them that overlooked the water, and as they watched the sun rise from Long Island Sound, she told them she had lived all her life in the West without seeing the sun come up out of the ocean. She walked with them by the water and showed them shells that couldn’t be found on the Oregon coast. She worried aloud about fire danger in our cottage, but perhaps because my brother was safely out of Vietnam after a tour of thirteen months, she seemed filled with hope.
My mother told us of her work with a group of women called the Bible Study Fellowship. Over several years, the BSF, begun in 1958 by Miss A. Wetherell Johnson, a Baptist missionary who had been ejected from China, came to be more important to my mother than her church. She became a discussion leader in the organization, structured with a strict chain of command from Small Group Discussion Leaders to Teaching Leaders to Area Coordinators to the Executive Director in San Antonio. In the BSF she came to know local women from quite wealthy families. On a visit to Oregon in the mid-1970’s, we met one of these women when she invited us out to her beautiful home on Oswego Lake to use her swimming pool. I remember my mother’s obvious discomfort in the woman’s presence even though she was the woman’s Discussion Leader. The uneasiness seemed a result both of their differences in social class and my mother’s fear that we would say something to reveal our apostasy. In the woman’s living room was a large red, white, and blue sofa, and above it was a large painting the woman had commissioned of her sofa’s patriotic floral pattern.
Although the BSF is committed to the Bible’s “inerrancy,” some fundamentalists have criticized the organization’s emphasis on leadership roles for women. “Evangelical feminism” is the phrase they use. (Recent critics from the religious right have argued that the leadership roles assumed by BSF women can produce gender role confusion and even homosexuality.) This was already a matter of controversy in the 1970’s, and I remember my mother’s saying that women in BSF were not allowed to assume positions of leadership without seeking their husband’s permission. She added that a Christian woman was expected to obey her husband even if she was saved and he was not.
My mother died in 1982, and in the last few years before she died, it seems to me BSF may have had just the kind of liberalizing influence the organization’s fundamentalist critics feared. BSF takes pride in its ecumenical inclusiveness. In her autobiography, Created for Commitment (1983), Johnson tells of Catholic participation in BSF and adds: “Members from Jewish, Christian Science, Jehovah Witness, Mormons and other congregations have become interested in Bible study. Seeing that all denominations are welcome, BSF has a truly ecumenical fellowship." My mother and father seemed to be responding to this ecumenism when they moved from their Presbyterian church to join a congregation of Quakers. Their new church was a programmed Quaker meeting with a minister, and the minister encouraged my parents to give us a subscription to Sojourners Magazine, published by a progressive, Bible-based community committed to peace and justice. As I acknowledge this shift in their thinking, I recognize a large irony: I remember telling my wife when my parents were younger than I am now that I believed they were too old and set in their ways to change their thinking about religion and politics. As I look back now, I’m convinced I was wrong.
My father went blind in the last months of my mother’s life, acting as though he’d been in training for years to be sightless. By this time, they had been living long enough in the mobile home to which they moved after his retirement that he knew his way around it well. He was able to cook for them both, even to bake bread. He very quickly came to rely on recorded books for the blind and listened faithfully to National Public Radio. His experience with NPR could provide support to those concerned about its liberalizing influence, for he began to talk skeptically about the policies of President Ronald Reagan.
As I consider my parents’ last years, when their religious and political conservatism seemed to mellow, I remember an earlier day my wife and daughters and I spent with them in the spring of 1974. We walked with them that day in the kind of place where they seemed most at home. We were nearing the end of a sabbatical year in which we had come from Ohio to live on the Oregon coast, hoping to find our way back to my parents and brother, with whom we’d disagreed profoundly, not just about the Vietnam War but about many things. We drove with them that day up the Clackamas River, which joins the Willamette River just south of Portland, and we walked a one-mile trail to Alder Flats, where the Clackamas bends in gentle rapids, and acres of rocks mark the wide reaches of the river at flood.
Nearby was the Big Timber Job Corps Center, and while we ate our lunch, four teenage boys from the Center arrived and began to ride a long, slender log wedged at one end under a great rock so that its free end could move like a giant springboard. The boys laughed and shouted as they rode the log, and they made me a little nervous. After a bit they jumped off to throw rocks in the river, and my parents began to look for fossils. My daughters wanted to ride the log the boys had abandoned, and as I stood guard beneath my slowly bouncing daughters, I saw one of the boys approach my father. Soon all four of them were standing around him in a semi-circle, and after some conversation he ceremoniously shook hands with each of the boys. I began to feel anti-social. The others in our group must have had the same feeling because we all converged on them at once, and my father introduced each of us in turn. Two of the boys were Hispanic and one was African American, and we stood around with them for some time talking about the Job Corps, their communities in California, and their reactions to a winter in Oregon’s Cascade Mountains.
As they left us, I was struck by an irony: if my father and I had been talking abstractly about the Job Corps and problems facing African American and Hispanic youth, our roles would have been reversed. I would have cheered the existence of the Job Corps, especially its contributions to unemployed minority youth. My father would probably have worried aloud about the drift toward socialism he saw at work in such programs, the possibilities for waste and corruption. But I was inclined to ignore the boys from the Job Corps program because they made me uncomfortable in our remote location, and my father and mother were self-assured and curious away from the city. Not as sociable as my grandfather, they nevertheless sought out strangers in wilderness campgrounds and on farms where we sometimes drove to pick fruit and vegetables for canning. Outside the city, they often treated strangers like trusted friends. Under the right conditions, my parents seemed more at ease with a just and multicultural world than I was.
If I appear to be straining toward a happy ending, it is a tentative one. I’ve come to believe my mother and father would have resisted the fear, suspicion, and hatred that maim the body politic in our time. My brother who fought in Vietnam seemed to adopt their politics but not their religion, and he has recently begun to oppose the increasing militarization of our society. Our youngest brother seems more comfortable with my parent’s religious conservatism, but his political positions are similar to my own.
As for my aunt who worked for Jerry Falwell, I can’t say. Before she died, she returned to Idaho and grew close to a son-in-law who many years earlier had resigned from the Air Force and become a peace activist after concluding that his responsibility as a Titan missile launch officer to release death and destruction on a faceless “enemy” was not something he could do as a Christian. I can’t be sure my aunt would have separated herself from the hatred in Falwell’s post-9/11 statement, but I feel confident my mother would have. And I believe the millions of Americans frightened into following a dangerous president whose authority seems to come in part from his having been a member of the Bible Study Fellowship will find their way toward a more inclusive religion, a more genuinely compassionate politics.
Copyright © 2004 – William Nichols
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