Reflection: The Evolving Conscience of a Conservative

Burlingame_Jan2015_JKeefe_7D-1855r.jpgRita Lowenthal’s reflection of a couple or so weeks ago gave me the courage to make my reflection autobiographical.  I’ll deal with one aspect of my life, having to do with my political journey. I’m entitling this The Evolving Conscience of a Conservative. 

I came of age in Burlingame California, a fairly affluent suburb of San Francisco. Burlingame in the 1950’s had a population of about 20,000 and was all white with the exception of a minuscule number of Latinos and Asians.  It was commonly known that this city was intended for whites only. When an African American drove through the city to get from San Mateo to Millbrae, he or she looked straight ahead. There was no slowing, no looking around. Just get to the other side.

My family was active in the First Presbyterian Church of Burlingame, a large, monied congregation.  The pillars of the community gravitated there, and they freely shared their world view. I absorbed it like a sponge and probably took it a step further.

I came to believe that social engineering is the big problem.  Hitler, Stalin, and Mao have been proof positive of this.  It was clear to me:  Communism is a curse on a par with Nazism.  Liberals, such as union activists, simply don’t understand the dangers of flirting with social engineering wherein incentives are replaced by sameness and mediocrity.  A society cannot flourish when the leadership tries to mold others into its own image.   We must be free to find our own identities, start and build businesses, invent, follow our dreams with minimal restrictions.  If we do this, the less educated people will be pulled along as jobs are created.  The less fortunate will be inspired to summon their will and join the parade.   Barry Goldwater’s book, Conscience of a Conservative, became my political Bible.

In the late 50’s, the pastor of my family’s church began to speak out on racial issues.  He spoke of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King.  Feathers were ruffled, and I wrote him a letter.  “Dr. Peters,” I said,  “I don’t think it’s right to bring politics into the pulpit.” 

Through my college years, I held firm.  I did begin to open up in matters of religion.  My pastor in Burlingame and the faith leadership in Eugene, Oregon, guided me toward a faith that was comfortable with questions.   But when it came to social issues, I was locked in - to the consternation of some of my professors.   

Then came seminary.   I did my seminary work at the citadel of Presbyterianism – Princeton Theological Seminary, founded in 1812.  This was the ideal setting for shaving off my rough edges and preparing me for safe and sound, middle-of-the-road ministry.  This didn’t quite happen.

The seminary was in easy proximity to New York City, and my pastor in Burlingame encouraged me to do my field work in one of the less affluent churches of the city.  I chose a small church on the West Side of Manhattan, home turf to Bernstein’s Westside Story.   The poverty on the west side got my attention.  

I began asking questions, and who should come along to help me with my questioning but a social worker I happened to meet.  His name was Paul Kornbluth, and he worked on the streets with the gangs.  He unashamedly told this blond haired, blue eyed, Protestant Republican that he was Jewish, he was Marxist, and he was angry. 

One evening, Paul and I fell into conversation as we sat on the steps of an old apartment building.  We talked until the early hours of the morning.  He was informed and he was passionate.  He insisted that capitalism lies at the root of the poverty and injustice I was seeing on the West Side.  Capitalism, he said, is by its very nature predatory, and that it would always be looking for ways to circumvent and undermine our country’s carefully contrived checks and balances in the pursuit of profit and wealth.  I argued that Marxism has bred Communism which in all of its manifestations has been brutally autocratic.  He argued that capitalism exploits labor whereas Communism elevates labor.  Around and around we went.  Although I have come to reject Marxism in favor of an FDR/Bernie Sanders/Scandanavian sort of social democracy, his argument about the almost unstoppable aggressiveness of capitalism still weighs on me and seems prescient today.  Capitalism runs onto the playing field dressed and ready for tackle football.  The rest of the system seems more dressed and ready for badminton. 

But I’m getting way ahead of myself.  Paul was not really interested in converting me to Marxism.  He wanted something more.  He wanted me to care in a far more discerning and compelling way. 

Our conversation became ongoing and was a key turning point.  There were many influences, but Paul’s impact was the greatest.  And here are a couple of other major early influences in the evolving conscience of this conservative.   

It’s now the early 60’s, and the Cold War hovered like a threatening cloud.   I went to the writings of Josef Hromadka, a Checkoslavakian, Lutheran professor of theology and social ethics who was founder of the Marxist-Christian European dialogues.  Hromadka was a former professor at Princeton Seminary who returned to Europe to be a bridge builder.  His commitment was to dialogue and the opening of minds locked into the Cold War mentality.  His passion came through as powerfully as did Paul Kornbluth’s. 

Shortly after, I read James Baldwin’s, The Fire Next Time.   Here again the voice of truth and passion.  With rare eloquence, he laid bare the dehumanizing impact of racism not only on black Americans but on white Americans.  When I finished that book and set it down, at last, I wept. 

Over the course of my three years at the seminary, I had changed, but I knew the change was fragile.  It would be easy to jump from seminary into a church and become another cookie-cut Presbyterian minister.   So I became a missionary intern in Iran and had a good, hard look at the US from the perspective of a country that had been brutally twisted into the role of our pawn in the Cold War. 

I returned to the States and dug into anti-poverty work in the low-income, Southern California community of Pacoima.   I joined the anti-war movement, and even took part in the formation of a small commune in which I and a few friends tried the communal life-style. 

I must at last have become a truly changed person because, while visiting back in Burlingame, my father arranged for me to have lunch with a friend of his who was an executive with Shell Oil.  I learned later that the purpose of the lunch was to figure out whether I had become a Communist. 

In truth, I was still a conservative.  I wanted to conserve the deepest principles of my Christian faith and of the Constitution.  I wanted to marry the lovely Pamela Buchanan and raise a family in a world capable of conserving the peace, conserving the human family.  I am to this day a conservative longing for the conserving of this planet for the benefit of my grandchildren.    

A closing word about Paul Kornbluth.   He came to know many of my seminary colleagues, and a couple of years after we met, he approached one of them and asked, “How do I get baptized?”  My friend was astonished and asked, “Paul why do you want to be baptized?”  “Because,” Paul said, “I want to kneel.  This is what I need – to kneel”

Isn’t this what we all need?  To kneel and humble ourselves before the great challenges and unknowns and seek the strength that comes from somewhere beyond ourselves or somewhere very deep within?

May the spirit of that Jewish, Marxist, Christian, angry, loving social worker be the same sort of spirit that we find through ICUJP and through our various associations in which we seek to conserve all that matters most. 

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