This past year, Mom deep-cleaned the basement, put in new flooring (by herself), donated/threw away things we no longer used and reorganized special items we wanted to keep. One day several months ago, shortly after this massive undertaking was complete, I had just finished walking on the treadmill one Tuesday evening when I grabbed my phone off the shelf where I set it to play music, and in so doing noticed a folder with braille sticking out of it. Curious, I carefully pulled out the folder to look inside, and discovered she had saved the letter I wrote on Wednesday November 3, 2004, the day after the 2004 election, to President George W. Bush.
I remember that day vividly. I was a freshman in high school, too young to vote, but I voted for John Kerry in a mock school election during lunch period on the eve of the real election. To my dismay, George W. Bush was declared the winner of the mock election. But my parents weren’t surprised at all. We were independent voters, but they told me our county is a very Republican-leaning county. Looking back on it, high school was an interesting time. My peers and I were taking more interest in current events, as we realized how rapidly adulthood was approaching, and were starting to form our own opinions, and yet we were still largely sheltered, our opinions heavily influenced by our family values. The bus ride to school on Election Day was interesting, as I witnessed a boy from a conservative family get into a somewhat heated argument with the bus driver, a Black woman. A couple days later, on the bus ride home, I voiced my disappointment with Republican opposition to stem-cell research to a boy in a wheelchair due to muscular dystrophy whom I had ridden the bus with since elementary school. We had a casual friendship. One monday morning in middle school, he told me that a big project for Social Studies was due that day when I thought we had another week to work on it. When he saw my panicked face, he laughed and said, “Just kidding!” I liked teasing him for his unfair advantage in gym class when he would cruise around the perimeter of the gym in his wheelchair while the rest of us had to walk the laps. (He had his own exercises appropriate to his situation later).
On the bus home a couple days after Election Day, I told him how my sister and her boyfriend (now husband), were pursuing science degrees at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and pointed out that this field of research could one day repair my optic nerve and restore my sight, but Republican opposition was slowing this research. He responded that stem-cell research might hold the cure to his muscular dystrophy too, but he would rather remain handicapped than benefit from research that killed embryos. I didn’t have a response to this compelling argument. This conversation, and the interesting tension between self-interest and ethics it raised came back to mind on June 24 when Roe v. Wade was overturned. I will talk more about this issue specifically in another post, but that conversation was my first awareness of the reality that these sensitive issues are not black-and-white, and to pass legislation at either extreme that does not recognize this reality is counter-productive. (It would be really interesting to know where these bus friends stand on these issues now that they have experienced the broader adult world.)
The winner of the real election had not been called as of 7:30 Wednesday morning when I left for school. But one of my friends who somehow had access to the news came up to me in the hall between second and third hour, and informed me, with an excited tone of voice that indicated she had voted for Bush in the mock election, that George W. Bush was declared the winner, and John Kerry had just conceded. I think I smiled and uttered a neutral, “That’s cool!” Good sportsmanship was heavily emphasized in my family, and our school, so it never occurred to me to question the integrity of the election, or that one day, an insurrection would be instigated by adults who could not accept the outcome of an election. But after talking to my friend, a burning inspiration welled up in me, a sense that I needed to get civically engaged. I was going to write a letter to the president voicing my concerns. I have heard of people doing this. I have even heard of children being invited to the State of the Union address and being recognized for their activism. Maybe I would be recognized for my activism too, not just any teenager, but a blind teenager writing a letter to the president! Maybe shaking hands with one of my senators would fast-track me to an internship program and I would one day be president of the United States. Yes, I had a really big ego! In fact, my ego was so big that the following Saturday, realizing that I would no longer own the BrailleNote that composed this letter once I graduated high school, and even before then the digital file could be lost, I spent the morning re-typing the letter on my Perkins Brailler so that it would be preserved for posterity. It clocked in at 1,431 words according to my BrailleNote, 3 print pages, 8.5 braille pages.
I must have given my Math homework short-shrift that night because I remember typing feverishly on my letter that evening. I finished it during study hall the following afternoon, and printed it at school. The following day, Friday, there was no school, as we always had a long weekend at the end of each quarter to give teachers time for grading. This meant Mom could take me to the post office first thing in the morning, I realized as I got on the bus that afternoon!
Mom laughed a little uneasily about the pointed language in my letter–no veiled threats or anything like that, just a very snarky tone–but she was fully supportive of my activism. So that evening, she helped me re-type the letter on our desktop computer to correct some formatting issues and make minor edits, but the final letter ended up being pretty close to my original inspiration, and on Friday morning, it was signed and sealed and Mom promised we would drop it off at the post office on the way to a garden center with Grandma.
I forget the specifics of why the post office mailbox was blocked, but Mom said she couldn’t pull the car up to it as she usually does, and she thought it would be easier if I just give her the envelope and let her get out of the car and drop it in the mailbox. So I gave her the letter, but when two months passed with no response, despite knowing that Mom is a person of impeccable integrity whom I still trust to fill out my ballots on Election Days–and we have on a few occasions voted differently–I had to ask, “you really did drop it in the box, right?” In my teenage mind, it dawned on me that given the contentious political climate–though child’s play compared to the political climate today–her understandable motherly instinct to protect me from possible negative repercussions could have prompted an uncharacteristic one-time act of deception that would have been very easy to pull off given I am blind. She could have gotten out of the car, walked to the mailbox, maybe even stuck her hand in the mailbox without actually releasing the envelope from her grip, and walked back to the car.
Much later–I think it might have been March or April–I did receive a terse, generic form letter. No invitations to the State of the Union Address, no fast-tracking to an internship, but it still ended up being a valuable learning experience that still influences how I think about politics today.
My cynical attitude toward politics was cemented during my time studying with my Jehovah’s Witness friends. When they explained why they do not vote or run for political office, I remember challenging, “but if we had more people of good character in government, this world could be better?” They responded that there are good people in office, but they are ineffective because all earthly governments are influenced by Satan. When they went home, and I watched news coverage of Donald Trump’s meteoric rise in popularity despite a complete absence of morals, or Republicans so out-of-touch with average people, so beholden to lobbyists, and so addicted to power that they championed denial of health coverage to people with pre-existing conditions and refused to pass sensible gun control legislation even after hearing emotional testimony from grieving families, when Hillary Clinton, despite having character far superior to Trump, was nonetheless also beholden to large donors and wasn’t entirely transparent, especially when it was revealed she used a private e-mail server for government correspondences, it occurred to me, “oh my goodness! The Jehovah’s Witnesses are right!” But the seed of cynicism was planted with that letter back in 2004, my first realization that politicians really don’t care what the average teenager in middle-America thinks.
To be fair, like I said it wasn’t the greatest letter. I laughed hysterically when I found this letter. I cannot believe what a snarky teenager I was! To get a taste of my tone, here is the first paragraph: “My name is Allison Nastoff and I am fourteen years old. I am also blind. I am writing to you on behalf of me as well as my parents, siblings and friends to inform you that I am very disappointed that you were reelected. Let me tell you why since apparently, you haven’t been listening to the news or the pleas of half the American people.” The rest of the letter is pretty much parroting rhetoric from hyper-partisan sources like Michael Moore’s movie Fahrenheit 9/11, or arguments I overheard from friends and family. My ignorance of history was also on full display, as I unfairly attributed economic policies that encouraged the outsourcing of jobs, and opposition to abortion and stem-cell research to George W. Bush personally, not fully understanding the concept of party platforms, and unaware that the modern positions of the Republican Party actually originated with Ronald Reagan, and the Moral Majority Campaign of Christian fundamentalists that got him elected.
What is interesting about this letter though is that despite having a much better grasp of history, and eighteen additional years of life experience and exposure to people with different views, my positions on the issues I address remain largely unchanged. If I were writing this letter today, my reasoning would simply be more nuanced, and of course, I would write more conscientiously and seek constructive feedback to ensure my tone would be less off-putting. For example, when criticizing his opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion, I write, “I am definitely against gay marriage and abortion because marriage should be between a man and a woman, and having an abortion does take the life of an unborn child, but I strongly oppose outlawing abortion, and passing a constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage. This is because, as John Kerry said, you can’t legislate your religious beliefs.” I laughed at my teenage self for being so partisan that I appealed to John Kerry as if he were God. Today, if I chose to appeal to a person, I would choose someone more illustrious like Thomas Jefferson who stated in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom that, “Almighty God hath created the mind free.” But while we should not go as far as totally demonizing Thomas Jefferson, we should acknowledge the hypocrisy of this and other statements he made regarding liberty in light of the reality that he owned many slaves. Perhaps a more impactful argument would simply be to respectfully point out that while we are free to have our own personal convictions on these subjects, we really have no right to broadcast our opinions, much less legislate on them unless we have had firsthand experience with these circumstances.
One fundamental aspect of my letter has evolved significantly however. In my critique of the war in Iraq, in my critique of his opposition to stem-cell research, and in the conclusion of the letter, I give considerable attention to America’s stature in the world. Perhaps embracing the idea of American exceptionalism was understandable in 2004, just three years after 9/11. The way I remember it, although there was certainly division in 2004, there was also still a lingering sense of patriotism in those days. But as an adult, I have come to believe that the concept of American exceptionalism is problematic. Even if you don’t ascribe to Christianity, I would submit to you that American exceptionalism is harmful because it actually hinders our progress toward becoming more exceptional (a more perfect union). It’s like when I was in chamber choir in high school. Chamber choir was the highest-level choir in the school. Auditions were required to get in, and not everyone who auditioned was accepted. We all loved to sing, and knew what we had signed up for, more challenging music. But this choir met the last hour of the day, so we were tired from a long school day. I think we would have loved to just come to choir, sing our songs straight through, be told we were awesome, and go home refreshed from an hour of carefree singing and the stroking of our egos as the students privileged to be in the highest-level choir in the school. But that is not how Mrs. B operated. She did not care that it was the last hour of the day. She expected excellence from us, and there were many days when we couldn’t sing more than one note without her stopping to nitpick the tiniest improperly pronounced vowel, or tone that wasn’t locked. One day when she could sense that the class was exasperated by this, she stopped and explained that her nitpicking was out of love. We were excellent, but while the choir director who doesn’t have high expectations, doesn’t call out when students could do better may be the more fun teacher in the short-term, long-term, such teachers ultimately do their students a disservice. I believe the same metaphor is appropriate for our country. We do have a lot to be proud of as a country. No other civilization in human history has enjoyed the same degree of freedom, especially regarding speech and religion, as the United States. But we also have a lot to be ashamed of, especially our history of slavery, systemic racism, and the murder and oppression of indigenous people. Instead of reflexively accusing people like Nicole Hannah Jones (author of The 1619 Project) of hating America, we should recognize that people like her are comparable to Mrs. B. It is because they love this country that they challenge us to actually live up to the ideals espoused in our Constitution, which cannot happen until we are willing to take the extremely uncomfortable but necessary first step of exposing our ugly history to full sunlight.
But for those of us who are Christian, American exceptionalism is especially dangerous because we have a tendency to merge this exceptionalism with Christianity (Christian Nationalism) which is actually a form of idolatry that ultimately leads people to worship country before God. It should come as no surprise that this attitude leads to the implementation of policies that are anything but Christian, but which people justify using Scripture.
Thus if I were writing this letter today, I would radically reform the following problematic passage related to the war in Iraq: “But perhaps the most saddening aspect of this war in Iraq is our declining stature in the world. Before you took office, America was a super-power, a dream land which many immigrants saved all their earnings to immigrate to. Yet I have heard many predictions, even from optimistic adults predict that in four years, America will no longer be a super-power, or a dream place that people will immigrate to.” First, the most saddening aspect of this war was the death of thousands of American soldiers and Iraqi civilians in a war that could not even be justified as self-defense provoked by a direct attack. But today I would ask, what gives us the right to appoint ourselves policemen of the world, toppling regimes like Saddam Hussein (evil as he was) when we have our own cruel history? I would also completely abandon the concern over our country no longer being a super-power because now I realize, so what if we are no longer a super-power. All once-revered empires in history–Ancient Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Rome–and in modern times Great Britain, eventually fell. Even God’s chosen people Israel were ultimately divided and scattered. The Bible says that kings are set up and deposed according to God’s sovereign will (Daniel 2:21), and numerous Bible verses make it clear that only Christ’s kingdom will endure forever. Some Bible scholars speculate that perhaps the United States is represented in the feet of the statue envisioned in King Nebachadnezar’s dream, made from a mix of iron and clay, an empire that is strong because of the iron, but also divided (Daniel 2:41). But there is far from universal agreement about this, and in any case, such speculation is counter-productive. What matters is that no great empire of human history has endured forever, and to think that the United States will end up being some kind of divinely ordained exception to this pattern is a form of idolatry.
As I mentioned back in June when I felt inspired to write about the gun violence epidemic, I had planned to read Jesus and John Wayne this summer, a book introduced to me in a discussion from my American Church History course. Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten very far, and realistically won’t have it finished by the time school starts again in a week and a half as it reads like a textbook so I have had difficulty staying focused on it. But in chapter 1, the author discusses how liberal Protestants and Fundamentalist Christians disagreed over whether the United States should get involved in World War I. While liberal Protestants saw the war as a war to end all wars, and an opportunity for the United States to extend Democracy and Christianity across the globe, fundamentalists questioned the very notion that the United States is or ever was a Christian nation. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t take long for the attitudes of fundamentalists to radically change, but I would have agreed with a quote from the November 1914 edition of The King’s Business, a monthly publication of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles. “A Christian nation” the editors argued, “is a nation which, as a nation has accepted Christ as its Savior and as its Lord in its commerce, in its politics, in its international relations and in all the departments of its life. Such a nation does not exist on Earth, and never has existed, and never will exist until our Lord comes again.” Thus if I were writing this letter to George W. Bush today, I would no longer embrace the attitude of American exceptionalism, and would respectfully urge President Bush to return to the true tenants of the Christian faith, to seek peace, not war, to implement policies that honor the human dignity of all, even at the cost of political power, wealth or our dominance on the world stage.
The political polarization today is such that during the Trump administration when I helped friends and family compose respectful letters to our representatives voicing our concerns, the letters were completely disregarded. I believe we are much safer as a nation under President Biden, a man whose integrity, character and competence is far superior to Donald Trump. But he is by no means perfect. I especially disagree with his decision to step back from his bold promises to invest in clean energy and issue new permits for oil drilling to lower gas prices, putting short-term economic interests ahead of the long-term existential threat of climate change. And Joe Biden is still part of a political system beholden to money and special interests such that I think even today if the teenage me said she wanted to write a letter to the president or her representatives, I would say, “Don’t waste your time.”
This past Tuesday, Wisconsin held its primary election, and one of the races on the ballot was the race for the Democratic candidate who would run against–and hopefully unseat–Ron Johnson, a horrific embodiment of Christian nationalism. One of the candidates that ran was Steven Olikara. It just so happens that I went to school with him from kindergarten through high school, but that had nothing to do with why I supported him. His campaign was radical, and a refreshing departure from traditional politics. He wanted to represent the “exhausted majority,” the vast majority of Americans who no longer trust that government can work for them. On Sunday July 17, a debate was televised statewide, and while the other candidates gave the traditional canned political responses to issues–assuring viewers of their pro-choice stance for example–Steven Olikara recognized the abortion debate had nothing to do with genuine concern for women or babies. It was an example of the political-industrial complex, an issue that both sides use to raise money and gain political power. He promised he would work to get money out of politics, even promising that he would not fundraise while Congress was in session. His website also advocated for term limits, and a citizen-legislature such that ordinary people could have access to politics, and thus the interests of ordinary people would be better represented. But ironically and unfortunately, because of his impeccable integrity, his refusal to participate in “the system” by accepting money from special interests, his campaign budget was only $500,000 compared with the multiple millions of the candidate the party establishment decided to coalesce behind, Mandella Barns. Many Wisconsinites likely were unaware of Steven Olikara because I only saw one very brief commercial last Sunday morning, and it frustrated me to hear that even many voters who were impressed by him decided to vote for other candidates, succumbing to concerns over “electability.” Thus to my astonishment, while Mandella Barns won with over 389,000 votes, Steven Olikara received only 5,611 votes statewide! At least I can proudly say I was one of them. This is not to say that Mandella Barns isn’t a good person. While he is wealthy now, as a black man raised by working-class parents, I am confident he understands and will represent ordinary people far better than Ron Johnson has. I also recognize that even if Steven Olikara won the primary race and the general election in November, his effectiveness would have been hindered by “the system.” The Bible is clear that no earthly mortal–not even Steven Olikara–can truly reform our fallen world. Thus, I would tell the teenage me that while Ronald Reagan’s racist rhetoric regarding welfare, and “law and order,” and his flawed belief in trickle-down economics have done immeasurable harm to this country, he did get one thing right. Government is not the solution to our problems. Government is the problem. As such, far more productive than running for political office or writing letters to your representatives will be your decision to study to become a chaplain.