God, Politics, and Fishing
I've never known life without God, politics, or fishing. Eventually I would fuse them all.
First came fishing. A mile down the road from our house just north of New York City was a little lake. Hot, humid summer days were spent on a bridge with my father, emaciated earthworms, and an old saltwater reel and pole. Those days were always fishless but full. A son loves fishing with his father.
Over time I ventured there alone, discovering holes under a fence that opened up a world that felt like home. To the objective eye it wasn't much: several hundred yards of rocky shoreline, tall weeds, and scrawny trees. For me, though, there was comfort behind the fence and in front of the water. The fence kept out the world and the water held fathomless possibilities.
Fishing was a repeated act of trust. I trusted that there were fish where I was throwing lures and I trusted that I would have the sense to tug at the right time when a fish took the offering. I trusted that the thing at the end of the line was a prized largemouth bass and not some stinky carp or catfish. My trust was rewarded often enough that I believed this cycle would never end. That, I suppose, is similar to faith, and may explain why Jesus loved fishermen so much.
Growing up, I knew Jesus was the Son of God. I just wasn't quite sure what that meant. A picture of him, blond and doe-eyed with long robes and holding a little lamb, hung in my parents' bedroom. I remember lying on their bed one afternoon when I was little, looking up at him. He seemed sweet. He was pretty. That's all I thought about him for the longest time. My mother, a liberal Baptist, talked about him some, but mostly she sang about him. She sang about him when preparing dinner or washing dishes or doing most anything else. She had a high, beautiful voice. The verses got lost in the singing but not the choruses. I still occasionally find myself doing dishes and humming "How great thou art."
My mother's voice was also slightly haunting and sad. She had good reasons the Great Depression, World War II, her father's early death. If I had gone through all of that, I might have ditched God altogether. But my mother chose God, again and again. And though there was great sadness to her faith, there was a great richness, too. She knew what suffering was like and knew God was refuge, fortress, sustainer, and comforter.
My father, however, seemed passively hostile to faith. He was born in China in 1922 and grew up there. His mother's feet were bound, his father had a concubine, and he was given opium as medicine. Of course there wasn't really much of a youth. At sixteen he ran away from his home in the middle of the night before the Japanese overran his hometown near Shanghai. For the next eleven years he fought. First there were the Japanese on the Burma Road, in one of the more horrendous theaters of fighting of the war he would know. This was the land of the bridge over the river Kwai and the "forgotten army." Then there were the communists in the north. These were the years that held his life's horrible hidden stories.
To me, as a child, he felt so tough and so strong and so huge that he didn't seem to need God. Of course, he may have questioned whether God even existed. Or his pain may have been so great that he had little place for the Prince of Peace. I didn't know. He didn't talk about it.
Then again, perhaps he just disliked our little United Methodist Church, as did my two older sisters. It had a stereotypically awful Sunday school replete with felt cutouts of famous biblical scenes. Moses was green, David was blue, Goliath was purple, and Jesus was brown. The services were worse, but then again I was a kid. The pastor, large and red-faced in billowing robes, scared me. Years later, when someone said God smiled, I laughed. God frowned.
But there was another side to my childhood faith. There was Mom reading me the Psalms in the evenings. She showed me stories of daring and adventure: a boy taking on a giant with a stone; a man thrown into a den of hungry lions, only to befriend them; three friends thrown into a furnace of fire, yet untouched by the flames. Church was dull but God wasn't.
Throughout my childhood until high school at least I never heard words like "saved" or "accept Jesus" or "salvation." There was just God and Jesus, somehow one and somehow different.
Then there was politics. Mine came mostly by osmosis. I remember at the age of five charging through the screen door, breathless from my twenty-third game of baseball with neighborhood friends, in desperate need of water. For weeks on end, it seemed to me, the rest of the family had been gathered around our small black-and-white television set watching something riveting. I paused and saw my first-ever congressional hearing. It made no conscious impression; nor did any of the news about this thing called Watergate.
Far more powerful was my mother's own past political activism. In college, in California, she felt God calling her to serve the poor. She studied nursing at Emory University. She hated it. She told us about the discrimination against blacks by whites, the ghetto housing with no running water or electricity, and the regular denial of medical care to even critically ill black patients. Then there were the stories about her summer living in rural southeast Georgia on an interracial Christian commune. It was a farming collective where men and women of different races lived together to prove that such things were possible. There were shotgun blasts in the middle of the night, cross burnings, and racial hatred of the nastiest kind. She left the South and pledged never to return.
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.
Love, David Kuo
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?"
Another girl exclaimed, "Oh! I remember the answer to this one." She turned to our brand-new youth pastor and said, "Is it that thing you said the other day about accepting Jesus or something weird like that?"
Our youth pastor smiled and said, "Yeah, something weird like that."
I laughed. How silly. How do you accept someone? I knew all about accepting. My father was a college professor. Colleges accepted people. People don't "accept" people. Besides, what does accepting Jesus have to do with heaven?
Everyone knew the answer to the heaven question. If I died and had to stand at the pearly gates explaining why I deserved to be admitted, I would have to tell God I had lived a fairly decent life and leave it at that. I wasn't worried. At seventeen I hadn't killed anyone or pillaged any cities. Sure, I bought that Playboy with Madonna in it. But those hairy armpits were punishment enough. I feared Jeff might be nuts.
It says something about either the gentleness or the ineptitude of our church that I knew nothing about Jesus' role in Christianity by the time I was seventeen. Of course, it might have been my own theological density. I had been through a confirmation class when I was twelve or thirteen. I even remembered parts of the Nicene Creed, the theological foundation of virtually every Christian denomination since the fourth century: "We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father." Still, the whole accepting thing seemed simply weird.
Over the following months our group went horseback riding, hung out at Jeff's house with his wife, Jodie, and talked about the Bible. We also memorized the order of New Testament books, with the help of nifty mnemonic devices like "God Eats Popcorn" to remember that Galatians precedes Ephesians, which precedes Philippians.
Jeff let us ask questions about anything. Nothing was off-limits. During one entire meeting, for instance, he let me present my case that Michael Jackson might actually be the Archangel Michael in human form. An article in People seriously speculated about his potential divinity. I could see it. It was 1985 and Jackson, still black and odd only insofar as he hung out with Elizabeth Taylor and a chimpanzee named Bubbles, reigned over the pop music world. I thought my case was sound Michael sang well, his dancing was otherworldly, he seemed to possess an untainted innocence, and children were drawn to him. I didn't convince anyone. No one even laughed. I still suspect Jeff prepped them.
One night, in the summer between my junior and senior years, I got a call from Christian. He was normally a quiet kid who didn't laugh much, but that night he was giddy. "I prayed for Jesus to enter my heart and I feel different, changed, alive." I was happy for him. For the first time, I could also basically understand why someone would want to do that. God existed before there was time and existed outside of the universe that he had created. He was the playwright. But we were the actors, who tried to live out a different life from the one he had desired. Our script was about us. That is why Jesus came to pay the price we could not pay to get us back on God's script. Jesus was the unknowable and unreachable God in knowable human form. He wasn't just a great man or a great prophet. He was God. Yet, somehow, he was man. To know Jesus meant to know the true nature of God. Jesus had all the answers. And he had taken every wrong thing I had ever done and would ever do onto himself, dying on a cross only to live again three days later. Who wouldn't want to tap into that kind of power? I told Christian I was thrilled for his new life. But I ended the call quickly. Christian had Jesus. I had tickets to go see Tina Turner with my girlfriend.
We dove into the soulful exuberance of that blond wig-wearing leggy Buddhist. Driving home I was feeling very mature. I had the mobility of wheels, instant access to New York City, a cute girlfriend, and only life in front of me. Though it was August in New York, the air had cooled after a night of intense thunderstorms. Leaves and small branches were strewn across the parkway as we drove north to our homes. Even more evidence of the storms was visible when I dropped off my girlfriend. There were so many leaves on her front lawn that night that, in the darkness, it looked like fall. I drove around town, past my elementary, middle, and high schools, reveling in the night, windows down, sweet air, loud music. It was good. I got home, opened the windows in my room, and went to sleep.
At seven in the morning the phone rang. It was Jeff.
"David, Christian was killed in a car crash last night. He was driving and the car must have hydroplaned. He went head-on into a tree and was killed instantly."
It happened on a road I had driven the night before.
I didn't say another word for quite a while. Jeff said some stuff but I didn't hear any of it. How could my laughing friend Christian, who had just accepted Jesus, be dead? Death only happened on TV or to old people. How could he be gone? We had conversations to complete. I needed to know about his Jesus experience. Was it real? What was it like? And we had life to live. It never occurred to me that he might be in heaven and that he might be a whole lot happier there than he was here.
Over the following days I discovered death. There was the sickly sweet smell of a funeral home, the disturbingly shiny casket, and the frantic numbness. I felt nothing, so all I could do was to watch others. Some mourned and grieved with such desolation that it seemed the world had ended. It was a grief with pain but no balm. When God or Jesus was mentioned, some spat at the names with their words or glances. On the other hand, there were some, like Jeff, who were crushed but not destroyed. His eyes were red and his pain was clear but it was as if he were moored to something that kept him from sinking.
When it was all over, I went fishing. As I did, I kept coming back to the contrast desolation versus grieving with hope. Of course, now I realize that people grieve in many different ways. Still, the difference in someone like Jeff was undeniable. It seemed to me that if "accepting Jesus" mattered, it had to show itself as something more than words that purportedly delivered someone to heaven. If this faith thing was real it had to show up as real at the most unexpectedly difficult times the times when your true nature is revealed unedited; when you stub your toe badly and want to scream great expletives, when someone cuts you off in traffic and flips you the bird, when horror visits. In Jeff I saw that difference. It made me want to be like him, and I knew the best part of him was Jesus.
One day, after more time with Jeff, I went home and ended up sitting in the bathroom. The bathroom had the only door in the house that locked and I didn't want anyone seeing what I was about to do. I told Jesus that I wanted him in my life and I wanted my life to be about him. I said that I couldn't make it without him. I needed his sacrifice and life to take me back to God. I waited for the smile to cross my face. I waited for tears or tingles or emotion. I didn't feel anything. I tried it again. Did I do something wrong? Was it real? Was I good with God?
I went about the rest of the day and then tried again before sleep. I still didn't feel anything. The next morning, the same thing. Still there was nothing. I kept this up for several days before telling Jeff about my experience. He was thrilled and excited for me and told me not to worry, I was now officially a Christian. I had been born again.
Christian faith wasn't about emotion, he said. It wasn't devoid of emotion but it wasn't based on it. Faith shouldn't ebb and flow based on how happy or sad or grumpy or sneezy we are. Faith in Jesus is rooted in something deeper. Then he pointed me to Jesus' parable about the man who built his house on a rock versus the man who built his house on sand. A storm came and the man housed on the rock remained firm. The guy with his house on the sand was blown away into nothingness. Building on rock was harder than building on sand because it took more time, required more work motion was the sand, faith was the rock. In the end, though, it would be worth the work because when storms like Christian's death arrived, I wouldn't get swept away. I liked that.
Perhaps because I wasn't a suddenly reformed drug addict or a repentant marauder, my life didn't change all that much. If pressed, I would say that my temper became more muted. I ceased screaming every time the New York Mets lost a baseball game. (I just fumed.) The temptations to do the "wrong thing" were every bit as strong as before: My girlfriend didn't suddenly become less attractive. I still desperately wanted to move farther around the sexual bases. My room didn't suddenly become spotless and I didn't go out and serve the poor or sell all my possessions.
But God had grown. The God of my early youth had existed effortlessly but ethereally, more real than the Tooth Fairy, not quite as concrete as Santa Claus. Now, as high school was concluding, God had a face. God was Jesus and Jesus was God and while they were theologically one, Jesus made God approachable. God was infinite. Jesus was palpable. My occasional Bible reading focused much more on the Gospels and Paul's letters to the various churches than on the Psalms.
In the process I discovered that Jesus moved me. When I read his invitation, "Come to me all you who are weary and weighed down and I will give you rest. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light," it made me long, deeply long, for something I couldn't identify, a kind of supreme peace infinitely more intense than anything I had found behind the fence of my lake. I began to wonder if I had missed something in that picture of the doe-eyed Jesus carrying the lamb. Maybe those soft eyes belied the strong hands of a shepherd who'd rescued many lost lambs and given them perfect comfort and peace lambs like me.
I knew I had missed the most powerful part of that picture. While recuperating from life-threatening wounds during World War II, my father ended up in a hospital where a distant aunt was a doctor. As he recuperated, they went on walks together. He learned she was a Christian, and from time to time she took him to her small Episcopal church. Jesus made little sense to him. Jesus was totally foreign and he wanted nothing to do with him. Over time, though, Jesus intrigued him. He asked his aunt why she was a "foreign religion believer." She never gave a direct answer. Perhaps it was because she knew my father the fastest way to get him interested in something was to pique his curiosity.
He began to think about this Jesus he had discovered. It occurred to him at the time that Jesus was the most selfless and unselfish man ever. My father liked that. Before leaving China on the eve of the communist takeover, he saw the silk-screened picture of Jesus holding a lamb. He began to walk away from it but couldn't. He emptied his pockets to buy it. Years later, after being baptized a Christian, he had it framed and gave it to my mother.
Throughout this, my political interest never faltered, never altered. I was still a liberal Democrat. In the fall of 1986 I ended up going to Tufts University to study law and international relations and politics. I was against the death penalty. I was in favor of programs that helped the poor. I supported international human rights and the United Nations. Upon my arrival in Boston I signed up for classes, joined the crew team, and volunteered for Joe Kennedy's first campaign for Congress.
I kept my politics at an ambivalent distance from my faith. It wasn't a wall of separation. It just hadn't dawned on me that my powerful relationship with God and my intense interest in politics could be merged into a single force. To the degree I did think of the two together I simply thought about whether the things I sought through politics lined up with the things I knew of Jesus. That made everything fairly easy. I was confident he liked my positions. But I never thought of invoking that endorsement to support my orientation. That seemed disrespectful.
My minister was no longer Jeff Brown. Now that I had moved to Tufts, it was an older man who worked with Christian groups at Harvard and MIT. Kevin was the walrus. He had a friendly face with emerging jowls and a big mustache and a friendly belly. In many ways he was the anti-Jeff. Kevin was brilliant and learned. He could have answered every one of those questions we asked when Christian had been killed. He would probably have cross-referenced those answers with dozens of books, articles, and sermons. He didn't have quite the same Jeff-like glow. But there was a profound kindness and gentleness to him. When he picked up on my intellectual hunger for Jesus he fed me books like G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy, which I found initially thrilling and eventually impenetrable, and numerous works by the late Oxford theologian C. S. Lewis. And when he learned about my interest in politics, he introduced me to Chuck Colson.
One winter day during my sophomore year, Kevin told me Colson was going to speak at Brown University on Christian involvement in the political arena. I eagerly went. I knew very little about Colson, save that he had been Nixon's hatchet man, famously saying he would walk over his grandmother to get the president reelected. He had actually done far worse. He authored Nixon's famous "Enemies List" of all the president's political opponents. He led a dirty tricks campaign against George McGovern, Nixon's opponent in 1972. He leaked information on Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatric care, in hopes of discrediting the man who himself had leaked Pentagon information on how poorly the Vietnam War was going. Colson was eventually sent to prison for his crimes, but not before accepting Jesus and being born again.
His conversion gave political cartoonists months of fodder. But when released, Colson didn't retreat. After several years of quiet theological study, he founded a ministry for prisoners called Prison Fellowship. Still a right-wing Republican, he had seen the wasted lives of prison. He began advocating for better conditions for all prisoners and for white-collar criminals to be forced to give something back to society with their skills. At its heart, though, Prison Fellowship sought to bring Jesus into prisons through Bible studies. By early 1987 Colson had become one of the most influential voices in the evangelical world.
We sat on old wooden chairs in a cavernous hall with thick, old windows and an exposed beam ceiling. Great, pensive portraits of dead white men adorned the walls. It was the kind of room that felt like it would be cold no matter what the temperature was. Colson, who looked like the human equivalent of a very tanned shar-pei, with symmetrical wrinkles and folds of skin around his face, was returning to Brown for the first time since a 1973 speech he had given there from his lofty perch as President Nixon's general counsel. As he reached the lectern he joked that when he worked for the White House, Brown had hailed him as a conquering hero; now that he represented God, only Brown's small Christian fellowship had invited him.
Colson wasn't preaching and he wasn't delivering a rousing political message. He spoke as an academic trying to make his case to an intellectually suspicious audience. His thesis was simple. Never before in American life had the public square been so stripped of Judeo-Christian influence and so actively hostile to Christians. He wasn't arguing, he explained, for a power grab, but simply for the reclamation of the first freedom of American life, the right of religious people of all faiths to influence the political process. America faced a burgeoning cultural war. What was now at stake was the loss of religious freedom itself, and the erosion of the Judeo-Christian ethic so essential to democracy.
He traced the descent of this tradition through the Supreme Court decision banning school prayer, the campus popularity of "relativistic" French writers Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, the 1960s ethic of "do your own thing," and the resultant "spiral of easy sex and hard drugs."
"Religion in American culture has lost its cutting edge," Colson said that night. "It has become part of 'the scene.' Eighty-one percent of American adults say they are Christian, yet in terms of moral values our society today is really decadent. We have simply accommodated the culture. Whenever the church does this, it loses its vitality." Christians were supposed to be different. They were supposed to be vibrant and alive. They were supposed to be living fully in the world but were also to be different from the world and the world's standards. But that wasn't happening. The truth was actually quite the opposite. Christians were exactly the same as the world. Christians divorced at the same rate as non-Christians, they had premarital sex at the same rate, they had just as many abortions, they hoarded their money without giving sacrificially to the poor, and always wanted more.
What America needs, Colson said, "is a restoration of religious values in public life. The shockwaves that threaten the very foundations of our culture today emanate from society's failure to understand man's need for God and Christians' failure to accurately present Christ's message of the Kingdom of God." I wrote it all down, as furiously as I could scribble. I even wrote down another quick point he made: Much of what needed to be done was actually beyond the reach of politics. Reformation, after all, wasn't the work of government. I just wouldn't remember it for years.
Mixing religion and politics wasn't unconstitutional; it was the basis of American civilization. The Declaration of Independence, the Ten Commandments on the wall of the Supreme Court, the prayers that open and close House and Senate sessions, the Constitution itself these are all religion and they are all politics and they are all fundamentally American.
It wasn't easy, he said, and it wasn't going to get any easier. "I don't know of any presidential candidate who has taken what I believe to be a correct position on the role of religion and politics."
My head was spinning faster than my scribbling pen. I was inspired. I was dazzled. I could help solve the greatest problems in America just by being a Christian a real Christian. If I followed Jesus, helped others follow Jesus, and did it all publicly, I would be fighting back against the secularizing forces that were sweeping God into the corner. This wasn't just a personal fight, it was a patriotic one as well. America was at stake. America's religious liberty was America's first liberty. If that is lost, we are lost.
I left Brown University that night inspired that I could save America religiously and politically. God now infused my politics even if politics didn't yet infuse my God.
I went back to Tufts and in the following weeks found every Colson book I could. Our library didn't own any copies of anything he had written, despite the fact that he had sold millions of books. So I ordered and devoured them: Born Again, Loving God, and Against the Night. They were stories about God, about faith, and about how Christian values have been lost. The more I read, the more inspired I became. Then I read his account of William Wilberforce in Kingdoms in Conflict.
Wilberforce, a wealthy member of Parliament in the late 1700s in Great Britain, had had a dramatic conversion to Christ. After almost perishing when his carriage nearly slid off the side of a mountain, he turned to God. Ready to renounce politics to pursue God, he was instead convinced by John Newton, a former brutal slave trader turned Christian, to use politics for God. Wilberforce worked for popular education, religious liberty, and parliamentary reform. He devoted his life to abolishing slavery. In 1788 Wilberforce introduced his first antislavery bill with a three-and-a-half-hour speech. He concluded, "Sir, when we think of eternity and the future consequence of all human conduct, what is there in this life that shall make any man contradict the dictates of his conscience, the principles of justice and the law of God?" For the next thirty years he fought against slavery. He finally saw the slave trade abolished, on the very night that he died.
Wilberforce was a model for how religion could influence government for moral reform. I seized upon that model. International human rights, the abolition of the death penalty, relief for the poor, aid for Africa, an end to apartheid these all struck me as the great and purposeful moral issues of the day. These, I knew, were the sorts of moral issues that Wilberforce would have championed. That's what drove me deeper into Democratic politics.
That summer I worked for a Democratic polling firm and the next summer, in 1988, I worked on Michael Dukakis's presidential campaign. It was abundantly clear to me that if I were to follow everything I had learned about my Christian duty to society I would have to work even harder on the issues I cared about so passionately. Who could doubt that Jesus supported me? I sure couldn't. And I didn't really interact with anyone who disputed me. Then again, I was going to school in Boston, not Austin.
Yes, elsewhere in America, many others would have disputed my priorities. For if slavery had been the moral issue for Christians in the nineteenth century, abortion was the same for many late-twentieth-century Christians. The Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision in 1973 had mobilized Christian political activism more than any other single event. It wasn't just conservative Christians who were stunned. Not too long after the decision, Jesse Jackson wrote, "What happens to the mind of a person, and the moral fabric of a nation, that accepts the aborting of the life of a baby without a pang of conscience? What kind of a person and what kind of a society will we have 20 years hence if life can be taken so casually? It is that question, the question of our attitude, our value system, and our mind-set with regard to the nature and worth of life itself that is the central question confronting mankind. Failure to answer that question affirmatively may leave us with a hell right here on earth." Congress seriously considered and nearly passed a Human Life Amendment. Abortion became the litmus test for politically inclined Christians in examining the moral conscience of anyone running for office.
In 1989, the spring semester of my junior year, the Supreme Court was preparing to hear arguments in a case innocuously known as William L. Webster v. Reproductive Health Services. In 1986, the Missouri legislature had placed a number of restrictions on abortions. A law was passed stating that "[t]he life of each human being begins at conception." Public employees and public facilities were not to be used in performing or assisting abortions unnecessary to save the mother's life; counseling in favor of abortions was prohibited; and physicians were to perform viability tests upon women in their twentieth (or more) week of pregnancy.
For the first time since 1973 the legally guaranteed right to abortion was in serious jeopardy. Celebrities, Democratic political leaders, and abortion rights advocates championed the right to choose.Religious leaders, Republican political leaders, and pro-life advocates championed the rights of the unborn. Both sides fought for the moral ground. One side saw itself representing the rights of mothers, the other, the rights of the unborn children.
I had never thought much about abortion until my girlfriend had one.
In the midst of the Webster debate, my girlfriend became pregnant. She wasn't gung ho for Jesus, as I was. And when she was around, I was far more gung ho for her than for Jesus. I knew that premarital sex was a Christian no-no. But it didn't seem to me to be a big no-no. Murder and rape and adultery and genocide and torture were big issues. Sex? It seemed far less significant. Jesus was no match for my hormones.
Neither of us really wanted to become parents. When she discovered she was pregnant, it didn't occur to us that perhaps that choice had already been made. Instead, our fears were wholly selfish. We didn't want to be exposed. I didn't want my Christian friends to know I was having sex. She didn't want to tell her friends for fear that someone would have loose lips. Neither of us wanted to tell our parents. My sisters told me stories about how my father had been chaste throughout World War II, never sleeping with the woman who was his fiancée, even refusing to sleep in the same bed with her, preferring instead to sleep in a chair one night when they were forced to share a room. How could I tell him about a pregnancy? My girlfriend's parents owned a successful business in the Northwest and were very respected in the community. This sort of thing didn't fit well with that image.
Though the abortion debate swirled around us, we hadn't paid too much attention to it. I might have called myself pro-life and she might have called herself pro-choice but then again it might have been the other way around. As we flipped through the yellow pages to find a clinic we were dizzy with disgust and longing for relief. Much of the disgust was with us. Why had we been so stupid and not been more careful? It was unfair. The relief we longed for was the promise that a small procedure would just make the whole problem disappear. A few hundred bucks and all would be done. We didn't allow ourselves to ask any serious questions: Is "it" an "it" or a "he" or a "she"? Is this murder? Would our short-term relief become long-term regret? We asked ourselves these questions privately but didn't allow ourselves to ask them of each other. As much as we might be wrestling with the issue, we were going down the abortion route and didn't want ourselves to be dissuaded. It felt as if getting rid of the pregnancy quickly would make the abortion less of a problem, much as removing a tumor is easier if discovered sooner rather than later.
We chose a clinic on a prestigious street in Boston. It made it feel safer, more respectable. The thick, dark wooden doors had brass lettering. A nurse assured us that this procedure was normal, safe, and relatively painless. It was a morally neutral occurrence, she said, nothing to feel guilty about. We were so early in the pregnancy that we weren't aborting a child, just a bunch of tissue. The thing inside my girlfriend could feel no pain, had no brain, had no real distinguishing features that would make it human.
We both tried to act very grown-up, which meant some combination of asking questions, looking the nurse in the eyes, and being serious but not being emotional. We played the scriptless parts as best we could.
After it was over, my girlfriend lay in a room with eight tables partially enclosed with screens set next to them. Seven other women lay quietly, pretending the others weren't there. The room felt full of unspoken sorrow and unacknowledged shame. But perhaps that was just us. We walked back down the fancy street and took the subway back to school. We regretted it. We were relieved. I knew what we'd done. I had no idea what we'd done. We stayed together for a while. Then we went our separate ways.
I couldn't talk to anyone about it. So it just sat there. As the summer of 1989 began I tried to put the questions behind me as I started a long-planned internship for Senator Edward Kennedy. I loved him. I was a few degrees away from obsessive about his family. Most things about John Kennedy's martyr story I committed to memory. Camelot wasn't a legend, it was a goal. Even more than John Kennedy, I loved Robert Kennedy. Before I learned about Wilberforce, Bobby had been my main political idol, a man of privilege who fought ruthlessly for dreams that included helping the poor, righting racial wrongs, and pursuing justice around the world. And even with Wilberforce now in the picture, I believed the Kennedys had a lot in common with him.
The internship only strengthened that belief. I was in Ted Kennedy's office when China's Tiananmen Square crackdown began and ended up talking frantically with Lufthansa Airlines in our attempt to get some students out of China. A few weeks later I was able to go to the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port and see some of the Tiananmen student leaders as they met with the senator. If he wasn't practicing Christian statesmanship, I didn't know who was.
A few weeks later, though, the Supreme Court upheld key parts of Webster. I still didn't know how I felt about abortion. I made the naïve mistake of asking one of the senator's more senior staffers whether Kennedy was pro-life or pro-choice. She snapped back, "Pro-choice, of course! Aren't you??" I assured her I was.
Over time I discovered it was easier to think and debate than it was to feel. I didn't know what to feel. Every time I saw a baby, was I supposed to feel sad that it wasn't mine or happy that it wasn't mine? When Christmas came should I be happy I was still the youngest in my family, or should I be mourning that? And what of Jesus? How could I have betrayed him so horribly? What kind of faith was mine?
So instead of feeling, I researched. I learned an unborn baby's heart begins beating by day 22. By eight weeks every organ in its body, save the lungs, is fully formed and functioning. Wouldn't these facts have changed our minds? Perhaps. But I doubted it. No amount of information could have dissuaded us from our passion to protect ourselves and our reputations. But still, I reasoned at the time, for others it might make a difference. The one thing I knew was that our pain and our experience gave me the chance to do a good thing.
So in the wake of my abortion experience, I became a pro-life activist. I helped establish Tufts's only pro-life group. I sponsored debates between pro-life and pro-choice student leaders, and invited pro-life advocates to campus. I pointed to the million and a half unborn children who were aborted every year. I asked people whether one of them might have had the answer to cancer or written the next great novel or been someone's soulmate.
Just like William Wilberforce, I became an advocate for the ultimately forgotten, in this case the unborn. In the process I joined the religious conservative movement, though I didn't realize it.
Copyright© 2006 by David Kuo