As I’ve reflected on my life and career, like everyone, I have encountered moments that have changed the trajectory of my life. Of course, marrying Sally when I was 18 years old has had the biggest impact on my life. At the time I was a “pot head” working in a warehouse perfectly content in that lifestyle. I changed everything for Sally. If I’ve made anything of myself, she’s the reason.
Wanting to be a better person for her sake led me to religion and, on September 30, 1978, I joined the LDS Church. But you might be surprised to know that the catalyst for my conversion was a political book written by an evangelical Christian. Though politically minded for a 19 year old, my thoughts hadn’t matured. For some reason I picked up a book titled The Anita Bryant Story and had my first significant philosophical epiphany. Anita Bryant was a former Miss America, celebrity and spokesperson for the Florida orange juice industry. She lived in Miami.
In 1977, Miami’s Dade County was considering a gay rights ordinance, the first big one outside of San Francisco or New York City. Anita Bryant opposed the ordinance and all hell rained down on her. She lost her livelihood and, eventually, her marriage due to the political controversies. Her book recounted these events. The impactful part of the book for me was an appendix she included detailing all of the scriptural passages about homosexuality. My epiphany – something I had never really considered – was the role of God’s authority in politics.
I did wonder how Americans were to peaceably settle political disagreements and deep moral issues. For instance, why is slavery immoral…or abortion…or homosexuality…or even high taxation? And how do we settle such contentious issues? Everyone has an opinion about such things, but I wondered if there was a commensurate basis for agreement. In other words, by what authority were we to decide such issues? Was the answer simply that might makes right? Was the answer that the majority wins? And, if so, why were these reasons morally sufficient to dissenters? Anita Bryant answered my question. There has to be a Higher Authority than man. There has to be an Authority upon which society can develop a commensurate basis for agreement. And that epiphany led me down a religious path in my life.
Once I had found my faith, grown my family and had established a political career, another epiphany hit me not long after I started working for Congress. You might recall, if you’re old enough, that in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, Congressman Barney Frank was caught in a scandal that nearly ruined his career. For personal reasons, Congressman Frank began dating a male escort who, in turn, continued to run his escort business out of Congressman Frank’s home. That activity, when made public by the escort, triggered a House investigation to see if it brought disrepute to Congress. If so, Congressman Frank could be expelled.
My boss at the time, Congressman Bill Dannemeyer, thought those actions did bring disrepute on the House and felt Congressman Frank should be expelled. My job was to build the case for expulsion. Congressman Newt Gingrich had a competing resolution to censure Congressman Frank, while the House Ethics Committee only sought a reprimand. The Ethics Committee solution was adopted but in that moment Congressman Frank took to the well of the House to apologize to his colleagues. I watched attentively and, surprisingly, his remarks touched my heart. I even wrote him a personal note wishing him well.
While the moment took time to sink in for me, years later, when I had the chance to lead public policy organizations, I told myself that I would never again approach politics the same way – I would seek to rise above partisanship; I would seek to see people as people, not as objects.
Of course, these two examples from my life explain, in large part, why I know so much about pro-family issues and gay rights politics. But the bigger point is that they help explain who I am personally and professionally.
Everyone has these moments that shape their lives. We would do well to learn of them and understand them before we judge other people and their politics.