Chaplains’ Corner: Rev. Valerie Bailey Fischer

Valerie Bailey

Please, allow me to muse about being a young adult in the Reagan/Bush years. I can’t believe I have become nostalgic for those years! The polarization and divisions in society that we have become accustomed to were beginning for me in the late 1980s.  During the Reagan years, it was normal to work and worship with people from different political perspectives. However, this kind of fellowship become increasingly difficult, especially during the years of Bush Sr.’s administration. We were still having fun. I remember hilarious emails to Republican friends, gently poking fun at something that happened in the national news. These friends would send back a humorous retort, clarification of our disagreement then followed by dinner plans for the weekend. 

Those were the days. 

During that time, I was still hanging out with my college friends in New York. Young adulthood and early professional life during the Bush Sr. administration provided us time for leisure and fun that did not exist during our busy college lives. I was regularly attending a church and, at first, I was not aware of the various political views being held by the parishioners. People began to apply politics as a litmus test for faithfulness. The humorous banter around politics was fading. As we approached the end of the Reagan/Bush years, conversations would reach a point of offense faster than in previous years. People would be offended and end the conversation before one could apply humor and a dinner invitation.   

On the eve of the election of Bill Clinton, the church I attended opened the service with a 15-minute prayer where the minister agonized over the pending election. People were weeping and crying and proclaiming that our nation was facing its worst political catastrophe ever. I sat there in the pews thinking, “What are they talking about?” I was ecstatic about the potential of a Democrat in the White House after years of Reagan/Bush.  Before the election, my Republican friends still mocked me for my pending vote, however, rarely did they provide any details about their own political opinions. At least the dinner invitations were still there, but less frequently and with guarded and cautious conversations about work, the weather and new cars. (Shh, don’t even think about talking about the environment and climate change! And don’t talk about your gay friends or the breakthroughs in AIDS research. Forget about talking about cars, stick to the weather!)  

But the divisions were becoming increasingly clear. On the eve of the Clinton election, I sat in church Sunday after Sunday, watching the wailing from the pulpit against my preferred candidate. I did not know what to say. My conservative church friends could not understand my enthusiasm about Clinton. I could not understand their fear of Clinton’s political platform. The love of Jesus stopped being enough. We were being told that the more important issue was the political platform. From that point forward, I felt as if something had invaded the church and disrupted the fellowship and the worship and hijacked my sense of community. Why did we not drop to our knees at that moment and pray for God to preserve our unity? 

I continued attending that church, and Bill Clinton was elected. But now I felt as if I was sitting behind an invisible wall. People stopped talking to me. I sat alone. The sermons shifted to surviving the political Armageddon of the Clinton years. I, on the other hand, was still excited about the outcome of the election. Even fewer of my Republican friends continued having dinner with me. And now that I think of it, almost all of those Republican friends who continued meeting with me are now Democrats. We remained friends, dined together occasionally but rarely talked about politics. These divisions had forced us into a religious buffet line where we could consume whatever we wanted, but usually we ended up consuming our faith alone. 

Eventually I found a new church where we shared memories of dancing on tables in celebration of the Clinton administration. Jesus stopped being a unifying factor.  

As I muse over the years since Reagan, I realize the divisions happened so slowly. Like the metaphor of a frog being boiled in a pot – we did not understand what was at stake. We were too busy becoming soup. We are comforted by well-defined existences, our personal faiths, waiting for the administration to turn back in our favor. A new administration comes, but it’s just a ladle to stir things up while as the temperature increases without our knowledge or permission. What we did not realize is that wall being proposed has already been built.  The wall is actually the interior of a soup pot. 

One would think that faith would be something from within, a perspective gained from reflection on the big questions and a desire to know God and to embody some of God’s principles, especially the ones related to loving one another. However, after the Reagan/Bush years, the Clinton interlude and following the Bush Jr. years, it feels as if faith had snuck out the back door, avoiding the squabbles that are never resolved, leaving people to protect themselves from one another. Perhaps this is just the hard way of learning the importance of the challenge to love God with all your heart, soul and mind and to love your neighbor as yourself.  

Rev. Valerie Bailey Fischer is Chaplain to the College and Protestant Chaplain.