Essay — From the April 2013 issue

Blinded by the Right?

How hippie Christians begat evangelical conservatives

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Betsy Jackson voted for John McCain in 2008. She greatly admired Sarah Palin. She thought the Alaska governor was brilliant and witty, and that she took a ferocious beating from the media because she was a woman in the limelight and that’s what the media does to such women. Jackson also loved that Palin did not keep her Christianity “quiet.”

These views are not unusual for someone in Jackson’s demographic. She is what she calls a “spirit-empowered” evangelical Christian, meaning one strongly influenced by Pentecostal practices. She is sixty-one, a gracious, gregarious, attractive woman with a big laugh and a warm smile. She lives in a sprawling suburb in southern California, the kind of planned subdivision where all the streets meet at right angles and the strip malls repeat themselves remorselessly every fifteen to twenty blocks, in a modest house filled with Bible commentaries and other Christian books. Her town borders Orange County, a Republican stronghold, and many of her white neighbors who identify with a political party call themselves Republican, as do the vast majority of evangelical Christians nationwide.

But you would not have predicted Jackson’s current political views from her early life. She grew up in a staunchly Democratic household, the child of uneducated Catholics who would no more vote for a Republican than they would walk naked into traffic. On their living-room wall hung a black-velvet painting of JFK, next to the one of Elvis. Jackson’s mother was a farmer’s daughter from the Midwest, and her father was an Italian immigrant who did scientific work on a military base (“All of his stuff is classified, that’s all I ever knew”).

They lived a comfortable, conventional lifestyle, but by the mid-Sixties, Jackson decided that it was an empty lie. Her parents quarreled, and the household that seemed so overtly proper was often full of anguish. Jackson’s sister withdrew and became the perfect student. Jackson herself discovered drugs. They were dirt cheap, they were plentiful, and there wasn’t much else to do in the Mojave Desert. And at least the drug culture was a kind of community, bound together by the trust you’re forced to develop when you’re breaking the law.

Jackson and her peers not only rejected the staid middle-class life of their parents, they set out to create a new world. They dressed differently. They lived communally, moving from apartment to apartment together. They shared everything — clothes, money, cars, bodies — and they behaved as if it should all come free. They were furious at the government for waging war but also for not providing them with shelter, food, medical care. They thought these basic needs were basic rights.

“Politically,” Jackson explained to me last summer, sitting in her tidy living room, “I was very left. I mean left, left, left, as far as you could get.” She was protesting constantly against the Vietnam War, of course, but also spoke up for the legalization of marijuana and for every other progressive cause that came along.

Then she became a Christian. She still went to protests. She was still a hippie. She still wore bell-bottoms: “We’d cut our bells, and we’d insert even more, so they were like four feet around. It was all that — the flowers, the backless dresses, the whole thing.” But within a few years she was voting Republican, and the backless dresses lay dumped in a box in her closet. Her roommate had asked her what Jesus would think if he walked into the living room and found her wearing one of them.

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is a professor in the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University. She is the author of When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (Vintage).

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