For that matter, this isn’t the first time he’s done this. When he was in college, he was hobnobbing with the Young People’s Socialist League and meeting union bosses. His political opinions, along with his religious ones, changed 180 degrees as part of the whole re-orienting of his life following upon his religious awakening. Has there been another conversion? And has it been accompanied by repentance of past allegiances, or just denial that he was ever one of them?
I don’t know. All I can say is that he reminds me of no one so much as Will Roper, the passionate young man courting Sir Thomas More’s daughter, Alice, in A Man For All Seasons. In the first Act, when King Henry is in his ultra-Catholic stage and has just elevated More to the position of Lord Chancellor, Roper dresses in black and spouts Protestant slogans. In the next Act, after Henry makes his break with Rome and More is being pressured to go along with him, Roper dresses like a Spaniard and becomes more Catholic than the Pope. One gets the feeling that Roper’s religious opinions have more to do with his relationship within society – and particularly how he feels about King Henry – than they do about the motion of God within his soul.
Now, I am aware of my own opinions changing over time in various ways, but I do not have a sense of any dramatic break between the opinions of my younger self and my older self. I am in communion with both selves. Sometimes, I worry over the weakening of certain opinions that I once held very dear. Was I wrong then? Am I wrong now? And so the argument goes in my head, a lifelong bull session between my various selves conducted amid the litter of old pizza delivery boxes and empty bottles. This seems healthy to me, and natural.
In the religious area, I can still preach sermons that are fifteen or twenty years old – sometimes even older – and believe in what I say. I wouldn’t necessarily say it now as I said it then, but that doesn’t mean I disagree with my younger self; indeed, I take it as a virtue that I get to hear someone else’s preaching, even as I deliver the sermon, and that is good for my soul. In the political/ideological area, I have grown more tolerant of some points of view and less tolerant of others, but all my selves are still mostly backing the same causes and candidates. That said, I see the weak points in my own arguments, and the weaknesses of my own candidates. I try to be fair.
But what are we to make of people who do a complete dump of one self and adopt another? How many conversions – religious or political – do you get to claim before people simply write you off as a flip-flopper? “Settle thy studies, Faustus, and begin to sound the depths of that thou wilt profess.” Or, if the change is gradual, what makes someone drift from one extreme to another?
I’m guessing that for many people, the fount of their opinions is their peer group: the family first, then their church, then the friends at school, then the professional group they work amidst, etc. People wear on each other, and it is more comfortable to agree than to always be odd man out. So, if you are immersed in a particular environment, you begin to see things from the common point of view. On the other hand, you have to be an obstinate sort, even willing to endure obloquy, to stand out from the crowd.
But we tell kids that’s exactly what they should do. Resist peer pressure, don’t go along to get along. If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you, too? Well, adults are just as much influenced by those who matter to them as kids are. The only safeguard here is to be able to still engage the self you used to be and reach a common understanding that does violence to no part of your past. Unless it really is a matter for repentance, renunciation, restitution; in which case, merely changing sides without being able to cite an adequate cause damages one’s credibility.