On the day of the very first Austin Tea Party rally in 2009, I marched to the Texas Capitol with a group of about 25, carrying a megaphone. On the steps outside the rotunda, we railed against government bailouts, excessive spending, and loss of freedom.
I’ve spent the past decade of my life as a conservative activist. I helped organize a 2,000-person rally at Austin City Hall to hear then-Gov. Rick Perry jokingly advocate for secession, and went on to lead dozens of activist trainings, government protests, and campaign activities for Americans for Prosperity, a Tea Party organization, in Texas.
I believed the Democratic Party was the enemy of freedom, and that the Obama administration was a threat to the values on which our nation was founded. I saw it as my moral responsibility to advocate for limited government, low taxes, and Christian values at all levels of society because I believed these led to the greatest freedom and opportunity for everyone.
But this November, for the first time in my life, I walked into the voting booth and voted for a Democrat: Beto O’Rourke.
In an era of increasing hyperpartisanship — 63 percent of Americans told Pew this year that discussing politics with someone they disagreed with made them realize they had less in common than they thought — my story feels like a rarity. Social scientists have studied the question of what it takes for people to change their minds, especially on political issues. Their findings weren’t too promising: It was easier for people to believe that Albert Einstein was a terrible physicist than it was for them to change their minds on hot-button political questions on issues such as immigration policy or abortion.
Researchers concluded that the reason it was so hard to get people to budge on these questions was that politics informs our identities — a challenge to our political views is taken as a challenge to who we are at our core.
But this year, I did change my mind. In 2018, I went from a Tea Party activist to a Democratic voter. Here is how I got there.
Reading the Bible cover to cover
Below is the very first journal entry I ever wrote, dated December 28, 1996. I was 13 years old and deeply invested in my faith:
Sometimes I get worried about the end times. I know that I’m not supposed to, but I can just feel that it will happen soon. Already, President Clinton is starting to persecute the Christians. He was at mass on Christmas, and when they broke the bread, the priest whispered into his ear (the President’s), “God will judge you.” Then the president had the Secret Service take the priest into custody and had him questioned. … I can’t believe it. What will happen next?
What I wrote sounds completely absurd, but for more than a quarter of the US population, what I’ve written is familiar, and might even make sense. While my writing was composed of snippets of overheard political discussions and had no basis in reality, these ideas were a product of 1990s American evangelical Christian culture. It was a time when Rush Limbaugh ruled talk radio, when the Left Behind series was a best-seller, and when school shooting victims at Columbine High School were lifted up as modern martyrs for the faith.
Democrats were evil in my eyes, supporters of the grisly dismemberment of babies in the womb, controlling the poor by getting them addicted to government handouts, and promoting communist ideals. I believed they wanted to silence the Christian faith. In my mind, no one could call themselves both a Democrat and a Christian.
(Important note: These are the primary reasons white, Southern, evangelical Christians would never dare to vote for a Democrat. Statistics show that Christians in minority race populations overwhelmingly vote Democratic.)
Like many Christians, I looked to the Bible for moral guidance. But I wasn’t relying on my own reading of the Scriptures. I was relying on the interpretations of pastors and evangelical leaders like James Dobson, whose readings happened to line up nicely with the Republican Party platform. This is not a coincidence; these same individuals have been politically active in the GOP for decades, going back to the 1970s, and their understanding of scripture informs the Republican Party platform.
My experience with the Bible was on par with the majority of American evangelicals: We have this perception that we know a lot about the Bible, but we hardly read it.
In 2015, I decided to read the entire Bible on my own. I read from Genesis to Revelation in one year. I was astounded that so much of what the experts emphasized as good, godly living was not at all what God had in mind.
For the first time, I saw that overall, God cares most about how humanity treats its fellow humans. Before, the driving force of my political activism was a faith that said God wants us to live moral lives. I, along with the Republican Party, would define morality in narrow terms: heterosexual marriage, abstaining from vices, obeying the law, and not being a financial “drain” on society.
But now I see that God cares most about how those of us with power, privilege, and means help those who are poor, widowed, orphaned, a stranger in the land, in need of justice and/or mercy, and who are frantically searching for truth and love.
This was the crux of the Bible. It revolutionized my worldview.
My political awakening
With the spiritual awakening came a political awakening. I credit a number of my evangelical friends who were also going through a time of spiritual transformation.
There was my friend Jack, who with his wife led a Bible study I was a part of for several years. He asked me what it was like working for the Koch brothers at Americans for Prosperity, and if I was familiar with Jane Mayer’s book Dark Money. That conversation triggered a YouTube binge-watch of a bunch of Mayer’s interviews about the Kochs, and several documentaries that exposed the conservative right’s decades-long process of funding and promoting an ideology that pitched capitalism as the most moral economic system and all other systems as evil.
There was also my friend Lydie, whom I met in a Bible study in Washington, DC. Lydie voted Democratic, which was a novelty to me. We were walking to get coffee in Dupont Circle one night, and a homeless man approached us. All my life, I was warned never to give money to the homeless, because it disincentivizes them from getting a job. In my conservative evangelical mind, the most loving thing to do is withhold money and offer a sandwich and directions to a Christian homeless ministry instead. Lydie handed the man a $10 bill and, after noting my stunned expression, said, “God says to give to the poor, so I do it. It’s not up to me to judge how they spend the money.” There she was, Jesus in action, treating a fellow human with dignity and love.
By 2016, I had been gone from AFP for several years, but I was still involved in conservative politics. I organized and volunteered for the Austin Tea Party and worked for several Republican candidates for office. Even though I didn’t vote for Donald Trump in 2016 out of disgust for his rhetoric, I continued to support Republicans.
That’s when I started driving part-time for a couple of local ride-hailing companies. Driving people around Austin at 2 am on weekends was a window into another world, and the furthest I’d gone outside of the conservative evangelical bubble.
There was the churchgoing gay couple who loved Jesus yet weren’t allowed to go to family holiday gatherings out of fear they’d influence their nephews to be gay. The men shed tears over this in my car.
There was the former Catholic woman who provides counseling at a Planned Parenthood in Dallas. She shared how most women who see her are afraid they are going to hell for having an abortion, but they can’t afford to take time off work to give birth or can’t afford another mouth to feed. They want to be able to keep their unborn children, but the financial stress is too much to bear. I wept, and we hugged before she left the car.
I also met countless immigrants headed home after long shifts at low-paying jobs. They’d been in our country for years, had families here, and still sent money back to Mexico and Central America to support family members there. They personalized the immigrant experience for me.
Suddenly, my tidy notions of right and wrong were jumbled up, and my understanding of Jesus needed refining. I Googled, “How can a Christian believe gay marriage is okay?” and found dozens of articles by leading Christian scholars that framed this question in a way that made better sense. People like Richard Rohr, Peter Enns, and Rob Bell showed how looking at the Bible as an instruction manual misses the point entirely. It causes people to be myopic about rule-following and gloss over the higher message of God’s love and desire for oneness with all humankind. This love gets lost when we’re so focused on whether a person’s sexual orientation determines if they can get into heaven.
Trading in fear for freedom
All my life, I felt the weight of fear. It was a fear that I was frequently letting God down by my selfish actions, or by not having strong enough faith. It was also a fear that all around me, people were headed to hell and didn’t know it. The secular world — anything not overtly related to God, Jesus, or the Bible — was misleading people into thinking that doing immoral things was okay, and I thought this immoral behavior was what separated them from God.
I was wrong. Fear separates people from God. When love transplants fear, the weight lifts. I felt — for the first time in my life — profoundly free.
I can tell you this process has not been easy. My family suspected my shift in ideology long before I was open about it. Some of them complained I’d become a “social justice warrior” when I organized a winter clothing drive for Iraqi refugees and derided the Trump administration’s “Muslim ban.” When I shared skepticism over a literal translation of the seven-day creation story, some family members worried that I was losing my faith altogether. My mom said she lost sleep over this issue. And my views, not surprisingly, cost me my job.
I think the pushback is partly because changing one’s mind can feel like such a rarity in today’s hyperpartisan world. People avoid changing their views exactly because of the consequences I’ve faced — estrangement from family, a loss of community, and even the loss of a job. Scientists call this identity-protective cognition, willfully avoiding information that would cause a disruption to how they, and others, identify themselves.
My transformation feels threatening because it calls my fellow evangelical Republicans’ identities into question. If someone who has championed their values goes out and says, “No, I was wrong,” then they may be forced to face some hard questions. The fear is that if they are wrong too, then their whole belief system falls apart, and their identities are gone.
I call this kind of thinking “sweater faith”: If you pull on one small string, the whole faith unravels. I used to have a similarly fragile faith. But by digging into the hard questions and searching for answers outside of my small conservative bubble, I developed a deeper faith, one that has given me a greater capacity to love than ever before.
So how does a person change their mind? It took time (in my case, years), and it required me to get outside of my bubble. I broke away from the people and information sources that automatically supported my worldview. I questioned what I’d been taught. I got comfortable with not having all the answers and sitting with the tension of not knowing the right thing to do.
When I did these things, I lost my fear — of God, of people who believe or act differently, of finding out I’m wrong about stuff — because I have a deeper connection to the truth. And that truth, along with love, drives away the weight of fear.
Cindy Mallette was proud that she graduated from journalism school with her conservatism intact. She left reporting to join the Tea Party movement full time, but shifts in her faith led to shifts in political views. She now focuses on raising her three children with her husband in the hill country outside Austin, Texas, where she does freelance writing and public affairs consulting.