I was still high off the competition, poring over ballots by the soft streetlights as we drove. “Are you sure you want to do this?” My Dad was worried about me. Worried about my world crashing down around me, losing friends, being crushed by hate. Scarred by controversy. I laughed it off, and we rode in silence.
Forgive the melodrama: this is a story about being a dissident in an authoritarian regime, but it’s a fun story. From 12 years old, I grew up in the NCFCA—the National Christian Forensics and Communication Association, a homeschool speech and debate league. My friends and I joked that the only difference between fascist Italy and the NCFCA is that in Italy, things at least ran on time. But this is how my political awakening began: a summer debate camp in [Date] that my parents sent me to because I “always argued.” I was hooked.
Politically, the NCFCA is conservative. Not totally homogenous, but Christian and homeschooled. At the same time I was learning debate—how to think—in that context, my Dad and I started watching The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and talking about its subjects. This duality was key: as I developed my own, left-leaning views, I was surrounded by very smart people who disagreed with me. I had instant access to the best arguments against my beliefs—instant access to the best tools to refine them. Beyond that, though, it imparted empathy: seeing a wide range of views held by people that I liked and respected (and still do) made me want to understand. I loved it.
Fast forward to my second or third year in the league. I wanted to have some fun. I emailed the regional coordinator, asking if there’s a rule against a speech advocating for same-sex marriage.
The answer? “No, but people wouldn’t like it.” That was fine. That was the point.
Why do a persuasive speech if everyone already agrees with you? The first draft of the speech was straightforward: establish the separation of church and state, then outline the secular arguments for gay marriage. Watching everything from disgust to bemusement play across my club members’ faces as I gave the speech, hearing the note of concern that didn’t quite mask the edge creeping into the critique, I tried again. I built a theological argument, established common ground with my audience, and I was going to persuade them. I never got the chance. A couple months before competition season began, we were pulled aside at club. The hushed tones, the guarded expressions—the room was heavy with quiet, administrative displeasure. It wasn’t a two-sided conversation. They told me two things: I couldn’t give the speech in club (because controversy has no place in a debate club!), and the national leadership decided my speech didn’t reflect a Biblical worldview. Meaning? Banned speech.
After writing a flurry of ultimately ineffective emails, I did a speech on why we should embrace theological diversity. That speech wasn’t fueled by spite—though I do enjoy the irony of its birth, and I sarcastically named the word document “HERESY.” Rather, I wanted to make a point. Christian Abolitionism, the Nicene Creed, the doctrine of the Trinity: all once hotly debated products of dissent, iron sharpening iron. Of history’s 40,000+ competing theologies, why assume that you’ve come along and finally gotten the Bible right? I didn’t do well with this speech, but I still won: because I am unbroken—not scarred, but emboldened. I saw intolerance, but I also see hope. To this day, some of my closest friendships are built upon discussions of theology and politics, iron on iron, punctuated by laughter. Hope lives in that laughter, because as it dances between us, it brings with it empathy and wisdom.