by James Zimmerman
Often, when I’ve delivered presentations about my former religion, attendees ask about the political bend of Witnesses. I mention that they don’t vote. Actually, most members of the religion seem to have little knowledge of political candidates, elections, or parties. For example, as an eighth-grader, I once brought home an assignment from American Government class. Among the questions on the worksheet was: Name one of the Representatives for Minnesota? Neither I nor my parents could think of a single one. We looked in our encyclopedias but weren’t sure the information was still current. My dad ultimately called the mother of one of my classmates – also a Witness – and she said her daughter had also struggled with that question. Thankfully, this woman was married to a non-Witness, and he knew the name of our local rep.
But, pressing further, a few people have asked if Witnesses are generally conservative or liberal. This is a frustrating dichotomy regardless, but it’s even more difficult to surmise a guess on behalf of an apolitical group.
Primarily, Witnesses view all governments as evil. They understand them as necessary in our present world – but under the Devil’s control. Though they appreciate the freedoms afforded them in many of the world’s democracies, and though they are swift to take advantage of legal means to protect and advance their causes, they believe that all governments will collectively be dismantled by God in the near future. They pray on behalf of Witnesses living in oppressive regimes and will write to officials in countries where Witnesses are banned. They also celebrate any widening berth a government grants Witnesses, viewing this as fulfillment of bible prophecy.
Like most secularists, Witnesses believe in the complete separation of church and state. In fact, they view any appeals to the supernatural in the public sphere as grossly misplaced. When they hear public prayers – such as those often delivered prior to a town hall meeting – they shake their heads in disgust. The frequent mention of God in George W. Bush’s first inaugural address made several Witnesses – myself included, as I was still a Witness then – wonder if his words were signaling the onset of the final stage of the End Times. High religiosity in political candidates and office-holders causes nervousness among Witnesses because they know they don’t fit in with the nation’s dominant religion, and they know that those who push their religion hardest into the public sphere are the ones most likely to restrict the freedoms of religious minorities, Witnesses included.
With their strong stance on church-state separation, their disdain for armed conflict, and their dismay at our current environmental degradation (unlike most fundamentalists, Witnesses not only accept human-made climate change as real, but perceive it as another sign of Armageddon’s nearness), it might seem like Witnesses, if they were allowed to vote, would largely vote for liberal candidates. Indeed, that is how most of the former Witnesses that I know do vote. Perhaps, if the thousands of Witness Floridians had been allowed to vote back in 2000, that state’s electoral outcome might have been known within hours, instead of devolving into the mess it became. Or perhaps the thousands of Witnesses living in states with close results in our most recent presidential election could have tipped the tally in favor of someone qualified for the office.
However, Witnesses view many of the world’s problems as intractable issues that can only be repaired by God and, hence, don’t believe that any politician – irrespective of their sincerity or intentions – can make any headway regarding climate change, overpopulation, pollution, or other pressing problem. Additionally, Witnesses are against abortion (for any reason), gender equality, and LGBT rights. So I’m not surprised that a sizeable minority of the former Witnesses I know have identified more strongly with conservative mores.
Another aspect to consider is the person’s life prior to becoming a Witness. If they were of a conservative bend prior to joining the Witnesses, they are likely to continue in that mindset if and when they leave. But for many, myself included, membership in the Witness religion came at birth. Thus, the rationale for nearly all of their viewpoints is predicated on the religion. So when I discontinued my life as a Witness, I had to ask myself: Now that I no longer had to abide by Witness-endorsed arguments opposing abortion, was I still opposed to abortion? Now that I no longer saw environmental issues through the lens of bible prophecies, did I still care about the planet? Now that I no longer believed voting was a sin, would I engage in the political process?
James Zimmerman is the author of Deliverance at Hand!: The Redemption of a Devout Jehovah's Witness and a contributor to Atheist Voices of Minnesota: An Anthology of Personal Stories. His writings have also appeared in The 2013 St. Paul Almanac and Breathing In: Stories from the Century College Community, Volume II, and several periodicals including The Humanist, American Atheist, and Free Inquiry. A lifelong Minnesota resident, James currently lives in St. Paul.