Patriotic, Catholic and queer: Rebecca Parson’s unorthodox run for Congress

RNS — Parson, who would be the first woman and the first LGBT person to represent her district, is also a practicing Catholic who considers her faith an important aspect of her political views.

(RNS) — Even in what feels like a tumultuous election cycle, Rebecca Parson is not your typical candidate for Congress. Like many of the progressive upstarts who have challenged Democratic incumbents from the left, Parson, who is running to represent Seattle in Washington, has come up from the grassroots: a tenant rights organizer, she currently serves on the Tacoma Area Commission on Disabilities, and, in the primary race that culminates Tuesday (Aug. 4), she has made affordable housing one of her key issues.

But Parson, the daughter of a U.S. foreign service officer, has had an upbringing abroad and has a global outlook. After college, she worked as a human rights observer in a paramilitary-threatened indigenous community in Mexico and spent time as a staffer at the International Association of Genocide Scholars.

Parson, who would be the first woman and the first LGBT person to represent her district, is also a practicing Catholic who considers her faith an important aspect of her political views. Some see a conflict between her religious commitment and her personal and political identities, but she said that she experiences all of these as fully coherent and mutually reinforcing. Her perspectives and platform make for a unique outlook on what it means to be a person of faith in modern America.

I spoke with Ms. Parson about her life experiences and political formation. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

What are some of your early memories that you think helped shape your political views?

My dad was in the foreign service, so I grew up overseas. He met my mother, who is German, when he was posted to Germany, where that entire side of my family lives. So I was born in Virginia, moved to Sweden, Japan, England, and then back to the U.S. when I was 12. Growing up outside of America while still being American — that was more than half my childhood. 

One thing that was really influential for me was my grandfather. He grew up in south Florida during the Great Depression in the middle of intense poverty. He worked his way to get into West Point, graduated on D-Day, spent his whole career in the Army, and retired as a colonel — but he hated war. He always had an interesting perspective on patriotism and what it meant to be a patriot. He would talk to us about how defending the Constitution and the oath he took was really about defending our ideas and our principles, and those views have influenced me immensely. 

We don’t often hear progressive politicians talk about patriotism in a positive sense; it’s usually invoked as a dirty word. What does it mean to you?

I hate to say it, but the right has really co-opted the idea of patriotism. It’s become a loaded term on the left, especially for people who are at risk for being targeted for deportation or profiling. But I want to reclaim it because I think it’s important. 

There’s a difference between a jingoism with blind fealty and someone who truly cares. When right-wingers come and guard the flag with their guns — that’s the kind of empty jingoism that rings hollow to me. The flag is a symbol of ideals and principles.

Patriotism, on the other hand, is when you believe in protecting the Constitution and what it stands for. I believe the document and the context it was written in is deeply flawed, but I also believe deeply in the values it espouses. Everyone should be treated equally, and we should try to apply laws so that this value is increasingly upheld. That’s something that’s really important to me — and that can’t happen when our ideas of patriotism are empty of duty and honor. We need to reclaim those. 

How has your Catholic background played out in your personal and political journey?

I grew up as a Catholic and went to Catholic school, and as I got older, the rituals and practices started feeling empty. I just didn’t get them, so they didn’t carry much meaning for me. It was also hard for me to stick around as a queer woman because a large portion of the church was hostile to that. So I stopped going for a long time. 

A couple of years ago, I started feeling an urge to reconnect with faith, and I came across a Catholic church that was LGBTQ-affirming. That blew my mind! I don’t know if you can imagine — I never, ever, ever thought that would be possible, and I had to ask myself, did the Church just undergo a complete makeover in the past 10-15 years since I had stepped away? 

What has it been like to return to faith in this way?

It’s been so different than how I experienced religion growing up. I’m now at a Jesuit Church that is deeply committed to social justice that feels so organically connected to my own commitments. It also feels less empty as I have learned more about the meanings behind the rituals and symbols, so now I feel like I can access the spiritual depth I always wanted. It reminds me a lot of how I think about patriotism, actually. These words and actions feel most true when they have the right ideas and understandings behind them. 

Here’s another example; the church I go to now emphasizes the role of women, both in the Bible and in the daily practice, in a way that I had never seen before. Seeing this has opened me up to teachings that are radical. There’s a part in the Bible where Mary, in the Magnificat, says, “Lift up the lowly and throw down the rulers from their thrones.” That sounds pretty radical to me.