A Black Republican on the Cincinnati City Council Just Came Out as an Atheist May 29, 2020

A Black Republican on the Cincinnati City Council Just Came Out as an Atheist

I swear that headline is accurate.

In November of 2017, Jeff Pastor was elected to the Cincinnati City Council in Ohio. There were nine seats up for grabs and 24 candidates. Pastor edged past the finish line and won the final seat.

His campaign biography is interesting enough, but it’s a Medium post from last week that’s getting attention now.

That’s because (the ironically named) Pastor just came out publicly as an atheist.

In his post, he explains his long, twisted religious journey that took him from Episcopal, Methodist, and Southern Baptist churches, to Islam, to Judaism, to Orthodox Judaism, and more. He says he eventually converted to “Conservative Judaism” (which is actually relatively liberal).

Then the revelation:

These words that have been echoing inside finally leave my lips in December 2013 as I inform one of my best friends, Nic, the first person ever, and my heart palpitates fast, my anxiety uncontrollable.

“I am an atheist, Nic.”

“I already knew that. What took you so long to admit that to yourself? Either way that doesn’t change how I love you.”

Tears. Joy. I love you him and Steve, my other best friend. Next, my wife.

“Well, you’ve always joked I was an atheist, and now your ass is an atheist. Live in your truth. I am here either way. Can we still attend shul?”

Tears. Joy. I love Tara. Elephant in the room, “are you going to tell your mother?” Facing fears, trauma, and expectations.

I am an atheist. Words that liberate me.

His mother wasn’t thrilled, but still, good for him, right?! Seeing religion after religion eventually pulled him away from God entirely. Though some of that religious past is still ingrained in him. In the post, he often switches between writing “God” and “g-d.”

Bottom line, though, is that we have another openly atheist elected official!

But wait.

Then it gets more confusing because Pastor uses a variety of other labels that all seem self-contradictory.

Add atheist to a long list of society’s designated terms: Black, Jew, Republican, Poly, Atheist. Free. Do not forget to add free.

There are many ways to mix and match some of those labels in a way that plausibly makes sense. But all of them together…?

Why not just call himself a secular Jew? How does a mindset that accepts polyamory overlap with one that promotes the current Republican Party? How is “poly” the least interesting label on that list?!

I mean, it doesn’t matter what I think, ultimately, but still. What?!

Other parts of his post didn’t clear things up, either.

This is my “coming out,” my liberation, my freedom… An atheist Jew who finds truth in agnosticism, humanism, theism, African/Chinese/Native American spirituality. In Democrats and Republicans. In humans.

So he’s atheist, agnostic, a believer, and spiritual? HOW?!

(Update: The word “theist” has since been removed from the Medium post. Pastor said it was in there by mistake.)

And in what galaxy can you possibly be for Democrats and Republicans? Their policies are diametrically opposed for so many important issues! Unless you’re purposely ignorant about politics — which he’s clearly not — it makes no sense to pretend both parties have a claim on the truth. (The GOP, right now, actively opposes it.)

There was one possible explanation: As I said last week when I heard about the sole openly atheist elected Republican in the country — who also happened to be a city council member — the party label doesn’t matter as much because city council members don’t usually deal with culture war or other controversial issues. Whatever it meant to be a Republican to her, it didn’t really play out in practice since city council elections are non-partisan.

Maybe that was the case for Jeff Pastor too.

So last night, I gave him a call.

During a 40-minute conversation, I tried to make sense of all these apparent contradictions.

Here’s what I came away with: Pastor began identifying as a Republican at the age of 16, and he was inspired by the “classical” Republican positions. (Which I would argue look much like the Democratic positions today.) He admired the the Party of Abraham Lincoln, not necessarily the Party of Donald Trump. He likes limited government. He’s pro-gun. He affirms LGBTQ rights. He’s Libertarian in many ways.

He’s not a fan of how Democrats often take the black vote for granted while also passing policies that hurt the community. I would say progressive voices are pushing to fix that, but he’s absolutely right that Democrats, over the past few decades, haven’t helped African Americans in a way that’s commensurate with the support they receive from the demographic.

Pastor said, rightly, that both parties are classist and cater to the rich.

But even as the GOP drifted further and further to the right, he felt there was value in staying Republican and trying to pull them back in his direction. As he wrote on Medium, he’s a “Classical Liberal (original Republican).” For him, that meant he’s “on the side of the working poor and working class” and that he’s “trying to remind the Republicans” of what they used to stand for.

That may be all well and good, though I would argue that trying to move Republicans away from the right is utterly futile at this point.

Still, Pastor’s goal is to be a moral compass for a party that used to believe what he believes today. “What you’re seeing with my election,” he added, “is the dawn of intellectualism.”

Pastor has heard all the insults. He’s heard the “Uncle Tom” epithet from one side and RINO from the other. But in his race for city council, in 2017, his focus was on the issues, not so much on the label. Being a Republican didn’t earn him more votes, but it didn’t cost him any either.

That could change in the future, though. If he ever runs for higher office, which he said could be in the cards, then I would say the Republican label would play a much larger role in his public profile. As it stands, it’s more like a whimsical quirk.

What about the religious journey? How did he reconcile the Conservative Jewish label with atheism? Simply put, that’s just the synagogue he connected with. It wasn’t the theology so much as the community. When he said there’s “truth” in all those religious labels, he really meant he appreciated the devotion and passion of believers and thought we could all stand to learn from each other.

In that sense, I agree with him. Religious people can be inspired by their faith to do amazing things. There’s nothing wrong with admitting that. When push comes to shove, though, he said he’s an atheist.

“I’m not guided by a deity,” he told me. “I’m guided by being a human.”

He’ll be up for re-election next year. Until then, when he’s not working on the city council, he takes a lot of joy in talking sense into anyone who dares to make assumptions about his beliefs based on nothing more than a few labels.

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