Pathways to Participation
“CONVERSION STORIES” often appear prominently in discussions of people's religious experiences. In these stories, people who previously were not religious (or perhaps lackadaisical in their commitment) become fervently religious. In his study of political activists, Nathan Teske describes similar experiences for political activists.1 People who previously were not motivated to pay attention to politics or political issues suddenly shift their orientations. Terence, a college student at the University of Montana in Missoula, describes an incident he covered as a reporter for the college newspaper.2 Protesting against two hundred Minuteman nuclear missiles stored at a local air force base, a minister conducted an Easter morning service outside the gates of the base. Upon finishing the service, he walked across military security lines and was immediately arrested. Terence says,
It was like a revelation to me. I saw that this had been happening for centuries
[and] that whenever somebody tried to be a peacemaker, and tried to defy the
system of war and death, that this is what happened…. Then, I looked at where
I was—I was on the safe side of the line, writing an article about [the minister].
But all of a sudden I realized that this was a story about me too … those nuclear
weapons were made by my government too, not just [the minister's]. And I [saw
that] I was guilty of the crime of neutrality. I just saw that there were only two
sides of the line you could be on. You could be with [the minister] arrested for
protesting nuclear weapons, or you could be on the side I was, where everybody
… gave their unspoken consent to the nuclear arms race. I put down my writing
pad and I crossed that line and was arrested.3
Like religious converts whose lives are forever changed, Terence's commitment to politics irrevocably changed after this incident. Previously committed to a career in journalism, Terence became a passionate peace activist instead. Once he developed a personal commitment to politics, that commitment motivated him to take action.