Growing up Evangelical, if we hated anything more than feminists, homosexuals, rock music and Democrats, it was ‘self-esteem’. That was devil talk. To us, humans were, like the prophet Jeremiah said, “desperately wicked.”
That was endlessly reinforced. Humans are sinful. Evil.
It took me awhile, as an adult, to figure out what was really happening with the “self-esteem” thing. It seems that in 1986 a gay man from San Jose went to war with Christian tradition.
His message was: Love yourself.
In retrospect, we Christians were mostly bad at reading. Jeremiah 17:9, one of the most famous verses in the Bible, does not say that humans are wicked.
As reinforced by the LXX, here is an accurate translation:
The heart is deep above all else,
and so is man, and who shall understand him?
The heart is deep, so who can know it? The answer is God.
Christian scholars note the verse is misunderstood. The renowned Stephen Motyer says, in a footnote: “In fact, ‘deep’ is probably a better translation than ‘devious’, because the Hebrew word (‘ q b) simply (and vividly) expresses the way in which our own hearts can gang up on us and spring surprises that leave us gasping to understand ourselves.”
Tzvi Novick suggests the translation: “The heart is more closely kept than anything, and humanity, who (among human beings) will know (the heart)?”
What the verse doesn’t mean is that people are bad. Humans, and the world, were created ‘good’ in Genesis 1, and never lose that status.
“For everything God created is good,” as Paul says in 1 Timothy 4:4.
John Vasconcellos figured that out, and decided to let the world know.
He’d retire in 2004 as California’s longest continuously serving legislator. If a key influence on many issues, from budgets to education, he was most well-known for single-handedly, in 1986, thrusting onto the national stage the issue of “Self-Esteem.”
There was a bit of scientific underpinnings from the Berkeley sociologist Neil Smelser, but any science was being used, clearly, for other purposes. “I found this was a quasi-religious movement,” Smelser explains to Will Storr for the book, Selfie: How the West Became Self-Obsessed.
Vasconcellos’ promises seem, now, rather outrageous.
“Self-esteem is the best budget balancer, by far,” he writes in 1990, “serving both to increase productivity and taxes, and to reduce human needs for public support and services.” He promised “a revolution of faith: faith in ourselves and in our own innate capacities.”
For Storr it was an exposé of scientific, and political, fraudulence. But I realized Vasconcellos used science, and law, as a mask to advance a theological idea: that humans are good.
Vasconcellos writes in 1989: “I worked for my successes only in a constant attempt to please others. My intellect functioned superbly, but the rest of my self barely functioned at all. I had been conditioned to know myself basically as a sinner, guilt-ridden and ashamed, constantly beating my breast and professing my unworthiness. I had so little self-esteem that I lost my first election (running for eight-grade president) by one vote — my own.”
In entering politics, he realized, he says, that much public policy was based on the idea that “people are intrinsically evil.”
He details his involvement with various psychologists, thinkers, and New Age buzzwords, always leaving out a key detail. It was a story that he would die, in 2014, without ever having told.
As Storr details, Vasconcellos’ battle with Christian tradition seems to have had a very specific focus.
He’d sometimes been vague about the cause of his personal breakdown in 1966, but around the time of the task force it suddenly coalesced into a convenient tale of crisis, struggle and victory over low self-esteem. But this, it seems, was not true. ‘I don’t know at what stage in his life he realized he was homosexual,’ said David, ‘but that was the core problem. He was raised Catholic and had the usual sorts of Catholic guilt. That was probably the kernel of his personal crisis.’
‘He was gay?’ I said.
‘Right. And we all discovered it. Some, obviously, who knew him well knew it right away. And then it sort of came out. It wasn’t an issue for us.’ Vasco died in 2014, aged eighty-two, a decade after he’d quit politics for a position as scholar-in-residence at Esalen. Having had this claim independently verified, I thought it a rather melancholy discovery, that this lifelong evangelist for personal pride and authenticity apparently never felt able to be public with his sexuality.
I would put it this way: He employed the great homosexual arts of theater, deception and feigned ignorance, to send into the world a message of human goodness that he had never heard.
He had to teach it to himself, and the lesson, perhaps, was never fully absorbed.
But because of him, the Christian tradition was made to defend the idea of human evil.
Suddenly, it wasn’t a great look.
Jesus says, “Love one another” (John 13:34). That should’ve been the Christian activity—not going around telling kids how horrible they were.
That was a horrible thing for Christians to do.
Raised a devout Catholic, Vasconcellos served as an altar boy, then he served the human race.
He sent a message that reached into even the most cloistered corners of Christianity, armed against ‘the world’, where I was.
His friend Rich Robinson writes in a eulogy: “His vision was too advanced for much of modern society to understand, though he lived long enough to see some of his early work become part of everyday life.”
Vasconcellos believed that people can think well of themselves, and get along. It was his own Gay Pride, his own gospel.
May he be blessed.