Jason Hanna can be forgiven for not knowing much about the day the preachers came to town to denounce the homosexual agenda. He was probably sitting in a second-grade classroom, and although he was a smart kid, he wouldn’t have understood what happened when church buses carried the faithful to the City County Building and lined both sides of Main Street.
Alerted by talk radio – starting with the stations managed by Jason’s father, John Hanna, founding chair of the Tennessee Christian Coalition – their goal was to present Knox County Commission with a resolution demanding that Congress deny gay people “special rights.” Such resolutions have no force of law but are useful tools for those who want to ferret out office seekers who are squishy on hot-button social issues.
It was 1993, and it was an unsettling time. Bill and Hillary were in the White House talking about healthcare reform and God knows what else. The barbarians were at the gate. No telling what might happen.
Special rights included legal marriage and adoption. The evangelicals were at the commission meeting to sound the alarm. It was standing room only – maybe the biggest crowd ever to cram itself inside the Large Assembly Room. Those who came to oppose the resolution were badly outnumbered and frequently shouted down.
John Hanna issued grim warnings about child molesters. Later, he would discuss it with his son.
“I remember my parents talking about it and showing me articles concerning that day and Dad. At the time I didn’t understand why he was looked at as such a villain. I was brought up deep in that world, so it wasn’t until I was much older and had formed my own opinions about the world outside of our bubble that I was able to look back and research and understand who my dad was to so many people on either side, what he did and why,” Jason said.
Today, at 34, Jason is active in politics, much as his father was. Like his dad, he’s a hard worker – he plays guitar in two bluegrass bands and works a couple of jobs. But his political beliefs couldn’t be more different.
He’s an event manager for Knoxville For Bernie, and he’s working hard on Bernaroo, a celebration that will draw hundreds of enthusiastic Sanders supporters to Scruffy City Hall on Market Square, Thursday, Feb. 20 (02/20/20). Admission is free, but a suggested $5 contribution is encouraged. Jason Hanna is all in for Bernie Sanders and labels himself an FDR Democrat.
Jason says his views have been heavily influenced by what happened to his family in the wake of his father’s death when Jason was 14.
“It took me a lifetime to actively unlearn some things that I was taught. It took a philosophy major to open up my mind to other ideas. It took being dropped down into poverty after my father died to understand the people around me who I now counted myself among, who my dad believed shouldn’t or couldn’t be helped. I don’t think my dad had a bad heart. I think he was fooled and used like many people can be when they are manipulated by people offering them a leg up and a paycheck.”
Some six years after the notorious commission meeting, John Hanna was diagnosed with bladder cancer. He successfully fought it off and decided to alter his career path by becoming a writer, which required him to give up his job and the health insurance that went with it. When the cancer came back, he was no longer able to afford the top-of-the-line treatment. He died in the fall of 2000, and life got really hard then.
“We went bankrupt and lost our house – we became homeless for a while after he passed away. A lot of the things he fought against were the same things that came back and bit his family in the end (Hanna had been an opponent of the Clinton administration’s healthcare reform, which would have protected patients with pre-existing conditions and those without employer-provided health insurance).
“There was no safety net there because he helped get rid of it,” said Jason, who remembers the packets of Christian Coalition talking points that used to land in the family mailbox:
“Manila folders full of stories used to shock and scare people into marrying their religion and their beliefs with the far-right social and economic viewpoints that the people who sent them espoused. It was his job to take those stories and eloquently share them in churches all over the region. He pushed those ideals through the Knoxville Christian Media Center, the three radio stations and a newspaper that he managed. It was a constant propaganda war, and he was a general. It put food on our table all the way up until it didn’t.”
Jason said he survived the hard years better than most of his peers could have because he had a safety net of family friends who were able to help him find work. He loved his dad, and still does, but wonders how they’d get along if he were here today, because he is firm in his beliefs that big, systemic changes must happen.
“We elect representatives hoping they’ll lead, but the very systems through which we elect them are systems that are built to manipulate those people into something they never intended to be, just like my dad. That’s why I don’t think we can fight for change by electing candidates who accept donations from large corporate entities, super PACs and people whose job it is to keep the systems preventing that change in place. … That’s why I support Bernie. His support among individuals and small donations is unprecedented, and he is the only candidate I see who is actively trying to change the campaign finance system permanently.
“I loved my dad. I’m supporting Bernie because I don’t want to continue seeing a system that turns good people into villains.”
Betty Bean is a veteran reporter for Knox and Sevier counties. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.