This week I had the opportunity to sit down for coffee with Jon Ebel, local UIUC religious studies professor, ballet dancer, marathon runner, and military veteran. Moreover, he’s running for Congress to represent Illinois’ 13th district. While details of Ebel’s campaign can be found here, I had the pleasure of asking Ebel some things he might not normally be asked while on the campaign trail. It’s not every day the opportunity arises to sit down for an honest chat with a politician, during election week no less, but the conversation surprisingly seemed as if I were catching up with an old neighbor (and we may as well have been old neighbors, as we discovered we have similar roots in Minnesota).
Smile Politely: How long have you lived in the C-U area and what brought you here?
Jon Ebel: 12 years. I went to grad school at the University of Chicago and took a 1-year teaching position in Fort Worth in 2004-2005. My wife and I moved here in 2005 with two daughters (now we have three), for a job at the University. I was fortunate to come and work here [at UIUC] for an assistant professorship. I was promoted to full professor this last summer.
SP: What is your family’s favorite thing to do here around town?
Ebel: All three girls are really involved in ballet, so a lot of our family activity revolves around ballet. I’ve been involved in nine productions of the Nutcracker and various other productions, so that’s kind of fun. We move around so much due to activities so a lot of the time we spend together as a family we’re home, eating together, cooking together, playing games, or building fires.
SP: What do you enjoy about working at a university?
Ebel: I knew that I wanted to work at a university pretty much from the time that I went to college. I loved the intellectual energy and the sense of community. I love that people are really engaged in service, whether it’s education or research that’s moving us forward in some way making us smarter in some issue. What I love about the University of Illinois is that service ethic is applied across a dizzying array of fields; I mean you’re in nutrition and food science and I’m in religion and I have friends who are in music and electrical engineering and crop sciences and that’s fabulous. I love the diversity of interests, the racial, ethnic, religious, linguistic diversity of the community, but also the sense of this community that we’re all knit together on this project making the world a smarter and better place. I really love that. And the fact that we’re surrounded by soy and corn concentrates our sense of community here.
SP: Tell me about a project or accomplishment that you consider to be significant in your career.
Ebel: I’ve written two books, both of them are about religion and war in American societies in different ways. One was a book about religion and American soldiers in World War I. A lot of stories of war get told from the perspectives of generals or politicians, but I was interested in how war shaped the faith of the young men and women who were involved in direct ways. The second book I wrote was about the way Americans worship the figure of the soldier and the real people who are obscured by that process of veneration and worship. Those are the two big projects I’ve done. I am working on a book on religion and the Great Depression, and the Dust Bowl migration to California, but that’s been put on the back burner during this campaign. What I’ve tried to contribute to this field in America is bringing both the military and war into the conversation and also doing that from the perspective of the people that it most affects.
SP: Had it not been for your work, what would the world never know about you?
Ebel: What I’ve contributed is weaving the voices of common men and women into these big stories of the religious history of the United States. Other people do that, but not many have done it from the military, for reasons that are kind of complicated. A lot of folks within humanities in academia shy away from the studies of military. The movements within historical studies of religious studies for a range of reasons have looked past these experiences of soldiers and people involved in the military. What I’ve done is I’ve brought those voices into the conversation and made it okay for other young scholars to pursue that angle of studies. It’s not a specific discovery, but more of expanding of the field and conversation.
SP: How has your time in the military influenced who you are today?
Ebel: In some quiet ways it’s shaped what I’m interested in academically, but it opened my eyes to the diversity of experiences within military life and made me study these more closely. But here I am as a candidate of Congress and my oath to defend the constitution is similar to what I’m doing now; I’m not willing to sit by and watch as our country is driven into the ditch by this irresponsible man running our country and the people who enable him. We need people who are committed to the best qualities of American history to stand up and defend those qualities. That’s part of what I’m doing, I hope.
SP: Name a pivotal moment in your career and explain how it got to where you are today.
Ebel: One of the reasons I’m able to do this now is because I got a fellowship last year called the Guggenheim Fellowship, and in the aftermath of the election in 2016 I was thinking long and hard about whether it was possible for me to run for Congress. That was a long conversation with my family, my employer, my support network, and people who would be willing to support the campaign financially. I was in the process of having those conversations and the one piece challenging me was reconciling how I would handle my position here at the University, and the Guggenheim Fellowship came through and allowed me to pursue this campaign full time, and through next fall if I win the primary. That was the pivotal moment in the life of a scholar because it was a big honor. For me, it also opened this door that I wouldn’t have been able to walk through.
SP: What motivated you to pursue politics? Was it the 2016 election?
Ebel: I thought about it in 2004 after John Kerry lost to George W. Bush in the 2nd Bush election, and there were a lot of things about that campaign that were upsetting to me. At the time though I still had two really young children, and I was just starting my academic career; I didn’t have a tenure track job yet. I backed away from thinking about politics at that point, but this time when it came around my children, though they still need me, were older and more independent, and my academic career was more established. This feels really urgent to me. It’s cliché but if not now, when? If this isn’t the moment you get off your ass and try to fix this, to be a part of a project to rejuvenate American democracy, then when? When in the hell are you ever going to do it?
SP: Your campaign slogan is “Honestly Different.” What’s something the public might not know about you that’s honestly different?
Ebel: I’m the only ballet-dancing, marathon-running, veteran, religion professor who’s ever run for Congress. The thing that’s honestly different about me in this race is that I’m not beholden to any political interest in the state of Illinois, in Washington, or beholden to a past as a candidate which comes with a certain amount of baggage. I’m a fresh progressive voice. It’s the honest part in “honestly different” that I lean on; I speak my mind, my message has not been focus-grouped, it’s what I truly believe and would fight for. Speaking to Democrats, we spend a lot of time looking at the politics that we have and trying to find candidates who fit that politics. What we ought to be doing is imagining a politics that we really want and electing the candidates who have the courage and persistence to get us there.
SP: Who is your role model and why?
Ebel: It sounds cliché, but it’s my dad. He died three years ago, and that was miserable, and I miss him every day. He was an incredibly hard-working and passionate person. He was also an independent thinker, and those are things that really shaped me into who I am. Not that I’m a contrarian, but I like to empathize and see the other side of the argument and to not be predictable in my positions or my thinking. But he was also an incredibly hard working person who loved us as his family and did everything possible for us. I’m sounding like the typical son venerating dad, but it really was true.
SP: Anything else you’d like to add?
Ebel: How important it is to be involved right now, and that you’re not alone in your concerns. I’ve spent the last nine months driving back and forth across this district, with lots of different kinds of communities, and everywhere I go there are people concerned about the direction of this country. This is a dark moment in our country’s history, but there’s a bright light, and I’d like people to focus on that. That’s how we bring about change. You don’t have to run for Congress to bring about change; any of these campaigns can use some help, and it’s really great to be a part of that effort. It’s therapeutic; cheering on Rachel Maddow is fun, but it’s time to get out and actually do the things that we want to see done. That’s my message right now. Win, lose, or draw, that’s one of the things that I’ve taken away. You can be part of the solution.