Sean Penn was born and raised in Los Angeles County, California.

His father was a secular Jew and his mother was a Catholic, but Penn grew up in a secular household.1 When asked what he knew for sure, Penn quoted a line from his movie, The Assassination of Richard Nixon,

Certainty is the disease of kings, and I’m not a king.2

That seems to sum up Penn’s religious beliefs pretty well: solidly agnostic. But that doesn’t mean he thinks there’s nothing out there. It’s just that he doesn’t know what it is.

I feel like it’s respectful enough of God to say I believe in the mystery. But meanwhile, there is some kind of design to all this thing. . . Either our experience in life is one of tremendous coincidence, or there’s a design. We may have a part in creating it or not. . . I think we kind of get born and we step into a chair and the roller coaster starts and we don’t have an enormous amount to say about where it’s going to go.3

Unlike his view of the spiritual, there’s nothing unsure about Sean Penn’s political beliefs. Since 1998, the actor has contributed $11,400 to Democratic candidates,4 but that’s only the beginning.

Not your everyday political activist

Penn makes headlines just as much for his political actions as for his acting career. He was a consistent and outspoken critic of the Bush presidency and the Iraq War. In October 2002, five months before the start of the Iraq war, Sean Penn took out an ad in the Washington Post in which he wrote a letter highly critical of Bush’s policies toward Iraq.5 That letter was followed by a few trips to the country and another letter in the New York Times.6

Penn also sent dispatches back to the San Francisco Chronicle from a trip to Iran,7 defended Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez against the highly critical American media,8 and interviewed Cuban president Raul Castro in Havana over dinner and drinks.9

Great shame

When Penn accepted the Best Actor award for playing Harvey Milk, the openly gay San Francisco politician, he took the opportunity to say a few words condemning those who supported California’s Proposition 8 in 2008, which banned gay marriage.

I think that it is a good time for those who voted for the ban against gay marriage to sit and reflect and antipate their great shame and the shame in their grandchildren’s eyes if they continue that way of support. We’ve got to have equal rights for everyone.10

Penn was only a reluctant supporter of Obama in 2012 because of his misgivings about the president’s policy toward Afghanistan and his inability to unite the country.11 For a man who appears to see the world in black and white, right and wrong, voting for someone who is less than ideal seems to be a generous concession.

  1. Jews Flop in Big Oscar Award Win. Jewish Journal. []
  2. Oprah Interviews Sean Penn. Oprah. []
  3. Sean Penn & Charlie Rose On God’s Mystery: God Or No God–Whatever!. YouTube. []
  4. Sean Penn’s federal campaign contribution report. Newsmeat. []
  5. Sean Penn: Actor & Activist – Open letter to President Bush and trip to Iraq. WOWZone. []
  6. Sean Penn’s Rage. Media Watch. []
  7. SEAN PENN IN IRAN. SFGate. []
  8. Sean Penn: Journalists who call Hugo Chavez a dictator should be jailed. The Guardian. []
  9. Sean Penn Interviews Raul Castro. NYTimes. []
  10. Sean Penn winning Best Actor for “Milk.” YouTube. []
  11. Sean Penn on politics, economy. YouTube. []