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Friday, August 6, 2010

The intersection of politics and religion

When my grandfather was looking to get married, he likely received some advice from his father before meeting the in-laws for the first time: “Son, have a good time. Be polite. Show respect. And don’t talk to her father about politics or religion.” That statement has rarely been truer than it is today.

The presidency of Barack Obama was supposed to introduce a new era of bipartisanship. For reasons not completely within his ability to control, the opposite has taken place. A liberal congress led by Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid lays down the law on the left, while an emerging Tea Party ramps up passions on the right. The policies espoused by each group grow further and further apart. What exacerbates the situation even more is the use of divisive and uncivil rhetoric.

For example, several months ago, Sarah Palin made fun of President Obama’s reliance on a teleprompter. The irony of the situation was that she was reading from notes scribbled on her hand which reminded her to focus on topics such as “energy” and “lift[ing] American spirits.” Roberts Gibbs, the White House Press secretary, couldn’t pass up the opportunity. He proceeded to make fun of Palin by looking to scribbled notes on his own hand during a press conference which referred to the topics of “hope” and “change.” And so it went, back and forth, one insult after another. What should have been a respectful discourse between grown-ups was instead an escalated version of a petty argument between children.

Lest anyone be confused, politics does not have a monopoly on divisive rhetoric. Acclaimed author, Anne Rice, recently announced that she was “quitting” Christianity. For most believing Christians, “quitting” your religion seems like a counterintuitive thing to do. But Rice opined that she couldn’t stand the constant bickering, and said that it was “impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group.” While there are two major political parties in America, Christianity Today estimates that there are nearly 38,000 Christian denominations in the United States. That makes for a lot of people saying, “It’s my way or the highway.” Divisive rhetoric abounds.

Anne Rice may have quit her religion, but what about the rest of America? A 2007 study by the Pew Research Center shows that nearly 1 in 6 American aren’t affiliated with any religion. I suggest that one reason religion is becoming less important in America is because people are being increasingly turned off by heated rhetoric. Virtually all religions have one tenet or another which speaks to a principle of unity. And yet so many groups use conversion tactics that essentially say, “You’re wrong. We’re right.” This black-or-white, all-or-nothing, saved-or-be damned mode of conversation isn’t helpful to the cause of religions or their worshippers. I’d go so far as to say that Abraham, Jesus, and Mohammed would agree.

We’re famous in America for saying that the constitution provides for a separation between church and state. And yet it seems that there is one place in particular where politics and religion intersect. These two topics which have long given way to controversy and ruined first-time dinners with the in-laws seem to share a commitment—to divisive rhetoric.

Personally, I am not a fan of divisive rhetoric. If I am shopping around for political parties and the only thing I hear is Democrats blaming Republicans and Republicans blaming Democrats, I don’t find myself inclined to join either one of them. The same thing goes for religion. If I am searching for religion and the only thing the preachers can say is how terrible all of the other religions are, I’m automatically going to be suspect of what they have to offer. Divisive rhetoric doesn’t work for me. And the increasing number of Americans who leave their parties to become Independents and who distance themselves from affiliated religion indicates that many others feel the same way.

The real truth in the whole matter is that everybody brings a little bit of truth to the table. Democrats have some good ideas. Republicans have some solid ideas of their own. Of course, they all bring a lot of nonsense to the table as well. And when it comes to religion, the fact of the matter is that there are elements of truth and goodness in Christianity, in Judaism—and in Islam. Politicians and preachers alike will be more effective if there is recognition that all of us possess at least some degree of goodness and truth. 

It’s easy to point out problems and it’s easy to hate. But America wasn’t built by doing things the easy way. If our country is to continue its upward climb, our politicians and preachers alike must set aside divisive rhetoric—and make civility the new intersection of politics and religion.

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