So in rebooting the blog, I recently did what I always do when rebooting the blog: I asked for questions and topic ideas. Because this is what I always do when I reboot the blog, and I reboot the blog quite often, I kind of knew what was going to come. And sure enough, someone asked for me to write about politics and religion.
In a lot of ways, this is a frequent topic on this blog. Even the post that started this most recent reboot was about guns and violence. The truth is, no matter where you stand on that particular political issue, if you call yourself a Christian then your view ought to be informed by your faith. The same can be said of just about any political issue you can come across. It's my view that if your faith isn't informing your political opinions, then one or both of those is rather weak.
However, I would say that it's very important to clarify a few terms.
I think it's of vital importance that we separate the political from the partisan. Our word "politics" comes from the Greek word Polis, or city. In the most ideal situations, politics refers to the organization and welfare of the city, or state, or nation. So on a super basic level, your town has roads that it needs to maintain. Someone needs to pave them, fill in the potholes, paint the lines, plow the snow off of them, things like that. Somewhere, there is a group of people that decides how all of that is going to go down. In our American system of government, we decide who those people are going to be. We elect representatives to sit in a room, and ultimately decide how best to proceed, how to pay for these roads, how to mark them, how they connect, what citizens can and cannot do on those roads, etc. That is politics at its best.
Partisan politics is when you are given a choice, in our country usually only between Democrat (or Liberal, or Progressive) and Republican (or Conservative), and you have to fit your view into one of those positions. The trick is, as our friend Father Richard Rohr would tell us, that dualism rarely works out. Often times if we're paying very careful attention, the choices we're given between Democrat and Republican views are often not exclusive choices, even if they're dressed up that way.
Take for instance the typical debate between the two parties on taxes. Republicans will tell you that our debt and defect are out of control, and that we need to stop spending. Democrats will tell you that our debt and defect are out of control, and that we need to raise taxes, particularly on the wealthy. Now this is a simplification of course, and we could go into a much more nuanced debate to be sure. But any family who struggles with their finances would tell you that if you have an opportunity to increase income and reduce spending, do both. But this is rarely the choice we're given. It is in fact I think because neither side actually much cares about the debt and deficit unless the other side is running it up to get what they want, but that's a whole different conversation. The point of the matter is we're often in partisan politics given two choices, when that's rarely the case. Either some combination of choices is true, or there's a third, fourth, or even fifth choice that often gets left out.
I admit again that this is overly simplified, because there's a lot to get to in this blog post, and would anticipate that anyone who would like to challenge or debate these points in the comments to recognize that. But this still gets at the heart (for me at least) of this first distinction. I will talk politics with anyone all day, every day. I have almost no interest in partisan politics. To this day, I am an independent voter. I don't always agree with the Democrats, and I don't always agree with the Republicans. Likewise, I think the Democrats have some good ideas, and I think the Republicans have some good ideas. It really depends on the issue, and how I feel like the citizens of our nation will best be served by that issue.
Another super important distinction I like to make is between faith and religion. The source of all knowledge in the universe, Google, defines religion in this way:
a particular system of faith and worship.
plural noun: religions
"the world's great religions"
a pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance.
"consumerism is the new religion"
So for me, I always make the argument that Pittsburgh Penguins Hockey is in fact my religion. I have regular habits that collectively create and inform my "system of faith and worship." I wear ceremonial garb (jersey and hat) when I watch the game. I treat the arena with reverence, sort of like a holy site (Side Note: What the heck Penguins fans? Clean up your used nachos at the end of the game. Do you know how long we had to wait for this beautiful facility? Take care of your house of worship people!) Do the Penguins take supreme importance in my life? Ask Sarah if we can have conversations when the Penguins are on a power play. If you pay very close attention, I even have this little quark of wiping my brow when the Pens clear the zone on a penalty kill. I've had it since I was a kid. And if all of this is sounding a little crazy or far fetched for you, check out our slogan from this year's playoff run:
Now you might say that I have an idolatrous relationship with the Penguins, and I might very well agree with you. But that's the very definition of religion. Where I think that's different from faith is that I strongly believe that faith can and does change you, and religion is the vehicle to interact with that change. While I religiously watch the Penguins, I've never become a better person because of that religion. Jesus Christ has shaped me into a substantially better person than I was at the start, and religion is the vehicle that happens through. I don't come to church every Sunday out of some ritual obligation, or even because I get a paycheck. I come to church every Sunday because I routinely expect to be shaped and molded by God.
So here in lies the problem: look again at my descriptor of religion by way of the Penguins. Don't you think a healthy portion of our population has made partisan politics their religion? Don't some people worship the very idea of their tribe or party, to the exclusion of others? Don't some people place supreme importance to their tribal group, even perhaps more so than their God? Goodness sakes, there's even a bit of a liturgy in politics, isn't there? I pointed it out in the post on guns. There's a call and response that's all to predictable. This is also easy to see when you watch clips from people who are arguing one point of view during a Republican administration who are arguing the exact opposite point of view during a Democratic administration, or vice versa. The opinion or issue are not the supreme importance, the party is. Too often I think this is what people want to talk about when they want to talk politics and religion (though, I should say, I don't think this is what the person who posed this topic was after). And if I'm honest, I have absolutely no desire to engage in this food fight.
But if you want to talk about how our faith informs our decisions about what's best for the citizens of the nation, that's a radically different conversation. From my point of view, all of that centers on Jesus. If you want to argue that the wealthy should get a tax break, that's fine, but you better be able to tell me how Jesus' message about the poor informs that decision. If you want to argue that we should spend more on social services, that's wonderful, but you better be able to tell me how Jesus' instructing the church to be the vehicle to do such things fits in to that argument. If you're going to tell me you're pro-life, I applaud that, but you better not simply mean anti-abortion, because I think Jesus had a much wider application of what it means to value a human life. And maybe most importantly, if you are going to demonize the other side for their views, if you're going to insult them, slander them, claim they hate their country, or they're out to ruin us, you had best take a look at some of the things Jesus said about enemies and how best to treat them (spoiler alert: you shouldn't have enemies).
As maybe you'll notice, this cuts through party lines like a knife through butter. Any time I come across a partisan argument, where I'm only given choices A and B, I picture Jesus standing off to the side shaking his head at how lost we've become. And I've got to say, for the good of our republic, we better start to figure some of this stuff out soon. The anger, vitriol, combativeness, and ego that has invaded our body politic is horrifying. If all we did, even just a little bit more, was allow Jesus to inform how we treat others with whom we disagree and have loving conversations with them, we would be in a colossally better place.