Paying Attention Bill McDonald’s
July 2007 - Volume 07, No. 4
On Talking Politics and Religion
Conventional wisdom and courtesy, advises us to refrain from talking about
politics or religion with strangers. Let me add that this advice can be useful
among friends as well. These two topics are potentially explosive and illogical.
I have been hooked far too often into such conversations, leading to a sense
of time wasted, frustration, and a solemn commitment to never do this again.
Just the other day, I witnessed two otherwise intelligent and personable individuals
- both of whom prefaced their conversation with comments about the danger of
talking politics - get hooked into such a conversation, and within fifteen seconds
were “off and running.” On the surface both were apparently enjoying
themselves; but I was physically backing far away in full awareness of their
In my (‘other’) profession as a clergyman, I suffer people’s
felt need in my presence to engage in obligatory and usually self-justificatory
comments about religion. I often comment that both my professions - clergyman
and ‘shrink’ - can certainly ruin a good party.
What is it about both politics and religion that so easily invite the debasement
of intelligent conversation?
In a nutshell, I think it’s this: People are hungry for something
that works - something to believe in, something we can rely on when
all else fails, something so reliable that we don’t ever have to logically
defend or think about it. And because of that, we trust it at all times
to tell us who we are. We need an identity we can depend on - and ideally,
one ready-made for us.
Here’s a list of reasons people will indulge in discussions about
religion and politics:
1) It guarantees using up time - the positive value being to prevent one from
getting involved in more vulnerable (or honest) conversations, where one might
come across as more present and alive. I can recall social situations where
such conversations definitely provided an emotional safety zone for otherwise
anxious and insecure persons.
2) It is the folk tradition of the “sophomore” student to be full
of himself or herself. The root meaning of the word means "wise fool";
consequently "sophomoric" can mean "pretentious, bombastic, inflated
in style or manner; immature, crude, superficial" (according to the Oxford
English Dictionary). We can all recall incidents of being over-full of ourselves,
holding the attention of others to demonstrate our presumed “wisdom”.
In both religion and politics, those who are converts (‘converted’
from another faith or position) are often the worst offenders of “sophomore
3) In religion, there are those who readily seek to invade our emotional space
by their public (even at our doorsteps) “evangelism” or “witnessing.”
My sense of these persons is that their religious identity already presumes
being “at odds with” the world, so our discomfort or “rejection”
is pre-assumed (even welcomed) by their belief system.
4) Some people are simply hungry for social validation - and both politics
and religion provide easy topics where nobody is held to a discipline of logic,
truth or factual accuracy. Any opinion can take up such social space - and often
5) I notice that the energy behind most rapidly growing church congregations,
has little to do with theology or experience of the deep-sacred - but rather
a shared hunger for family values. It’s the same in politics, especially
at election time. Again, it’s a hunger for something that works to bring
order into our lives when otherwise we feel threatened. In the Security / Freedom
continuum, this regressive energy is definitely directed toward Security.
> Risk >
< Regression <
The true language of religion and of politics is co-opted to bolster
a regressive (anti-anxiety) defense against an increasingly expanding and complex
larger world. Read between the lines in both fields and you’ll see oversimple
answers against the complexity of life. Our national regression after
9/11 is an excellent example, when such a co-opting ‘spell’ overtook
most of us.
Let me speak for the other side - the possibility of conversation about politics
and religion that is creative, useful and honest. When the intent of
each party is not regressive (anxiety based, defensive) - but rather open
to listening to the other, thereby possibly expanding one’s own views
- then genuine dialogue can take place. This is authentic conversation. And
since life is short, and good relationships are of high value - this is how
I seek to involve myself in the world. And in spite of my “list of five”
above, there are those who broach either topic with a heart-felt desire to engage
a “worthy contender” by which larger truth can be revealed, and
worthy fellowship invited. That’s a tradition in my own family of origin,
and I wish to always honor it.
I think of the serious faithful who’s religious faith leads them to genuine
service in the larger world. And I think of those faithful Iowans (my home state)
who every four years struggle and ponder deeply in their caucuses for the sake
of the future of the republic (now being co-opted by other states for less-than-honorable
When you do encounter regressive conversations, consider shifting to the ‘real’
subject - our hunger for something that works - against the complexity
and chaos of reality. It might redeem the conversation, and provide a worthy
contender. Then again, you might only be ignored, which is a legitimate reason
to exit. Nothing of value was probably going to happen there anyway.
Next month, I plan to begin a series on “Givers and Takers” - especially
Response to Lesley
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