Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
July 2007 - Volume 07, No. 4
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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 get-nowhere-useful enterprise.

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 mouth.”

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 does.

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 >

[Anxiety based] < 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 reasons).

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 in relationships.

Comments (2)

  • I believe that failure to discuss either religion or politics with others has allowed those who don’t share our views to dominate public discourse. There is always a sense of someones values in any form of discussion and I have encountered a belief among the more liberal minded to not want to “hear” from the other western worldview.

    — Lesley, 12/31/2011
  • Response to Lesley

    I find your language interesting, especial “the other western worldview.” You speak as if there are only two sides, and then contend that your side is ignored. As I think you can readily tell, I don’t live in such a bifurcated world, but one of multiple voices and viewpoints. But I can understand and appreciate, given your mindset how you could the more easily claim discourtesy.

    — Bill McDonald, 1/2/2012

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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