We Need More Kitchen Table Conversations about Politics and Religion

I have previously written on why moderate and progressive religious communities need to talk more about politics. Here, I want to expand on the topic with which I opened that essay: the reticence and resistance to engaging and fostering conversations about politics in religious communities. (Politics in terms of ethics, policies, desired ends, taxing and spending, visions of the community we seek, personal and communal rights, responsibilities, and freedom—rather than electoral politics.)

I acknowledge that some religious communities are ensconced in a mindset that emphasizes one’s inner relationship with the Divine (a vertical rather than horizontal relationship) and private morality, which extends beyond one’s family only thinly.

But for any religious community that believes their religion should shape their moral perspectives toward neighbors, strangers, and the planet, then we should be questioning why we can’t talk more about politics in religious communities.

What are the potential reasons, and implications, of not talking about politics? In my previous essay, I underlined the 40-year reign of the Christian Right dominating national political discourse as one consequence of the relative silence coming from the rest of us. But additional reasons and implications include:

Not talking about politics means we affirm things as they are, or we believe we can’t do anything to change what is wrong, or we don’t care. So, not talking about politics is rooted in privilege, in despair, or in apathy. Anyone want to claim as virtuous any or all of those reasons?

Not talking about politics means we don’t have the tools to deal with conflict. I think this is a major factor for religious communities. They fear conflict because they are financially fragile, and they don’t want to lose the remaining fragments of the base that once supported their ministries.

In addition, people come to religious communities with many motivations, but I’d bet seeking peace is high on that list. Well, homo sapiens is steeped in conflict. A lot of conflict (some anthropologists think we survived by killing off other human species). Despite our species’ talent for conflict, it is the rare religious community that intentionally teaches conflict management, which is not only about resolving conflict but includes both intensifying conflict when necessary and learning to live with unresolvable conflicts.

That kind of religious community requires a commitment, from everyone, that many communities may not foster, value, or enjoy. A lifetime ago, when I lived in a rural parsonage and parishioners would knock briefly and invite themselves in the front door, I learned about the difference between a front room welcome and a kitchen welcome. The front room was for casual conversations, information exchange, and niceness. At the kitchen table, however, deeper into the house, was the place for more heartfelt exchanges, more pain, more grief, more potential for working on—if not through—difficult matters. For some people, their religious community has, figuratively speaking, both a front room and a kitchen, and they’ve been to the kitchen. But for how many people in your community is this the case?

In another essay, I’ve written about the interwoven nature of religion and politics. “Religion” and “politics” names two overlapping fields in which story, belonging, moral order, and obstacles/empowerment to overcome obstacles play and play out. Is the religious community you know a community of moral discourse that seeks to equip adults (not only adults, but I’m focusing here on adults) with the moral framework they need to navigate the rich, complicated intersections of religion and politics? In many religious communities I know, the educational focus is on children and youth, especially children. The transitional ritual into adult membership occurs in the early teen years. And then… what?

In today’s world, and in addition to personal relationships (a realm that is a great deal more complex than in the patriarchal and binary world that is being challenged, if not left behind), morally well-equipped adults would be able to think about and act beneficially regarding:

    • being a neighbor; self-education on the issues of the day,
    • household stewardship for the benefit of the long-term health of one’s family, society, and of the earth,
    • making and spending money,
    • use of technology,
    • working and voting for social justice,
    • and self-awareness—to name just a few topics.

How many people do you know who are well-formed for adult life? I don’t know. But Robert Kegan’s book title may still be apt: In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life.

Finally, and this statement is a hunch rather than a more formed claim, differences of political opinions, and moral stances, generate as much strong emotion, if not more, than any other topic these days. Now, I follow the moral psychologists who argue that homo sapiens is fundamentally an emotional species that also thinks, rather than a thinking species that also emotes. And that David Hume, rather than Immanuel Kant, is more correct: morality is linked to emotion first, and reasons are given to justify the emotions. (I don’t affirm this as deterministically as some might, but that is another topic.)

There is an emotional charge to political opinions that seems too potentially explosive to risk setting off in polite company, or in a group where you think you might not simply be affirmed. People either get angry or descend into a charged silence when their political stances are questioned.

What I suspect is this: our political stances are more self-interested than many religious people want to admit, and our self-interests conflict with the prevailing moral atmosphere of our community’s official moral and ethical norms. So, maybe there is an element of shame, or a fear of feeling shame, or a fear of being exposed or judged as hypocritical or morally wrong that keeps some individuals and communities from talking more about politics and faith.

If I am at all right about these claims, then we need more relatively safe kitchen table conversations. There are a few places in society trying them, but I would hope that religious communities would be in the forefront.

Many obstacles. Many opportunities.

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