If you want to have a bad day, start talking about religion or politics. If you really want to kick up some drama, mention both.
There’s a reason why these topics used to be forbidden in polite society. In the modern era, just as other antiquated rules of etiquette have fallen away, so has this one. In fact, if you are not engaged in political discussion, you might get accused of being out of touch or ignorant. In the age of social media, our opinions and beliefs create a profile of who we are. When those beliefs are challenged, it is as if someone is striking at our deepest sense of self. I’m no psychologist, but that can’t be healthy.
There’s nothing new here—religion and politics have always existed in a tug of war. They have persisted from ancient civilizations to modern times in a dueling dance, taking turns in the lead. Perhaps the conversation is at a higher pitch now, or maybe it just feels that way because we are in it. Either way, I’m exhausted. The balance between these two dynamic forces is precarious. It feels like ordering dragons to walk in a straight line—improbable, foolhardy, and extremely dangerous.
There have been many great scholars of thought and history who have provided in-depth analysis. I am none of those things, and I certainly can’t tackle all the nuances in a thousand words or less. But as someone who is in the trenches, and who wrestles with these dragons often, I have a few ideas on how to make the struggle a little less painful, and maybe even make the world a better place.
1. Don’t assume: There is a wide spectrum of belief and opinion. We should never assume that someone agrees or disagrees with us, even if they are of the same faith or political party. If we want our faith communities to be open, inclusive, and safe, we must leave room for diverse opinions and beliefs along the political spectrum. Imagine what would happen if someone came to church for the first time and sat down next to someone at the fellowship table who starts ranting about a certain political party, without knowing that the newcomer belongs to it. The impression they would get is that they are not welcome. That may not be the view of the entire congregation, but each of us is a representative of our larger community. We come together on the basis of faith, not politics. How our faith guides us in the real world, and even in our politics, is personal. Making assumptions about other people’s political views can be, at best, embarrassing and, at worst, ostracizing.
2. Listen: What if, instead of pushing our agenda or doctrine, we could be known for listening with empathy and understanding? When we hold tightly to our own perspective, our first reaction is to defend it. When we start putting ideas ahead of loving people, then the pendulum has swung too far. Jesus understood that it was not rhetoric that changed minds but, rather, love and compassion that changed hearts. We are in the business of changing hearts, not minds. When we truly listen to others, we can communicate on a much deeper level. Our own views will be made richer by the insights and experiences we gain from others.
3. Love your enemy: It’s one of the commandments that religious people love to quote, but too often it becomes a platitude and not something that is actually practiced. One of the main places for misunderstanding is the Internet. The social media are a minefield of cross-talk, hyperbole, and snark. I have seen people who profess profound faith use demeaning and dismissive language when confronting someone of a differing political opinion on social media. This is the Number One way to get someone to stop listening, because no one listens to a hypocrite. None of us is perfect, but as people of faith, we need to constantly be checking that inner motivation. Are we responding out of love or anger? Are we speaking to others in a way that we would want to be spoken to? How we speak to and engage with others is just as important, if not more so, as what we actually say. Remember, hearts before minds.
4. Create the space for peace: Peace does not mean that there are no disagreements or negative feelings; rather, it’s the space where we can engage with conflict in a way that helps us grow. If you are confronted with an idea that challenges you, consider it. Buddhist teacher Thích Nhất Hạnh says, “People suffer because they are caught in their views. As soon as we release those views, we are free and we don’t suffer anymore” (The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation). How might this new perspective deepen your own? How might you express your own ideas in a way that would promote a productive dialogue? When we let go of being right, there is space for peace to grow amid understanding.
5. Do good works: Get out into the community and serve. Let your ability to see everyone as God’s children guide you to compassion. Let your faith power you through taking on difficult issues. There are issues that this world faces that are beyond politics or faith. Regardless of how you feel about welfare, what can you do to help your neighbor who has fallen on hard times? Can a Democrat and a Republican volunteer together at a soup kitchen, or paint a house? We don’t need to conform to any particular political ideology in order to make a better world. As the apostle James counsels, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:14-17 ESV). Our good works are a reflection of our faith, much more so than our words. If politics is an area in which you feel you can do good, then get out there and use it for good! Hint: Posting on social media doesn’t count!
Father Moon said, “People often think that politics moves the world, but that is not the case. It is culture and art that move the world. It is emotion, not reason, that strikes people in the innermost part of their hearts. When hearts change and are able to receive new things, ideologies and social regimes change as a result” (As a Peace-Loving Global Citizen, page 69).
The relationship between religion and politics, like our heart and our mind, is a delicate balance.
Where does that balance exist? How can we bring together these two sides that seem so far apart and often at odds in the world at large? It is within ourselves. We are the vehicle for balance—the place where religion and politics can exist to promote peace instead of division. Each of us as an individual has a role to play in figuring out how to serve our God, and how to serve our country. It is up to us to find that balance, and to be an example for others to follow.