Why Religious Congregations Should Talk About Politics

“We should not talk about politics in church.” I’ve heard this emphatic “not” throughout my church-going life. The reason is understandable: “Politics is divisive, and I don’t want conflict and division in church. We’ve got plenty of that already! If we talk about politics in church, it will only make people angry.”

Fair enough. People do not come to sacred spaces to fight. People come to be part of a community to help them handle daily living: to connect with their Ultimate Concern; to support their families and their long-term relationships; to provide perspective and encouragement for issues with children, aging, disease, accidents, death, tragedies; to mark transitional times with rituals of celebration and grieving; for meaning, empowerment, and belonging.

Given the deeply polarized character of today’s politics, one can understand why congregants loathe to talk about politics in sacred spaces. However, silence in the matter of the relationship between politics and religion is killing congregations and contributing to the demise of democracy in the U.S.

This plea is written to religious people in the United States who are dismayed or disgusted with the quality of political discourse and practice in this country, as well as with the image that religion has developed in the past four decades because of the direct and collateral damage to which the Religious Right has contributed in dissolving the fundaments of a vibrant democracy. Rather than eschewing politics in congregations, those of us who are dismayed or disgusted need to increase the capacity of congregations to talk about politics and religion. [I am speaking of discourse about political issues, not candidate endorsements.]

I do not underestimate the effort it will take for increase the quantity and quality of these conversations because we all in the United States–religious congregations and the wider culture–are engaged in a war. We are warring over the moral fundamentals required for a complex, culturally-diverse society.

This war has compromised the moral standing of nearly all institutions of American life. Markers of this war are evident in legitimacy crises. At least half the population rejects the legitimacy of all three branches of the federal government. Contesting the legitimacy of national elections has become common. The actions of our government have morally outraged many of us. In our names, our government has tortured “enemy combatants.” The current president ordered children to be separated from their parents at the U.S/Mexican border in order to inflict sufficient pain so as to deter parents from even thinking about asking for asylum in the U.S. Social inequities–evident in policing, the courts, and in staggering income and wealth inequalities–beg the validity of the claim: “with liberty and justice for all.”

There is no end of this war in sight. One cannot imagine that moral authority will be broadly imputed to the President, the House, the Senate, or the Courts anytime soon. The status and authority once accorded to universities and colleges has being diminished by the political Right’s attacks on them as liberal elitist snowflake factories. Finding a news outlet that is accorded trust across partisan divides is about as difficult as locating the Loch Ness Monster. And the moral standing of the dominant religious institution that publics once held in high esteem–the Christian churches–has fallen sharply. The abuse of women and children, in every denomination but now with the magnifying glass on the Catholic Church, is a primary reason for the loss of moral power.

Another reason for Christianity’s decline in moral authority is because the amalgamation of religion and partisan politics known as the Christian Right, which has dominated the public’s perception of what Christianity is since the early 1980s, has spread a virus that is destroying the bases of democracy and compromised the integrity of religion. Nearly all of Christianity in the U.S. is infected. Churches, especially conservative ones but not contained to them, are petri dishes for cultivating a Manichean virus which frames both politics and religion as the Children of Light warring against the Children of Darkness. This virus transmutes opponents into enemies and disapproval into hate. Symptoms of the infection include viewing compromise as evil and substituting absolutes, outrage, and purity codes for the moral reasoning necessary in argumentative, ambiguous, and messy democratic societies.

If this virus is not interrupted, the consequences for the U.S. and for a distinct religious witness are immense and negative. Consider the rhetoric in everything from Facebook posts to Supreme Court “interviews.” What is the potential endgame when our opponents are “mobs,” “enemies,” or “not real Americans”? The logical endgame of Manichean politics is that dark-side political losers must be silenced, re-educated, disenfranchised, oppressed, exiled, segregated—or exterminated.

Unless religious congregants become attentive to this Manichean virus and advance our capacity to handle political conversations in our congregations, we perpetuate the infection and fuel the war. Silence will not interrupt the Manichean virus. We in religious congregations must learn to talk better with one another.

It is hard to talk when you are at war. It is rare in the United States today to experience holding environments for difficult public interchanges: spaces where communities have authorized, empowered, and backstopped their leaders in the work of encouraging people to stay at the table long enough for the murk of fears and anxieties to clear, for root issues to emerge, and for a community to engage in uncomfortably learning.

Congregations, or particular groups within congregations, can become holding environments and then act as leaven in broader communities. If we could create holding environments, here are some examples of topics worthy of conversations.

Power. Politics is a moral practice, an exercise in practical reason. Practical reason is deliberation about matters that could be other than what they are; ambiguity and disagreement are expected. The skill necessary for moral politics is the ability to use power wisely while working in the intersection of people, principles, and concrete circumstances. Politics is necessary, not a “necessary evil,” to exercise power in a democracy. How might religious congregants learn and teach how to use political power morally?

Love and justice. Love is a desirable virtue in many religions. Reinhold Niebuhr argued that justice is the social expression of love. From a religious point of view, every society needs a politics of love and justice. How might religious congregants contribute?

Human Dignity and Care for the Earth. For theists, God is the creator of the universe. If God is the origin and the destiny of creation, all humankind shares a common origin and destiny. What is the meaning of this teaching vis-à-vis identity politics, international relationships, acting as caretakers of creation rather than owners, and adequately addressing climate change before homo sapiens fuels its own extinction event?

Greatness. According to Abrahamic religions, God judges the goodness and greatness of a people by how that people treats its most vulnerable citizens. How might religious congregants advocate for and witness to this understanding of greatness and goodness?

Integrity. Religious leaders need to pay constant attention to the uses of religion in political discourse and public life. It is common for political leaders to cloak their interests in Christian language and symbols. But Christians have also willingly contributed their symbols, having stolen them from a Judaism (e.g., City Set on a Hill, New Israel, Promised Land), to the nation’s narrative in ways that obscured and obscure the violence of slavery, genocide, colonization, and the prodigal exploitation of creation. How might religious leaders better define and protect our symbols from misuse in the political realm and contribute to how political and civic leaders in the U.S. frame our national story?

Table practices for community. Conversation, argument, negotiation, compromise, toleration, reckoning, penance, forgiveness, forbearance–these are humankind’s best tools for avoiding physical violence and staying in relationship with each other. They are community-sustaining practices. They are table practices. In communities such practices occur when persons are able to sit with each other without fear of the knives on the dinner table. There is nothing easy, safe, or “nice” about table or “civil” practices, especially when a community’s skill in the practices is rusty, underdeveloped, or just plain absent. At the same time, when someone intends harm to you and your beloveds, the need to protect may trump the ability to talk while war is being waged. How might religious adherents exercise the need to protect from those who mean us harm, while we work to end the war rather than perpetuate it, and develop our skills in these table practices?

The difference between what we can expect from our religious community and from the best possible political community. A critical aspect of the conversation that needs to be developed is to differentiate the ultimate end of a religion from the purposes of civic and political communities. What is the relationship between the moral order advocated by one’s religion and the moral order of a pluralistic democracy?

Developing any of these conversations in congregations would both increase a congregation’s capacity to deal with conflict within and increase the capacity of its adherents to contribute to a vital democratic society. Would not the United States benefit from a significant minority of persons with increased capacities for practicing conversation, argument, negotiation, compromise, toleration, reckoning, penance, forgiveness, love, and forbearance—as well as for treating every person with dignity, working to deescalate the war, and bringing people to a table?

Religious congregations should form adherents who treat politics as important but not ultimate; if Republican rule or Democratic rule is a substitute for religion then God help us all! Presently, because of the Manichean virus some religious communities have unleashed on the culture, forming congregants who do not confuse the ultimate with the ephemeral and who exercise their faith fittingly in political life is not going to happen if religious congregations are unable to talk better about politics and religion among themselves.