Politics and Religion

For reasons that I don’t entirely understand, I am interested in politics. I didn’t grow up in a particularly political household, and I’m not a very partisan person by nature. (Certain of my friends and family would disagree with me here, and I admit I’ve started leaning more to one side as the years wear on, but I’ve voted for people from both parties and still consider myself a moderate on many issues.) Politicians themselves rarely win my heart: they are often given to pandering, dissembling, and speaking out of both sides of their mouths, qualities that rank near the bottom of my list of favorite personality traits. And then there’s the gaping distance between the ideals of democracy* and the inertia, inefficiency, bickering and greed that inevitably infect the political process. It’s painful, sometimes, to invest oneself in the whole maddening mess.

And yet I continue to invest myself in it. I DVR Meet the Press on Sunday. I read political op eds and a blog or two. I enjoy watching televised debates, and even tune in for the often-inane nattering between cable news pontificators that goes on after the debate wraps up. I’ve become rather leery of stepping into the role of debater myself, though, especially with family members or friends who disagree with me. First of all, debating political ideas is a tricky, tricky business. I’ve been burned a few times and relationships have been strained, at least temporarily, and in such situations I invariably regret opening my mouth in the first place. I’m also hesitant to get too publicly political because I don’t want to become one of “those people.” You know, the people on your Facebook feed whose posts make your heart race and your head ache. You click through the photos on their profile and think, “Really, she looks so normal and nice. I never would have guessed that she’s actually an obsessive weirdo / misguided fool!” And then you hide her. You know you’ve done it. I admit: I don’t want people who disagree with me to hide me, or look at me sideways on Sunday, or, worst of all, for a friend to interpret my statement of political opinion as a personal condemnation.

But. But! Is this really the best way? Shouldn’t we be able to discuss political ideas without so much trepidation and misunderstanding? In fact, doesn’t our democracy, if it is to function at all, require it, especially of those of us who hold moderate or non-always-hewing-to-the-party-line opinions? If only those who don’t give a flying flip what the other side thinks speak up, we can’t complain that politics has lost all remnants of civility, now can we?

This political season is shaping up to be a particularly heated one in Mormon circles, what with a member of our very own tribe as the Republican nominee. But this post isn’t about Mitt Romney. (Seriously, it’s not about Mitt Romney. Not that I don’t think it would be interesting or valuable to talk about Mitt Romney, but this post isn’t about him.) No, the angle I want to explore is the intersection of politics and religion that makes political debate between members of the church — especially members of the church who disagree — particularly fraught and troublesome.

It seems to me that, among Mormons, many of our “political discussions gone bad” head south whenever people use religious orthodoxy or doctrinal interpretation as a trump card. Statements like “I don’t see how a good Mormon could ever vote for . . .” or “If you truly understood our doctrine, then certainly you’d believe . . .” or “Surely you’ve read King Benjamin’s sermon / Ezra Taft Benson’s book / The Proclamation on the Family, but if it’s been a while, then why don’t I quote specific sections from it and interpret them for you?” Go down that road and KABOOM. Every. Single. Time. At least in my experience.

I wish it were easier to discuss our political beliefs as they are informed by our religious ones, since our faith and our political ideals are often deeply intertwined. It’s hard for me to separate my opinions about, say, health care reform from my understanding of the gospel, because the gospel is an important lens through which I see the world. But there is a big difference between acknowledging that the gospel influences my world view and using selected doctrines and specific scriptures as a weapon to pummel those who disagree with me. And even if I’m not the weapon-wielding type, I can also use those same doctrines and scriptures to build a scaffolding of what appears to be unassailable political “truth,” but which is, in actuality, a structure I’ve created so I can climb it and more effectively look down on all those misguided souls who can’t seem to see the world as clearly as I do.

It’s one thing to explain to someone why you think their ideas about financial regulation won’t best serve our country. It’s another thing entirely to insinuate that, because of their politics, they’re not right with God. Personally, I’ve decided that if and when I choose to have political discussions with other Mormons who disagree with me, I avoid invoking a gospel-based rationale whenever possible. I don’t always adhere to this commitment — I’ve built my own scaffoldings over the years– but I try. And if my co-debater insists on using the Church as a trump card, sometimes I resort to sending him or her this excellent link and then backing away slowly.

I’m not sure if this particular method is the best answer for me. I’m certain it’s not the answer for everybody. But as someone who does care about politics and the gospel and thinks a healthy interchange of ideas is important, but who does not care for conflict, strife, and misunderstanding, it’s the best I can do right now. What about you? How do you navigate the turbulent waters of religion and politics? Are you bracing yourself for this election season, or looking forward to it?

*I’m hoping that I can get away with using the word “democracy” without somebody reminding me that the United States is actually a republic.

About Angela

(Advisory Board) grew up in Utah, then moved to Minnesota, then came back to Utah, then packed up her husband and four kids and moved to Minnesota--again!-- in the summer of 2010. Although she loves the Land of 10,000 Lakes, she dearly misses Slurpees, Sunday dinners at her Mom's house, and eating a whole entire Cafe Rio pork salad while lunching with her Utah-based Segullah sisters. And yes, she finds it telling that everything she misses about her hometown is somehow related to food. She has an BA in English from BYU, an MFA in creative writing from Hamline University, and has taught writing to high school and college students.

22 thoughts on “Politics and Religion

  1. So what you’re telling me is that I should stop saying: “Jesus would have been a democrat.”

  2. I quickly learned to never discuss politics after moving to Utah five and a half years ago. People only repeat what they hear from commentators on radio or tv. Its hard to have a real discussion.

  3. I’ll be interested to hear suggestions on how to navigate these challenging waters. As I find that some of my political leanings differ a bit from those of my parents, these conversations have become… delicate.

    “But there is a big difference between acknowledging that the gospel influences my world view and using selected doctrines and specific scriptures as a weapon to pummel those who disagree with me.” Lovely! I feel the same way. It is always frustrating to me that those who know we are of the same faith assume that then we MUST feel the same way about various political issues.

    I am interested in politics, but I can’t stand watching debates because NO ONE from either side of the aisle ever answers the question presented. It drives me bonkers! JUST ANSWER THE QUESTION!

  4. “But there is a big difference between acknowledging that the gospel influences my world view and using selected doctrines and specific scriptures as a weapon to pummel those who disagree with me.”

    True. I am trying to do better, because things seem so OBVIOUS to me. Everyone who believes in the same basics must have the same interpretation, right? But then I realize I am being as annoying as the people who bug me. Mostly I keep quiet and wish others would as well. That’s probably not the best answer, but it is the most peaceful.

  5. bth, you have every right to say it. I just wouldn’t say it if I want to keep the discussion from getting overheated.

    Nancy, you know, there are people who only repeat what they hear from talking heads. I get frustrated with that too. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that there are plenty of smart people who disagree with me — smart people who’ve come to their opinions honestly and with a lot of thought. It’s just that the people who speak the loudest, most often, are those who like to parrot bombastic talk show hosts or forward inflammatory emails. (And this applies to both political parties, btw.)

  6. Okay, the above comment was tongue-in-cheek. I know exactly what you’re talking about. People I love on both sides of the asile have invoked scripture in discussions. And you are 100% correct! When they do, the discussions turn sour. Every time. I do struggle with the idea that an active LDS presidential candidate is up against the president who was largely responsible for the return of my patriotism (the aftermath of 9/11 did not sit well with my heart). Again, like this post states, I am not asking for a rebuttal of what I just typed. But I believe both candidates (and both parties) mean well and many times have good Christian intentions. It can get intense and IMO, November can’t come soon enough!

  7. bth, I hear you. One of my favorite quotes from the statement by the Church that I linked to in my post is this:

    “The need for civility is perhaps most relevant in the realm of partisan politics. As the Church operates in countries around the world, it embraces the richness of pluralism. Thus, the political diversity of Latter-day Saints spans the ideological spectrum. Individual members are free to choose their own political philosophy and affiliation. Moreover, the Church itself is not aligned with any particular political ideology or movement. It defies category. Its moral values may be expressed in a number of parties and ideologies.”

  8. In the past few years I have been very surprised by the hate that is spread by some members I know. It is one thing to disagree with someones policies, It’s another thing to wish harm to them and their families.
    I usually try to keep my comments to myself but I cannot stand by when the topic turns to hate. I chime in with “It is un-Christ-like to wish harm on others who have different beliefs than you.” Usually that is enough to put people in check of their words.

  9. I am a total political junkie. Election night is like Christmas for me. I watch and listen to a lot of news, pundits, etc.

    But I don’t talk politics much anymore. If I do, I feel out the situation first. You can usually tell where people are getting their information from by the language they use to describe things. (speaking of word choice . . . )

    I have friends from all political spectrums, and I like to talk about issues sometimes, so I try to keep it as politically neutral as possible.

    However, I think that at some point, I will likely need to publicly own my positions.

  10. My husband and I rarely agree about politics. But we talk about political issues all the time.

    I have 11 brothers and sisters. Our political views run the full range. We love to discuss politics.

    The thing is, for all of us, we don’t take it personally. We all have ideas of what is best, and we disagree and debate. No one is offended. There is no room for religious slamming. “It’s one thing to explain to someone why you think their ideas about financial regulation won’t best serve our country. It’s another thing entirely to insinuate that, because of their politics, they’re not right with God.” Is exactly right.

    So it’s particularly hard for me to understand when it is so personal, and so religious to a degree that people condemn each other.

  11. I used to talk about politics, but I got so upset over some national issues about 8 years ago, that I stopped being so invested. I still vote, but I don’t keep up with political news stories or discuss politics very much now. I prefer to focus my attention on my immediate surroundings. I started reading more zen buddhist meditations and zen poetry instead. I do support others who make this investment. (My husband has a book about a political topic coming out this fall. My good friend in town is a professor of political philosophy, and I enjoy hearing him explain issues, but I don’t challenge him; I just soak up his expertise but I don’t necessarily agree either. I just don’t voice my disagreement.) I just can’t keep my emotions in check, so I step away from the topic. I do the same thing with religion. I used to be a source checker for Hugh Nibley, a gospel doctrine teacher, a student of classical Hebrew, seminary teacher, etc. Now I prefer to be in Primary, and I don’t read books about doctrine anymore. I’ve kinda checked out. I’m more concrete in my quest for truth these days. But again, I support others in their quest. I was certainly very invested in religious discourse for a time, so I respect others’ investment even if I’m not in that space anymore.

  12. My biggest political peeve is probably when people have the attitude that yes, the church SAYS they’re politically neutral, but they don’t really MEAN it. Translation: good Mormons are Republicans.

  13. I think we’ve all been in Sunday school when invariably the teacher or someone in the class brings up a political opinion (even in sly side-stepping ways–as if they aren’t really bringing it up). Ugh! I think if we did speak up a bit more (if it’s possible to be non-contentious) people might actually stop making negative comments in completely inappropriate settings (like Sunday school).

  14. I too find politics fascinating, in the context of a world gone mad. It’s a kind of spiritual novocain that lets us slap each other around and not feel a thing.

    Whatever gets you through the night, it’s all right, it’s all right. – John Lennon

  15. My husband is the master of the political debate ending with both people still friends. He has a lot of friends who are very left, and he genuinely enjoys the hunt down the rabbit hole. Mostly I think it’s because he and his friends can enjoy the debate purely for debate’s sake, and part of it is my husband’s ability to not take things very personally. If somebody is ranting about a certain economic issue that he finds absurd, he is somehow able to divorce himself from thinking that the rant is about him. It’s a nice trait in a debater (which he was, in high school), but sometimes I think it’s also a male thing, too. Women get their feelings hurt more often then men, and when I hear somebody ranting about something I disagree with, it’s harder for me to separate the two—opinions about politics vs. opinions about the person who BELIEVES in the politics. And with the church stuff, the phrase, “Who’s on the Lord side, who?’ seems to come up a lot, and if you assume YOU’RE on the Lord’s side, and somebody tells you that your side is wrong, well, you either have to believe that you’re not right with the Lord or the other person isn’t. It shouldn’t be that way–we are all children of God–but it’s easy to see why political discussions at church go, as you said, kaboom.

  16. I am still struggling to know when it is safe to share my political opinions. And the answer seems to be not often if I don’t want to cause a stir. So I am working on not trying to convert anyone to my opinion, but I am trying to be more confident, with out being too aggressive in defending it.

    My brother once said to me, how can you vote for that person when they believe that. I said I wish it were that simple to choose on that one thing alone. And I left it there. For me I’ve realized that I am better off leaving it there, acknowledging that is not always easy and there is one right answer.

    When anyone asks my affiliation, I honestly say that I don’t like any politician enough to say I am one way or the other.

  17. I am going to recommend an “out” that works well when political discussions go wrong: Unless I am the one running for office, I don’t 100% agree with the candidate’s politics.

    (I know this post isn’t about Romney. I look forward to the post that is!)

  18. I DVR Meet the Press, too! I don’t always get back to it, but enough (for me). I loved Tim Russert and feel that David Gregory is a perfect replacement.

    “*I’m hoping that I can get away with using the word “democracy” without somebody reminding me that the United States is actually a republic. ” Love that! Every time I hear someone call us a democracy, I think that my high school friend, a rather fanatic member of Up With People, would scold them.

    I’m not fearing or looking forward to the election. I usually vote how Bill tells me to, despite my iconoclastic and independent nature. I trust his judgement better than I trust my own. However, this year, I’m not talking to him about it because he’s part of the “Obama Sucks and Romney Walks on Water” crowd.

    I guess most of my friends are Republicans and support Romney. Some are quite rabid in their loathing of the president, which I find offensive. But I ignore those email forwards depicting him as the anti-Christ. I ignore the criticisms of Romney’s treatment of his dog, etc, as well.

    This year, I’m going to decide my own vote.

  19. ” I’ve learned it’s that there are plenty of smart people who disagree with me — smart people who’ve come to their opinions honestly and with a lot of thought. ”

    This. If we could all just appreciate this more.

    My husband and I just got done with a lively politicalish debate. The bottom line of our discussion is that it would sure be nice if politics could include discussion rather than the crazy, polarized stuff we often see.

    One of the things that is hard is that, as the Church says, there are elements of truth in all political parties, which means that if you choose a party, you’re likely choosing to swing away from some of the values that fit under the gospel umbrella. I tend to be more moderate for this reason, but there aren’t a lot of options for moderation in party politics.

    It makes me tired. Sometimes I just want to hide in my room and not think about any of it. But I feel pressed to stay involved.

  20. It’s hard to not take comments personal when the person you are discussing the issue with tells you that you swimming in dangerous water and are headed on a path to apostasy and excommunication.

    I’ll be keeping this little gem bookmarked to help me remember to calm down if needed. Thank you.

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