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.