Written in 1879, Hill’s Manual of Social and Business Forms has, for the most part, passed into obscurity. A guide to writing and general etiquette, this book, however, has one recommendation that has become stuck in the American way of life:
Do not discuss politics or religion in general company. You probably would not convert your opponent, and he [sic] will not convert you. To discuss those topics is to arouse feeling without any good result.
It’s likely that this is the first written version of this old maxim in the United States. And this maxim is prevalent. Around this time each year, publications from The Atlantic to Readers Digest compile lists of topics never to discuss at family gatherings like Thanksgiving and Christmas. Along with money and unsolicited parenting advice, politics and religion headline every list out there. The advice is usually followed with recommendations like, “keep it light,” “be positive,” and “don’t stay too long.”
Perhaps, the general unspoken (or sometimes spoken) rule of not talking religion and politics among those closest to us has kept a form of peace at family gatherings for decades. Conflict avoidance is one way of maintaining homeostasis, balance and stability in any system. For a while. When meaningful and important conversations are suppressed or become off limits, however, eruptions are bound to take place.
During an open prayer time at a recent youth group meeting, one of our high schoolers prayed for November’s coming election. The young person said that her Social Studies class had been “lit” for the last few weeks (“energetically contentious, popping with a sense of instability,” according to Urban Dictionary), and that it would be helpful to have more civility in the classroom.
Both politics and religion are contentious subjects, but most will acknowledge that the last several years have been marked by a dramatic increase in radicalism, extreme partisanship, incivility, muck-racking, blame shifting and echo chambers. Many today blame this climate on the rise of social media platforms that allow folks to share their feelings (including hate and threatening speech) anonymously without social consequences, and “media” that divided into fiefdoms with clearly identifiable and marketable viewer demographics. I wonder if these are perhaps symptoms rather than the root problem: we have forgotten how to discuss matters that are important to us in civil ways. There is a well-trodden quote by an unknown author being posted online by both Republicans and Democrats right now:
Being taught to avoid talking about politics and religion has led to a lack of understanding of politics and religion. What we should have been taught was how to have a civil conversation about a difficult topic.
The topic here is not about the separation of “church and state,” a vital and foundational aspect of American democracy. Rather, this is about being able to have civil conversations about two subjects that have many points of intersection. Politics remind us that we are citizens of a larger community. Religion reminds us that we are spiritual beings connected to all of creation and the Divine. How we go about being citizens and spiritual beings has not yet been figured out, so it is worthy of our time, our patience and our graciousness to have the audacity to talk to one another about all things political and religious.
There probably should be some ground rules. The Epistle of James in our Christian Scriptures is one of the most practical spiritual writings we have. Perhaps we can gather a few rules from this letter:
Please discuss difficult topics like politics and religion this election and holiday season with those closest to you. Share your thoughts and feelings, your victories and fears and listen to others as they do the same. If families cannot have these conversations, and if people of faith dare not have these conversations, our common problem will only get worse.
May God bless you and keep you close this election and holiday season.