Well, I’ve been forewarned. I’ve been forewarned by Mark Twain, by Linus from the Peanuts cartoon, and by a quote going around since the mid-19th century. And by Miss Manners. And by family members. And by friends. The warning has been crystal clear:
Do Not Go Near with a 10-Foot Pole!
Do Not Talk Publicly about Religion and Politics!
It’s not generally in my wheelhouse to talk about religion and politics anyway. My last (and first, and only) foray on the political landscape was in 1988, when our grade had our own presidential debates, and my friend and I got to reenact a Skippy commercial during intermission. You know, back when peanut butter was allowed in schools. My friend went on to work in film; I did not jump-start my acting or political career, nor did I become a spokesperson for allergy-inducing deliciousness. I must say, though, that the lyrics we fudged for the commercial, loosely based on a real commercial, were solidly entertaining. But I digress.
When it comes to religion and politics, I let people believe in what they want to believe, practice or not practice what they so desire, and stand behind the issues they view as most important — provided they’re not hurting anyone, of course. When I have my own questions, I don’t argue so much as seek out the reasoning behind other people’s opinions and motives. I’m not in it for the confrontation—I want clarity and truth. Sometimes, I look at it from a journalistic perspective, or a sociological one, gathering information from others and then privately — or mostly privately — coming to my own conclusions.
One of my pet peeves is the divisiveness that these topics often generate. Add a good dose of social media to the mix and the result is particularly unamusing, with nasty, biased, trolling comments on any online article about religion or politics; Top 10 lists about why Republicans are stupid, why Democrats are stupid, why [insert your religious affiliation here] is stupid; and countless heated arguments about why What I Believe Is Right and What You Believe Is Wrong.
In 2012’s “Radical Distortion: How Emotions Warp What We Hear” — an insightful analysis of the psychosocial factors involved in civil discourse — John W. Reich, emeritus professor of psychology at Arizona State University, noted that when people are fired up emotionally, as a result of polarizing, radical speech, they cannot really hear moderate views, or those opposite to their own. Reich dubbed this “radical hearing,” explaining how high emotional involvement can distort and bias a person’s judgment, leading to the type of black-and-white, “us” versus “them” thinking that we so often witness with religion and politics. Radical hearing can, in turn, result in radical behavior.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for people being passionate about that in which they believe, and voicing those beliefs until their heart’s content. It irks me, though, when people are so adamant about what they believe that anyone who has a different view is automatically disqualified from having a valid opinion. That My-Way-Or-the- Highway attitude is probably part of why I never spent much time on politics in the first place (aside from creating fake media spots during a mock elementary school debate, of course). It’s too controversial an arena for my comfort.
As for religion, although I have similar concerns, truth be told, it doesn’t come up as often inside the Modern Orthodox bubble in which I’ve resided all my life. Some topics do come of interest from time to time (such as women dancing with the Torah on Simchat Torah, for one), but for the most part, my friends and relatives do what they do across the Jewish spectrum (and some beyond), and that’s all well and good to me because they’re all kind and wonderful people.
These two topics of which Thou Shalt Not Speak — religion and politics — have been overlapping a lot as of late. Given that our country was founded on both the idea of “one nation under God” as well as the principle of separation of church and state, I find the coinciding nature of these topics to be particularly interesting. Here we have one non-practicing Jew among Christian candidates of various denominations balancing their varying degrees of religiousness with their political agendas, using calculated efforts to expand on (or compress) their religious beliefs as said beliefs relate to public policy and audience, all while much of the country is in the throes of Islamophobia because of radical Islamists like ISIS and other terrorist groups — and all this while the Jewish State is under attack via physical violence, media bias, destructive rhetoric, and the BDS movement.
In the current global environment, I wonder how it is possible to NOT talk about religion and politics. There are so many questions to ponder: What will such and such candidate mean for the future of religious freedom? If this is what they believe about other religions or countries or races, how will that translate to me? Who is advising this candidate about policy in Israel? How much importance should be put on their views on abortion, and how much does it matter that the reasoning behind those views is not necessarily based on their concept of law but on their own religious beliefs? What are the benefits or consequences of a candidate who is Jewish or who has Jewish relatives? Does it matter to me if a candidate for president of the United States believes in a God?
This last question, by the way, I posed to multiple people, and the overwhelming response was, in a nutshell, that a candidate’s belief in God isn’t of concern — it’s the human morality that the candidate possesses and the candidate’s understanding of other people’s rights to religion that are of utmost importance.
These are all important questions to ask ourselves and they’re important topics to discuss with each other — without fearing that voicing an honest opinion will result in getting your head bitten off.
So, no need to worry, Samuel Clemens, Charles Schulz, Miss Manners, and the person who lovingly tried to persuade me to write instead about driving down to Disney World for yeshiva break when our flight was cancelled due to that annoying snowstorm. This column isn’t so much about religion and politics as it is about the act of publicly talking about religion and politics. Or not talking about them, as the case may be.
I really hope that one day we can come to a point where it’s possible to talk about religion and politics in a responsible way, in an environment devoid of black-and-white thinking, hearing, or speaking. That’s kind of like wishing for World Peace, isn’t it? Still, I’ll hold onto my naïve dreams, because I think we can do better.