May 3, 2016

Church and State

The dinner conversation was light and fun, sharing jokes and stories of work, until my dad turned to me.

“Richelle, you’re smart in so many ways, but you’re also naïve when it comes to politics.”

I braced myself. This wasn’t my first rodeo with my ultra-conservative father. I let him unspool for a few minutes while my mind wandered. Good food at the restaurant. Interesting décor. I need to do a load of laundry when I get home and study spelling words with my son. I circled my attention back for a brief check in.

The loop continued. I’ve heard it before. He just doesn’t understand how someone who cares for her family, who wants the best for her children, could support liberal policies and Democratic candidates. At a break in his words, I interrupted.

“So I’m really excited about our vacation this summer…” I could tell he wanted more persuasion time, but he gamely moved into safe conversation territory, and we enjoyed the rest of our evening.

I steamed a bit on the way home. How can he respect me in my vocations as daughter, mother, writer, wife, volunteer, but be so dismissive of my political opinions? Does he think that I embrace a liberal stance with whimsy when I’m decidedly independent and assertive in other areas of my life? Ugh. Grrr. Sizzle. And other onomatopoeia words that express frustration.

And yet, if I’m honest, I perform some of the same calculations as I scroll through my social media channels. I divide folks into us and them based on the memes they post, the political ads they share. Just this morning, I mentally moved a college friend from the ‘us’ to ‘them’ column when I saw she went to a Trump rally. Before I could catch myself, I thought, “She’s smarter than that. She’s naïve when it comes to politics.”

Perhaps the difference between my dad and me is not as big as I thought (except he feels emboldened, compelled even, to vocally, publicly dismiss me of my convictions).

On a recent episode of Grey’s Anatomy, two of the characters proclaimed church and state, trying to separate their messy work life from their home. But I don’t know that it’s so easy. And I’m not sure that it should be. Our collective unwillingness to engage in the messy, complicated, difficult discussions is part of what has led us to such a polarized and fractious political climate.

We in the church have a responsibility to engage – particularly those of us committed to the messy, difficult, via media way of living out our faith in The Episcopal Church. We welcome doubt and debate (or so we say). A priest friend said the real lesson about the surprising success of Donald Trump is that we’re surprised. We haven’t been talking to people (or at least people who think differently from us). We haven’t engaged and listened and learned about the concerns of the heart. True, there’s racism and sexism and lots of ugly stuff out there too (on all sides of the political spectrum), but there’s also fear for the future, anger and disappointment, and a deep desire for change.

We wonder how our faith should play a role in politics. One important way is that we talk to each other. We model a willingness to mix church and state with our friends, our family, and yes, even ultra-conservative dads. We set aside defensiveness – and invite others to do the same – and listen. If we can move beyond the surface diatribes, maybe we can find common ground or at least a common understanding. Maybe these conversations are the first steps to changing the national debate. Maybe the church, our church, can lead the way. Then again, I have been accused of being naïve. 

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