Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 14), Year B
Who We Identity With Determines What We Believe

Reflections on Political Identity

There is an often-repeated story in my husband Dan's family that goes something like this:  Back in 1976, Dan's family was heavily involved in Mo Udall's campaign in the Democratic presidential primaries.  At the time, Dan's brother was just 5 years old and soaking it all in.  One day, in the context of a conversation about growing up, his mom explained to him that someday he would probably meet a nice girl and get married.  Dan's brother thought about this for a few minutes and then asked, "But Mom, how will I know if she's for Mo?"

I grew up in a similar kind of home, knowing from an early age the names and the party affiliation of the candidates my parents were supporting.  A typical fall Saturday family activity was "leafletting", walking through neighborhoods and dropping campaign literature for a local candidate at every home. At 14, I had my first job accompanying our State Representative on his door-knocking trips.  "Dick Cohen is across the street, speaking to your neighbor right now!" I would cheerfully explain to whoever opened the door.  "Would you like to read some information about him?"

When people ask me how Dan and I have found common ground considering our different religious backgrounds and beliefs, I often explain that in truth, we grew up in families where liberal, Democratic values and ideals were the one that were most forcefully expressed and most passionately defended.  Our identity as Democrats was at least as strong if not stronger than our identity as Christians or Jews.

I'm not sure this is still the case for either of us.  Personally, my political involvement has become more issue-focused and less candidate-focused as I've gotten older, and my religious identity has certainly become a much more central part of who I am and how I present myself to the world (perhaps an occupational hazard of being a professional minister).  I know who I am voting for in the upcoming election, but I am not an uncritical booster of any candidate.  Still, as I watched the presidential debate this past Tuesday night, I noticed myself rooting for my candidate and hoping the other candidate would fumble.  I wasn't really listening to and evaluating the arguments made by each candidate.  I was rooting for my team.

I bet most of you were doing the same thing.

I am currently leading a four-week study of Brian McLaren's newest book, "Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?:  Christian Identity in a Multifaith World".  The book is a great conversation-starter, touching lightly on at least 50 different topics.  Our group has now met twice and had some great conversations, but we keep coming back to a question that is assumed, not addressed in the book.  Is it important to have a strong Christian identity? 

In order to get into that question, I led the group in a conversation about identity in general last week.  We created a huge list of various kinds of identity we each carry with us.  Some of these things are obvious to everyone (our age, our race, and whether we like it or not often our economic class) and some of these things are not visible to the casual observer.  What parts of our identity are we most inclined to tell someone about when we first meet them?  What parts of our identity do we reveal to strangers with bumper stickers, buttons or other intentional signals?  By and large the group was in agreement--we are much more "out" about our professional identities, our identities as parents and our political identitites than we are about our religious identitites.  People are going to find out who were voting for way before they find out how we pray or what we hold to be true about God.

So does that mean that we all have "weak" Christian identities?

I'm in no way resolved in my thinking about this.  Part of me feels a little sheepish about it all.  I'm a pastor, after all.  Shouldn't I be a Christian before I'm a Democrat?  And maybe I am, but when I read an essay like the one Eugene Cho wrote recently for Sojourner's I feel torn.  Here's a guy who is clearly more identified as a Christian than he is as a member of a political party and as a result he's praying for both candidates (something I am really trying to do myself) and doing his best not to be a jerk (I try, and fail, at that too.)  But something bothers me about his essay.  He sounds almost blase about the election.  He seems dispassionate.

And if there is one part of my identity that I won't give up it is being a person who really does give a damn.  Elections matter to me.  Through them, I express my love for my country and my convictions about the kind of world I want to live in.  That's how I was raised and that is how Dan and I are raising our kids.  A quote from one of my heroes, the artist Kenneth Patchen comes to mind:  "It's always because we love that we are rebellious; it takes a great deal of love to give a damn one way or another what happens from now on: I still do."

Do you?  How does your religious identity compare to your political identity?  Is one stronger and the other weaker?  Or, are they apples and oranges?

Comments

Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Ray Hallman

Spiritual - Political Dichotomy

I don't treat my spiritual experiences in any way similar to the treatment of my political views... The separation of these experiences are completely separate for me... I simply have no difficulty with this separation... I expect that for many this relation is similar...

Apples & Oranges... I believe for most including me, religion is more personal and not immediately discussed with unknown people... It's just not that important to unprejudiced people what a person's religion is in choosing friends and therefore not immediately discussed... But one's identity is made up of both religion & political views among other things... Religion may be hidden from view... One's rules may hide politics as well...

Now the blog caused me to consider this thought in detail: I have thought over the years that for many shallow thinkers, our political events ARE considered as any other sports event wherein the most important thing after one's personal decision beyond who to support, based on appearance and popularity is to support the candidate as one supports an athletic team... No more consideration is required about issues or ideas about the impact of the election on future events and personal value of the political governing system... In other simple words, the most value for Joe Sixpack comes from the thought of whether you won or lost... I also believe most of these Joe Sixpacks don't vote anyhow... A sad statement for humankind, but likely true for most of the population at large... I don't mean to actually single out any particular person or group by the term Joe Sixpack, but only mean "run of the mill average person or people" of the populace...

Dave Klassen

I grew up in a house where I never knew my parents' politics and I think I had far more centrist views then (though I remember being anti-Reagan especially the second term). Seven years in Wyoming moved me rightward (states rights, capital punishment, etc) but not entirely. I never understood Bush I's tax policy; it seemed a silly continuation of trickle-down. It was re-connecting with my Christianity, and teaching youth Bible-study that turned me into a Socialist. So in the debates, I was mostly annoyed that ALL the could-mathematically-win-candidates weren't there. Obama's civil liberties policies are horrible at best.

Ned

I think the more dispassionate a person seems to be about his or her religious identity, as it pertains to politics (or just about anything else) might just be indicative of how comfortable they are with that identity and maybe even how authentic it really is. Most of those that wear their religion on their sleeves and speak confidently as to how that religion drives their other passions, particularly politics, are, in my opinion, most often conforming their religion to their political views.

I think a person is at first a political person, for many of the reasons you cite above, and then develop their religious identity, which will most easily accommodate their political one. And it seems that most people are comfortable with that for most of their lives. There are those, however, whose religious identities evolve over time, from conservative to progressive and (perhaps less often) from progressive to conservative. When that happens there is a corresponding shift with their politics. I think that this would have to be a more authentic religious identity than one that would evolve the other way round, a change in political perspective that would result in a change in religious perspective.

Or perhaps they are one in the same.

The comments to this entry are closed.