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?