Don’t talk religion or politics

A long standing rule for barber shop chat is to stay away from politics and religion. A friend reminded me of that when locker room banter at the Y strayed into religion. He made clear that religion, like politics, wasn’t a fit topic for discussion.

Most people would say he’s right. Sharing opinions about God or Washington D.C. oftentimes generates more heat than light, like camps from opposing Balkan armies trying to make nice with each other. Each side is so convicted of its rightness that ears are stopped against anything but what they know.

The problem plagues one or another of Marysville’s churches from time to time where the usual trigger is change. A new pastor, a new program, a new building, a new hymnal, a new liturgy. It doesn’t take much. People harden up against change, retreat into their shells and more often than not, leave congregations to find other church homes. All because of this discomfort about discussing issues related to religion.

It doesn’t help that prominent voices set a harsh tone for religious commentary. One southern legislator proclaimed that our proper response to 9/11 should have been nuking Mecca. Meanwhile, imams and mullahs across Islam persist in calling for the destruction and death of infidels. Given the heat of these rants, it gets harder to cozy up to people of other faiths for a friendly chat.

But discussion is necessary. I once had a great correspondence going with a pen-pal from Beirut, Ahmed Hammoud. He got me to checking his comments in the Koran and he checked out my positions against a Christian Bible. Our point of agreement was that each of us was thankful that God had given us windows to his greatness and that our prayer for each other was that our separate spiritual journeys were both acceptable to the one God. For reasons unknown, his messages stopped coming and my e-mails to him bounced back marked, undeliverable.

He and I had talked across a huge gulf. While church-goers from slightly different denominations have trouble communicating here at home, it has worked elsewhere. I was once part of a congregation in which Lutheran, Baptist, Assembly of God, Christian Reformed, Mennonite and Presbyterian preachers took turns. But that was in Africa, far from the scrutiny of high mucky-mucks of church hierarchy. In general, we remain intolerant of each others’ styles. The story goes that Jews don’t recognize Jesus, Muslims don’t recognize the New Testament, Protestants don’t recognize the Pope and Baptists don’t recognize each other in the liquor store. (snicker)

Our freedoms, security and hope for the future rest in politics. What happens in Olympia and Washington D.C. pretty much spells out whatever prospects might be available for my kid’s future. The laws I live under, my financial well-being, the infrastructures that ensure quality of life are all, in one way or another, products of politics. Yet we say it’s not socially correct to talk politics.

When we don’t talk politics, we leave the nation to the whims and ambitions of politicians which is what’s happening now. If we do talk politics in town meetings, barbershops, YMCAs Haggen’s Cafes, styling salons, around water coolers, on factory floors, break rooms and street corners we might reverse the top-down flow of information between us and our elected officials. They rain down blurbs telling us what good jobs they’re doing. A better way is for us to send them mountains of messages they can’t ignore. Bottom-up communication.

Actually, the prohibition against talking politics is broken every day. Gas-bag commentators from Right and Left set a tone for political chit-chat which doesn’t help much. Who in their right mind would want to talk politics if it meant stooping to the level of their poisonous rhetoric?

For a lot of us, politics and religion (or their effects) are too important not to discuss. Of course some join with like-thinkers to bat identical viewpoints back and forth. The trouble with that is they get stuck in echo-chambers where nobody learns anything new. Lots of agreement but zero learning, which is no way to operate in a world of change. A better way, though it can be challenging and uncomfortable at times, is to talk with people you don’t agree with. After all, they’re sure to be better sources of different ideas than one’s friends. Could be that notion was the root of the adage, “Hold your friends close and your enemies closer.”

To a large degree, we adults are stuck. We are what we are. We’re a generation that criticizes too quickly and cherishes prejudices. Too many of us are bigots and racists. If we weren’t, Limbaugh and his ilk would have no fans. We have to get beyond that to ensure that the next generation doesn’t screw things up as badly as we did.

So a high priority for our nation should be educating youth to think by listening with their minds, not just their ears, to distinguish truth from fiction, to rationally discuss thorny issues like religion and politics and to understand that adversaries might have valid cases to plead. This priority should trump national defense, trade deficits and joblessness because if we get that one thing right, the nation will find that most of its big issues will turn out to be manageable.

Comments may be sent to: rgraef@verizon.net.

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