Sunday, June 13, 2010

Political Faux Pas

Now on to the part of this series which actually fits the title: I quote part of Kurt's comment under Re-rant: Liberal Christian Hierarchies.
For some reason, we were once talking about Facebook, and this particular friend remarked that she never posted anything political on Facebook. And yet, a month or two after that, there were various posts about global warming and climate change, and a little while later, there was a clip of a video of Barney Frank responding to someone in a town hall meeting last summer (which was noted with approval by this friend of course), and then there were the reflections on the Kennedy funeral, and so on.
Exactly. Many of the comments that all of us make are social or tribal in intent, and don't seem to us to be political at all.

I have half-a-dozen posts over the years recording instances of people just dropping in political assertions - jokes, usually - gratuitously, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to call Newt Gingrich unaware of American history (he is/was a history professor - I couldn't lay off that one) in the context of discussing autism; or emphatically associating global warming deniers with Holocaust deniers in discussing the Shoah; or bemoaning how much better European countries are and how stupid a certain percentage of Americans are for thinking that we're great; of most frequently, sniggering about Bush or Reagan, not making any joke but acting as if some obvious joke has been made. I have found these tossed-off politics-laden comments simply amazing - not that it is amazing that people hold such ideas, but that they consider them noncontroversial things to just say in any context.

I have already noted that similar things happen with religious comments. Pronouncements that sex abuse is of course more common among priests because they are celibate, for example, absent any data. I won't list examples here - you get the idea from the political comments and can likely fill in the blanks yourselves.

But if you look at them as purely social-network comments - communications within the hive or the flock for reassurance - they make more sense. As Kurt noted, they often don't see these ideas as political or religious in any way. They just want to have something to say that sounds as if they know something, so they recite the conventional wisdom.

I acknowledge again that I have heard conservatives do the same thing. Stern and earnest folks assuring me of what "the liberals," as if that were some organised, dues-paying group, are trying to do to society and the church. Creationists rolling their eyes that any reasonable Christian could even think there is anything to evolution, their voices fairly dripping.

Now, in the context of our church closing, I can tally up a bit. We are a Covenant Church, with a wide range of political opinions strongly held. We don't tend to have many bumperstickers, but the car with "Iraq is Arabic for Vietnam" was parked next to the car of the NH chairman of the McCain 2008 committee. Adult study has had people misting up over how inspiring Obama's Dreams of My Father was exchanging friendly comments with a decades-long "US out of the UN" conservative. Our first pastor drove all night with a friend and camped in the car to attend the Clinton inauguration. It's who we are, and it has been good for all of us. Visitors have been known to sit uncomfortably, eyes darting about waiting for womething awful about to descend, until they get it that we can listen anyway. I had a similar experience when I first was going to a Covenant Church myself, trying to artfully change the subject while in conversation with a feminist and a KJV Baptist. It took awhile to realise I didn't need to head them off or soften the tone.

Yet when I look back over the 13 years, I am aware that people left because they could not endure that atmosphere. Many had more than one reason to leave, but the extreme dislike of spending that much time with people they disagreed with on one or many issues was too much for them. Two families were distressed that we didn't work for homosexual rights; the husband of one couple was publicly insulting to those who supported going into Iraq, and never came again after he was privately called on it. The rest of his family followed soon after, and friends of theirs after that, upset that there was so much political bad feeling going on (though they had other reasons as well). On the other side, one very conservative older couple returned to the Catholic Church, but politics wasn't an issue, and a few regular visitors faded out because we were too tolerant of some highly-suspect (to them) theology.

Perhaps that last was typical of us, and applies in the larger cultural context as well. We were bright, talkative, adventurous in thought, listening and open, and liberals just assumed we must therfore be a liberal church. I mean, everyone knows that conservatives can't possibly be like that. They were unsuspicious, thought they were among members of their own hive, and spoke accordingly, without regard to whether it was offensive. Conservatives, both political and theological, are likely more suspicious. After a bit of testing the waters, they decline to join rather than joining and then leaving.


Norma said...

I have no idea where you are or what happened, but this is beautifully written and well thought out.

Gringo said...

They were unsuspicious, thought they were among members of their own hive, and spoke accordingly, without regard to whether it was offensive.

This is not confined just to churches. I recently dined with cousins in NYC. One cousin and her husband do not discuss politics much with me any more. Over the decades we had discussed politics somewhat. Over the years we have agreed to disagree, though I also note that in recent years she and her husband are more willing to see that the other side has some merit. But we basically do not discuss politics because politics is not what holds us together. My cousin and I share a long and intense history, we are fond of each other, and I see her husband as the best possible match for her. We can find plenty of other things to discuss besides politics.

By contrast, my cousin’s brother and his wife often interjected politics into the conversation. I have never been close with this cousin. Before he married we never discussed politics. I surmise that his interest in politics is prompted by his wife, who once sent me a handmade Xmas card with her handwritten note confined to “ I’m so sorry that Kerry lost.” She made the assumption that like all right-thinkers, I agreed with her, or as you put it, belonged to the same hive.

Similar assumptions at this dinner brought forth interjections of politics. Most I did not respond to, and the one time I did, the reply was even more ignorant and annoying. I closed that discussion with “that’s not accurate,” and my cousin left it at that.

I now wish I had worn my Che T-shirt to the dinner with my cousins. I have decorated it with Argentine slang which disparages the Great Che. The cousin I am closer with accepts that I know more than the average bear does about Latin America. I wonder if I could have baited my other cousin and his wife into a discussion in which they would have not had much firepower. I guess I was rather annoyed at their gratuitous political comments! (They did not make their political comments to annoy me, but annoy me they did.) Perhaps because I am not close with that cousin, I see little negative consequence in a political disagreement.

I would be similarly annoyed at someone bringing up religion. Perhaps it is because my Fundamentalist Christian grandmother and my Buddhist sister devoted some efforts to convert me to the One True Faith.

Kurt said...

Thanks for featuring my comment so prominently! I feel honored.

I must confess to being unfamiliar with what a Covenant Church is, but it certainly sounds like a fascinating environment. I've had a hard time finding a church that feels right to me in the city where I live because they're all either too liberal or too conservative, and I don't feel like I fit in with either one. (I grew up Episcopalian and would probably describe myself as "old-school Episcopalian," that is, before it was overtaken by political correctness in all its forms.)

I also have to wonder if I have particular political blind spots of which I am unaware, but I like to imagine that I don't really, as I don't feel like I fit in too well with many "tribes" at the moment--or at least I haven't found the right one except through various blogs I read. When I fancied myself more of a liberal, I was always editing everything I said around my conservative family members, and now that I agree with them more, I find I am always editing everything I say (or remaining quiet) among the left-leaning folks I work with or whom I know from school. I reflected on some of my difficulties with these matters five years ago in response to this post at Neo-neocon and now that I think about it, that may have been one of the first times I clicked over to AVI's website to read and comment on this post.

wv: unsur

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Kurt, the website isn't that helpful - it is maintained by the adminstrators, seminary, and committee people in Chicago after all - but it should give you some idea. I dislike the Church-tree concept in general, as it stresses organizational and historical theological connections leaving out cross-fertilization and cultural elements.

The denomination remains strongest in the upper midwest (originally Swedish, after all), though there are plenty of other regions that have plenty.