As a progressive Christian, and as someone who has studied Biblical studies, theology, and philosophy of religion, I often feel something that could be described as “alienation” when I hear others use religious language, even in my own church.
But I am part of a diverse congregation, and am a minority. And so I have come to the conclusion that I should not expect most people to be talking about God or the Bible or religion or everyday events in the way that I would. All that would mean was that instead of me feeling alienated, most other people would.
If we are to be a diverse nation with religious freedom, then we are going to have to learn to live with alienation. A diverse society means precisely a society in which there are large numbers of people who think differently than you do and view the world differently than you do.
As a Baptist, I am a strong supporter of the separation of church and state. I have never understood the latter to mean that a president ought not to be allowed to attend church, or speak in a way that reflects or mentions his or her own religious views. I understand the concern that someone in a position of power and authority can be influential just through their association with a particular religion or ideology. That is why we adopt the measures that we do in public schools, to prevent any teacher or school board deciding to influence the children of others in ways that their parents might disapprove of. On their own time and outside of their role as teachers, they are free to speak as they see fit.
On the one hand, a presidents are different. They are constantly in the public eye, and any distinction between “private” and “public” becomes largely meaningless. But they are also speaking more to adults than to children, and so the concerns that we have regarding school-age children do not apply in quite the same way.
It is hard to generalize, since people use – and refrain from using – religious language in different ways in different contexts. And so let’s keep the focus on the present example. In the midst of a tragedy, I personally find the mention of God tends to create more problems than it solves. But I understand that others are seeking comfort and finding it through such use of language.
What do readers think? Is there any way that a president could speak – or refrain from speaking – about religion or in religious terms, that would not alienate someone?
Am I right to think that the only way to have a diverse society is to learn the maturity necessary to accept that there will always be those whose way of speaking and thinking alienates us – and that our own way of thinking and speaking will have the same effect on others?
But even if we agree on this point, there is a conversation to be had. At universities, we often emphasize the need to use inclusive language in order to at least recognize that our own gender, skin color, perspective, culture, or nation, is not the only one. It is not about compromising your own perspective, but recognizing that just because you are a “he” doesn’t mean that you can assume that any president, even in the future, will be a “he.” It is not about denying your morality or religion, but about writing and speaking in a way that recognizes that not everyone who hears or reads your words will share your identity.
So how might a president – or anyone else – speak in the midst of a tragedy in a way that would comfort and acknowledge believers and unbelievers of various stripes and descriptions? Is such a thing even possible?
Do any of us have a right to not feel alienated by the language used by others? Even by those elected to represent us? Do we not need to remember that our representatives represent us in our diversity, and not any one group among us – and does that not entail that they will inevitably not be representing some of us, in some ways, at least some of the time?
And when it comes to situations of tragedy and heartbreak, do we we simply need to accept that when we mourn we do not always express ourselves with the care or the consideration that we might otherwise, and make allowances for that?