There are a lot of things I could write about today. Black Friday. Buy Nothing Day. The 13 Things I LOVE About Pagans post I’m working on. Instead, this cornbred fed and Southern bred Witch would like to say a few words about bad manners.
For Thanksgiving I was a guest in a relative’s home. We were sharing holiday hospitality duties, yet still I was a guest in her home. I did my best to do my part and be helpful and respectful. Even when it meant holding my tongue. You see, another guest was my relatives friend who had just recently become religious.
Now I don’t care what faith you are talking about: recent converts are annoying as all get out. A newly convicted atheist, a person who’s just found Jesus and someone who’s just converted to a Pagan faith are all equally apt to get on my last nerve. Not just get on my last nerve, but stomp it, twist it, gnaw on it and spill acid on it.
This is due to a phenomenon that polyamorists refer to as NRE, or New Relationship Energy. They have found something shiny and cool and want everyone to agree that what they just found is shiny and cool. It’s very similar to the uncle or cousin who insists on showing off their smartphone, new car or gaming console.
Now there is nothing wrong with this post-conversion buzz. Like falling in love, you have a period where you are as eager to learn as much as possible about the object of your desire. Eventually, for most people, this deepens into a long-term relationship, where you trust that your Gods will be there and do them homage without so much pomp and ceremony. Prayer becomes as simple and graceful an act as pouring a loved one a cup of coffee.
The problem lies in that in the rush of this energy, in the bliss of this homecoming, people tend to lose their manners. Admittedly, the worst offenders never had good manners to begin with, but that’s another story. What amazes me is that people with good common sense and a decent upbringing suddenly lose all sense of perspective and propriety. Even as a guest in someone’s home, they will preach their newfound convictions uninvited and bring awkwardness and discord to a day of thanksgiving.
Pagans take hospitality and manners seriously, as do many faiths and cultures. A sense of deference and propriety is appropriate when a guest in another’s home. Being a good guest in many ways is a better witness of your spiritual convictions than any impassioned argument. Unless you are invited into a religious debate or discussion it’s inappropriate to force your faith into the conversation repeatedly. It’s not your house, you are a guest.
I think the issue of bad manners and hospitality extends to the issue of church and state. While most religions will agree it’s bad manners to impose your religion on someone while you are in their house, they cannot agree on whose “house” the United States is. The Founding Fathers did something so radical that hundreds of years later we cannot comprehend that our houses of government belong to no religion and that every religion is a guest within the halls of our government. Some people keep insisting the house is “theirs”, that they make the rules and that it’s rude for anyone else to speak of their faith in the public sphere. When minority religions exercise their Constitutional right to free speech and freedom of religion, they are often treated as bad guests by those who think they own the country and refuse to admit that they are also guests.
As a Southern Baptist child I held the separation of church and state in awe. Like many Americans I incorrectly believed that you couldn’t bring your Bible to school or pray on school grounds. That didn’t bother me. As a history freak I saw it as protection from persecution. Listening to my parents discuss Waco and Ruby Ridge as persecution of Christians who chose to disconnect from a corrupt world, it scared me that the US government could decide the kind of Christianity we practiced was the wrong kind. From a Christian standpoint, the loss of the freedom of any religion I perceived as a precedent for the persecution of my beliefs.
Today, as a Pagan, I worry about that even more. I like Obama’s approach that your faith informs your politics, without your politics being religiously oriented. Yet his voice is small next to all the religious rhetoric and shouting in Washington who keep claiming they own the “house”, when according to the Constitution they are simply guests.
In Pagan culture, as in many religious traditions, a guest is someone who honors your house by their presence. A guest who is polite, respectful and brings you honor will be invited back. One who abuses your hospitality and goodwill casts shame and dishonor on your house, and will likely never be asked again. There is no shame in being a guest, in being polite and deferential to your host, in bringing honor and good cheer to those who show you hospitality.
Long ago our ancestors came to this country because Europe was rife with religious tension. Being the wrong kind of Christian in the wrong place at the wrong time could cost you your life. They created a more perfect union, an affable host that welcomed all faiths as honored guests. We bring our government honor when we wear our spirituality with pride, but do not seek to impose it on others in the public forum. Just as a Muslim guest might politely pass on your pork BBQ, a Jewish guest may excuse himself from the meat lasagna, or a Baptist might respectfully request water instead of wine, so our politicians will also modify their politics to fit their faith, like any good guest might do. Yet many of them harangue the host over the meal, insisting their host convert to a kosher or vegetarian diet to suit them, without realizing how bad their manners have become.
As a guest in my relatives house I exercised good manners. I didn’t ask to bless the food formally since there was already religious tension in the house and I doubt an interfaith blessing would have eased it. I didn’t tell the other guest that they were behaving offensively, or counter their views on faith with my own, thereby making the situation worse. I made the other guest feel welcome and comfortable as I could, I contributed what I could to the night’s hospitality and when I had a chance to speak privately with my host let it be known how upset the other guest had made me, especially after I made it clear that I had no interest in engaging on religious topics.
Now, sitting in bed with a tummy full of roasted turkey and red wine, I admit that I’m quite angry over the situation. My holiday was ruined by something as commonly disapproved of as bad manners. A perfectly good evening ruined by one bad guest. As I look at our country I see the same thing. A perfectly good Constitution being ruined by loud, obnoxious, demanding, rude guests who act like they own the document. With all I have to be grateful for, I must say people who practice bad manners and call it “religion”, “morality”, “reason” or “family values” are not people for whom I raise a prayer of thanks.