Agreeing to Disagree: Political Differences in a Community of Faith

Agreeing to Disagree: Political Differences in a Community of Faith February 9, 2014

Sometimes it is helpful to follow in others’ footsteps. Sometimes it is exciting to forge your own path.

Can people of faith be one even or especially if we aren’t in agreement on politics? In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul exhorts us to be worthy of our vocation as Christians. We do this, he says, by “endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” This unity comes with work, “with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love.” For Paul, at least, it is not only possible, but requisite as Christians, to find unity despite those differences.

It is not uncommon today to seek and embrace a community of faith precisely on the basis of whether or not it brings you into communion with politically like-minded people. This, I suppose, is for several reasons. One must certainly be that it is a lot easier to love and serve and find joy in communing with those with whom one has more in common. And since politics can sometimes feel so emotional, so instinctively a deep part of ourselves, it helps to bypass the divisions we might otherwise create over politics. I would argue that while this might be a safer and easier route, it cheats. It cheats because the reality of human cultures is that we are incredibly diverse. If we learn Christian living and service in a context of narrow like-mindedness, we have scarcely scratched the surface of our moral duty. Another related reason might be that some see a more direct route from one’s religious persuasions to one’s political convictions. In other words, they see the transcendent truths of religion as having a singular, and not a plural, manifestation in the political context. But I would argue that this only exacerbates the problems we want to fix. If we believe the problem with the world today is that not enough people believe in the right things (i.e. the things we believe in), then doing good in the world boils down simply to persuading others and presumably judging or dismissing those who fail to be convinced. If it never occurs to us that we might be wrong in the way that we interpret the gospel, we can never imagine a distinction between God as he is and God as we understand him. Our truth will always be THE Truth, and we will have shut ourselves off from genuine dialogue, growth, and learning. It is hard enough to calm the emotions over politics, but when we add religious feeling to political conviction without any ambivalence, sense of irony, or even a sense of humor, we become toxic and our community shrinks.

Despite the predominance of conservatives among U.S. members of the LDS church, the church nevertheless repeatedly refuses to dictate political positions for its members and instead insists that it is every member’s individual privilege and responsibility to identify political parties and candidates that each believes are best suited to produce a good society. I know some people will claim this position of neutrality is an illusion, but they are wrong. There have been exceptions to this, but these are rare, rather than common, and they come on occasions where the church weighs in on issues they see as morally important. This has happened, for example, in recent memory on the occasion when the church opposed the MX missile proposed for Utah’s deserts in the 1970s, when it urged leaders to seek meaningful immigration reform, or when it has acted to protect the traditional family, among other examples. I am not naïve. I am well aware that this neutrality has not always meant that LDS church experience is experienced as politically neutral and that its political activity, though rare, has been difficult for some. Where the majority of the population is LDS, as it is in Utah for example, we have historically seen a tendency toward political homogeneity. This is a function, however, of our intense desire for unity (and consequent fear of differences of opinion) and not a result of any behind the scenes machinations of the church. We desperately want to get along, so much so that when we are in closer proximity, it makes having honest and open discussions of political differences that much harder. Our tendency is to bury difference, to rush to consensus, and to fail to practice the art of graceful disagreement.

Recently a disagreement arose in my neighborhood over a proposed bus route. This is a neighborhood that, given Utah Valley demographics, is not only predominantly LDS but also all in one stake. We go to church together. We worship and serve together and we genuinely love one another. The proposal is not a major issue, of course, and most of the disagreement has been graceful. But it has been especially disconcerting for some in the community to discover that we are not in unanimous agreement about what is best for our neighborhood and for your children. If as a Mormon you lean left politically or tend to think outside of the Republican platform, then you are already well familiar with the problem of living with and loving those who disagree with you politically. You already know what it is like to wonder why those you like so much, indeed the vast majority, would arrive at such different, and in your view erroneous, conclusions about politics. And you know what it is like listen to other members make offhanded comments in church that presume unanimity on a certain policy matter or politician when in fact such agreement doesn’t or needn’t exist. In other words, you learn to make a distinction between the gospel and its many and various and sometimes contradictory political applications. You come to accept the possibility that the same spirit might inspire two people to opposite conclusions and to opposite civic commitments. You also come to the inevitable conclusion that good people who do good works can also be wrong about a political matter, including you. That is certainly the reality you come to understand when you watch people who share your faith face off each other in political debate, as often happens in Utah. It shouldn’t surprise us that the same spirit guides us sometimes in different directions and to make different decisions. Why is it that one mission president or one Bishop feels inspired to emphasize one program over another, to call some people and not others to certain callings, only to be replaced by someone new who begins a different set of choices? This doesn’t spell institutional chaos. Quite the contrary. When enacted with the same Spirit of love, of devotion to God and to Christ, this difference somehow creates a dialectic in which higher truths and greater good become manifest. The truth is, after all, more than your or my ability to understand it. And the truth is for all people, not for me or for my community alone.

This is why Paul speaks of the importance of lowliness, meekness, and forbearance. To be forbearing means learning to set aside pride, arrogance, or excessive confidence, to listen and learn from others, and even to learn how to love, sustain, and appreciate the good in others especially when we might disagree over politics. Otherwise we will have declared ourselves immune from the need for and blessings of being a part of a community. And we will have falsely elevated politics above all other values, as if we can know all that is essential to know about a person once we know how they vote. Unity doesn’t come from sameness of views on, say, the proper role of government, the second amendment, or the stem cell research. It comes from the work of waiting, listening, longsuffering, self-questioning, and honest deliberation. It comes from learning, as Paul also advised, to “speak the truth in love.” In other words, when differences arise and our impulse is to bury our thoughts for the sake of keeping the peace, we haven’t yet achieved meaningfully unity either. We cannot demand or expect uniformity on politics.

As Gene England said many years ago now, the practice of being a member of the church is as important to our spiritual growth as coming to an understanding of revealed truth. That is why I prefer the kind learning experience that comes with going to church with people I don’t choose as my leaders and fellow members but people whom I am instead called to love, whoever they might be and whatever they might think of Obamacare or Social Security or a proposed bus route. I highly recommend this kind of religious practice. When I was in graduate school at Berkeley, my fellow students and I were sitting in the graduate lounge discussing some political topic of the day. The Bay Area, of course, is famous for its liberal politics, and Berkeley perhaps most of all. On top of that, my profession is predominantly liberal. So you can imagine that when we talked politics, it was rarely acknowledged that another legitimate point of view might be offered by conservatives. Despite my own left-leaning politics, I remember that day becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the image of Republicans that was emerging. It was as if my friends were describing a cartoon, a buffoon, or a clown, but not a real person. I finally asked if any of them actually knew a Republican, and my question was met with silence.

The challenge we face in the church is not unlike the challenge I saw in the Bay Area. Until and unless we engage in honest and direct dialogue with those who see the world differently and until we learn to be forbearing and meek, we will never achieve meaningful unity among ourselves or in society nor can we rightly call our worldview fully Christian. A Christian community is first and foremost characterized by charity for all people. That is not to say that the default solution is, as is so common these days, lazy tolerance for anything and everything, nor is it, least of all, political apathy. We must be passionate, concerned, and informed, but we must also not be above self-doubt, correction, nor incapable of identifying whatever is good and right about those who oppose us.

Christ did not ask us to be fearful or excessively defensive. He asked us to build something, a kingdom, in which all of God’s children might flourish. This cannot be accomplished alone, in enclaves, or with fences. It is accomplished by building bridges and opening doors.

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