08 February 2009

Breaching Separation of Church & State

(or, Traipsing Trepidatiously 'Cross the Personal/Political Divide)

At our church, we have a tradition (I may have mentioned elsewhere), of "concluding the sermon", which entails, after a couple minutes' meditation, parishioners who are so moved, standing up and sharing how the day's homily or scripture passage resonates with something in their lived experience (i.e, not something they read in a paper or saw on TV). An extension of that tradition, more suited for people like me, who shy away from off-the-cuff public parabolizing, is the "SGN Sharing" email group. Of course, some such people like me, prone to embedding hyperlinks in their emails, tend occasionally to conflate "lived experience" with "having visited a website", or "the way I felt after visiting said website".

Case in point: one co-congregant, S, sent around a link to www.bornagainamerican.org (careful: it'll want to start playing a music video when you click on it). S asks, "What does it mean to be a 'born again American'? I'm not sure, but the combination of left-leaning political and social values with overt and specific references to the Bible, its traditions of social and economic justice, and the Biblical term for religious and spiritual rebirth is fascinating."

Another co-congregant, J, who represents the rare conservative reef in SGN's socially progressive sea, linked us to Jonathan Haidt's excellent TED talk, on the "moral roots of liberals and conservatives" (video after jump):

That video came linked, as part of a particularly rich conversation in the wake of a report from the most recent of the monthly SF Fellowship dinners, whereat the dinner talk focuses on how a particular word resonates in our individual spiritual lives.  This dinner's word was "forgiveness", and a summary of the discussion, posted to the Sharing group, reports that, early in the evening, it "took us into politics. It seemed the group was more oriented to first identifying who to blame for the economy, the world, the U.S. at war in two countries and of course, outgoing President Bush was at the top of the list. Then, we could struggle with how to forgive him. We had an expression of surprise that Obama seemed to be more oriented in moving on and getting done with what needs to be done rather than focusing on punishment or retribution".

Eventually, their conversation deepened, as people began to relate how notions of forgiveness come to bear on difficult relationships with their parents. However, the turns of conversation in an evening around a dinner table seem they may take days, even weeks, to replicate over email. Still, I've found a lot to chew on here. J responded:
Hmm...I don't know what I would have said had I been present at that dinner, but for now how about this as a possibility: George W. Bush does not need your forgiveness.

One thing I find regrettable about the current climate of America is that political disagreement has been escalated to personal conclusions about the Other's morality, sanity and intelligence. To be sure, this happens on both sides.

I still like Robert F. Kennedy's take, which he used as a book title and which he borrowed from Jefferson: "Just friends and brave enemies." Politics is a rough-and-tumble business, especially in a democracy. I'd rather see more respect than forgiveness in these matters.
This caught my attention, with regards to the diatribe/dialogue I've been building with Dad, so I replied,

"I've been involved for the past few months in an emailed political debate with my father, whose political POV you might recognize and understand far more easily than can I. This most recent inauguration has occasioned much indignation in him about the way the Clinton administration handled their exit (which was, anyone must admit, especially by comparison: resoundingly crappily); and he bemoans that any political conversation he engages in with liberals these days, all too quickly devolves into, 'Bush lied, people died'.

"So, at the very least, I'm avoiding simple rhyme schemes
In my letters east, also tired liberal tropes and memes.

"(sorry... forgive me?)

"But more than that: I'm not really all that interested in politics, I don't think. I've spent much of the past decade (and life, for that matter), avoiding parsing politics with Pa. Only recently, as I wrote to him in my last email, have I matured into a desire to maybe reap a couple benefits from such labors:

I can practice rhetoric for my own political feelings, and I can try to get some grasp of what forms you personally. That is, maybe I can learn how and why, what seems politically unfathomable to me is so clear and resonant for you, from whose loins I mysteriously sprang.

We were talking in church today, in the wake of Obama's inauguration speech, about 'personal responsibility', and how pouring oneself personally into something (a task, a mission, a relationship...), always results in unforeseeable change, unpredictable growth, unanticipated new problems. I think that's the sort of thing I'm shooting for in this conversation.

"So, maybe my paternal relationship doesn't, at this point, have as much to do with 'forgiveness' as... sheer incomprehension? At any rate, I value your voice, J, as I try, here in SF, here in SGN, to get my head around the concept of the American conservative, and simultaneously try to demonstrate that not all liberals think all Christians are 'religious nut jobs'--and simultaneously try to direct the conversation toward the more personally felt experience within these broad labels".

I fwd'd that note to my family. I haven't heard back from Dad, but Mom applauded, and noted how difficult it is, in one's 60s, to adjust one's POV much. I replied that, for me at least, it's very difficult to keep focused on "the point where this stuff intersects with our lives individually. It's all too easy to get caught up in picking the bon mot, or to cut and paste someone else's bon mot in; but much harder to keep asking myself if I agree, and why I agree, and to remember to keep including the question 'how do you feel about it?', regardless of whether it ever seems to gets answered. I imagine that the 'unforeseeable change, unpredictable growth, unanticipated new problems' that come from pouring oneself personally into something, while they may be 'un-' all those things, I'd guess they're more likely to take place in the person doing the pouring, than those getting poured on."

Mom says she's been "undergoing a realignment of [her] spiritual spine", which sounds painful and a bit lonely in her neighborhood. Hopefully, I have the wherewithal to find whatever way I can be of most help.

Meanwhile, on the Sharing group, someone suggested that the conversation be moved over to a Public Affairs group, that I wasn't even aware existed. I had to agree that,
we've been dilly-dallying awful close to the line between sharing and public-affairs opining in this thread. Of course, that line has to remain pretty fuzzy when the experiences about which we're sharing are of our own individual emotions, as they either flit across or hunker down and lodge themselves in our hearts. They're part of (all of?) the prism through which we perceive and relate to the world and everyone in it, so of course they provide a lot of the color in how we share our experience.

But that last step--that relation to others--is, I think, the experience we're actually called upon to share in this forum. I guess my understanding of "sgnsharing" and "shared experience", as it exists in this group and in concluding Sunday's homilies, is that it takes what's happening in my heart and mind and illustrates how that butts up against the outside world, in things that really happen, between me and other people with their own crazy ideas, people I'm supposed to somehow see as "another Christ", when I just don't get whatever the hell they're on about. I don't know if, like, "Christ is in the details", but I have faith that if I'm actually able to pay attention, Christ is somewhere in whatever is really happening.

Now, honestly: I don't even know what I'm talking about. I think the reason I ever bothered posting a reply to the Jan 2009 fellowship dinner report had to do with the way the report intersected people's political fervor with their relationships with their parents. I'm not all that close with my parents. There is literally an entire nation between us. Dad, specifically, is a political creature of a stripe that is an utter mystery to me. He is not J, and he is most definitely not S [one of the more vocal lefties in this conversation], though there are characteristics of both those men (not necessarily their politics) that remind me a lot of Dad. So, to see how they interact along with the rest of us in this forum, gives me some pointers on how to advance my level of communication with Dad, perhaps how to see him as "another Christ" (and not the dittohead caricature that keeps overlapping with his portrait in my mind's eye).

Another thing that keeps coming to mind as I write (I mean, there are so many rabbit holes we can spin down in this personal/political warren!), has to do with the present economic foofaraw. There's a lot of stress in our household, nigh on to panic, over the whole deal, but I keep trying to remind Debbie (and myself), that we both have jobs, we're both paying down our debt significantly, we're both spending at relatively the same levels we always have. In short, we are not, personally, presently, in a crisis. And this is true of most of the people with whom we are most intimate in our lives. Now, last night, I had dinner with a group of friends, two of whom had just survived mass layoffs (an 80% culling in one case), and while I've seen the vultures circling for months, this is as close a look as I've gotten yet. I just... well, again: I keep reminding myself to root my responses to "the news", to what is happening in my life and my personal relationships. I think that's about all I had to say on that...
I was delighted, later, to receive a personal note from an esteemed elder, that he "was fascinated and moved to see what looked like a fairly contentious conversation leading to a sharing of the quality and significance of what you wrote, and also delighted that the conversation in sharing proves useful beyond the circle of St. Gregory's, thanks to people passing on pieces and generating other conversations". So, I'm feeling like, alright, I'm on a good path here, in a good head space... Can I keep my balance and direction?

I tried to find J after church this morning, for some face-to-face, but he ducked out early. In a later email, he said he'd been trying, as much as possible, to keep electoral politics out of his church life. I replied as follows:

I can completely understand that--I spent a portion of today's coffee hour avoiding eye contact with people I thought might want to pull me aside and talk politics, before ducking out early myself. I find it more than a little ironic that I'm as involved as I am in this particular sgnsharing thread, when I can prob'ly count the rest of my contributions to that group on the fingers of one hand, and--again--I don't consider myself too terribly interested in politics, as a rule. Maybe it's just a failure of self-awareness, and I'm a pundit-in-the-closet.

Since, prior to your "outing" yourself as the neighborhood Bushie, I was pretty much only aware of you as the treasurer [of a now-defunct church project, of which he was not, in fact, treasurer], I thought I might solicit your opinions about the big bailout brouhaha. That's the frame around my current correspondence with Dad, in which I'm basically taking my foot out of one pile of shit only to plant it in a deeper one--if I'm "not interested" in politics, I absolutely shut down on matters of finance. I mean, I pay a friend--and I don't know how much--to take care of paying the other people who work for me, and I don't know how much they're getting paid. I. Shut. Down. And we're all happy.

The stuff I read in papers about this 'recession', or whatever the non-partisan appropriate term is (it might actually be brouhaha, I'm not sure), which makes the most sense to me, here in my liberal terrarium, is Paul Krugman's columns in the NYTimes. My impression is that he's pretty far to the left of anyone in the U.S. government, a total unabashed Keynesian (which is, really... I'm speaking way over my head when I say that), and again: that's just what makes the most sense to me (so, FWIW, I don't anticipate ever finding political common ground with you, in maybe plenty of areas, and I'm at peace with that).

What I'm not hearing (or refusing to hear? I hope not, I don't think so), is an idea about how to proceed, nationally, in the face of what is happening, that is beyond arguing over the specifics of the "stimulus", or grieving its nearly unimaginable scale--an approach that is sensible and prudent and at the same time diametrically opposed to this Keynesian stuff.

So, maybe you can throw down with some of that. But don't feel too much pressure--I probably won't be able to grasp it very well, and to whatever extent I do, I'm likely to completely disagree. My own hunch about how this will all pan out, is that this stimulus thing will eventually waddle through, so bloated with ephemera, and belated by inertia, but that even if it had sailed through congress already--it'll only take a little edge off the upcoming economic pain, and mostly just for a few of those who are skipping along just above the cellar floor, and surely for a cadre of captains of industry. But, ultimately, I'd guess it's all but unavoidable that we'll pass through a long, gruelling deflationary recession, in order to restore some reality to what has been bubbles atop bubbles for a long time. I think that may be an old Vedic scripture, that "it's bubbles all the way down".

But as to what you wrote earlier, I agree: SGN is overwhelmingly and inescapably a "liberal/left/progressive congregation". I think there are a lot of reasons for that, which are similar to the reasons we can apply the same adjectives to the TED audience, reasons laid out early in Haidt's talk... if I recall correctly. It's been a week or so since I watched that. For all of SGN's vaunted inclusivity, it's a remarkably white, liberal, and, I'd venture to guess, upper middle class institution. Sure, all stripes are welcome, but that's pretty much what the joint attracts. That doesn't bother me a whole lot, maybe because I'm white and liberal, and don't mind the trappings of hanging around "rich" people; or maybe because those just happen to be, for whatever reason, the demographics that are most attracted to the same kind of theology that attracts me.

I don't know why not many more of the people who, for instance, show up for food pantry on Fridays show up at SGN on other days than already do, but it may be a spiritual shortcoming of mine that I'm no more interested in "evangelizing" them than I'm interested in "evangelizing" anyone (which is to say, not much). The more interesting question to me is: what is it that encourages people from outside those aforementioned demographics to overcome the differences and get involved here? Or maybe there's a better way of wording it, I dunno. We've already established that this isn't a very welcoming place for the politically conservative, for a number of reasons, and that you're uncomfortable enough here to have sorta gone into hiding over election season. At the same time you're still here! And not only that, your "red friends" might say you're mysteriously compelled to engage the blues from in their midst. What's driving you? Or what are you getting out of this place, rather? I can completely understand the list of ways in which SGN might make itself more tolerable for you, but that you're able to tolerate it as much as you do in the state it's in, is due to what exactly?

I have other questions that are less about SGN than about how you got where you are politically. I think I've read in a couple of places, where you've dated a personal shift "to the right" to the wake of 9/11. In one email, you described yourself as a "'classic liberal' -- individual rights and small government with an emphasis on rationality". I don't know what the "rationality" part means, but the other parts sound maybe libertarian to me? Or socially liberal, and economically conservative? I can get why people rejiggered their stands after 9/11, at least for national security reasons, to support the Bush administration. I'm curious about how that support expands into more socially conservative stances than you might have held before. Like, you've mentioned being uncomfortable with gay marriage being talked about from the pulpit. Would you have been similarly uncomfortable in your liberal progressive youth, or did that come about more recently? And how does it relate to 9/11, if it relates at all?

I think that's all I have the energy left to get into today. I just sent this to you, because I'd imagined having a face-to-face conversation after today's service. If it brings up something you want to share with the sgnsharing group, you're welcome to fwd the conversation to there. I just thought it was more about "thinking" and "feeling" than life experience, and so maybe a little outside the scope of that group. Of course, those barriers seem to be pretty flexible.
(UPDATE, from about 15 months later: none of those conversations, with J, or with my parents, have ever really gotten any further, yet, in any fruitful, personally connective ways. I attribute this to my having lost the "balance and direction" I spoke of, to an unwillingness to not only pursue what I want, but to even bother discerning what I want, that I might ever pursue it. I think this is rooted in a fear that goes, despite what my Better Self might tell me, something like, "if this get's all personal, I just... I'm really not gonna like it")

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