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Guidelines for discussing religion and politics.

by Dear Jon
February 5, 2002

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Sort 114_Dear Jon-Guidelines for discussing religion and politics. ACTUAL LETTER TO DEAR JON:

Dear Jon,
There is an old adage saying that one should never discuss religion or politics in public. In your esteemed opinion, is this outdated or wise (or both)? Why?
The Inquirer

Dear Inquirer,

If no one could discuss religion or politics in public, a lot of preachers and speech-writers would be out of jobs, right?

Then there are those who insist that preachers should not comment on politics, and that politicians should not comment on religion. Imagine how confusing the issues of this War on Terrorism would be if politicians could not comment on religion? And if preachers could never comment on politics, no one would ever have heard of The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. Of course, he would still be alive, too.

The problem with this adage is that the term 'public' is all about context. The anomoly of Howard Cosell notwithstanding, sports broadcasters typically refrain from commenting on their personal religious or political views during the contest. Insurance sales representatives typically do not proseletyze their clients toward a religious persuasion. This is because the context is not appropriate.

The movie "The Big Kahuna" with Danny DeVito and Kevin Spacey, is about this very issue. It is a good movie, a "thinker's" movie, meaning that the men are articulate and do not settle their differences by blowing each other up. A movie like this better have something compelling to say or it gets boring fast.

There is a lot of confusion over what constitutes "private" and what constitutes "public." A private party might be the worst place to bring up personal political views. In a public meeting at City Hall, statements that do not apply to the politics at hand might be ruled out-of-order.

The adage is not a law, and it is not even an "unwritten rule." The adage is a statement of a particular contextual truth that needs to become internalized so as to be instinctive. Here are some ways of contextualizing the adage:
  1. Do not discuss politics at private parties or family gatherings where there is someone better informed and more articulate than you are who disagrees with you, unless you entered the conversation prepared to learn something.

  2. Do not discuss politics or religion if you are not able to have a conversation with someone who disagrees with you without raising your voice. In fact, do not talk at all.

  3. If you think the room full of people is "safe" for you to indulge a little religious humor, think again.

  4. If the outcome of most of your conversations is that you pronounce the other person as either guilty of treason or as going to Hell, you should probably be quiet a lot more often than you should be talking.

  5. Religious and political conversations always go a lot better when you, personally, take the view that you have something to learn from the other person.

  6. Conversations about sports can get just as ugly as any other. The trick is to let the Packers be your favorite team without questioning the parentage or humanity of Bears fans. That same trick applies to political alignments and religious affiliations. Fans of the Cleveland Browns are fair game, however.

  7. Do not make the mistake that I was about to make, by putting "fans of the Cleveland Browns" and "Jihadists" in the same sentence. By declaring, under point seven, that Jihadists are fair game for hard-line political diatribe, I in no way suggest any equivalency between Jihadists and Cleveland Browns fans, which I would have done if I had included Jihadists in point 6.

  8. The kind of sensitivity I exhibited by separating Jihadists from Cleveland Browns fans is extremely important in navigating the social contexts where religion, politics, and sports are discussed. This is why you are lucky to have written me. I am all about being sensitive.

  9. Given the grief and ambivalence dynamics at work, family reunions at funerals are not the most appropriate place to proseletyze. It amounts to the lawyer "ambulance chasing." An honest recap of the convictions and faith of the deceased is always appropriate, however. When Dear Jon dies, I would like those at my memorial service to be told once again what it is I stood for.

  10. If you really have something to get off your chest, go to the PO forums. We have forums in Politics, Open Mic, and in Religion/Philosophy. Go ahead and vent, persuade, whatever. You find me there on occasion, so be prepared to learn.

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