Midwesterners often live by the adage that you should never talk about politics or religion. If we don’t live by it, we’ve heard it enough and have probably kicked ourselves at least once for bringing either topic up in “mixed company” only to have the conversation fall flat or get heated in un-enjoyable ways. Were I a better arguer, then maybe I’d love the challenge of heated debate or see such discourse as entertaining, educational or satisfying.
But I’m not.
I don’t enjoy strife. Z once got in an argument with a peace protestor by Westlake Center, and I skedaddled half a block away from him so I could avoid hearing whatever words he shared with the tired-looking woman with the “Give peace a chance” sign scribbled on cardboard. I’m not sure what I was afraid of: Z is not rude OR hawkish, but he does like clarity and finds idealistic platitudes useless and so wanted to know what giving peace a chance looked like to her in regard to the quagmire the Middle East had become. Still, I didn’t want to hear their words even if it was a pleasant exchange.
Were it not unseemly for an adult person to put her fingers in her ears and sing “la la la la” whenever there is a disagreement, I would do it.
At home in Indiana, I basically know the rules. I can have a religious or political discussion with a good friend who I already know basically believes what I believe. I know that with my extended family or friends who have differing beliefs, we can ignore uncomfortable topics (the best choice, really) or, if we are feeling brave, each say one conflicting thing politely to the other before we start talking about something innocuous like pie. The objective of these exchanges is that everyone knows there is no ill-will even if someone’s belief system is faulty. The closest I ever got to a political argument was when my uncle, the farmer, sputtered about how difficult the EPA was making his life re: what weed killer he could use on his crops, as if somehow my first-ever vote in the presidential election of 1992 a few months before had caused his headache. Of course even this wasn’t an argument. My uncle said his piece and I said, “Hmmm. I hadn’t considered that,” and then the subject got changed, though neither of our minds did.
But this political cycle is like the beast from the Book of Revelation, thrashing around, wreaking havoc where previously there were harmonious relationships. Usually, during the primary season, people who are not on the podium are relatively civil to each other as they try to figure out who would best lead their party of preference. They say things like, I don’t know, I kind of like the look of _______. Have you listened to him? and they save the ugliness for the second half of the year when they want to tear the opposition from limb to limb. But with the help of social media and everyone’s lack of tolerance and increased righteous indignation, this has been the some of the most stress-inducing six months of 2016 (and I’m including the parts of the year where beloved pop icons died of drug overdoses, terrorists killed people trying to have a good time/do a hard day’s work, and my mother had a stem-cell transplant). One political party has almost completely imploded and the other has turned against itself like one of the more grizzly battle scenes from Game of Thrones.
Most of these battles are being fought in the media or on social media. Certainly, my own shouting fits and blood pressure spikes have only come from Facebook feeds and comments sections and not from any “real” interactions with humans. I don’t want to suggest that before Facebook was a regular part of our lives that we were a polite and genteel culture, but surely we’ve gotten ruder, haven’t we? And more full of ourselves? More certain that we are right and if we say something over and over enough times, everyone else will eventually be forced to agree with us because our logic and our words are so superior? Also, I’m not sure what convinced us all that our opinions actually matter and must be heard, like we’ll shrivel up and die Wicked Witch of the West style if we don’t speak our minds.
There’s got to be some diagnosis in the DSM-V that explains this lunacy.
A couple of weeks ago while I was talking to Mom on the phone, her call waiting went off and she came back, a bit breathless, and said that the church was on fire and she and my stepdad had to go. I sat around the rest of the afternoon feeling like I was waiting on a health report from someone who’d been rushed to the ER. The church is in the middle of the countryside and I knew the prognosis probably wasn’t good; it takes time for firefighters to do their job when they’re called in from the small neighboring towns and villages miles away. Later that night when she reported that the church was still standing but charred on the inside nearly beyond recognition and likely a lost cause, and later still when the photos rolled in, I cried. It felt like a family member had died.
I haven’t been in that little white church for probably two decades, and I haven’t attended services there since I was 19, but I always imagined it would be available to me. It is the oldest Methodist church in Indiana, nestled on the outskirts of a teeny village in the country, started at the time of circuit riders. It’s the church my mother and I started attending right after my maternal grandfather died unexpectedly and we were trying to find our way in the world without our patriarch. The church we started attending just before she and my stepdad started dating. It’s the church my great-grandmother went to and the church my great-great-grandparents attended. One particularly hot Sunday morning when I was bored during a sermon, I looked out the opened stained-glass window at the field behind the church and I could imagine the generations before me sitting there, so much hotter in their long dresses and suits, staring out the same window, their horses tied up outside, shuffling feet and nickering.
For me, the church was a source of great love and great conflict. Any church for me is that way, really, but this is the church where I came of age and where I first felt those tugs in opposing directions. I longed to belong, but never fully did. I was a divorced kid in a congregation that mostly wasn’t. I was an introvert in a congregation that, it seemed to me, preferred people not too timid to stand up and perform some service. I was living in the city and everyone else was from the country. I played the piano briefly when we lost our much more accomplished accompanist, but I wasn’t really a musician, so even that didn’t feel like the right fit. Plus, I’d spent more Sundays in mass with my father’s family than in a Protestant church until that time, so while I liked the deviations from the script that the Methodist minister took for dramatic effect or because he felt spiritually led to do so, I missed the comfort of the ceremony, beauty, and sameness offered at the Catholic Church.
There was an awful lot of politics in the church. People who thought they ran things. Other people who did a lot of the daily maintenance that kept the church running but got none (and asked for none) of the credit and had none of the say. People who had strong opinions about what the youth of the church should or shouldn’t be doing. People who had opinions if you skipped church to go to a Cincinnati Reds game. People who assumed that because you went there you must believe exactly how they believed and vote exactly how they voted. I’d feel crabby some Sundays, but then as the service came to a close we’d all stand to sing the doxology, say our goodbyes, and before getting into our cars and heading home, a sort of peace would descend that felt an awful lot like belonging. Like maybe despite the differences, we were all on the same team. And we were. If someone was in crisis, there were the prayers, the casseroles, the quiet concern.
In retrospect, I suspect I was just an emerging feminist trying to figure out what exactly my place was in an institution—or, at least, certainly a little country church—that liked it best when a person fit into a role. Though no one expressly told me my role was to be a good girl until I was a wife and mother or that I shouldn’t be overly interested in the leaders of the Women’s Movement or worldly concerns, it seemed to me that that was the track I was supposed to be on: one that didn’t ask too many questions, shake too many boats, or rattle any cages. So what to do with the secret knowledge that I spent as many Sundays in the sanctuary thinking lewd thoughts as I did concentrating on God? What to do when I felt cantankerous when someone made a request of me about performing some activity (lighting candles, speaking on behalf of the youth group in front of all those people, babysitting in the nursery) that I didn’t want to do? As a female, shouldn’t I be compliant and happily subservient? What to do with the realization that while I wanted to be one kind of person (a good, church-going, rule-following woman who read mostly Christian books and listened mostly to Christian music and shied away from anything too earthly), I also wanted to be myself (someone who devoured all texts, dipped toes into a variety of musical genres, and maybe rubbed up next to a boy I might not marry).
I never did make peace with that quandary, but eventually, my desire not to feel controlled outweighed my desire to conform.
I’m not sure what my little country church has to do with the 2016 election except on Facebook I read today that I can’t be a Christian if I vote for a Clinton and I also hear regularly in Seattle and online that if I were really a humanitarian—and surely that’s what Jesus was—then I would have chosen Sanders and not a “criminal” as my candidate. My “favorite” criticism this year has been the implication that by voting for a woman, I’m clearly making my choice based solely on our shared gender and have not relied on logic. As if I’m too feather-brained to realize I shouldn’t vote for someone for whom I hadn’t done some research and weighed the options.
All of that external judgment shares the same quadrant of my brain as my earlier internal conflicts in church. To be good? To be unapologetically myself? It isn’t lost on me that I’m still just as conflicted about being “good” and getting approval now as I was then, but also just as determined to be true to my own beliefs. The best example of this conflict hashing itself out is my choice this election season to wear a tiny, dime-sized button with a vivid pop-art picture of Clinton’s face that I pin on my purse and can cover up with my hand if I know the person viewing it will get too riled up. I’m not proud of this compromise, but it’s a good Midwestern coping mechanism as deeply ingrained as my need to be viewed as good and my desire to be an independent entity.
When I was home this winter, my stepdad would return from Sunday services, and I’d want to hear the news. The church, which was ten times larger when I went there, had dwindled down to a congregation smaller than ten and there’d been talk of closing. When I imagined it in February, I didn’t picture a tiny congregation of which my seventy-year-old stepdad was the youngest member. When I imagine it today, I don’t picture its now-charred remains. Instead, I imagine it when I was 16: people in every pew, friends of mine lighting the candles up front and our plans for the evening’s youth group activity being written about on the week’s program, my step-grandfather leading the singing as my step-grandmother plays the organ or piano, a message I’m half listening to while staring out the window or trying to catch the eye of a guy I have a crush on, maybe communion, an offering, another prayer, the smell of thousands of earlier church services, the doxology that ended it all so well (and that maybe we should be singing to each other now until after November to remember we’re all on the same human team): God be with you ‘til we meet again/by His counsels guide uphold you/With His sheep securely fold you/God be with you ‘til we meet again.