Politics and Religion

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Whitewater United Methodist Church (Photo courtesy of Val Jennings)


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.


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(Photo courtesy of Val Jennings)




24 responses »

  1. Oh so beautiful! You transported me back to that church, sitting beside my parents, and if I closed my eyes, I could still hear my dad’s beautiful voice singing that same doxology. You are an amazing writer!

    • I keep thinking of things I wish I’d put in this blog, Carol, like how happy it made me to see your folks dressed in yellow together or how much your mom cared about all of us in the youth Sunday school class and your dad’s big voice. I loved being there knowing I was related to people too. I also have fond memories of your wedding there, which was so beautiful. (Though I remember thinking, “Oh, I’d love to get married here, but they _have_ to do something with that red carpet first.” I was probably twelve!) XO

    • Oh, I wish I’d done justice to your grandma’s beautiful piano playing there or how we all watched you and realized musical talent might take practice but surely was genetic. I’m glad my coming of age sounded familiar instead of heretical. Thanks for reading!

  2. Yes, it’s a lovely piece of writing. The *length* of US political campaigns, with the primaries, then the election — what a nightmare. And I think you’re right that social media is making the debates nastier.

    In real life, I mostly try to stay out of political debates, but will occasionally engage. (Jean is inevitably horrified when this occurs.) Most recently it was with a Canadian Trump supporter. What wasted energy! That guy can’t vote in US elections anyway, and of course neither of us changed our opinions.

    But on religion… It occurs to me that Canadians almost never talk religion. It was very interesting to read your point of view. I was also once church-going, and now am not, but couldn’t articulate so well why that happened.

    Sorry about the loss of your church.

    • Thanks for the comment, Cathy. I enjoyed your last post about Canadian politics on your blog. (FYI, Z has loads of opinions about American politics and can’t vote, but because I approve of his positions, I won’t call it wasted energy, particularly since he knows way more about American politics than ) I’m intrigued about Canadians almost never talking about religion. Any theories?

      • I guess it’s just that religion is treated as more of personal, private thing here? Like sex (except I think Canadians talk more about sex than religion). It’s just rarely part of the public discourse (even though polls say most Canadians have some spiritual beliefs). Like, Canadian politicians and reality show contestant almost never invoke God, whereas American ones seem to do so routinely…

      • I’m curious about what historical/immigration pattern might have caused the differences too since by and large, our countries were settled at similar points with people largely from Western Europe. I’ve always been interested in how someone who was emigrating chose the US over Canada or vice versa (aside from those who were following family). Probably I should just Google that instead of asking you to be the spokesperson for all of Canada!

      • I have a theory about why Canadians don’t talk religion: a whole big passel of their colonizers came from a Roman Catholic country (France), and the French Catholics as a rule had a laissez-faire attitude (still do) about religion. Mostly, they were Bretons, who are Catholic AND Celts, and just short of outlaws (for real — they were called privateers in their day); I can hardly see them setting up a loud-mouthed moralizing social culture (as exists in the U.S.) Combine this French cynicism with British reserve and voila: you have Canadian reticence. Which also must be why so many of our best loved comedians come from The Land Up North (Jim Cary, Samantha Bee, Mike Myers, and I’ll Google more names if pressed for specifics): that national trait of keeping things buttoned-up breeds a raucous id. I also think that it explains a lot about why Canadians are so good at ice hockey and not, say, the gentle art of curling.

        I had a visit last week from a English friend who was morose about the Brexit vote and spoke to me of Trump being the doom of American civilization. I am a Hillary girl all the way: being from New York I proudly voted her into the Senate! But I told my English friend to relax. Brexit won’t be the end of Britain, and if by some catastrophe Trump gets elected, he won’t be the end of America. Our institutions are stronger than any one ideology, and any one idiot in the White House. Proof: we withstood two terms of The Shrub.

        I am sorry for the loss of this treasured landmark of your youth, and the “third place” for your little community. You do write elegantly about the place, so much so that even I, who has never entered a church in her whole life, understand the deep meaning that this meeting place has had in your evolution as a humanist.

        I hate to start ANOTHEr paragraph with the word “I” but I want to say that I still grouse, most afternoons, that the Sorrento is not just around my corner. I’ve been extremely Canadian in my reticence since my visit last May but I’m glad I checked in here to see that you are up and WRITING again and as they are predicting rain all day tomorrow here on Long Island — perfect letter writing weather — I will WRITE the thing that I’ve wanted to write to you to go along with the thing that I think you will like that I want to send you, that is, if you like ephemera from Ireland c. 1985.

      • Do I like Irish ephemera from 1985? Do I ever! I’ve been having flashbacks to last year’s trip and living there and in Wales in my head more than Seattle, even _with_ the Sorrento around the corner. Come back anytime for another Toklas inspired cocktail, btw.

        Love your theory about Canadian reticence. I’ll have to vet it with some Canadians, but it sounds like a very reasonable theory to me. It might also explain why New Orleans seems so much less judgmental and pious than the rest of the U.S. (If only they could turn the heat down, I’d visit more often.) I’m pretty sure if I did that 23-and-me genetic test I’d find absolutely no French and a whole lot of puritan. I’m convinced one day I’ll uncover a relative who was wrongly accused of witchcraft in Salem anyhow.

  3. You take me back with such clarity in my youth. Growing up in the other church in town that I was a member but because the Methodist had a better youth group on Sunday night and Bethel had more fun in their bible school, the lines of religious denominations were a blur to me. Wanda

  4. Really good stuff here Beth. I know how you feel about that old church. Pretty much the same way I feel about mine. Anyway, really, really good stuff here. I wish more people took the time to think and listen, rather than just yell dogma and cant at each other. It’s good to know there are other reasonable people out there (although I’m not sure I really qualify as reasonable). Anyway, I really enjoyed this. Thanks for sharing it.

    • There’s nothing quite like those little churches that dot the countryside and are in danger of being swallowed up by the mega-churches. I feel lucky to have spent some time in both of those in Whitewater. Hopefully, reasonableness will become trendy again, but I’m not holding my breath. Thanks for reading!

  5. I really enjoyed your article. I spent my entire childhood feeling left out of the Church. I was forced to go to a very strict evangelical denomination and I absolutely hated it. I, too, was a feminist and I’m now also an animal rights activist, vegan, liberal, etc…….needless to say, I don’t fit in with my family’s church anymore! After a 15 year absence, I committed myself to my local Methodist Church. It’s the only denomination I’ve ever felt comfortable and the only one I’ve ever felt God’s presence in. (I live in California, so I’m sure we’re more liberal in general than Southern churches.)

    • Thanks for reading and commenting. I suspect there are lots of people with similar stories, but unfortunately, you can’t easily recognize them and you never really know what a church is like until you go inside and spend some time there. I’m so glad you’ve found the right place for yourself! (Though I agree, it’s probably easier to find a liberal church here on the west coast that it is in the south of my native Midwest.)

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