DANIEL FINNERAN

Religion and Politics: The Unwelcome Guests

Do you dare discuss religion and politics over the holiday season? 

It’s an ageless maxim that, when gathered with family and friends during the course of the holiday season, all discussion of politics—and, to a lesser extent, religion—should be studiously avoided. These are the two guests, unique among all possible guests, to whom it’s not only perfectly acceptable, but strongly advisable to close your door. To them, and to them alone, you have every right, and, frankly, are under every social obligation, to deny your hospitality, to refuse your fresh-baked cookies, and to withhold those sticky candy canes with which, whether he asks for one or not, every person around you somehow finds him or herself stuck. 

In short, you needn’t endure their presence. You aren’t bound by any law of decency, neighborliness, nor Christian charity to extend to them the warm-spiritedness and festive good cheer of which, to some degree of profusion and without even asking, everyone else in your orbit is to be made the happy recipient. 

From the warm society of your table, around which everyone, almost without exception this time of year, is encouraged to claim a spot and pull up a chair, these two unwelcome guests—politics and religion—are brusquely sent away. With what unfriendliness do we turn them away from our company! With the wave of a hand, and the turn of a shoulder, we expel them from our consciousness, and think not of them again. They are, here as everywhere else, unceremoniously rejected, excluded, embarrassed, and dismissed. They’ll suffer, at your insistence, the indignity of having been denied a comfortable seat in which to recline, a brimming glass of brandy to sip, an elegant spread of hors d’oeuvres from which to pick, and, most importantly, a hot delicious meal that calls out for your consuming. 

Your inhospitableness, in this, and perhaps in only this case, will be forgiven by all who join you in sitting down to eat in the absence of the mischievous siblings, politics and religion. From the jingle-belled, wreathe-festooned doorway, through which, until the last frothing cup of bourbon-spiked eggnog is mixed and served, happy waves of loved ones and neighbors merrily flow, they, and they alone, are barred entry. They’ll have to spend their holiday outside in the dark and bitter cold, mumbling faint, lifeless carols to themselves as they seek consolation in each other’s embrace. 

Religion and politics are, after all, the twin topics about which one should take every precaution not to speak, to which no invitation (so as to avoid offending the decent and polite members of your company) ought to be extended. They’re the unutterable topics on which even the most undisciplined babbler is careful to maintain his silence, and from which the most daring of conversationalists is unusually mindful to keep his distance. He knows, should he approach this noxious pair too closely, should he so much as sniff the same air of which they also take breath, he just might infect the entire party with the unfestive spirit of faction and dispute. He might carry back with him to his fellow party-goers the contagion of controversy, the pestilence of quarrel, and all those nasty little bugs of argument by which a quiet, peaceable evening is contaminated and brought to a premature ruin.

Of more innocuous things, things like sports, bingo, physical therapy appointments, the weather, the grandchildren, and the gluten-free bakery from which you get your ersatz bread, one may talk to his heart’s content, or to his interlocutor’s exhaustion–whichever happens to come first. But to politics and religion, the two topics by which, more than any others, the thoughts of our species are forever engrossed, and around which all our fears, fascinations, hopes, and disappointments incessantly revolve, one mustn’t so much as utter a passing reference. 

Mum’s the word when it comes to these two themes about which, on the inside, at least, we’re forever jabbering at a heightened pitch and with frenzied excitement. A constant vigilance is needed, lest those bouncing, active, political and religious thoughts succeed in evading our mental barriers, dodging our social cues, and conveying themselves to our ungovernable tongues. What a sin against decency it would be if we were, in a moment of indiscretion, to give voice to those unspeakable thoughts. It is, I think, an unnatural silence into which we force ourselves, and of which, quietly, we’d all prefer to be unburdened. 

While I honor the good intentions of this timeless maxim (of which, year after year, my dear mother does her very best to remind me), I must open up to you, dear reader, and, for the first time in writing, confess the following truth—it’s not only my tendency, but my impish desire to ignore this maxim, to ignore my mother, and, in a final, crowning act of impiety, to embrace the notorious duo of disinvited guests: politics and religion. 

That’s right: into my home, these unduly reviled, universally mistreated siblings are, and forever shall be, welcome. At my humble table, they’ll forever have a seat. Of my cupboard’s meager offerings, they’ll have their fill and share. The finest china that I own (at which any truly fine china would laugh) will be given over to their use. No comfort will be denied them, and everything that they want will be provided for. They’ll receive all the solicitude that an unpracticed host can offer, and will be the focus of conversation, from night’s beginning, till its bleary end. They’ll be, until the sunrise heralds the start of a new day, the subjects upon which all our discussion turns. 

The only question is, to whom shall we first devote our attention? Will we speak first of politics, or of religion? While it’s important to acknowledge man’s fundamentally political nature (a basic feature of our species on which Aristotle shined his light so many centuries ago), one must search for the divine power responsible for equipping him with said nature. For this reason, I think religion deserves to be discussed first. 

Here, I list the themes and questions on which we might expand: the etymology of religion—it means, “to bind”; does it still serve the function of keeping us together? Or, despite its best efforts, is its glue coming undone? Are we falling apart at the seams and undergoing a society-wide detachment? Are we more connected because of it? And, if so, connected to whom? To one another? To a holy book? To a priest, a rabbi, or an imam? To the grand invigilator, the author of the universe, God—the supreme being to whom, with hands tightly clasped and eyes upturned, we humbly send our prayers? 

What purpose does religion serve? Is it, on balance, a detriment to or a glorification of man? Is it a means of reducing him to an unthinking state of animal credulity, or is it the resplendent, lofty mechanism by which he’s sanctified and raised? Does it poison everything—as the late Christopher Hitchens so invidiously accused it of doing—or does it purify the world’s injured soul? Does it provide a coherent explanation of the after-life? Does it infringe upon the inviolable domain of science? Does it prescribe an acceptable moral law to which we can all adhere? Does it assist in the inculcation of virtue? Does it emphasize the indispensable ethical behavior without which a civilized people can’t live? 

And we’ve not yet even touched on theology! 

But we dare not pursue proofs of God’s existence, questions of ontology, metaphysical matters, nor the signs of a perfect Being’s involvement in this  fallen world. Politics, religion’s impatient brother, wants his share of the conversation, and has waited long enough. A good host, as I strive to be, wouldn’t dare ask him to wait any longer. 

To politics, I would pose the following questions: First, is government necessary? Simple enough. If so, which of its manifold forms is best? Is it best to consolidate power in the hands of a single ruler? What about in the hands of a few eminently-qualified aristocrats? Or is its distribution into the hands of many better still? Is a government, be it a monarchy, aristocracy, or democracy, preferable in its pure, unmixed state? Or is a carefully balanced combination of the three superior? 

Which is more conducive to the happiness of the people? By which of the three will their inalienable rights and sacred liberties be preserved? 

In whose interest should the ruler govern? Should he seek the gratification of his own desires, or should he expand his sympathy to encompass the needs of the masses? If the king opts for the former, and prioritizes himself over the people, he’s at once transformed into a tyrant. This, of all possible forms of government, is the worst. If the aristocrats likewise elevate themselves over their less-accomplished countrymen, they turn immediately into oligarchs. And an assembly of democrats, once it chucks off its virtue, descends into an unruly, lawless mob. 

This is but a sample of the questions I’d pose to politics—to which, I’m sure, I’d receive an evasive answer. 

Even after having read this, you might resist the idea of inviting politics and religion into your household. You might feel no qualm, no compunction as you shut your wreathe-festooned door in their face and withhold from them your honey-glazed ham. 

I’ll not pass judgment on you for having made that decision. I will say this, though: while politics and religion are disinvited everywhere else, in my house, they will be received with the warmest welcome. A place will forever be set for them at my table. 

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