Democrat or Republican: We can’t let our politics stand in for our religious beliefs.
Days after finishing my sophomore year of college, I left New York for Washington, D.C., to join a summer journalism program run by the city’s old guard conservatives—a program that gave Ann Coulter and Greg Gutfeld, among many others, their starts. I did not know what I was doing. By this, I do not mean I was young and naïvely Republican, like a teenaged Hillary Rodham or Elizabeth Warren. I mean I literally did not understand the nature of the program I had agreed to attend until I got off a Greyhound bus and made my way to the shabby row house on Maryland Avenue NE that would be my home for the next two months.
It was before the days of Google, and I had found the fair-and-balanced-sounding National Journalism Center in a weighty tome called The Internship Bible. I was a Democratic-leaning independent going through the least politically conscious phase of my life. If the organization’s political bent was hinted at in its listing, I missed the signs. I was probably distracted by the words “free housing” and “stipend,” rare enough proclamations in that particular book, and major incentives to a kid with no connections and a hefty college financial aid package. The program involved a work placement at one of the numerous D.C.-area news outlets, the description said, as well as the chance to attend lectures and do research. I greeted my acceptance—surely the first step to a thrilling career in mainstream media!—with joy.
If I was inclined to balk at toasting Oliver North, why did I not run screaming back to the bus depot at the first opportunity?
I do not remember exactly when the penny dropped. I know it had fallen and been driven violently into the asphalt by the time I attended a formal dinner at the Hyatt Regency honoring one Oliver North. Over a bland main course I traded looks and ironic comments with Simon, a lefty Austrian on a study abroad junket and the only other intern who seemed to have been blindsided by the program’s politics.
If I was inclined to balk at toasting Oliver North, why did I not run screaming back to the bus depot at the first opportunity? One, it was too late to make alternate summer plans. And crucially, I was told early on that my field placement would be with a network of suburban community newspapers. I figured I would get useful experience reporting stories with no political agenda, and I was right.
Second, and more to the point, I had a complicated relationship with political identity. In my Hudson Valley Irish Catholic family, John F. Kennedy and local son Franklin Delano Roosevelt were all but venerated alongside the angels and saints. I absorbed this implicitly, ignoring the inherent contradictions.
Upon consideration, I can see how confusing the decades preceding my birth must have been to a generation of progressive American Catholics. On one hand was the civil rights movement or the war on poverty, in which they saw their Christian values reflected at the societal level. On the other hand, people who were Democrats were assumed, all of a sudden, to be pro-choice and broadly supportive of a social code less interested in what might be called modesty than Catholics are meant to be.
I weighed which identity mattered to me more—Catholic—and resolved the tension by registering as an independent.
That my elders’ identities as both “Catholic” and “Democrat” were not perfectly in sync might have provided a more rebellious kid with useful ammunition for provocation, but not me. I merely weighed which identity mattered to me more—Catholic—and resolved the tension by registering as an independent. And then I went to college. As a kid, I’d paid close attention to the crazy pageantry of elections, if not to actual governance. But in a dorm room with no TV, in a college town where the political climate seemed at that time temperature-controlled, I settled into disengagement.
This made it easier to shrug and make friends, at least for the summer, down in D.C. My fellow interns and I took Saturday trips to Ocean City, tried out an Ethiopian place in Adams Morgan, climbed the Washington Monument and celebrated the Fourth of July on the National Mall. There was conflict, as is natural in cramped quarters. But there was kindness, too. One housemate let me use her fake ID; another picked me up in her car every night after my shift at the Union Station Au Bon Pain so I would not have to walk home after dark. I do not remember actually talking about politics. Maybe we did and I am forgetting it; maybe everyone assumed we were all on the same page in that respect and could move on to other topics.
Regardless, in 2021 this recollection seems fantastical. What Americans today, much less budding journalists, could spend two months in the shadow of Capitol Hill and talk of anything but partisan issues? I certainly couldn’t. And though this is most obviously true since the rise of Donald J. Trump and his divisive, scorched-earth approach to governing, that rise was only possible, as has been frequently noted, once certain conditions were in place.
The psychologist John Gottman, who is famously accurate at predicting whether a married couple will divorce, says that the presence of contempt in a relationship is an excellent augury of its demise. A form of disgust, contempt metastasizes to destroy the healthy parts of a bond. This does not bode well for the Union. In my lifetime, contempt has become the default attitude of our body politic. It has affected me as much as anyone.
In my lifetime, contempt has become the default attitude of our body politic. It has affected me as much as anyone.
In the years after my D.C. summer, it is not so much that my beliefs changed; it is that, through a series of experiences, alliances and conversations, my sense of political affiliation intensified. Becoming a card-carrying Democrat was the least of it. I started to consume news from a curated list of sources that belonged to an increasingly polarized press. I lost touch with right-leaning friends and relatives. I started using social media and enthusiastically shared op-eds and think pieces resonant with my political beliefs.
Or, rather, I selectively shared the stories resonant with my appropriate political beliefs. Because, although the people I now interact with in person and online tend to vote the way I do, I still believe things that do not fit the party line. Like many of my opinions, these things tend to have roots in Catholicism. But while support for universal health care or welcoming refugees is easy to proclaim to fellow Democrats, anguished ambivalence about abortion rights is not. Few in my social circle practice religion or any formal brand of spirituality; still fewer discuss such a practice openly. Spirituality is awkward to talk about, especially in the public platforms where so much of our communication now takes place.
Politics, meanwhile, is fashionable and often addictive. This is why it has so effectively subsumed religion in this country. “As Christianity’s hold, in particular, has weakened, ideological intensity and fragmentation have risen,” wrote Shadi Hamid in the April 2021 issue of The Atlantic, adding that “what was once religious belief has now been channeled into political belief. Political debates over what America is supposed to mean have taken on the character of theological disputations.”
Mr. Hamid cites polls showing a precipitous decline in church membership—and a concomitant increase in atheism and agnosticism—over the past two decades. Yet even those among us who remain churchgoers are subject to the siphoning off of fervor. I keenly feel my political preoccupations encroaching on religion’s role in my life. What to do about it is less obvious. In fact, in many ways I feel I am still ironing out those conflicts between my family’s political and religious values that the generation before me never completely resolved.
Political debates over what America is supposed to mean have taken on the character of theological disputations.
The charge to render unto God and Caesar their respective due is one I have yet to get straight. Our politics are expressions of our values; and if we are religious, that should mean religion informs our values. If there is a direct line between religious and political convictions, how do you separate them? What is more vexing, the line gets snarled in a system defined by two political parties. I chose the side best matched to the tenor of my moral core. From that point on I was incentivized, as a social being desiring group acceptance, to accentuate areas of agreement and downplay, even suppress, points of discord.
The more central political identification is to a person’s public persona, the more it will determine which parts of themselves they display proudly and which parts they conceal. Polarization thus perpetuates itself in more ways than one. It makes us more entrenched in our deeply held beliefs and opinions. But the more interesting observation is how it presses us as individuals to feign down-the-line assent. Maybe, for example, you object to a $15 minimum wage but not to Medicare for All. Or you are marching for police reform but have not turned wholly against J. K. Rowling. Whatever the particulars, it is to be expected that an individual person, you—with your unique neurological wiring and set of life experiences—will diverge here and there from the platform of a party meant to represent 50 or 60 million people. But the more divided our politics become, the more those idiosyncrasies are squelched and denied in the interest of a united front.
Aligning With ‘The Other Side’
As contempt and bad faith proliferate, letting ourselves align with “the other side” on any count, under any circumstance, is seen as intolerable. We do not even have to set foot on enemy turf; often by simply stepping into the territory of the moderate (increasingly a no-man’s land), we perceive ourselves to have committed a betrayal and are horrified at the idea that others on our side will deem our loyalty insufficient.
I sometimes struggle to admit even to myself any opinion I might have in common with, say, my fellow National Journalism Center interns of so long ago. Hence my deliberately confessional language, couching reminiscence in explanations and excuses. Yet I want to draw attention to that reflexive desire to distance myself, which I have come to see as craven. In fact, I believe it is this very impulse—the inner voice that says, “Don’t be one of them!”—that has led the Republican Party to ruin.
I believe it is this very impulse—the inner voice that says, “Don’t be one of them!”—that has led the Republican Party to ruin.
Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois is one of the few Republicans for whom the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, was a turning point. He has said he regrets not being louder in his dissent before the attack and has so far made good on a vow to model and support an alternative vision of the party’s future. People in his own extended family have responded to his principled stand by publicly denouncing him as a member of “the devil’s army.”
It is noteworthy that Mr. Kinzinger, who has been willing to reject unequivocally his party’s new loyalties, also speaks of an increased sympathy with longstanding political opponents. A Christian, he once believed that Democrats could not also be Christians. No longer. “There are frankly roles for Christians on all sides of the aisle,” he said in an interview for The Atlantic. That softening of contempt, that decoupling of political strategy from theological conviction, has served him well as a follower of Christ. It has allowed him to risk being lumped with liberals and atheists (read: prostitutes and tax collectors) for the sake of the good.
He has had some epiphanies along the way. I have had mine, too. They have brought me to this certainty, at least: If you perceive the willingness to step outside party line as, in itself, evidence of weakness or treachery, then you and I fundamentally disagree. Critiquing or departing from the thinking of friends and associates should be seen as evidence of integrity, of a conscience strong enough to eschew the path of least resistance.
Our democracy demands that we refrain from using party politics as a stand-in for unshakable creeds. Rather, we must practice and honor dissent.
I believe this, yet I shrink from the challenge. That is not good enough. Our democracy demands that we refrain from using party politics as a stand-in for unshakable creeds. Rather, we must practice and honor dissent. Those who claim membership in an actual faith community can begin by trying to disentangle imperatives of the spirit from the mundane business of government. We can spend more time with and in a spiritual practice that leaves thoughts of poisonous politics at the door. This is necessary for rediscovering the spirit as the lodestar it should be. And then we need to embrace its guidance without arrogance but equally without shame. We have something essential to offer: a desperately needed boost to the diversity of our political ecosystem, a powerful alternative to the endless stream of knee-jerk counterattacks and automated talking points.
So this essay is a confession, after all: not to my one-time journalism internship, but to the fact that I am not a perfect liberal any more than I am a perfect Catholic. I consider modesty a virtue. I worry about issues of identity supplanting Christ’s call to communion. I believe the prayer of St. Francis would serve many people better than therapy. It matters that I mention these things. Why? Because it will make me uncomfortable, but it will offer the world more for that.
It is possible that by parsing and naming our true thoughts and feelings in all their nuances, contradictions and varied underlying personal, spiritual and social impulses, we can shake each other awake. Beyond this, though, the promise of Epiphany is that revelation can transform our lives wholly, whether or not external factors shift by an inch. It requires that we leave the comfort of accustomed territory and journey forth with open hearts and eyes, looking toward a vastness beyond ourselves and trusting that the light we find will guide us truly.