The conduct of our lives is the true mirror of our doctrine. – Montaigne
The other day I saw a news article that said that Glenn Beck, a nationally-syndicated political talk show host who also has a TV show, a man who has millions of listeners/viewers, told them that if their churches mentioned “social justice” or “economic justice” (what he called political “code words” for communism, etc.), his listeners should leave their churches. This was shocking to me, first because Beck and I are both members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) and I can’t reconcile what he said with the doctrine I know from our church. Isn’t this a violations of the First of the Ten Commandments? And secondly, because anyone who actually took his advice widened one of the biggest rips in the fabric of our society.
I’m talking about the fact that all of us are bound together in an eternal family. In too much of the political discourse lately, there has been demonizing, name-calling, and dehumanizing. To what end? To get the trajectory of the country to move a fraction of a degree to the left or the right. At what cost? We are sacrificing our kinship with our fellow man to our political objectives.
We are too willing to create a chasm between “us and them,” refusing to acknowledge that they are us and we are them. We are encouraged, even commanded by partisan leaders and “men of words” to vilify and hate the others. As Eric Hoffer observed, “Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil.” Partisans are inculcating us with unreasonable fear and then wielding that fear to further their own goals at all costs, not through cooperation and understanding but through accusation and obfuscation, because, in the words of Hoffer, “[the fanatic] fears compromise” and “sees in tolerance a sign of weakness, frivolity and ignorance.”
The partisans prefer that we adopt the thoughts of the group because, as David Brooks wrote in a recent column, “People who are thinking in the group mode are loyal, disciplined and vicious against foes. People in the person-to-person mode are soft, unpredictable and hard to organize.”
Politically the group mode of thinking is valuable, but what is our raison d’être? God didn’t create us to help our parties win elections or to move the country left or right; we’re here to obey Him. And we cannot bifurcate our spiritual lives from our political lives. If we cannot reconcile them, then at least one of them is false, and in trying to maintain them separate and separately, we can find no peace or balance. Hoffer saw this as an intentional state of mind effected by the men of words: “By kindling and fanning violent passions in the hearts of their followers, mass movements prevent the settling of an inner balance.” Many of us seek peace and balance in spirituality; in fact for some it is the primary reason for religion. Why would we surrender that balance to the ideologies of other people whom we don’t really know and whose motivations we can’t fathom?
We Americans have gotten into a habit of checking our spirituality at the door of political discussion (and expecting the same of other cultures). We shouldn’t do this; we shouldn’t be ABLE to do this because our faith should be so much an integral part of our personal constitution. It should be the backing of our tapestry, not an accent color on it.
But the “men of words,” who also usually claim to be God-fearing men, want us to follow a different doctrine. They want us to embrace a political doctrine that is contrary to our spiritual doctrine. And how can we argue with them when they’re so darn accurate? George Orwell, in his great essay “Notes on Nationalism” said, “Political or military commentators, like astrologers, can survive almost any mistake, because their more devoted followers do not look to them for an appraisal of the facts but for the stimulation of nationalistic loyalties” (he defined “nationalism” as “the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit [read political party], placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests”).
Accuracy is not truth. All half-truths are accurate; that’s the “truth” part. But they’re not only untrue, but anti-true. And this is one of the biggest tools the “men of words” use. They use accurate half-truths to demonize “the others” and make them seem less than human so that we can justify hating them. Hoffer further noted, “To wrong those we hate is to add fuel to our hatred. Conversely, to treat an enemy with magnanimity is to blunt our hatred for him.” So if they can get us to do no more than use derogatory nick-names for down-the-political-spectrum people or parties, they have pushed us down the road of hatred to the point where, as Orwell put it, “Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage . . . which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side.”
We must change how we each participate in the political debate; not for the nation but for our own souls. We must acknowledge the humanity of those we do not agree with. We must take up John Adams’s “pacific and friendly disposition” in negotiation and debate. But mostly we must remember that every person we’re told we should vilify and hate is a child of God and a heavenly sibling. And knowing how He loves us, we can assume how He feels when we treat His children the way we sometimes do. And if we just can’t do it, if we just can’t see the other’s perspective, understand her motives, then it’s time for mom’s advice to come into use. “If you can’t say something nice (about God’s children), don’t say anything at all.”