Put religion and politics on Thanksgiving menu

By Robert Jensen

Published in USA Today · November, 2012

Here’s a peculiarly American paradox: We are the most affluent country in the history of the world, with an elaborate education system and expansive legal guarantees for free expression.

Yet many citizens are afraid of talking. Outside of the political/media circus in which people disagree theatrically, many people — right, left and center — avoid thoughtful conversation with those who might disagree.

So, for anyone heading to a Thanksgiving gathering where there will be a variety of people, including some you know you disagree with, a bit of advice: Make sure you talk about religion and politics.

This goes against the conventional wisdom, but there are two good reasons, one selfish and the other moral.

The selfish reason: If we don’t talk about religion or politics, what else is there of interest to discuss? Let’s define “religion” broadly, as wrestling with ultimate questions of existence that are wrapped up in the query, “What does it mean to be a human being?” Let’s understand “politics” broadly, to mean the way we answer, “How should power and resources be distributed?” Those questions make life interesting.

Pushed down the wrong path, these conversations can make some people surly, but they can just as easily open up stimulating, honest exchanges. Here are two suggestions for fostering that engagement.

On religion: People will ask, “Do you believe in God?” Instead of taking that as an invitation to a verbal brawl, I respond, “What do you mean by God”? That invites a thoughtful exchange by asking others to expand on what they believe.

On politics: It’s difficult not to take disagreements about sexual behavior personally, but we can cultivate the ability to consider not just our own choices but the social consequences. For example, on the contentious subject of pornography, instead of immediately defending or condemning the use of sexual material, we can ask: “What stories about sex and intimacy does pornography tell, and what is the effect of those stories?” That opens up the conversation.

Onto the moral reason: The conventional wisdom about avoiding religion and politics has not helped us avoid the mess we are in economically and ecologically, politically and socially. The conventional wisdom on most everything hasn’t been particularly wise lately. Rather than opting out of conversations, we have a moral obligation to engage these topics.

So, along with all the food we’ll be putting on the table this Thanksgiving, let’s put religion and politics on the conversational menu. Let’s ask questions about whether our political, economic, and social systems square with our mostly deeply held moral/theological beliefs about dignity, equality, and justice.

If that doesn’t sound like the recipe for a successful holiday meal, remember this: Our affluent society produces an excess of everything except what we most desperately crave: meaning. Not meaning manufactured and sold to us, but meaning we create authentically, through dealing honestly with reality.

Such meaning comes when in our everyday lives we talk with people — those we know and strangers on the bus — about the most basic questions that have unsettled humans forever: What does it mean to be a decent human being? How do we deal with the problem of power? Those are the questions that never get answered definitively but which we answer contingently through constant conversation.

We all know that over-eating at Thanksgiving dinner can be hazardous for individual physical fitness. We know the solution, no matter how much we avoid it: Smaller portions and more nutritious food.

Under-talking is just as dangerous for collective intellectual fitness. The solution is equally obvious: larger portions of more robust discussion, debate and deliberation.