Remember the old bumper sticker – last time we mixed politics and religion, people got burned at the stake? I used to have a button that said that, that I wore in college for about a month before I got tired of it stabbing me.
Politics and religion have continued to mix, both before and after, with, if possible, even worse things than solo human barbecues. By the 1940s, human technology had managed to make those barbecues group affairs. The whole “burning at the stake” has been upped from taking out a few dissidents to genocide more than once in distant history and current events. While no recordings exist of the actual verbal conversations that went around drafting the US Bill of Rights, I have a hard time imagining that the burning of heretics was not a factor when the authors of the document established the freedom of religion clause.
Yet politics and religion are inseparable, even among Pagans – and that makes it even more important that we do separate them, somehow, just so we know the truth of our own actions especially when our actions do impact people not directly connected to us and thus not directly consenting to us.
In the current political climate in the US, where we’re recovering from one of the most influenza-like bouts of “either/or” syndrome, we’re back to the core difficulty of separating politics from religion: in theory, both reflect our values. For people who value their beliefs dominating those of others, it’s in their interest to push for dominionist candidates and other folks who believe that unless you are their “America,” you don’t count. For those who value the protection of their beliefs – usually those with quieter religious voices if not necessarily smaller religious populations – the inclination is to object to the claim-staking of the more dominant and dominating religion within the culture. So, to illustrate this complication: to those of us in the minority, planting 10 Commandments in government buildings is about the same as pissing on them. It’s a territorial marking, an indication of a value dominating over the other values that exist.
The people pissing and planting not only believe they’re in the right, they believe they’re being virtuous – because their total values, political and religious, are satisfied. Taking away the rights of others to do so is viewed as “winning” because they are convinced they’re in the right, or that their rights are greater than those of their neighbors. They are not separating their inner politics – the need to “win” – from their inner religion – the need to be “right in the eyes of God.”
Religion is not usually about choice – most people don’t choose the religion they practice, they just sort of go with whatever their family bore them into. While a percentage always go exploring and keep exploring, most people with a distinct religious background stick with it either passively or actively. They inherit their values, rather than discovering them. This is not the case right now with most Pagans. This could well be the case with children being raised as Pagan at this time. Part of cultural assimilation that begins at birth includes religious (or non-religious) assimilation. Some countries still have tribes; in the US, we have race and religious denomination. Also, I get the impression that most people think religion is about how you end, rather than how you live.
Politics, on the other hand, is purely about choice. It is also nothing BUT the right now, even if aeons of history lead up to our current conflicts. Voting is a ritualized form of choosing. I’m sure some other families were like mine, where parents tried to con their children out of choice in the political arena – both my parents once attempted to tell me I was a conservative because that was what they had chosen for me. I was 16 and had already come to understand the importance of birth control, why it was mostly people of color in jail and that the “conservative” women I knew were either completely crazy, on drugs or just miserable. I did not buy into that line of crap, although I kept to my private covenant to keep quiet with them about my real politics until I turned 18.
Even so, we’re actually given more privacy in our political choices than in any other arena of life. Ballots are secret (although absentee ballots are not as well protected.) Political conversation is avoided more assiduously than religious indoctrination speech, even in the more conservative of Christian homes. Politics are how we put what matters to us in action; for those who have active out-in-the-world faith practices, it can lead to strange roles. For example, the first time I ever voted, I voted as a Republican (I now identify as Green Party, though I acknowledge sharing some views with Libertarians and liberal Democrats.) I voted Republican because of my environmental values. Back in 1994, there was a referendum for new school board members because the old ones pushed through building a new school. The “old” school was barely 20 years old, and could be repaired without undo strain on the environment or on taxpayers. There was and is a tendency where I hail from to be wasteful, a mentality that “newer is better” that had people spending $75 for brand name sweatshirts in the mid-90s. There was no regard for environmental impact, and to most “new is better” was and is an extraordinarily wasteful motto. While I often fantasized about the entire school system imploding like Chernobyl leaving me free to go to Merrillville and mingle with those who shared my lower middle class reality, I did not want to see yet more pollution resulting from parents overindulging their brats. Anyone who’s been where Route 30 and Route 41 intersect know even non-smokers must light up to defend their lungs; construction projects contribute to that morass – even as far out as Crown Point was. So when may chance came to vote, the conservative option – not building a new school when you had a perfectly reparable old one – was the environmentally friendly one. So I voted for the Republicans.
I now live in a city where the school system maintains buildings approaching 100 years – and that includes school buildings in the wealthy neighborhoods. Turns out you can retrofit a/c. They are not wasteful here. If something needed replacement in this city, I’d probably vote in favor of it.
A few years after that first vote of mine – and after a great deal of verbal abuse from some of my more spoiled-brat classmates – I encountered Wicca. One of the many factors that led to my eventual conversion was the American Wiccan emphasis on cooperation with nature, rather than the condescending views I was raised with that caused a debate over “stewardship” or “dominion.” But by the grace of the ozone layer do I not die as the result of weather conditions. Yet the environment is considered primarily political domain – even though most religions based in the developed world do have something to say about what the earth is for, who rules it and how it should be managed.
In smaller Wiccan groups, most people sort-of/kind-of average to liberal, with a few who are pro-hunting/2nd amendment (it fits in really well with environmental preservation values) and some that are conservative in the old-school “What the Constitution says, not what it doesn’t say” evaluation high-profile Republicans have abandoned in favor of confusing people by channeling their religious fervor into political fervor.
The conflation is infectious: people on the other side of the political fence who have religious beliefs now get worked up that way, too.
There’s a long debate over how politics and spirit intermingle among neopagans: it sometimes comes as a surprise how much our politics differ, even though we mature in our practices recognizing that certain values are not shared across Pagan religions. Yet when we vote, behind our curtains, we have to ask ourselves whether our vision of “how things should be” comes from our beliefs in the divine, or from our beliefs about the here and now. The environment, a key issue to many American Wiccans, is currently a major political cause. Expression of religion – something that doesn’t belong in the US government arena – has also crept in, because people with certain monotheist values have confused their religious beliefs with their competitive tendencies, and some people of other faiths are responding from the competitive level instead of the “stick to the rules” level as well.
Politics and religion CAN be separate, but we need to teach and reteach the rules of separation, just as we need to teach people to use their emotions as advisers to their being and not as final decision-makers. We may share values between them, but religion boils down to you and your God; politics is always about what you’re willing to do to your neighbor. Me? I was willing to force my neighbor to stop dripping hydrochloric acid on the chemistry room floor by forcing him/her to keep using that floor. I’m not about to make my neighbor circle a cauldron with me.