The last few days I have found myself in a number of very interesting church/state conversations. While I have not had a conversation with a liberal I have spoken with many shades of conservatives and found a huge variety of viewpoints on church/state relationship and issues. While all I have talked to have pointed out how historically church and state have been far more intertwined than they are currently and most long for “the old days,” I was struck by one place where they can seemingly never meet.
American democracy is, by definition, a system of compromise. Religion is all about absolutes upon which compromise is not allowed. For example, the founding documents of our democracy have nothing to say about homosexuality or homosexual practice. Therefore, it allows lots of room for discussion and compromise. The Bible, on the other hand is pretty explicit – “If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads” – which does not leave much room for discussion. It is the contrast of democracy’s flexibility and religions inflexibility where so much of the conflict between the two arises. Frankly, it is amazing they mange to get along at all.
And yet, an Arthur C. Brooks piece from the NYTimes this past weekend does so much to bridge this gap. The title is simply “We Need Optimists.”
Brooks notes that increasingly politicians are taking what he calls “the pessimism shortcut” and calls for increased optimism as the best way forward:
Millions of Americans are frustrated by the environment of competing pessimisms in Washington today. Some say it is a result of the fact that the parties have never been further apart ideologically. They hark back to better times when there was more overlap between Democrats and Republicans.
I disagree. Maximum progress would come not from convergence on an unsatisfying centrism, but from a true competition of optimistic visions for a better future. Research suggests that optimists can find solutions where pessimists do not. And while competing optimists may disagree, sometimes fiercely, they don’t mistake policy differences for a holy war.
But let’s say that competition does not occur. What happens if one side unilaterally breaks out of the current negative equilibrium? I predict it will see victory — especially if the other side doubles down on pessimism and division.
I do not think it coincidental that the increasing choice of “the pessimism shortcut” is concurrent with a decrease of religious voice in our politics. I know that in my life my faith is the primary source of optimism. When I find my optimism waning, it is usually accompanied by what is often referred to as a spiritual drought. My optimism generally returns with prayer and other religious practice.
This sentence from Brooks is fascinating, “And while competing optimists may disagree, sometimes fiercely, they don’t mistake policy differences for a holy war.” Yet so many religious/political activists treat their political activity as if it was indeed “holy war.” One is tempted to conclude; therefore, that they lack optimism and may not be entirely in tune spiritually. More likely I think it is that they confuse policy stances as the right and true measure of spirituality instead of the deeper things such as optimism.
Here then is how I think religion and democracy do manage to survive together. As a person of faith I agree with the Bible that same sex marriage is “detestable,” but I also try very hard not to let its existence cut into my optimism for if I do then the opposition is truly winning. At the point where my optimism fails, the opposition has not only compromised my religiously based morality, but also my deep spirituality.
No government can push out these deeper things like optimism – unless we let them do it. If Brooks is right, and I think he is, holding on to deeper things like optimism will eventually win the day.