Why we need to talk more about politics and religion — not less

Group of men and women around campfire talking

A friend commented: “When I go visit relatives, we don’t talk politics. That way we can all still stay friends.” Another friend declared: “Oh, I don’t discuss my faith. That’s personal.”

Chalk off politics and religion. Hm, what’s left to talk about? Sports? No, that gets us into which team is best. So can’t go there. That leaves the weather. Unless someone brings up climate change. Then that’s off topic too.

Silence falls.

When I was growing up, my parents and I often went to extended family gatherings. Awesome, because I got to see my cousins.

There was a basic pattern to these regular family gatherings: Everybody arrived. A bit of chatting about this and that. Then all sat down for dinner. That was a serious affair with seconds, dessert and coffee.

After dinner, the men would stroll outside for a while. The women gathered by themselves. Kids were everywhere, playing. Eventually everyone came back together.

Through all of this, there would be lots of talking. About daily activities, weather, how things used to be, how things were now, politics and religion. Yes, politics and religion. Now things got animated.

We had conservatives in the family, as well as socialists, and multiple shades in between. It was not boring.

Anders would go off on how hard it was to be a farmer. Sture got emphatic talking about the challenges of real workers (blue-collar, factory). Then there was Nils whose small business provided the livelihood for him and his family. Gunnar worked for the roads department. Taxes paid his wages and without his dedication, especially in winter, no one got to work. Because snowdrifts. My dad worked in an office (white-collar) and had yet another perspective.

And that’s just the men. The women had their viewpoints as well, equally as diverse.

Yes, conversations got lively. Voices would be raised and strong language might be employed. Sometimes feelings got hurt.

But never so much that there wasn’t another family gathering again before long. Because for all their different viewpoints, these men and women still stuck together as family and friends. At the end of the day, that was more important than any of the arguments.

I learned a lesson there without even knowing it at the time: Relationships are more important than scoring wins in arguments. Arguments come and go, but relationships need to last.

Sometimes when an issue rises to the front of the debate, people you’ve known for a long time turn out to hold a very different view from you. All of a sudden it seems there’s no room to talk anymore. So we don’t talk. Just make assumptions about each other. It feels like being between a rock and a hard place: If we talk, things will go bad. If we don’t talk, we drift apart.

Indeed, if politics and religion are supercharged minefields these days, can we talk? And not end up wanting to knock each other senseless?

The thing is that at their core, politics and religion are about how we live our lives, day to day. So really hard to avoid them and still be real with each other.

I believe we can still talk.

In fact, I firmly believe we need to talk. Because if we don’t, we’ll grow even farther apart than we are right now.

It starts by being willing to take some risk.

A big reason we don’t talk about issues with people who don’t agree with us, is that we’re afraid.

Afraid they will argue the case better. Have better answers. More convincing facts. More passion.

Afraid that I will feel and look silly when I don’t have the perfect answers to their questions. Afraid that I really don’t know what I believe, deep down.

Yet, most of us have been in a good conversation at some point. One where several people exchanged thoughts, ideas, impressions and came away feeling encouraged, strengthened, empowered. Some of our ideas were reinforced, others were modified based on what we learned. And we might have realized that some presuppositions were flat out wrong.

How can we have more of that? Conversation on issues that doesn’t end in a shouting match and lets us come away empowered?

Let’s start with a few don’ts:

  • No name calling. Because we’re mature, civilized people.
  • No accusatory statements or questions. We’re here to learn and exchange ideas. This is not Perry Mason in a cross-examination.
  • No backing the other person into a corner. We’re talking issues, not delivering personal attacks.
  • No hypothetical situations. Because real life is complicated enough and hypothetical is totally imaginary.
  • Not a debate. A conversation is an exchange, not something to be won at all cost.
  • Don’t circle for a swift kill. The other person may show ignorance or lack of knowledge. That’s an opportunity to talk more. Not an invite to pierce their heart with a dagger.

A few things to do in the conversation:

  • Build rapport. Affirm that the other person is a valuable human being, more important than the issue at hand. That you are genuinely interested in their thinking and understanding.
  • Listen to understand.
    • Get the backstory. How did the other person come to their opinion/position? Be gently investigative.
    • Ask clarifying questions (even if you think you understand them perfectly).
    • Learn. Be open to change and growth. The other person may actually have a good point that will give you a new perspective.
  • Focus on real, concrete issues.
  • Keep it conversational. As in a 2-way exchange with give and take. Learn to see the other person’s viewpoint.
  • Don’t do all the talking. I know, we’re excited about our ideas. But give the other person(s) a chance to express their views.

The proverbial brick wall

When the conversation hits a brick wall (and that will probably happen), the best thing may be to agree to disagree about that particular part of the larger issue. Doing so can clear the air and open for conversation on other topics. Maybe even allow you to circle back to the contentious issue at a later point.

Another option is to agree to table that issue for now. You may set up a time and place in the future to revisit it. Or just leave it open-ended. Either way, each person can leave today’s interaction with their dignity intact.

Actively pursue other things you have in common to affirm the relationship. Too often we allow friendships to be defined by one issue. Then if we disagree there, the friendship is over. Instead, seek out other points of connection. Doing so may even help you bridge an issue where at first you disagree.

Really listen

A big problem with talking politics or religion today is that many of us are willing enough to talk, but not at all ready to hear the other side. We have already pre-judged the situation and decided there’s nothing for us to learn. No way, no how will our views change.

That is not helpful for anybody. Conversation breaks down and we all end up more and more isolated, with fewer and fewer relationships.

I’m not saying to just convert to the other person’s views. I am saying we need to understand their views and why they hold them. We need to get deeper.

These are my facts, not your facts

Another issue is when each person brings their own facts to the table. As in, facts are not facts, but what I make them be. If I don’t agree with them, they’re not facts at all. That makes everything very subjective and there’s no basis to talk.

However, there are still incontrovertible facts in this world. We may use different lenses to view them. But it’s a very different thing to agree that basic facts exist and then proceed to talk about how we interpret them differently, than to say that “these are my facts, they are not your facts.”

Silo thinking

Part of the challenge today is that no matter what idea I hold on to, I can find others who support it online. So it seems I don’t need to care that nobody around me agrees. I can always find other people, more like-minded, online. What that does is stick us into our own little silos, shielded from others who might not agree with us and might cause us to review what and why we believe. Instead we just connect with folks who believe exactly as we do and in the process narrow our view even more.

The end result of that process is everyone landing at the extreme endpoints of the spectrum and nobody in the middle. But it’s only in the middle, closer to the center, that we have a balanced view (pros and cons included) where actual progress can happen.

Truly, at a time when things seem to get more and more polarized, we really need to be quite intentional about talking about difficult issues, be that politics or religion. Doing so we might find out why Jim believes the way he does and why Sandy believes what she does. As we understand their viewpoints, we can also see how their viewpoints could actually come together in places and provide a way forward for us all.

It starts when you, and I, make the choice to talk. To engage. To learn and grow.

Who are the people around you that you are okay talking politics or religion with? Are they exactly like you?
Think of some people around you that you don’t feel okay to talk politics or religion with. Why is that? Could you find a way to start small and explore a conversation? Maybe ask them how they decided their position on a particular issue?