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We Need Sanctuaries for Politics, not From Politics

The brutal binary of elections is that they demand a simple result: someone has to win and someone has to lose.
Tim Mossholder/Unsplash
Tim Mossholder/Unsplash
Rabbi Michael G. Holzman is a former Fellow of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, the spiritual leader of Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation (NVHC), and the creator of the Rebuilding Democracy Project, the winner of the 2019 Lippman Kanfer Prize for Applied Jewish Wisdom.  Since 2016 he has collaborated with local and national organizations to investigate the intersection of faith and democracy.   Prior to serving NVHC, Rabbi Holzman served

Originally published on Medium

Life is messy. We disagree, argue, compromise, reconsider, regret, resent, resolve, and repeat cycles of confusion and clarity. Even, or especially, when we love each other, we families, couples, friends, communities sometimes find ourselves in moments of painful disarray, seeking the good, but struggling to discern a common way forward. Multiply this by millions and we have the messiness of a nation. But the brutal binary of elections is that they demand a simple result: someone has to win and someone has to lose. This simplicity denies our lived reality, and as our candidates become more and more strictly associated with specific and opposing policy solutions, that denial becomes painful. The more we allow our political culture to define the other candidate as the ultimate evil, the more pain will echo through the losing half of the population.

Nations evolve systems to contain the messiness and bear the disappointment and pain. The symbolic holiness of a monarch, for example, remaining above and separate from the helter-skelter of politics, provides a reassuring anchor of accountability when losers fear winners and winners must embrace losers. Democracies shift divine right to citizens, and we usually see this solely as a shift in authority, but it is also a shift in symbolic responsibility. When divinity resides in the citizenry, the only thing that helps us bear the fear of losing and the responsibilities of winning is our self-evident humanity.

We need systems to sustain and nourish that humanity. In her 2004 book, Talking to Strangers, Harvard professor of political philosophy, Danielle Allen writes, “Democratic citizens are by definition empowered only to be disempowered. As a result, democratic citizenship requires rituals to manage the psychological tension that arises from being a nearly powerless sovereign.” Essentially, we need rituals for losing.

The problem we face right now is a loss not just of specific rituals, but of the value of rituals themselves, and the value of whole segments of human experience that elevate our minds beyond the Hobbesian competition for power. Add to the list of problems created by social media the fact that the algorithms are fed by simple, binary choices (like vs. not like, friend vs. unfriend, swipe left vs. right). This training rots the mind and starves the soul, replacing the stuff that helps us bear the messiness of living with other human beings: rituals, sacred words, holy scriptures, hallowed ground, healthy norms, and above all else, the relentless imperative of looking into our neighbor’s face.

After the 2020 election, our society remains handicapped without ways to uphold and emphasize the divinity within citizenship. Without a rebirth of what I will call democratic spiritualism, some future manipulator will easily take advantage of the barren space once inhabited by the obligations we felt for each other and the nation.

Democratic spiritualism can rescue us from the corrupted moments currently passing for national holidays, flag salutes, and honors for veterans. When the United States military began paying the National Football League and Major League Baseball to honor the troops, it created almost the perfect demonstration of cynicism. Our national holidays have become mattress sales. Our public institutions have been made into partisan platforms and canvases for defacement.

Democratic spiritualism responds by giving people the experience of the sacred in our citizenship. This can be done through secular means, which is what Eric Liu does with Citizen University, an explicit transfer of religious behaviors to civic contexts. But why not turn to religion itself? More than a handful of commentators have pointed to the potential for religious identities, institutions and values to become the cornerstones of a new democratic unity. While these elements are important, they fail to address the inner workings of religious life, the problems and potential of prayer, ritual, scripture, acts and affiliation, in short, the mechanics of faith. This is the stuff upon which a democratic spiritualism must rest, and our faith institutions and leaders should be the ones teaching us how to use them.

Unfortunately, establishment religious institutions are largely disconnected from the lived pain of American democracy. Churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship tend to follow one of two paths — complete avoidance of politics or complete adherence to one political point of view — ignoring the larger conversation about democracy itself. We create sanctuaries from politics where we keep the spirituality inside and the politics outside. This is because our seminaries train our clergy and our denominations train our laity to become either spiritualists or partisans, and to keep the two separate.

The one exception to this rule is the Black church, which, to generalize, has regularly included the problems of the day in its sacred service. Perhaps, separating spirituality from the nation’s problems was a privilege not afforded the people most likely to suffer those problems. This explains why Dr. King could infuse his politics with his spiritualism at the precise moment President John F. Kennedy sought to separate the two in claiming “an absolute separation of church and state.”

For clergy to bridge the divide between spiritualism and political activism, we would have to apply our religious habits to the topics of our political ecosystem. We would have to bring the political into our sanctuaries, and use the safety, accountability, and dignity housed within to host political speech that so easily turns into vitriol in the outside world. Our sanctuaries have the capacity to prevent the pollution of our politics. Here’s how:

Our prayers and rituals must be expanded and changed to apply theological concepts and passages to the burning questions of our moment. When we witness a national reckoning on a subject as complicated as race, we can turn to concepts of revelation to find ways to communicate the enormity of the newly discovered truth. When we struggle with the ways we have treated the planet, we can explore words like sin and atonement to find a path forward. Prayer and ritual rely on liturgy, calendar, performance, space — the tools of religious life which could all reinvigorate our national democratic ethos.

Second, our study of text needs to change the way we relate to information, exercising the muscles of interpretation, exegesis, and conversation and inoculating us against viral rants and simplifying memes. We all have traditions of wrestling with scripture. Even the most fundamentalist faiths strive to explain opaque texts to disciples of the tradition. We can apply these hermeneutics to the great texts of America, giving people an opportunity to encounter the words of our American ancestors in the same way we encounter holy books. And this is not to deify the words of Jefferson or Reagan, for every person of faith knows the intellectual, moral and spiritual struggle of uncovering the offensive passage in the midst of a treasured document. Honest, rigorous, curious, sacred conversations about Jefferson’s reference to Native Americans as “savages,” or Reagan’s denial of the people left behind in America, will help us grapple with the complexity of our civilization.

Third, our practice of sacred acts needs to include an awareness of geographic and social political sorting. One of our greatest problems as a nation is a lack of encounters with people of the opposite political party. Faith institutions can serve as holy archways across those divides, to bring partisans into human relationships over the things we all care about. The bitterness and toxicity of our national polarization disappear when serving the homeless together or visiting each other in a hospital room. These are the types of things all faith institutions promote and enable, and we need to find ways to do them together and for each other.

Last, we need to bolster the importance of affiliation and revive the experience of governance. Twenty years ago, Robert Putnam documented the decline of institutional affiliation in American culture. As the concept of “joining” becomes foreign, we should not be surprised to see a general notion of institutional norms dissolve. One way to restore those norms is to clarify the meaning behind affiliation and the adjoining experience of institutional stewardship. Common is the church, synagogue or mosque that cannot find candidates to fill Board positions, because this work is often, sometimes tedious, and occasionally confrontational. But successful organizational stewardship teaches important citizenship skills and exercises the muscles of healthy deliberation.

These are just four ways of creating democratic spiritualism through the existing infrastructure of American religiosity. This is not a call to greater civic engagement on specific issues, rather a call to retake religion’s role in determining the ethos of American politics. For the past three years the Rebuilding Democracy Project, founded at Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation, has experimented with these techniques, and the lessons learned have changed the way we think about politics and react to the world around us. For example, after the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, we created a Juneteenth Tikkun, applying to the issue of racism the traditional Jewish practice of overnight study prior to the moment of Revelation at Mt. Sinai. This is the kind of creativity that helps us retake our role in society.

I say retake because this was a role religion played for most of American history. In December, 1952, President-elect Eisenhower described a conversation he had with Soviet General Marshal Zukhov in Berlin at the end of World War II, in which Zhukov said, “Of course we have difficulty promulgating our theory, because we appeal to the idealistic in man and you appeal to all that is materialistic and selfish.” Eisenhower’s famous response: “[O]ur form of Government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”

In 1952, religion’s role was clear. As Ike explained, government exists “to guarantee [to citizens] the opportunity to live in dignified fashion with their God and with their fellow citizens.” For him the system could survive only with a regular diet of human dignity, fed through religious practice. But the disappearance of traditional American religion has allowed our “materialistic and selfish” urges to win. The normative white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant religious establishment of Eisenhower’s day will not return, nor should it. But a larger democratic spiritualism, championed by the 384,000 Christian, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Bahai, and Buddhist houses of faith can cultivate the sacred ground from which our democracy flourishes anew.

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