Editors Note: this was previously and poor-naturedly titled “The Tea Party Youth” and hosted in another location. I have made a few edits for clarity, mostly to word choice and spelling. I hope this will be more effective.

I recently went to an event hosted by a youth-run political organization. This is an open letter to this organization, whose name I’ve chosen not to make public; I want to be helpful, and putting them or their supporters in a place in which they’d have to defend themselves isn’t helpful.

This may sound boring, and to some it will be. If it helps, the friend I sat with at the event told me later that if I had been a little older, he’s be afraid I’d've stroked out.

I had quite a strong reaction to the event, and that some of that is due to my personal background and bias. I will be the first to admit that I’m somewhat left-of-center on the political spectrum. You may say, then, “of course she thinks x about the event, she sees you as her political enemy!” Give me the benefit of the doubt for a minute as I explain why I think mine will make a useful case study.

If an organization aims to bring in people from outside the fold, that is to say, people who don’t already agree with you, inciting defensiveness, intentionally or through carelessness, is not in your best interest. The organization’s stated goals for this event and, in fact their existence, include the education of young people about its principles and inspiration of young people to join their cause. Making an effort, then, to include others of different views and bring them closer to your own is an essential function of the event, and efforts should be made to avoid setting yourself up as an enemy, or spurring members of your audience to perceive or create such a divide.

This assumes, of course, that you’re aiming to build a broad, open community. Some political groups don’t have that as a goal and strive only to bind a group with a narrow range of ideas so closely together through group-think and snowballed fear as to great a maelstrom of political discontent. If this is your goal, which I don’t think it is, you should change your stated goals to reflect that and ignore the rest of this note. I don’t believe that the approach I described is healthy or moral, but it’s often effective.

So, why listen to me of all attendees? I’m an example of the kind of person you are trying to persuade and  kind you have to be most careful with: I do react strongly, particularly in settings in which one speaker has all of the talk-time, whether through assumed or assigned power, whether I agree with him or not. I also am very likely to react vocally, and sometimes in a big, call it “internet-sized,” public arena. In fact, I was terribly close to asking for the mic during the question-and-answer session; I had made up my mind to do so until I realized that I was so angry I could hardly breathe, let alone form a coherent question.

If I wrote books, they would have long prefaces. Alright; to the meat.

I agreed to attend the event despite knowing that I did not see eye-to-eye on the any of the issues I’ve discussed with a guy I’ll call Matt, who invited me, and I agreed mostly for one reason. I am an educated, adult, open-minded human being (damn it!)  and I believe that the best way to build a remotely accurate, enlightened, useful model of the world is to listen to people with all kinds of perspectives.

I was doing really well maintaining my cool-headed open-mindedness all the way up until a student volunteer, who was an excellent public speaker for her age by the way, used the word “socialist.” This happened about a minute after I sat down. I wasn’t upset because I’m a socialist: I’m not. I do have a problem with the re-assignment of “socialist” as a dirty word, the attachment of which, to an idea or policy, is supposed by some to be irrefutable evidence of its inherent evil nature. I took a deep breath; my neighbor can attest to this. I chalked it up to an enthusiastic young person carelessly parroting a word that’s infiltrated the rhetoric of one side. After all, she should be listening to both sides for model-building, right?

The introductory speaker painted a picture of the organization’s environment and goal, which involved reaching the politically-ignorant masses of “my generation” through the media they consume (facebook, youtube…) and “educating them about the principles upon which this nation was founded.” This was all presented innocently enough: I don’t doubt that her generation (which I’m sure is my generation, too) is, on average, pretty ignorant of political protocol, the major issues and their drivers. We do consume lots of social media and those who don’t care about world events may get information about world events primarily through other people’s facebook status updates. I decided that, despite the fact that this came off as, like, totally condescending or whatever, its basis was probably statistically valid and the application was morally valuable.

Socialism came up as she began to set up a dichotomy. The more she spoke, the less it started to seem less like the picture from earlier, where there are a bunch of blank slates hanging around that had to be reached, and more like a war in which there is a dark, ambiguous enemy pulling the nation out of our hands. It was assumed that the audience is all on the same side of this war. This is essential: the only reason a public speaker would assume that the whole room is on the same side is if there is some set of shared principles, which we can assume because of who we invited or where we are, and that that set classifies one side as right and the other wrong.

In principle, the idea of right and wrong is not offensive to me. As a Christian (this event took place in a church, which I’ll get to in about an hour at this rate) I believe that we are mired in a spiritual battle. I believe in good and evil, and I believe that those forces effect politics and, more importantly, that politics are used as a tool in this war.

The gap between the organization and I that formed in my mind, and eventually had me holding the gun on the other side, started growing as she described the enemy as “pushing socialist ideals” and trying to “make our nation different” than it is. Picking out a few of the weapons that the other side used to wrest the nation away from our team, she identified “political correctness” (I twitched) and “sound bites. Like ‘Hope’ and ‘Change.’”

And just like that, she and I are enemies. What’s sad is that it seemed to me that she saw it as harmless example that we could all agree on. People laughed. To me, as some one who guards objectivity (which she claimed) as sacred in this kind of “educational” communication, this threw into sharp relief the chasm we stood on opposite sides of. Clearly and casually she seemed to think that anyone who would come to a political discussion in a church, where we cite Scripture on our brochure, would see Obama as the enemy.

I am I being over-sensitive? Perhaps. She knows, though, the power of those buzzwords (not soundbites, by the way, which are are pull-quotes snipped and used by the media and had an average duration of 9 seconds in 2010.) And all it would have taken to maintain even the semblance of objectivity was an example from the other side. I assure you, they have plenty of buzzwords. “Socialism,” anybody?

I found it interesting that, in typical minority-party fashion, both she and the main speaker seemed to draw no line between the enemy (which, by the way, she claimed to be “suppressing” the voice of politically-aware youth) and the government (yes, the entire US government.)

The main speaker also neglected to draw a line between faith in God and faith in American ideals. In fact, his lead-in was a story about a family who never lost “faith in freedom” while theirs was restricted in communist Poland, and how that inspired him to keep going when he felt discouraged by the current political climate. He used the passage of the healthcare bill as an example of when we might get discouraged after telling this story.

I won’t go through all of what I thought of his content, both to avoid drawing attention to specifics and because his content wasn’t in the organization’s control, but I’ll say what stood out to me in general terms and how I reacted to it to further the stated purpose of this epistle.

I tried to give the speaker a clean slate, in large part because he isn’t, as far as I know, directly connected to the organization which had alienated me and also because he’s who I came hear to try to understand. (You know, the one with the Ph.D, rather than the eager, energetic girl with half a bachelor’s with whom I probably would have agreed when I was 18.) I also tend to like economists because I love the big picture and tend to follow the way they think.

The first thing I noticed is that someone dragged out the pulpit for him to speak behind. I’m familiar with the discomfort some Christians have with females speaking from behind the pulpit, even if only in a literal sense, so I wasn’t surprised that it was absent at first. But to drag it out was odd, both because it was disruptive and because politics from the pulpit is repulsive to me.

Deep breathing, again: I decided it was only literal and not a reason to get upset yet. By the end of the speech, though, I’d scribbled this little gem down in my notebook, which I had retrieved to keep my sanity: “political proselytizing from the pulpit, assuming common ground, and calling it ‘education’ is worse than inappropriate and condescending in my opinion: it’s wrong.” This is to say a couple things: 1) Avoid using the pulpit if you can. It communicates authority and connection of the content with exhortation of God. 2) Don’t call biased material “education.” It only stirs up indignation in outsiders’ hearts upon thinking of all the people who might think the content is objective and insults us by implying that we’re uneducated if we believe differently. 3) Don’t hold political events after a worship service. It assumes attachment of the message to God, which has an even worse implication than the “education” label. I didn’t attend the worship service (intentionally–I promise I would have exploded) so I won’t comment on it. The point is that combination of those three elements made it impossible for me to not be offended by the format.

The only content thing I’ll mention is this, and briefly, mostly because it drives me crazy and I want to vent. Claiming to have the correct interpretation of history, assigning motives to its actors, and confidently identifying cause and effect is arrogant. And you are probably wrong. This would be less of a problem if it weren’t 1) the entire content of the lecture 2) as immense and intricate an event as the one under discussion 3) used as an unacknowledged-yet-heavy-handed tool to draw comparisons between the events and actors of decades ago to today’s without perceived basis. The speaker led the audience within inches of a logical conclusion that would indict one side of the political spectrum of nothing short of ruining the global economy, and much of the audience jumped right on ahead, if the firey audience comments were any indication. By not stating and discussing that conclusion, the speaker maintained the appearance of objectivity while still reaching his goal of inciting fear and anger.

I’d like to summarize the main issue I had with the lecture, both with the main speaker and his introductory speaker. You’ve set up an enemy, whether it’s the other side or the entire government, and stuck phrases like “socialist ideas” “suppression” and “bad character” to it to explain recent and historic failures of the system. Rather than acknowledging a fundamental disagreement on the role of government and lack of compromise on both sides about the practical issues of governing and budgeting, this tactic covers the source of the problem with fear and reactionary emotion and over-simplifies the arena of discourse from a mutli-dimensional landscape to a binary condition, excluding those who disagree and labeling them as wrong, ignorant, or evil. This practice, to the extent that you employ it, is entirely counter-productive to your stated goals and destructive to open discourse. Additionally, as long as you use it suggests subconsciously at least to me, if not many others who come to your events, that your organization is unwittingly part of a larger, maelstrom-creating machine that spits out unthinking, reactionary parrots.

2 Responses to Education and Religion in Political Events

  1. [...] angry about something I thought was consequential, you would know: I promise. I guess I look like I’m on the verge of a major medical event? Anyway, instead, I will try my best in these posts to evoke, through text, the apparently amusing [...]

  2. Scott says:

    I reread it, and found myself again in agreement with most of your sentiments. I wish I could remember my previous post, because my “Amen’s” came in response to the idea of how language sets the stage for all opionated discussion, the danger of wrapping politics up in the Gospel, and ultimately, our frustration with politics in general, where debate descends into blame assignment and oversimplification of complicated issues… I always struggle with how much “we” try to legislate Christianity. And while I think it is entirely appropriate to seek the redemption of our culture, I’m reminded that we’re certainly not promised victory in the political realm, but in the spiritual the day has been won…

    Scott

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