Religion, Politics, and Dinner Parties

It is often said that polite dinner conversations should not include religion or politics. Perhaps it is because dinner hosts prefer peace to hostility, or because both topics are prone to individual monologuing. Either way it is a surefire way to raise the collective blood pressure of your dinner guests.

I would suggest that in addition to maintaining peace and limiting long-winded diatribes, another reason to not talk about religion or politics at the table is because they are so closely related. An individual’s religion informs his politics. In fact, an individual’s religion informs just about everything else he believes, whether he realizes it or not.

Every person has a religion. Faith is behind every decision we make on a daily basis. When we write a check or swipe the debit card we have faith that our money is still in the bank; the merchant also has faith that you are not swindling him. When you turn the key of your car’s ignition, you have faith that it will start. When you flip a light switch you have faith, and when you sit in a chair, and when you open your front door, and when you take your next step. Faith informs everything because as limited, finite beings we only have access to the present; we don’t—and can’t—know the future. In The Mainspring of Human Progress, Henry Grady Weaver writes:

Individuals direct their energies and build their organizations according to their views of reality—what they conceive to be desirable and good. Every human act is preceded by a decision to act, and that decision is based on faith. One cannot even think without a deep-seated faith that he exists and that there is a supreme standard of good in the universe. This is true of every living person—whether his god is the God of Abraham and Christ, Zeus or Isis, reason or fate, history or astrology, or any other god, whether it be true or false.

Notice what Weaver is not saying. He is not saying that every individual has a religion in the organized sense of going to a church, synagogue, or mosque on a regular or semi-regular basis. Many make this categorical error; they will tell you that they have no religion because they don’t attend worship services anywhere. This may indicate a lack of a religious tradition, but it certainly does not mean they are not faithful parishioners of a religion of their own design. Faith is at the bottom of everything we, as finite humans, do. Weaver continues:

The fact remains that every action of every human being springs from the desire to attain something which he considers to be good—or from the desire to avoid something which he thinks is evil or undesirable. Since the actions of any individual are determined by his beliefs, it follows that the underlying control of the energies of any group of persons is the religious faith prevailing among them.

It is this clash of religion—a difference of faith—that makes political discussions so heated and possibly tense. When someone around your table believes that the government has a responsibility to take financial care of its citizens and another believes that the government has no such responsibility, you are witnessing a clash of faith, not just political ideology. What a person believes about what the government should or shouldn’t do is less about civics and more about religion. While facts and figures are important and helpful, political disagreements will never be resolved by merely appealing to political ideas. The religious tension must be addressed first, and this is a much deeper and tougher issue to deal with. For the sake of sanity, it’s much easier to simply make such discussions off-limits… at least while we’re eating.