Two Sundays ago, my church had a baptismal service. Baptisms at our church are a mixture of solemnity and unbridled glee, often full of laughter and tears of joy. Those who were being baptized, or in the case of infants, their parents, took vows to put their trust in God’s grace and love and to renounce spiritual darkness, evil and “all sinful desires that draw” us from the love of God. After the baptism, the kids in our service ran forward, giggling, trying to get sprayed with the baptismal water that our priest, Ryan, slung over the congregation as he called us to “remember your baptism.”
On that Sunday, Ryan invited anyone else who wanted to get baptized to let him know. To my surprise, after the service ended and we were all mingling, two more people approached Ryan and asked if they could also get baptized. So after a short conversation with them, he hollered for the congregation to regather and, then and there, two others joined our ranks through baptism. People cheered and applauded as they emerged from the water. I left that service feeling pensive, grateful and in awe of the beauty of God and human lives.
I have thought of that incandescent Sunday a lot the past couple of weeks because there is a perplexing difference between the way we celebrated God that morning and the way I typically hear God discussed online and in our broader cultural discourse.
The God of that baptismal service is one of joy, kindness and peace. The God I often hear about in American politics, in the news and on Twitter is one of cultural division and bickering. The God of that Sunday service seemed powerful and holy, yet gentle and beautiful. The God in our cultural discourse seems impotent and irrelevant, a mostly sociological phenomenon related to political posturing and power plays.
In the news and on social media, God usually shows up when we are fighting about something. The subject of faith seems most often discussed in conversations about voting patterns and campaigning. God appears in our public discourse when Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican, calls for Christian nationalism. Or in Twitter debates about whether a coach should publicly pray on the 50-yard line. Or when the former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Kandiss Taylor painted “Jesus, Guns, Babies” on the side of her campaign bus.
It’s not that I think God has no place in politics or public discussions. Faith touches all areas of life, and issues such as abortion, religious liberty and the relationship between church and state are important. But when weprimarily talk about God in the context of political or ideological debate, believers’ actual experience of God, worship and faith — not to mention spiritual virtues like humility, gratitude and kindness — often gets lost. God becomes merely another pawn in the culture wars, a means to a political end, a meme to “own” our opponents online or an accessory donned like a power tie.
I mentioned my growing frustrations over how we discuss faith in public to my friend Michael Wear, who worked on faith-based initiatives under President Barack Obama. Drawing from the work of the Yale University professor Stephen Carter, Michael made a helpful distinction between discussing faith publicly and “taking God’s name in vain” in politics. “It’s the manipulation that matters,” he told me. It’s the “disingenuousness of so much religious discourse in politics” that tends to cheapen our spiritual lives, beliefs and experiences.
There are no bright lines here. It’s not always clear when we are honestly explaining how our heartfelt convictions play out in the public square and when we are “taking God’s name in vain.” Still, on the left, the right, and in my own life at times, I’ve witnessed a subtle shift where the language of God is used to point-score or to grandstand. I’ve seen God flattened into an amalgam of hot takes and personal branding, in ways that seem to track with the increasingly performative nature of politics writ large. Algorithms and mediums that reward shallowness, rage and spectacle inevitably shape how we, as a culture and as individuals, discuss faith. And the ways we habitually hear God discussed inevitably shape who we understand God to be.
But how do we repair the damage done? What would truthful, humble and robust public religious discourse look like?
For starters, we must speak proactively and vulnerably about our faith, instead of only in reaction to the latest hot-button issue. There are questions that haunt every human life: How does one know what is true and false, right or wrong? Is there a God? If there is, can we interact with him, her or it? If so, how? Can God speak to us? Can God say no to us? What are our obligations to God and to other human beings? How can we have joy? How can we live well? How can we be wise?
Whether one thinks of oneself as religious or not, unprovable and value-laden assumptions about truth and meaning drive our lives, including our politics. Yet these often go unacknowledged. Engaging with the presuppositions and beliefs underneath the loudest cultural debates of our moment helps us more fully understand the crux of issues, our true points of disagreement and the common humanity we share.
Most people’s experience of faith is far more personal, rich, important and meaningful than can be summed up in our political sparring. We must keep this in mind when writing on, debating or discussing religion and spirituality. Part of the purpose of this newsletter is to preserve space to examine not only faith in public life, but also how spiritual practices quietly mold us, our communities and our days.
Churches and other religious groups must continually highlight how our traditions address pressing issues that will never trend on Twitter or dominate political debates: problems like loneliness, despair, conflict in families, disappointment, grief, longing, loss and those all-too-human anxieties and insecurities that keep us up at night.
On a more personal note, sometimes I have to retreat from larger media debates over politics and theology to preserve the honest, tender and fragile heart of faith in my own life.
I often quote the fifth-century ascetic Diadochos of Photiki, who seems shockingly contemporary in our time of smartphones and social media. “When the door of the steam baths is continually left open, the heat inside rapidly escapes through it,” he wrote. “Likewise the soul, in its desire to say many things, dissipates its remembrance of God through the door of speech.”
Sometimes, in order to retain a “remembrance of God” I have to take a break from our societal discourse around faith, which can minimize who I imagine God to be. Practices like gathered worship, silence, reading the scriptures and prayer remind me that if God is real, there are far more interesting, lasting and confounding things about God than what can be captured in our public discourse.
The people who showed up to church two weeks ago and those who decided to be baptized that day were after something. They were searching for beauty, for truth, for a reality greater than can be summed up in words — or in voting patterns or in the antics of politicians. And the quest for that greater reality must also inform how we talk about faith in public life.
Tish Harrison Warren (@Tish_H_Warren) is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and author of “Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep.”
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