After dinner conversations: learning to talk about religion and politics in polite companyDecember 21, 2015
Like you, I grew up under the rule of “polite company.” My parents regularly entertained and our home was an almost continual parade from Thanksgiving to New Years. My sister and I always had assigned responsibilities and we were briefed on the names, relationships and interests of all who would be in attendance. Then there was the final charge in the last few seconds before the doorbell chimed: “Okay, girls, whatever your ideas or opinions on a matter, there are three things you are not to discuss: religion, politics and what goes on inside other people’s houses.” As an adult I know that the shorthand version of #3 is “sex” but remember, we were kids.
Conversations were always lively, joyful and full of good humor ribbing related to sports, vacation plans, and one another’s kids. People asked me about school and softball. We kept the conversations polite and noncontroversial.
Here’s the problem: we didn’t learn as a culture to discuss politics and religion in the midst of polite company. People had opinions as our neighborhood was Christian and Jewish and wonderfully colorful secular pagans. My dad’s colleagues were Puerto Rican, Jamaican, blue-dog southerners and damn Yankees. My mom worked in Higher Education, for the Federal Government, had a show on PBS and wrote a column for the Tampa Tribune. Tampa had race riots, Cuban refugees, serious economic divisions and it was growing from a small town into a real city. It’s not that there weren’t political or religious conversations to be had, we just didn’t have them, publicly.
I learned how to talk about religion and politics at the family dinner table as my parents discussed the intersection of their views with the news and opinions of neighbors, colleagues and friends. As transplants from Indiana to Florida there was always a cultural layer to work through. As the first generation in both of their families to be college educated there was always an appreciation for education, hard work, creative problem solving, leg-up neighborliness, and family values. My parents, like their parents, were living their own generational version of the American dream and they worked every day with the hope of the promise that my sister and I would have it better than they did.
One of my earliest memories is the discussion at dinner the day President Nixon resigned. In my young mind, if the President quit then America itself was over. My parents lovingly labored to explain the extraordinary nature of “we the people,” the Constitution, the three branches of government, checks and balances, the plan for succession when something happens to the President. That’s the day I became aware of Gerald Ford.
Some of Jimmy Carter’s relatives lived in Tampa. That was a complicated time.
My folks had friends from Switzerland who kept asking how the experiment was going across the pond.
In fifth grade my best friend was Lori Tepper and celebrating Shabbat and the Passover with her family became a part of my religious experience. In seventh grade, I thought I really wanted to be Jewish because Christian confirmation rites are nothing in comparison to Bar and Bat mizvahs. Those were interesting dinner conversations wherein I came to know my parents as believing Christians in a new way.
By ninth grade I was involved in politics, albeit in student government at school. That’s when I learned about campaign rules, campaign finances, pandering, and the various constituencies who collectively bargain in exchange for votes. When Mike Maddux beat me in the bid for the presidency, I became his best friend.
What does any of this have to do with the contemporary mess we’ve made of the public discourse surrounding politics and religion?
Now, even innocuous conversations about the weather turn into violent exchanges about climate change.
We can look at that two ways: either the list of things prohibited in polite company is further constricting to the point that we only converse in echo chambers of agreement over our own dinner tables, or the time has come for polite company to expand the conversation in every direction.
I propose that we talk openly, honestly and respectfully about religion and politics – and sports and weather and kids – everywhere, with everyone at every opportunity.
We’re starting at our house by simply expanding the dinner table to include a wider variety of people from a diversity of perspectives. I’ve found that when people are welcomed and well fed influences their ability to discuss even the most troublesome of topics.
What an opportunity to learn and share and consider new questions.
At 10:40 pm they departed as deeper friends with a commitment to continue the conversation in the new year when we all know that both religion and politics will dominate the conversation – even in polite company.