How to Talk Politics
Without Losing Your Soul

I love my fatherland more than my own soul.

Niccolo Machiavelli,

In my class this week, we’re exploring a troubling question: can you engage in politics without losing your soul?

Machiavelli brought on the challenge. On his deathbed, he told friends and family about a dream in which he died and ended up between heaven and hell. He noticed two lines of people clustered together. The first line consisted of shabbily dressed and somber looking men. “Why are you here?” Machiavelli asked them. “We are the saintly and the blessed,” they said, “we are going to heaven.”

Machiavelli then approached the second line.  Everyone in this line was dressed in noble attire.  They talked about politics with passion and intensity.  In this line, Machiavelli saw great philosophers like Plato and many of the great Roman political leaders.  “Why are you here?” Machiavelli asked them.  “We are condemned to hell,” they said.

When he awoke, Machiavelli told his friends and family that he realized he would much rather go to hell, where he could talk politics with the great men of history, than go to heaven.  Machiavelli’s motto was:  choose “heaven for the climate” but “hell for the company.”

The moral of this story is that the political life and the spiritual life cannot go together.  We must choose between the spiritual or the political path.  We can’t have both.  I love Machiavelli and I love this story, but I believe it is possible to engage in politics without losing our souls.

For this week’s experiment, let’s explore the possibility of merging the political and the spiritual.

Many things stand in the way of keeping your soul amidst the chaos of modern politics.  But fundamentalism poses the greatest threat.

If you’re on the left, you probably see fundamentalism in the words of Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, or Rush Limbaugh.   If you’re on the right, you see fundamentalism in President Obama’s latest jobs plan or the Rachel Maddow show on MSNBC.

“I am tolerant and open minded,” we say to ourselves, “but they are a bunch of intolerant fundamentalists.”

These kinds of judgments are the currency of political conversations.   Listen closely and you will hear them at the dinner table, at bars, and around the water cooler.

These judgments arouse feelings of righteousness and moral superiority.  They give us the narcotic-like sensation of being right.

But on the level of the soul, they have corrosive effects.   They incite fear and outrage.  They turn friends into enemies.  Most importantly, they leave us so caught up in the moral shortcomings of others that we fail to see our own.

So this week I propose a radical practice.  I call it “finding your inner fundamentalist”:

Step 1Catch Your Judge – Next time you find yourself talking politics, notice when your judge arises.  Notice when you fall into the pattern of labeling others as “extreme,” “polarizing,” or “intolerant.”

Step 2Find Your Inner Fundamentalist – Once you catch your political judge, see what happens when you turn the tables.   If you see Rick Perry or Barack Obama as a radical fundamentalist, then ask yourself: “where am I a radical fundamentalist in my life?”   You might find your inner fundamentalist emerging in your opposition to the “other” party.  You might find it in your judgments about those with radically different religious, moral, or political views.

Step 3 Open to Curiosity – When guided by habit, all of us slip into unconscious forms of fundamentalism.  So once you’ve found your inner fundamentalist, see if you can shift from judgment to curiosity.  Ask yourself:  “what could I learn from my political enemies?  How is the ‘other’ party or ‘other’ candidate actually serving me?”

In my experience, even the most ordinary practice of politics can have soul-crushing effects.  The mere mention of politics can lead even kind and compassionate people into red-faced fits of outrage.  If that is the nature of politics, then maybe Machiavelli is right, maybe we must all choose between engagement in politics and the care of our soul.  But maybe there’s another way.

What do you think?  Is it possible to talk about politics without losing your soul?

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