Recently, one of my facebook friends acknowledged me for helping her realize she could be religious and also be politically on the left. I was floored. Has the Republican Party co-opted religion so completely that generations of Americans believe you can either by spiritual, or be a Democrat (or worse -- gasp -- a Green Party member!)? What is their definition of religion that would cause them to think they are mutually exclusive?
I asked a few of my younger progressive friends what religion means to them. All of them said essentially the same thing: "Religion is a belief in a supernatural being." (Coincidentally, all of these young people did not consider themselves religious, and did identify themselves as being politically on the left.)
Clearly, if a young person's association with religion is almost entirely based on branches of it which have been enmeshed in political debate for the past thirty years, it is understandable where they would get that idea. According to Republican groups that have married themselves to the religious right in America, largely for political gain, if you are a Christian you must care more about the rights of an embryo than a living, breathing child. You must be willing to believe in male dominance over women, and believe G*d wants white men to be financially wealthy because of their elevated status in the world -- screw everyone else. The same groups are usually tolerant of Jews, as long as they are working to prepare Israel for future Biblical prophecy. (In other words, G*d wants us to steal all the oil.)
Young people of America -- consider another possibility.
One of my favorite definitions of religion is this one, which reflects the breadth and width and complexity of religious traditions around the world:
Religion is a cultural system that creates powerful and long-lasting meaning by establishing symbols that relate humanity to beliefs and values. [Clifford Geertz, Religion as a Cultural System, 1973]
When a person studies world religions, he or she soon finds there are many spiritual traditions in the world that are not obsessed with damning people to eternal hellfire because they are gay, because they are divorced, because they have premarital sex (horror!) or because they voted for Barack Obama. There are many spiritual traditions out there -- and a number who fiercely identify as Christian -- who welcome your liberal, left-leaning self with open arms. A few, like the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian-Universalists (and so many others!) even consider such things as fighting for gay rights and the environment, or being pro-choice, as an expression of your personal, unique faith -- the very expression of that which makes you holy.
I grew up in a Christian household. My grandmother was the epitome of spiritual love. She gave to the poor, taught children, forgave everyone for everything, turned the other cheek, was generous to a fault, and said loving, empowering things to people she met everyday. I do not recall a single word of gay-bashing, being judgmental, or casting a proverbial stone at anyone. Unwed mothers, alcoholics, drug addicts -- Grandma found something kind to say about everyone, and often reminded us, "Do not judge until you have walked a mile in their shoes."
I left Christianity when I met "the other Christians." You know the ones I am talking about -- the ones who care more about what you believe than how you live your life. The ones who judge, who persecute, who are "holier than thou." The ones who "pray for you" if you don't believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible. The ones who do not see the Bible as one of many sources of profound wisdom. The ones who do not see the Jewish and Christian Scriptures as historical documents -- documents which have been passed down through many generations, changed and interpreted and translated and altered like a child's game of Telephone. The ones who see being a homosexual as an abomination because they read it in a book rather than looked inside their own hearts, never questioning if the book could be interpreted in different ways by different people.
I converted to liberal Judaism, and after that, studied Unitarian-Universalism. I'll spare you the details, but I will say I found many tolerant, compassionate, incredibly generous people in both of those communities (and still do). Each of those faiths encouraged me to keep learning about other faiths. Ironically, it wasn't until I left Christianity and studied many other faiths I could go back and really understand the teachings of Rabbi Jesus of Nazareth -- in cultural context. His teachings to feed the poor, provide free health care to those who are sick, take care of the elderly and widows and orphans, and to forgive those who are seen as sinners... really moved me.
What I've found in my search for dharma (a Hindu word most commonly translated as religion, truth or law) along my upayah (spiritual path), is there are many spiritual traditions in the world, all of which can be used for good, or used for evil (yes, kind of like Spiderman's powers if you will). The key is, "If you jump into any spiritual community, will you adhere to the sides of the pool in fear of being sucked down into the drain (the rules, the dogma, the beliefs, the mandates, the political b.s., etc.), or will you trust yourself to let go of the sides, and really allow yourself to learn to swim and enjoy the water?"
There are many spiritual traditions which will allow you to believe whatever it is you believe about G*d (or gods), or about the creation or existence of the universe. There are many faiths which frankly don't give an Easter egg about what you believe -- they are there to inspire you to follow the teachings of Jesus the Teacher -- or the Buddha, or Confucius, or Maimonides, or the Dalai Lama, or whoever's wise teachings you choose to study. They care more what kind of person you are -- do you help your neighbor, do you lift up the child of the single mother, do you volunteer at your neighborhood school or food bank? Are you making a difference in the world, or merely leaving a gigantic carbon footprint for others to have to clean up?
As a rule of thumb, I've found one more thing to be true -- if the teacher was great, he/she probably doesn't care much who gets the credit, or where you send your donations. Mother Teresa of Calcutta was once asked to teach a wealthy person how to be saintly. She replied (I'm paraphrasing), "Take the money you would spend to fly to Calcutta to watch me work. Instead, find someone poor and give it to them."
So, young political progressives, please do not throw the religious baby out with the hypocritical, radical, fundamentalist, literalist bathwater. Consider finding a community that affirms and celebrates YOU for who you already are, and what you already know in your heart. Find one that encourages you to be your best self -- giving, generous, compassionate, selfless, understanding, loving and grateful -- grateful for your family and friends, whoever they may be. Find one that gives you true freedom -- yes, freedom -- not the country-song, flag-waving kind that gets us into costly international wars to line the pockets of billionaires in the military-industrial complex -- but the kind that allows you to express your feelings, your beliefs, and your opinions openly (like I just did).
So, if you choose not to find a spiritual community, that's okay, too. The G*d I believe in (synonomous with life force, creator, Mother Nature, love) can handle it... really. No big deal.