If Religious Leaders’ Valuable Words on Election Vitriol Fall in the Woods Do They Make a Sound?

The Episcopal House of Bishops has released a “Word to the Church” addressing the fear, hate, and potential violence we’ve been seeing this election season. It’s quite good:

The current rhetoric is leading us to construct a modern false idol out of power and privilege. We reject the idolatrous notion that we can ensure the safety of some by sacrificing the hopes of others. No matter where we fall on the political spectrum, we must respect the dignity of every human being and we must seek the common good above all else.

We call for prayer for our country that a spirit of reconciliation will prevail and we will not betray our true selves.

Trouble is, nobody listens to religious leaders these days. Nobody. Not even their own people. (Which admittedly fails to explain why you’re reading this article.) We have lost the shared pool of meaning, if not Charles Taylor’s “sense of enchantment,” that funded leaders’ ability to speak normatively to the wider world. No religiously-unaffiliated voter is ever going to step back from the brink of madness because the Episcopal House of Bishops called for prayer. (Indeed, there’s evidence that America’s problem child draws a good deal of support from less-religious voters.)

Because of the self-sorting that’s been going on in American society, it’s highly unlikely that this “word” will change any religious minds, either. The people who already agreed that Campaign 2016 has gone too far into Fear & Loathing territory will pump their fists in agreement. Those who don’t—even within the Episcopal communion—will shrug their shoulders and go on with their politics.

That’s not to say that statements like this are worthless; they do remind believers of the values of the church. They also indicate to the non-religious that believers aren’t totally nuts. They’re not going to move the political needles very much, though.

To say that isn’t so much evidence of religion’s demise as it is that the structures of belief are changing. In particular, the nature of authority is shifting: it used to be that bishops could speak normatively ex cathedra, that is by virtue of their hierarchical position. No longer. These days, authority is relational: I can tell you what’s right and wrong because you know and trust me.

Importantly, that doesn’t mean a first-hand, unmediated relationship, which is why you’re actually reading this. You “know” me through my writing, as supporters know their candidates through interviews, debates, public statements, and campaign appearances. These things build over time, so a one-off statement by nameless, faceless bishops is less effective than a tweet or Facebook post from a familiar pastor or other religious leader would be. (Best of all, a personal conversation.)

If I had the key to effective public religious witness, I’d be a much wealthier and more influential man. I suspect, however, that Prospero’s lines from Auden’s lovely poem “The Sea and the Mirror” have something to say about the way forward:

Now, Ariel, I am that I am, your late and lonely master,
Who knows what magic is:—the power to enchant
That comes from disillusion.

Leaders of any kind, religious or not, can no longer simply speak and expect their followers to obey. Direct calls for more politeness in our politics will likely fall on deaf ears because Americans as political animals simply no longer share an ethics of politeness. These days, our national conversation is all, “Kill the enemy! Smash smash smash!”

It might be better, then, to ground the response in an alternative vision of creation. Religious leaders may be able to forge a new enchantment—a sense of wonder, joy and awe—by helping their people see things as they truly are. That’s Auden’s message, written between 1942 and 1944, a very dark time in world history.

These days, we have a bumper crop of political leaders who stake their claim in reality that social life is a zero-sum game of vicious competition. It would be helpful for religious leaders to challenge that claim with one of their own: that we were created not for hate, but for relationship and cooperation. Maybe nobody will listen to that, either, but in my estimation, it’s got a better shot at being heard. Caliban says at the end of Auden’s poem:

The working charm is the full bloom of the unbothered state; its sounded note is the restored relation.

From the monster’s lips to God’s ears.