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Working across the aisle and pulpit - how religion can inform political participation?

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It's looking like we're all in for a fight here in the United States after the midterm elections. If you're a Republican, the fight is to repeal everything Obama and the Democratic Congress achieved since 2008. If you're a Democrat, the fight is against the Republicans who see it as their job to stonewall any efforts to move the agenda forward in the next two years. If you are on neither side, consider yourself lucky.

I've been thinking about how religion can inform political participation, beyond the seemingly obvious issues that religious organizations rally around (abortion, mostly).

There are many similarities between extreme political views and extreme (or simply strict, depending on how you interpret them) religious views. By default, a hardcore Republican believes that a Democrat is wrong about many things - the size and role of government, fiscal policy, many social issues, etc. And vice versa. A strict Catholic must believe that Muslims (or Jews or Buddhists or Sikhs or Protestants) are fundamentally wrong in many of their beliefs. And vice versa.

Yet most responsible and serious religious leaders preach tolerance and interfaith understanding. Even the Pope promotes dialogue and learning about other faiths. There are ugly moments of name-calling, for sure, but the better natures of our religious leaders usually call for working together, especially when it comes to solving social problems. The glaring exceptions to this policy - Israel, Iraq - result in nothing less than war.

Why then, aren't more politicians calling for their constituents to understand and talk to those opposed to their views? The Tea Party foams at the mouth and mocks the president and makes claims about the "real America," denigrating Democrats and vowing to oppose them outright, without even the pretense of compromise. The Democratic party, even despite Obama's cries for middle ground, isn't innocent of this strategy either.

The Tea Party, which I cite simply because it the latest and most glaring example of extremism in politics, talks a lot about Christian values but encourages people to oppose a new mosque in New York and declines to have civil dialogue with "the other side." I'm certainly not the first person to call for sanity in politics (thanks Jon Stewart).

Maybe the first step we need to take to insure that the next two years aren't hopelessly mired in politic gridlock and hateful attacks is to show our elected representatives that we the normal people can work with those who oppose us. I'd like to see a Catholic organization reach out to Muslims in their neighborhoods, to promote understanding of a religion many see as foreign and dangerous. Maybe these kinds of steps could show our politicians how it's done. They do, after all, speak for us. Let's make sure we can be proud of what we're all saying.

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