For my first Communion, my grandma gave me a silver-linked rosary dotted with shiny white plastic beads. It had a weight to it that felt significant when I held it in my hands, and I kept it under my pillow for years as a kid to ward off nightmares and ghosts. Sometimes, I still feel alone in that lying-in-bed-awake way — although now the things that scare me are a little bigger than monsters under my bed — and religion is that something I can hold. It’s a physical tie to an intangible world. That comfort is worth not only exploration but also respect — something I’d argue has been lost in our current political climate and something that should be achieved through widespread religious literacy from both the secular left and religious right. If we problematically ignore religion, we also ignore arguably the largest values-based institution in the world.
Organized religion can scare off otherwise deeply spiritual people, and rightfully so. There are undeniably many corruptions of power, especially within the Christian community. Gross oversteps in political leadership blur the separation between church and state and undermine freedom of religion for everyone. Many Republican leaders demonize abortion and vote continually against laws that protect women’s rights and domestic abuse survivors, all in the name of Christian values. They do so while ignoring the very values that are critically important to the Christian faith — such as protection of God’s creations (environmental protection) and dignity for human life (immigration reform) — because of their inconvenience to the politicians’ corporate sponsors. Acceptance is the most central idea in the New Testament. Unfortunately, the prevalent hate within organized religion has far-reaching effects: it excludes populations from church communities and continues to exclude them from civic communities as well.
Furthermore, religion requires faith in other people — faith that others will fairly interpret religious texts, not take advantage of leadership positions and create a supportive and loving community. And that’s scary, because other people don’t always get that all right; in fact, they often get it very, very wrong. Religious communities can be incredibly exclusive, even as they strive to share their messages broadly. But eschewing religion entirely, or demonizing it because of its pitfalls, denies so much of the power it has to make a difference in people’s lives.
I was raised Catholic, and being raised with religion and graduating from a religious high school is an important part of my identity. When I think about church, I think about polished wooden pews, reciting words in perfect synchronicity alongside everyone else and stained glass windows that catch the light of flickering prayer candles. Those images still lie in my chest, pounding a steady rhythm whenever my heart starts beating out of time and whenever things get difficult. They’re all distinctly religious and intricately tied to the ritual aspect of religion rather than to spirituality alone.
Almost every person who participates in any organized religion has their own nuanced beliefs and levels of commitment. It is careless to assume that talking to people of different faith traditions about their political values is inherently unproductive — not everyone in one faith or even one Bible study group will give the same answer. The Catholic community in which I was raised discusses questions of faith and disagreements with the church’s teachings on abortion, birth control, sex before marriage and homosexuality in depth. From the students who organized an underground GSA in our high school, to the protest at Eastside Catholic when their vice principal was fired for being gay, to all the feminist nuns who continue to actively speak out against the limited leadership roles for women in the Church and who are continually reprimanded for doing so, Catholicism looks like a community of individuals who are tackling hard questions and speaking up and organizing.
One of the biggest issues facing Catholicism right now in particular is that this community-level dissent is not translating into institutional change or real progress. Religion is not there to protect me or shelter me, but to arm me and challenge me in my day-to-day life through difficult conversation with my peers and church community. I want to see religious institutions also grapple with these issues at a national and international level. This is part of why I think Pope Francis is such a sensation and has sparked so much conversation — he is open to dialogue in a way no one has seen in the Catholic Church leadership for a long time. Pope Francis made waves early on in his appointment by releasing statements that were “soft” on homosexuality and divorce. He also recently said that the use of contraception outside of the Vatican-approved natural family planning method is acceptable during the outbreak of the Zika virus, a revelation in a religion that has been historically strict on this policy.
Starting this spring and going into the summer, Harvard University is offering a series of six new online courses about world religions. The goal is to promote religious literacy so people can speak intelligently about their own religion and understand more completely the religions of others. I would encourage everyone to check it out, attend religious events on campus and take a religious studies class or two at Occidental. Religion has a massive influence on our world. It is not a topic to eliminate from conversation; that’s impossible. It is something to respect and work with if meaningful political dialogue is ever to be achieved.
Laura Scott is a sophomore English major. She can be reached at [email protected]