By Benedict Augustine
To you, therefore, O princes, are my words addressed
that you may learn wisdom and that you may not sin.
For those who keep the holy precepts hallowed shall be found holy,
and those learned in them will have ready a response.
long for them and you shall be instructed.
For generations, conventional wisdom has dictated clearly and persuasively that one should steer clear of any conversation about politics and religion. Ironically, this is because people take their politics and religion more seriously than they do themselves. People will grow intensely uncomfortable when interrogated by a skeptic who has likely judged them as superstitious bigots, but they will feel perfectly at ease discussing their bowel movements and exercise routines. A Conservative will grit his teeth when he hears the idealistic plans of a Liberal who sees nothing wrong with expanding government, but he will happily hear complaints and gossip about close friends and colleagues.
Perhaps following this advice has avoided some serious confrontations and preserved a few friendships, but one thing is much more certain: the less people talk about politics and religion, the less they think about it. All factions, both political and religious, like to think that they gain more converts with every new generation and every new cultural development, but the polls and surveys reveal something far more apparent. Rather than leaning one way or another, more and more people simply choose to not to lean at all.
As the world becomes less religious, it also becomes less political. Adults like to think that today’s children represent the future leaders of tomorrow while their children already assume they are the future’s followers. They hardly bother thinking about leadership: they don’t care to be inventors, entrepreneurs, elected officials, or great artists; they want to be high-paid employees in a respectable profession, presumably after a decade-long stint in higher education. They do not think about creating a new world, but simply doing okay in the old one.
As for the fate of politics and religion, young people leave that to older people, and most older people then leave that to the experts and enthusiasts. What results is a political and religious scene that looks increasingly polarized, but is in fact a scene of religious and political indifference. While devout Catholics wring their hands about the latest Synod and pray the rosary at Adoration, the vast majority of tepid Catholics can hardly bother themselves with understanding the argument. While political junkies fervidly debate the merits and drawbacks of a potential government shutdown, the vast majority of Americans will struggle to know what exactly the government does.
Obviously, this has serious implications for the fate of the country and the Church. A growing number of people fail to see the relevance of the two biggest institutions that affect their very wellbeing. A great country and an even greater church will decline at the very time people need them most. The West is plagued with vicious spiritual dangers, and the East is plagued with physical dangers. All the while, people tune it out and play on their iPhones avoiding confrontation (or even simple contact) as best they can—as though forgetting a problem will make it go away.
Less obviously, but far more importantly, increased disengagement from politics and religion carry severe consequences for people’s personal freedom and responsibility. A person who shuts his mind off from important things leaves only his emotions to guide him, and when emotions take over, personal autonomy quickly dissipates. They will suffer from addictions, debauchery, ignorance, poverty, and every other evil. An indifference to outer structures of authority will translate to an indifference to the inner structures of authority as well.
When the writer of Wisdom gives his advice to princes, he means all the faithful, for God has made all His children into royalty. Their bodies are temples; their souls are kingdoms. When they ignore religion for the sake of propriety, they ignore the leadership they must exercise over their hearts, and when they ignore politics for the sake courtesy, they ignore the leadership that they must execute over their minds and appetites.
As Socrates explains—though people continually ignore this—in the Republic, government presents a useful analogy to understand the individual. And as many books in the Bible will attest, the Church too presents a useful analogy—that again, people ignore—of the whole spiritual and physical cosmos. Politics and religion are not the evils that people make them out to be; they are the goods that help people understand the world and themselves