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Posted by on Jul 27, 2015 | 4 comments

The Liturgy of Political Discourse

Richard-Nixon-Bowling

The Big Lebowski is one of my and my friend Tyler’s favorite films. It takes very little provocation to get us to watch it, and I’ve even had viewings as close together as a week apart. A film that’s been seen so much reaches a place of comfortable familiarity–one begins to laugh even before the jokes land, and it’s perfectly possible to finish lines (if you want to be that annoying guy). There is something like this that happens in the morass of American political discourse, though it rarely involves laughter. As one grows older, one is bound to notice that American political discourse falls into patterns. That pattern may shift as certain ideologies ebb and flow, but by and large it’s so familiar one feels one really could finish the lines before they’re said. This is particular noticeable as we get nearer to the next American presidential race and political debate begins to move from constant background buzz to the foreground of American life (even for those of us not currently living on American soil). Of course, this repetition is partially because there really are ongoing debates in our society. There are differing viewpoints with what often seem like intractable differences of moral judgment arguing about the future of our country. It’s natural that unsettled questions would tend to go around in circles. Yet, there’s another side of this familiarity that is worrisome to me. Debate is healthy in a democratic society, but often this particular pattern of discourse is not reoccurring discussions surrounding a contentious issue–rather, it’s a near liturgical dance of rhetorical flag waving. My positions is this, your position is that, and we both know the other’s view is evil. Oftentimes, we even begin to act like that guy, finishing the lines before they’re said. We stop listening and simply fill in the other person’s viewpoint for ourselves, biting back with well worn lines from our side’s political playbook.

This was brought particularly sharply to my attention in a recent Facebook thread on a friend’s wall. My friend had shared a thoughtful piece on what seems to be the unfortunate effect of Fox News on conservative America. It seemed to the columnist that Fox News was turning a certain breed of (mostly older) conservatives into bitter people incapable of living outside of a constant mode of fear and anger. The piece was not an attack on conservativism, but on a particular cynical media empire. There was of course pushback in the comments on my friend’s wall. Noticeably, though, much of it had very little to do with the content of the article at all. One person in particular seemed to be arguing against certain expected “liberal” rhetoric with the requisite “conservative” response. All of his comments came off as half of a conversation for which the other half was missing, but it was very easy to fill it all in because it was all terribly familiar and entirely not to the point (he would, for example, encourage us to realize that all of the social services we wanted came at the cost of a dangerously big government, never mind the fact that no one had said anything about social services). He is of course an extreme example, but I think he’s extreme only in the sense that he is a particularly radical representation of a larger societal pattern. In this pattern, as I said, political discourse becomes something like a religious liturgy.

In liturgical churches, we engage in a form of scripted call and response that calls to our minds the central facts of the gospel and unifies us in prayer. The priest calls out “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God,” and the congregation responds that it is “meet and right so to do,” and so forth. Properly engaged in, such liturgical repetition is a pattern that helps to form our identities together  around a central truth. The political liturgy I have been discussing has a similar effect. It tells us who we are–we know our parts well and easily fall into them. Yet, it is a liturgy that prevents unity and puts an end to any hope of real, informed, political discussion. The guy who finishes lines at a movie might be annoying, but the political line finisher is far more pernicious because he assumes the other person’s view and enters a place where it is impossible for him to listen. In the above mentioned Facebook discussion, there was no hope of real discourse once those who “knew” what our “liberal” position on Fox News entailed about our beliefs (never mind that most of us on the “other side” are actually conservatives). People fell into their familiar roles, and all that was left was anger and missed connections.

 

At the end of the day, I think much of our political discourse is not debate, but is precisely this kind of rhetorical rehearsal. I’m not sure what we should do about this, but I hope there’s something we can do. Perhaps pointing it out is the first step.

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Kevin G.

I was born in Kenya and lived there for nearly four years. After returning to the states I moved to California, where I remained through to the end of college. I graduated from UCLA with a BA in philosophy in 2011, and recently completed a masters program in doctrinal theology in Vancouver, BC. I hope to eventually become a professor. I have an amazing family, incredible friends and a wonderful church community. Throughout my interests can be found an intense attraction to issues of human nature, be they in drawing people, philosophizing about human ethics or any number of other subjects. People fascinate me. My faith is, and always will be the central hub of my life, and more than just faith, my relationship to God and my place in His Kingdom.
  • Kevin, I think it is interesting to consider political discourse in a liturgical mode; however, your brief assessment seems to ignore that the Christian liturgy in which you participate is both unifying and divisive in the same way I would contend political “liturgies” are. Indeed, the congregation responds explicitly to the presiding priest in unison which does develop a communal identity through repetition. But, it also implicitly excludes all those who do not think it “meet and right so to do.”

    The public recitation of Christian rites has been historically understood to be part polemic in addition to part sacrifice and part anaphora. St. Athanasius understood this when he upheld his understanding of the sacraments as the decisive mark of his orthodoxy over against the Arians and sophists (cf. Ar 3.18.41–42). Faithful believers, the sometimes bishop of Alexandra asserted, could know there were not any heretics in their midst because their specific liturgical practices surrounding baptism ensured it.

    What is an interesting difference in this regard is how conservative political liturgies seem to invert the unity/division dynamic of Christian liturgy. While unity is foregrounded in the Anglican rite, leaving any notion of exclusion to be inferred by those who would find themselves outside, those of the Fox News sort often tend to emphasize presumed differences, leaving any notion of camaraderie with those similarly-minded in the background. My gut tells me that the sociological explanation for this lies in the political milieux of antiquity and modernity, where the ANE generally valued social cohesion while conservative Americans value individual liberty.

    I conclude by contesting your hope in “real, informed, political discussion” and debate. If liturgies of all sorts simultaneously reinforce unity and division, I am not sure what you are looking for that is currently not present in American political discourse. The in-group/out-group dynamic seems to be an ineluctable part of human sociality, with all its attendant explicit/implicit rhetoric, so I am not sure if we actually can hope for anything better than what we have: people shouting at each other from their respective camps as they rehearse their own liturgies with their fellow tribespeople. Some may surely switch sides or change the color of their flags, but I am afraid they cannot escape this enduring structure.

  • Lucila

    Ryan and Kevin, thanks for your readings of liturgy and political discourse! I find them both helpful lenses through which to see liturgies of all kinds.

    Ryan, I tend to agree with much of what you say, and yet I don’t know what to do about your sense that we can’t hope for anything better. In my own home of Argentina, the common belief that all politics is only about power, and political liturgies are only about reinforcing existing boundaries of inclusion/exclusion, has meant that political discourse is in a far worse state than it is in the US. The hope, in our social imagination, that politics (and political liturgies) can be about something — and not just the rehearsal of the party line — seems a critically important one to steer politics towards being about something other than power.

    Would you agree that there are better or worse states to be in, regarding political liturgies? There doesn’t seem to be room for that in your concluding paragraph?

    • You’re absolutely right, Lucila, to call attention to my pessimistic assessment of political discourse. One of my intentions was to present a provocatively stylized portrait of the current moment in American politics so that our friend, Kevin, would respond. It has been my experience that even-handed or equivocating responses tend to quell further discussion when and where it would be better to continue.

      This is not to say that my response does not accurately represent my views concerning public debate and social policy. I am afraid that I resonate quite strongly with the views of those in Argentina regarding the integral connection between power and political liturgies. Maybe my thinking has been insalubriously warped by Foucault, and I certainly do not have a vital imagination when it comes to envisaging new realities not yet present, but I am not convinced that humans relate in ways other than power plays—i.e. power *is* definitionally the way of social relations. I would love to have something to which to steer politics other than this sad situation; I just don’t have the capacity or categories to do so. If you have some inkling of a solution, I would be most eager to hear it.

      As to gradations of political liturgies, I will admit that there is a continuum, but I am loath to term the poles, “better” and “worse.” Rather, I see the poles as representing overt and covert exercises of power—e.g. totalitarian regimes would best represent the former while liberal democracies would cohere closer to the latter, with a plurality occupying the muddled middle. Once again, this is probably an insensibly Foucauldian reading of political affairs, so I would be very interested in any alternative model should you suggest one.

      • First off, pardon me for the slow response. It seems that I don’t get notifications from disqus anymore. Please also pardon any typos, as I am writing this on my phone on the bus to church.

        To respond to your comments Ryan – certainly inclusion/exclusion boundaries are a natural part of politics and liturgy both, but I’m not convinced that political discourse has to be only a performance. If nothing else, I know of enough people who do engage into intelligent discussion of political questions, however much they may be in the minority, that I’m convinced it’s possible, at least in theory.

        Further, I think this theoretical possibility is worth aiming for, because, as Lu points out, the alternative is pretty terrible to contemplate. Those I know who’ve taken up a Foucauldian reading of political discourse as the basic reality have either despaired or turned themselves into ideological tyrants who do everything they can to marginalize the voices of their political enemies. That I am motivated to seek a world of reasoned discourse by the moral horror of the alternative perhaps speaks against me, but it is nevertheless where I stand.