The Spiritual Relevance of Political Indoctrination
I think it was the summer between my freshman and sophomore year of high school. My youth pastor had the idea of taking us to a nearby park for our youth group meetings that summer. As we were in Indiana, he imagined the basketball courts would be a natural draw for attendance. I didn’t play basketball. I had the hand-eye coordination of a rock. So I would just sit off to the side and talk with the girls until youth group officially started.
One evening, after our youth pastor beckoned us from the basketball courts, he opened up the evening’s discussion. He asked us to raise our hands if we believed in capital punishment. Hands shot up all around me. Then he asked us who didn’t believe in capital punishment. I was the only one to raise my hand.
The next hour was spent engaged in a relentless onslaught. Youth pastor, group sponsors, fellow students, taking every tactic they knew to change my mind. Of course, the first line of offense was to quote Bible verses. But that wasn’t enough to sustain the argument. They talked about how life imprisonment was a drain on taxes. One of the sponsors explained that capital punishment was more humane than life imprisonment, because the guillotine was invented to make death swift. I struggled to see how an instrument that was no longer used was essential to the discussion.
No one backed me up. And I am not one to engage in heated argument. I couldn’t get two words out without someone firing a volley back at me.
What could I do? I was just a fifteen-year-old kid. I was no expert in public policy or theology. I wasn’t an expert in anything. So, at the end of the hour-long onslaught, I relented with a “maybe you’re right”. I didn’t honestly think they were right, but what could I do? I would see them all again, the next week and the week after and the week after. I had to live with them.
Of course, I could have chosen not to live with them. I wasn’t forced to go to church – in fact, at that point, I was the only one who attended. The rest of my family quit going because they were tired of being bullied – my siblings for having learning disabilities and my mom for being poor and having a handful of disabilities.
But I attended because I was loved. Or, I was told I was loved. In truth, I was mocked and bullied much of the time. But the youth pastor told me that the other kids in youth group mocked and bullied me because they loved me. And, of course, I believed him.
But I think back. What was the point of the discussion that evening? What relevance did a specific view on capital punishment have on the spiritual development of teenagers? None, that I can think of. As I look back, it seemed to have much more to do with grooming us to vote for a specific party.
Now, in the United States, churches aren’t supposed to campaign to their parishioners in favor of a specific party or politician. To do so jeopardizes their tax-exempt status. But the pressure doesn’t have to come in an official channel, through the pulpit or the front of the classroom, in order to be effective. My congregation at that time was lock-step Republican. They could tell me how to vote – three years before I could – over pitch-in dinners and post-service conversation. And at my church, a number of peers and adults constantly pressured me to change my political outlook, because, heaven forbid, I sounded like a Democrat, and everyone knows that Democrats are really Communists, and Communists are against God.
And I look back on it all in astonishment. For people who were supposed to be focused on eternity and on a kingdom that was spiritual in nature, they were awfully wrapped up in political parties and countries and other things that are bound to come to an end and thus have nothing whatsoever to do with eternity.
I think we would have all benefited that night in the park from a lesson in love, or compassion, or grace, or any of a zillion other things that, not only are more important to the message they claimed to profess, but also are of greater permanence and importance to the human species.