January 4th, 2010.
That was my hardest day. It’s not close.
In a parking lot behind SEAL Team One I said goodbye to my wife.
It had been a month since my 3-year old son Aidan had been diagnosed with Autism. He stopped talking when I left for Iraq that summer. The Team sent me home to be with my family for Christmas. That had passed. And it was time to go back.
I kissed my wife goodbye through the window of our minivan before she drove off into the night. The look on her face is still burned into my memory. It wasn’t sadness. It was sorrow. Deep. And permanent.
There was no send-off. There was no crowd at the command, only a van at midnight for me and the boot ensign who’d just graduated from BUDs. He let me know how eager he was to get downrange to sit in the command center for the second half of the deployment. I let him know I wasn’t interested in talking.
A red-eye to the East Coast.
A forever flight to the shit hole of Ali Al Salem.
And then the descent back into country.
By the time the two kids picked me up for the convoy to where my helo would take me back to my unit, I was numb.
I didn’t have a tactical radio to plug into for the ride. No rifle. I wore borrowed army body armor. I’d left all my gear with my team a month earlier. I laid back, closed my eyes and surrendered my fate to the ride. I plugged in my earbuds and cranked up the sound as loud as I could to burn every last trace of feeling from between my ears.
The angry music drowned out the sound of the armored transport that rolled over the pavement on the highway along the Euphrates.
I was good and dead by the time I got back to my unit.
It was helpful that I was too senior to do anything other than fight my part of the war from my desk over the next few months. I was a mess. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t talk to my wife without the overwhelming guilt crushing me.
When morning came and the work was done, I locked myself in my trailer. The windows were taped black. I sat, awake for hours. I couldn’t read. I couldn’t focus long enough for the words to mean much.
I laid in the darkness for hours until exhaustion carried me off.
One morning, at the bottom of my life, I looked at the stack of DVDs from the church in my neighborhood. They had a program that sent a video of each week’s sermon out to deployed service members.
Five months of them were stacked next to my bed. Unopened.
I had no use for them. I had no faith.
I don’t know exactly what compelled me to do it. I think I was just tired of being alone. But I opened one and watched it on the portable DVD player I’d brought with me. Then I nodded off.
There was no lightning bolt. There was no voice from above. There was just a simple feeling, for the first time in a long time, that the world was slightly larger than the 8 X 12 blacked out coffin I was laying in.
That was the first step toward a connection to faith for me. Christian faith to be more specific. It was a personal journey from the bottom of a pit of sorrow to connect with a God who was bigger than my pain and a community that had no choice but to accept me as I was.
Had I not made it, I don’t know where my marriage, my family or my well-being would be today. There were many paths in front of me. I chose faith. Today, it’s the center of my life; a life focused on helping and serving others.
One of the consistent tragedies of man is what we do with religion. And how it keeps people from the positive power of faith—not just my faith. Any faith. If anything is to be taken from what I just wrote, it’s a contrast between my experience. And the nonsense most of us equate with religion and politically religious people. And the tragedy that comes when the latter crowds out the former.
It’s tough to take organized religion seriously these days. To be fair, it kind of always has been. More blood has been spilt, more wars fought, more people have been locked out excluded or subjugated in the name of religion than any other aspect of the social experience of modern humans.
America was founded after the age of religious wars in Europe. We were spared the carnage of the 16th and 17th centuries. What we were left with was a more passive aggressive version of religiosity.
It’s not unique to America. Political religion is what enables militant Islamic fanaticism in the Middle East. It’s also what codifies the caste system of a billion Indians, labeling a population the size of American as “untouchable”.
In America, political religion is an important lever of conservative politics. Like conservativism, it’s a principled human belief system that has potentially positive impacts on the lives of those that believe it.
If they use it for good.
But, like conservative ideology, religion has a shadow too. The same shadow, in fact. That’s why the two go so well together. Conservative politics and religion have both been used to maintain status quo power structures for just about as long as there’s been status quo power structures.
It’s a pretty straight forward process. Ensure there are lots of rules. Be in charge of enforcing the rules. Then hold yourself less accountable to the rules and make others dependent on you for justice.
Then watch the distance between those ruling, and those being ruled increase.
From the outside, looking in it’s troubling. If anything could snuff out a flicker of a desire for spiritual connection, it was Senate Candidate Roy Moore speaking at the God Save America Conference last week after having no explanation for specific credible accounts by multiple women that he was a sexual predator.
Unfortunately for those in the political religion game, they don’t have a choice but to support him though. They’re painted into the corner. They’re married to the “law and order” party, come hell or high water. Or both. Because a party of tolerance breaks down the power dynamics of political religion. And once one is in that game, one will tolerate just about anything to make sure one’s guy gets in office.
President Trump said it himself tonight.
“We don’t need a liberal person in there, a Democrat, Jones. I’ve looked at his record. It’s terrible on crime. It’s terrible on the border. It’s terrible on military. I can tell you for a fact we do not need somebody who’s going to be bad on crime, bad on borders, bad for the military, bad for the Second Amendment.”
Can I get an Amen?
If any of us are waiting for the religious right to hold the leaders morally accountable, we’ll be waiting for a long time. That’s not why they’re in the game.
If there’s a positive of the last year or so of American politics, it’s helped many of us sort out a few things when it comes to religion, politics and our faith. If it wasn’t clear before, political participation by organized religion in America is entirely separate from the faith and community that many of us experience as a foundation to a life of faith and service.
The religious right is a special interest group, no different in structure and purpose from other lobbies.
I guess we should be grateful that they’ve decided to make that so clear.
4 thoughts on “God and Politics”
Excellent insight. Now all we need is for “religious” people of your ilk to fight unceasingly against the incursions of religion foisted onto governance by those other, “politically religious.”
I need to no longer hear, “Why are you making such a big deal about the 10 Commandments being erected by Justice Moore? There’s no harm.” Every time a principled voice for separation of religion and state arises, it is squelched or shamed into silence. So resistance against those types NEEDS to come from within the faithful.
It’s like how women need men to step up in the face of casual sexist abuses, because the women have discovered that their voice alone can’t penetrate the male, self-preserving power structure.
Your writings give me hope – and that is very much appreciated. I am so sad not only for the leadership of our country right now, but of my fellow citizens who continue to support this administration. Your essays help clarify what is doing on, and for that I am very grateful. Thank you.
Thank you for sharing, as an atheist, I have trouble understanding how faith in god works. I have faith in other things, but your essay showed me at least how and why one person needed/used it. What a great essay. I hope the best for you and your family, and that you are there now, and you are doing such important work, with such moral clarity, or at least an attempt to parse the threads of the moral ambiguity that is part of the air right now. Thank you! (Sorry for gushing again – I am such a fan!)
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Sean, you keep coming up with these illuminating testaments. I don’t think I’d be too far off to say “witnessing,” at least in a certain sense, and I mean that in the most serious possible way. Thank you for sharing this. Your point of view always gives me something of substance to think about.
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