A tough question, this one. Certainly there are a number of responses which are not particularly spiritual, as tempting as they might be. For if we think of spirituality as the simple but extraordinarily difficult attempt to respond to life’s difficulties with mindfulness, equanimity, gratitude, compassion, and love, then the natural tendency towards revulsion at the lies, panic at the thought of the “other guy” winning, or contempt for the stupidity of the confused citizens who might vote against our candidate – well, such responses don’t really fit the bill.

Nor, sad to say, does the religious understanding of one candidate being absolutely closer to God’s commands than the other. And this is equally as true for conservatives as it is for liberals: for those who are sure that Romney will keep the faith for religious freedom, heterosexuality, fetus rights, and a strong military; as for voters who believe Obama serves the Golden Rule and the Sermon on the Mount far better than any Republican could ever do.

What I’m looking for is a spiritual response that can coexist with very different political views; providing, of course, that the different political views don’t depend on outright group hatred, violent aggression, or brute selfishness. Given that condition, I believe it is possible for people of spiritual good will to disagree about (for example) tax policy, responses to conflicts in the Middle East, energy policy, and even abortion rights. (And I say this as someone with highly defined politics, views so far to the left I fall off the planet occasionally.) Such spirituality is compatible with organized religion, with no religion, with reverence for God, goddesses, spirits, nature, or simply life.

How can spiritual virtues guide us in the real world of political conflict? Consider mindfulness, the attempt to be aware of the contents of one’s own mind, and to be able to detach from and critically assess those contents. In the face of the powerful emotions which politics arouses – fear for the country and the planet, frustration with those who hold radically alien beliefs, anger at the knowing deception – mindfulness asks us to step back from those responses, examine how they arise in us, and see how they interact with each other.

When I look at the Republican refusal to take the environmental crisis seriously, for example, I am deeply afraid for the future of our own (and a lot of other) species. And how easy it is to cover over that fear with a hatred of the Romney-Ryan team, not to mention ignoring the way I – even I! – have been at times environmentally sloppy, thoughtless, and selfish. The spiritual response is then to recognize what I have in common with the Republicans whom I’d rather despise as totally Other than myself. Mindfulness does not mean that I vote to the Right, or that I abandon my environmentalism. It does mean that I do not have to live with suppressed rage at the enemy; that I can see them as at least partly weak and misguided, just like myself all too often; and that when I encounter people who are blind to environmental dangers, I can talk to them with openness and humility, surely a better strategy for convincing others or finding common ground than tedious moral superiority.

Consider the natural disgust you might be feeling for the whole process: the endless distortions, the special interest money, the breathless pundits exaggerating the smallest verbal slip, the never-ending phony smiles of the candidates. Asked what she thought of the nominees a few elections ago, my late mother-in-law replied in her heavily accented English (she was a Polish Jewish Holocaust survivor), “Acchh…dey all seem like clowns to me.”

Clearly, she had a point. But spiritually, despair over human weakness really doesn’t get us very far. Is it possible to find some gratitude in our hearts, even in the face of such clownishness? Perhaps we could remember that bad as our system is – overpowered by money, shaped by an electorate half of which does not vote, keyed to satisfaction of beliefs and values which are so often opposed to our common good – it has some great goods in it. At times we have been able to make moral progress through political means – as in the civil rights and feminist movements. At times dissidents could make their voices heard to check an abhorrent foreign policy – as in mass popular demonstrations against the Vietnam War. At times corrupt politicians suffer for their corruption – as Nixon did. If there are lots of problems, there have been, at times, some real moves in the right direction. Despair over what is going wrong is perfectly understandable and appropriate, but so is a deep appreciation for what we have accomplished.

The last spiritual virtue I’ll mention is loving connection. Every religious tradition celebrates it, as do countless spiritual teachers who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” What does love mean in politics? Rooted in awareness of our own moral frailties, keyed to gratitude for the gifts that we have created, spiritual love in politics is a sort of activist kindness, a wish that all beings be happy and free of pain, a cheerful willingness to roll up our sleeves and make our communities and nation a little better, and a sense of wonder that human beings – with all our short-sightedness, selfishness, tendency to violence and moral narrowness – can ever live together with any care and justice.

If only for a few moments a day, perhaps we can treasure the fact that we have been blessed to be here alive and kicking in this mysterious and magical life. That might bring a little joy to hearts laden with grief for all our losses and fear for all our futures.

Roger S. Gottlieb (gottlieb@wpi.edu) has written A Greener Faith and Engaging Voices. His newest work, which embodies the perspective presented here, is Spirituality: What it Is and Why it Matters (Oxford University Press).


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