Religion at the Dinner Table: Still Bad Manners?

Post-convention quarterbacking is largely over, but there will be no shortage of serious dinner table conversations this fall about the parties, platforms, and candidates. Given the range of political beliefs among Catholics, our homes will be filled with such discussions.

There is more than a tinge of irony though as spouses, siblings, and friends choose to sort through election issues over a meal.  After all, when we sit down to dinner, or so the saying goes, we should steer clear of two discussion topics: religion and politics. It is unclear exactly whywe ought to obey this unwritten rule. Perhaps our parents warned us that this talk “causes indigestion.” Or maybe we simply intuit that such conversations might not fare well, judging by the other ways that our families, friends, or colleagues have clashed over past meals. Yet, whatever the reason for avoiding religion and politics, the popular adage remains.

It is unlikely any of the families in Norman Rockwell’s paintings were allowed to talk about religion and politics at the dinner table. It might have caused indigestion.

By this metric, at our national dinner table, we have long had poor manners. In the United States, the media, in all its forms (print, radio, broadcast, and increasingly, the internet) acts as our national dinner table. Politics has always been a discussion starter for our nation, even before the days of yellow journalism, and it has been messy ever since.

Religion, on the other hand, has not been a perennial mainstay of the news, unless you count its coverage in political or ethnic conflicts (such as Northern Ireland, Israel-Palestine, Iran, Afghanistan,… and the United States). Yet, it seems, from my armchair, that the era of narrow attention is definitively behind us. Now religion too is the talk of the national family.

Take, for example, The Economist, a distinguished weekly news magazine with a long-running penchant for politics in the largest and smallest of countries. Scarcely an issue goes by without at least one article on religion, often focusing on religion in America. Other big media outlets dedicate a regular space to religion through blogs such as The Washington Post On Faith, CNN Belief Blog, and HuffPost Religion, not to mention front-page religion headlines in these media every so often.

What’s more, today’s religion stories are different. No longer does religion receive merely token treatment as little more than the identifier of parties in a dispute. To name a few recent examples, The Economist ran an impressive special report on Judaism, analyses of several shifts in global Muslim practices, and frequent Catholic commentary. Similarly, popular, mainstream blogs address religious issues on a daily basisin ways that stretch well beyond wartime coverage.

My evidence for these trends is not exhaustive, to be sure. After all, as a law school student, I can’t spare time to cast a wider net. Yet, such a range of media taking a deeper look at religion is sufficient to make my point: the national dinner table is no worse for welcoming a more robust discourse on religion. As Catholics, with an historic commitment to our nation and to our faith, we have reason to celebrate.

If we can safely talk politics and religion at the national dinner table, it’s high time we reevaluated the adage within our own homes. It makes good sense that we should wish to talk about those topics which are important to us with those people who are most important to us. Indeed, many of us do part ways with the old manners by discussing political issues with our loved ones, but can we say the same about religion? Can we talk about our Catholic faith around the dinner table at home? That may be tougher, as the late Cardinal Martini suggested. Have we let The Economist and its peers to the left and right speak for us about the topic of deepest importance to our lives, now and in the hereafter?

I am not comfortable with that, but I am sometimes complicit.

We as Catholic Christians have an opportunity to live the faith that we believe. Many of us do, but even for these Catholics, it can be difficult to talk about that faith, test and examine tough issues of faith with others, and develop a deeper faith through discussion, even among our own loved ones. Yet, at the end of the day, no amount of robust discourse about religion around the national dinner table can substitute for the faith building and sharing that we need for the health of our homes and the Church. That’s a good reason to make the discussion of religion, even faith, good manners at our own dinner table.