Sarah Palin and small town values – an interfaith perspective

Is US Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin a “”small town”” thinker – and does it matter?

When you are running for second-most powerful position in what is still arguably the most powerful country on earth, I believe it does matter.  And not to Americans only.

My reading of Deepak Chopra’s recent (September 2008, Huffington Post) remarks about the danger of “”small town values”” in relation to Sarah Palin is that Chopra has every right and is right to draw our attention to the need to pay close and urgent attention to the parochialism which can occur in small and large towns but is always expressive of a far greater concern for what goes on inside “”our”” town (or country) than for anything that happens outside it.

When it comes to US politics and economics, the issue of parochialism is raw for those of us living outside the US, not least because so many decisions made there crucially affect the rest of us – yet we can have no say other than from way beyond the margins.  Sarah Palin exhibits an all-too familiar version of “”small town”” thinking – not thinking outside her own limited experience and education which would scarcely matter were she not in sight of almost ludicrous amounts of power. And I suspect that when Americans applaud and endorse her views it is because this reflects their own worldview and not because it could possibly lead to the kinds of considered decision-making and inclusivist wisdom that the US and the rest of the world so urgently need.

Much is being made of Sarah Palin’s values more generally.  She supports Christian supremacy which from my perspective is a tragic version of what it means to be Christian. She also proudly claims to be “”pro-life”” yet gives every indication of being “”pro”” only an extremely limited version of “”life””. She supports hunting animals for fun, capital punishment and – most gravely – war as a solution to human problems. I cannot begin to describe the shudders that went through our media and conversations here in Australia when she suggested that if Georgia was not offered NATO membership America could go to war with Russia.

It was not just the outrageous yet familiar fantasy that a military response could solve rather than exacerbate a political and social crisis, despite current agonies in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, that left people with their mouths hanging open. It was also her total amnesia or ignorance about the history of European-US politics up to and including the very, very recent “”Cold War”” period when the vilification of the Soviet Union – and vice versa –  justified the most radical build-up of armaments in the history of the world.

Why should these things matter to those who care about interfaith and interreligious dialogue?  Should they matter? Yes, indeed, I would say, especially if we are attempting to think in terms of religious understanding outside traditional borders, beyond the “”walls”” of metaphorical “”towns””, beyond the tribalism of the present as well as the past.  It is a tough leap to think inclusively. Very little in our social conditioning supports that.  We are all, in that sense, “”small-town”” and in danger of small-town thinking and behaving.  The challenge, then, is to radically extend our borders – to see ourselves as an immensely diverse but intricately interdependent single human family.

Religion and culture are inextricably mixed. We could usefully heed Jung’s famous warning from the time of the first world war (1914-1918) – that everything that is mean and vile is always to be found behind “”enemy”” lines – but not our own. As long as any supremely powerful politician’s thinking remains ignorant of the world outside her own experience  we are all, not just Americans, in grave danger. This is true anywhere in the world but especially in the countries that are themselves most powerful.

My feeling is that it isn’t possible to be “”interfaith”” or culturally and politically inclusive in our thinking without concerning ourselves with social and cultural issues – and engaging with the most urgent issues of our time with as much interest and perception as we can muster.  This means understanding how and why views like Palin’s remain appealing, but also recognizing the dangers and limitations of such views, actively showing that they are not the only way.

May we not only live in peace, but understand how peace will come into being. There is only a brilliantly and marvelously diverse “”us””; there is no “”them””!