Don’t Let Family Politics Trump Your Holidays | Rev. Tim Schenck

Picture of two people holding a present

Navigating Family politics: How do you talk with your politically divided family? 

Going home for the holidays can be tough especially when you're anticipating the next conversation with Auntie Jean about President Donald Trump. As folks head home for the holidays, we want to make sure you're prepared to sit at the dinner table and navigate family politics with those who don't politically agree with you.

We could all use some help here, so don't fret. With the help of Rev. Tim Schenck, we can all improve our family dinner conversation this holiday. 

Tim’s general thoughts: 

Ah, family. That wonderful institution that so often reflects the dysfunction of our beloved nation. This is never more apparent than when we gather around the Thanksgiving table on the fourth Thursday in November. The conversation often revolves around shared roots, common history, past family drama, and ahem, national politics.

In the wake of a particularly divisive campaign season, many are dreading the conversational arc of their upcoming feast. Will it merely cause minor indigestion or are fist cuffs in the offing? The reality is likely something in-between, but the angst is real heading into the holidays this year.

I’m neither psychic nor therapist, though I have had conversations with parishioners on both sides of the political divide who have expressed anxiety over the impending meal. I’m happy to offer some thoughts to Joe’s helpful questions on family politics and the holidays.

1. How do I stop myself from having a blow up with my relatives about family politics over the holidays? 

Well, breathing is good. Like deep, cleansing, count-to-10 breaths. This remains a fragile time for many people, especially those still in a state of shocked disbelief that a hate-mongering reality TV star has been elected President of the United States. Many are mired in Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ ubiquitous stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Be kind to yourself. Stop Googling political sites in the days before Thanksgiving, give your brain a needed social media Sabbath, and don’t let yourself get amped up. Be the non-anxious presence in the room — or at least fake it.

2. What ground rules should I set?

The host/hostess does have a modicum of control — home court advantage  if you will. If you’re hosting Thanksgiving dinner, you can dissuade people from a divisive conversation with gentle humor by noting that for the sake of family unity, “Politics is not on the menu this year.” If you’re a guest, walking in and announcing, “No political talk!” likely won’t be well received.

3. Do I call my relatives ahead of time?

If you have political allies, you can always formulate a game plan — like choosing not to engage. But beware that advanced planning may just play into the “us vs. them” narrative.

4. Do I confront folks I disagree with?

While it’s always important to confront hate speech, you can do so with simple statements and then move on. Sometimes people are simply trying to get a rise out of you by being actively provocative (think playground). You have the control whether to engage or not. And while standing up for your convictions is always good, sometimes just getting through a meal and moving on is the better part of valor.

5. What do you say to your liberal relatives who blame you for not winning the election?

“Have you even seen my Facebook posts?” Just kidding. Blame is never helpful. The real question is what are we going to do to move forward into this new reality? How are we going to stand up for those on the margins of our society? What organizations need our support now more than ever?

6. How do I avoid talking about politics without my relatives thinking I am being a jerk?

Share your sudden fascination with the ground game of the Detroit Lions and excuse yourself to the TV room. Or simply reiterate that you’re tired of the partisan politics and prefer to focus on gratitude this Thanksgiving. Ask your relatives about what’s going on in their lives and genuinely care about the answers.

7. Is avoidance really the best policy?

Having respectful conversations about differing views is more important than ever for our country. If that’s what’s happening, sure, dive in. But if the talk devolves into one-sided rants, extricate yourself for the sake of your own sanity. Remember, there are always dishes to be done in the kitchen. Then get out there in the days ahead and continue to work for peace, justice, and love. There’s no avoidance in that.

8. How can I persuade my relatives to not vote for Trump again? 

The most effective means would be to invent a space-age jammer to block Fox News from their television sets. If that’s not an option, they need to offer some indication that their support for the President is wavering and they’re open to genuine conversation. In the same way you can’t help an alcoholic until he or she hits rock bottom, you can’t persuade someone who is blinded to reality. 

Reason never trumps emotion, and attempting to rationally counter emotionally-charged political diatribes is both ineffective and futile. In some cases, it’s healthier to channel your inner Elsa and just let it go — not your passion for social justice or political activism — but the fact that you can’t always change people’s minds. The reality is that getting into un-winnable policy arguments with obstinate relatives is not good for your mental health.

9. We are now two years into Trump and I still blame my uncle for Trump being president, what should I do? 

Unless your uncle is Julian Assange, he’s likely not solely responsible for Trump’s election. It’s helpful to recognize that there is indeed some real fear and angst at the root of your uncle’s political views. Empathy and a degree of emotional distance goes a long way towards understanding the reasons behind someone’s views. Of course, it could also just be racism and/or sexism, in which case you should call it out every time it rears its ugly head, consequences be damned.

10. How do I talk to relatives who did not vote and don’t vote. Any ideas? 

Place voter registration forms under the dessert plates at Christmas dinner. I mean, you can’t force someone to become politically engaged if all they want to talk about is their fantasy football team. But you can share why a particular issue is important to you personally. Guilting people into becoming politically motivated doesn’t work, of course. But if all politics is local, that may be the place to start — issues that make a practical difference in the lives of family members may resonate in ways that transcend the theoretical.

11. How can we do something as a family that is positive for the country? 

Volunteer! Set aside political differences, roll up your sleeves, and volunteer at a food bank or pick up trash along the river than runs through your town. Volunteering to better your community is the ultimate non-partisan activity. Just make a pact to forego political commentary during your time together and everybody wins.

BONUS QUESTION: Tell us about your new book, is it the ideal stocking stuffer? 

Yes! Well, it would be if it wasn’t coming out in early spring. Holy Grounds: The Surprising Connection Between Coffee and Faith — From Dancing Goats to Satan’s Drink (Fortress Press) explores the relationship between coffee and religion. From the coffee bean's discovery by ninth-century Ethiopian Muslims to being condemned as "Satan's drink" by medieval Christians, to becoming an integral part of Passover in America, coffee has fueled prayer and shaped religious culture for generations. In addition to some rollicking history, I take readers on a journey through coffee farms in Central America, a pilgrimage to Seattle, coffeehouses in Rome, and a monastic community in Pennsylvania where the monks roast and market their own beans. It was a lot of fun to write and it’s now available for preorder on Amazon.

The Rev. Tim Schenck is an Episcopal priest at St. John the Evangelist Church in Hingham, MA. Prior to following the divine call, he worked on and ran political campaigns from 1991 to 1994 from New York to California. Visit his blog “Clergy Confidential” at clergyconfidential.com or follow him on Twitter @FatherTim.

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