Can Politics and Spirituality Really Be Separated?

By Manu Rheaume

June 17, 2020

In western philosophy, just about every philosopher commented on politics.  Socrates from the very beginning had very strong views about government, one of them being the inevitable failure of democracy, but I digress

The reason that many philosophers got into commenting on politics was that it was understood that principles, without understanding how they apply in the real world, is really only half the story.

One of the most obvious examples of this is the idea of compassion and what constitutes compassion. Some believe that you can only be compassionate of you actively try to lift up the poor and do other good works. While others see compassion as an inner state of radically accepting what is. Both are legitimate arguments in their own right and both have political implications.

As long as we live in a society, politics will be a factor in our lives. I can understand the monastic perspective that, ideally, being outside of society and therefore outside of the realm of politics is the best option. However, I’ve found that anyone who even wants to interact with people in society must have an understanding of politics in order to really help such people.

Our political views or lack thereof really are a direct reflection of our world view at large.  Conservatives believe more in individualism, those on the left believe more in group identity. One side believes more in self-reliance, the other in social and economic factors being the largest contributing factor to an individual’s life. All these will sway your understanding of yourself and what you and an individual need to do to progress spiritually.

I’ve seen a number of spiritual organizations get into politics, and it makes sense to me. If you believe that X cause is important and should be helped, then it only follows that you will try to do something about it. The thing that seems to go over people’s heads about this is that this means they will be getting into politics.

The thing that bothers me the most is people acting like things aren’t political when they clearly are. For example, the first precept in Buddhism says not to kill any living being. Therefore, you could see this as meaning abortion should be illegal or maybe you have a different argument. Nonetheless, this is politics.

From what I’ve seen, those on the left seem to have no problem mixing the two. However, those in the center or right seem to be under this delusion that it doesn’t matter or can be ignored. To say politics doesn’t matter is really to say that the principles and laws we adopt as a society doesn’t matter.

I really do believe in political conversation and, while things do seem to be so polarized today that it’s almost hopeless to do so, I believe that political conversations are necessary for political education and understanding that there is a link between philosophy, spirituality and politics.