Politics and the Pulpit

This past Sunday was claimed by many churches around the country ‘Pulpit Freedom Sunday’.  It’s the day that the pastors of these churches have chosen to speak not just of the issues that are important to us all, where religious traditions and values may offer some guidance or wisdom, but to speak directly about the candidate that they are supporting.

Wait! What about separation of church and state?  You may well ask. What about the IRS and preserving their 501 c3 status, which does not permit the endorsement or political candidates by such organizations?

Well, it appears that this group of church leaders are intentionally thumbing their nose at the IRS.  They are making the claim that they have a 1st amendment right to speak freely from the pulpit on any matter.  It also appears to be the case, according to a report on PBS’ ‘Religion and Ethics Weekly’ a couple of weeks back, that the department that might pay attention to such breaches and the regional directors who might respond do not currently exist, so it is most likely that pastors who choose to speak out from the pulpit this Sunday will face no consequences for doing so.

Now, its interesting to note the somewhat non-inclusive nature of this ‘Pulpit Freedom Sunday’.  There are no synagogues or mosques identifying with this movement.  Although it has certainly sparked some conversation among rabbis, and I suspect that I’m not the only rabbi who spoke on this issue last Shabbat.

And it does appear that there are considerable numbers of religious leaders who are comfortable parsing the difference between their 1st amendment rights as individuals versus their organization’s limitations based on their tax-exempt status.  So, for example, while it would be wrong for a synagogue board to vote and endorse, on behalf of the congregation, a political candidate, should or could a rabbi who works for that congregation publicly do so as an individual in their own right?

Over 600 rabbis, from across the Jewish denominations, have signed their names – as individuals – to ‘Rabbis for Obama’.  There is no equivalent website with names listed for Romney, although a rabbi has sought to create such a group and can be contacted online too.

I will tell you now, my name is not on that list.  And, while I see that many of my colleagues who I deeply respect as rabbis, have chosen to add themselves to the list, I am not at all comfortable with it.  I see little difference between adding one’s name to a publicly available list of this kind, and endorsing a candidate from the pulpit.  And, while I am no constitutional scholar, and am willing to accept the possibility that individual religious leaders may have a constitutional right to something, that doesn’t mean that, as responsible religious leaders and teachers, we should necessarily exercise that right.

Let me be clear.  I have not reached these conclusions because of the predominant side being taken by American rabbis.  Rather, I want to highlight what I believe are two distinct and important roles that religion, and specifically my role as a leader and teacher of faith values and wisdom, can and should play when it comes to the world of politics.

First, one of the distinct and, I believe, valuable roles that Reform Judaism has played in the USA for over a century, is to add its voice to the public square by speaking out on issues from a moral and ethical perspective.  And, as a movement that believes in the unfolding of Revelation, it is right that we have gone beyond the plain and literal text of the Torah.  So, for example, while our Torah, in its time, tried to present an ethical framework for the engagement of slaves, we most certainly do not support slavery.

Our Religious Action Center provides resource pages to demonstrate which texts from our tradition they draw upon to reach positions on modern issues such as social equity, abortion, healthcare, access to education, and more.  Based on these values, it lobbies in Washington, and encourages individuals affiliated with Reform synagogues to help in its efforts, when legislation on these issues comes up for vote.  Here, I sometimes find myself wanting to add nuance to the more black and white positions taken by the RAC.  So, for example, while I may agree that our tradition clearly teaches the ethical imperative of a community to ensure that all have access to health care, that doesn’t mean that I have the expertise or knowledge to know if a specific piece of new legislation on this issue is good legislation, is well written, and best achieves that goal.  There is still room for debate on what is the best way forward.  Nevertheless, I understand and agree that the RAC, in fulfilling its mission, looks at the question more broadly – does this piece of legislation take us closer or further from the values that our tradition would highlight as important for an ethical society?  If it brings us closer than the alternative, even if it isn’t perfect, the RAC’s position is to support it.

Now, it is the case that, partly because of the polarized nature of our two party system today, it often looks like the RAC is consistently supporting one party, even though its focus is the issues and the teachings and not the political platforms.  However, as soon as we engage in the political process we inevitably have to work strategically, adding support to allies who share perspectives on the issues we care about.  While some may believe that this is where lines are crossed, and I agree the territory can become more murky, I still prefer that we be engaged in this way as a religious movement.  Because if the alternative is to say that we cannot engage or say anything on matters that are discussed and voted upon in the political arena, then we make our religious tradition essentially irrelevant to the world we live in outside of our ritual behaviors.  And the origins of Reform Judaism arose from a refusal to accept this, and a recognition that, historically, Judaism has always been a holistic system that engaged us in thinking spiritually and ethically about every aspect of life and society.  That is its power and where its continued relevance and meaning lies.

All this said, however, there is another role that I believe Religious leaders should be playing that leads me to disapprove of the line being crossed when specific candidates are endorsed.  Each individual candidate and the parties they represent, hold diverse views on a very wide array of subjects.  It is simply not true – it cannot be – that one side is ‘right’ and the other side is ‘wrong’.  This is the case whether we are speaking in terms of ethics and morals, or whether we are speaking about issues of social equity and justice.  Our political arena has become polarized enough already.  We do absolutely no service to this country, to the well-being of our society, or to the legitimacy and value of the religious traditions we serve and represent when we add to that polarization by picking sides.

Our job is to counter the tendency toward the ‘I’m right and you are wrong, therefore we are good and you are evil, therefore we speak in God’s name and you don’t’ spiral of craziness.  Within our own Jewish tradition we should, rather, being drawing upon the example of our teachers from generations past.

Take a look at a page of Talmud.  In it you will find that multiple opinions are expressed.  Sometimes we are eventually told that the majority opinion lay in one perspective or another, but often the final answer is not clear.  Rather, the text highlights the importance of being able to look at something from many different perspectives, understanding the value in these perspectives, and only then discerning how you will reach a decision.    The school of thought that followed the teachings of Hillel, we are told, so often ‘won’ over the school of thought following Shammai, even though both were the words of the living God.  How could that be?  Because, while both were thoughtful analyses of the questions of their time, Hillel would always begin by citing the opinion of Shammai before going on to explain their perspective – a sign of respect.  These were arguments, not for the sake of winning, but for the sake of heaven.

If I want to share any religiously-orientated message during these weeks leading up to the elections it is this.  We need to speak out against the polarizing and vindictive narrative of political debate when we see and hear it.  And we must take responsibility for doing our part to raise up the level of discourse – for the sake of heaven, and for the sake of our country.

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