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Historic Role of Religion in Political Campaigns
October, 24 2000, Frostburg State University
© Rabbi Jack Moline

I am very pleased to be joining you here tonight. I appreciate all of the various organizations which have sponsored this gathering, and Larry Neumark for his diligence in ensuring the arrangements. As you know, I am here tonight in my capacity as a member of the board of The Interfaith Alliance, an organization devoted to promoting the full participation of people of all faiths in the lively civic life of the United States. My friend Sandhya Jha, who works for The Interfaith Alliance, is here with me as well.

I am supposed to speak about three subjects in my allotted time: the historic role of religion in political campaigns, the constructive use of religion by candidates and the abuse of religion in campaigns. I don't consider myself an expert in any of those areas, though it won't stop me from talking about them. I do wish to make somewhat quick work of them, however, for even though they frame the issues for us, those questions as I think we understand them are not the real heart of the matter.

And I use to illustrate what I mean two admittedly imperfect analogies. My tenth-grade daughter was assigned to write a paper for her English class entitled "The Role of Cyber-Punk in Science Fiction Movies." Two-hundred years ago, the title was incomprehensible. Some of the words didn't exist. Most of the concepts didn't exist. And the combination of words which did exist convey an entirely different meaning than Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin might have imagined. Yet, her paper considers the very topic which consumed the founding fathers of this country: What is the level of dissatisfaction which is necessary to inspire revolution against injustice? I wouldn't begin to compare the Declaration of Independence with "The Matrix" as historical documents, but they address the same place in the human imagination.

On the other hand consider the debates in contemporary society over matters like capital punishment, abortion, homosexuality and accessibility for the disabled. They all revolve around the notions promoted in that same Declaration of Independence. When Jefferson wrote that all men were created equal, he meant men, not women, and white, free, landholding men at that. When he modified John Locke's human rights formulation -life, liberty and property -to become life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, he had a clear idea of what that intangible commodity "happiness" was, as well as life and liberty. He would not understand the definition of terms being promoted today -which is the argument of people known as strict constructionists.

When we talk about religion and politics, then, in an historical sense, we face the same dilemma. The discussion is not new, but it is being held in a different context than ever before. And the vocabulary is the same, though it has different meanings than it used to have. So I warn you, as you listen to people who hold forth on this subject--including me--to be suspicious of the facile use of history, precedent and, especially, assertion.

History .Politicians in this country have always appealed to God for votes. I cannot speak for all of them privately, but publicly you would be hard pressed to find a person who was a serious candidate for high office in this land who did not manage to work the phrase "God bless America," or some variation of it, into every significant speech our money. God is in our Declaration of Independence.

In 1928, At Smith of New York became the Democratic nominee for President of the United States. He became the first Catholic -in fact, the first non-Protestant- to do so. Opposition to him came from three different quarters of American life. Prohibitionists objected to his refusal to endorse temperance. The Ku Klux Klan, whose racism is so well-known that their anti-Catholicism is often overlooked, rallied against him. And Protestants, long in control of , most aspects of the United States government, considered him outside consideration because of his membership in the Roman Catholic Church. Smith was trounced by Herbert Hoover, but his status as an outsider was appealing to immigrants in general, and Irish Catholic immigrants in particular. Plain religious bigotry stacked the deck against Smith.

But in the election of 1960, the presumptions about the role of religion in politics made a quantum shift. When John F. Kennedy became the Democratic nominee, the focus of our country had shifted to the threat of communism. While Kennedy's Catholicism was indeed considered a liability by some -my own father voted for Nixon because he was afraid that the Pope would have too much influence on a Kennedy presidency -Kennedy overcame it by proclaiming his faith an essentially private matter. His ability to persuade people that religion could be compartmentalized, and, to Richard Nixon's credit, the unwillingness of the Republican candidates to exploit bigotry, enabled the discussion to shift from Protestant versus Catholic to God-fearers versus commies. Belief in God -by any name -became the default position for an American against the godless communists of Eastern Europe and Cuba.

It is important to remember as well that Nelson Rockefeller never earned the Republican nomination for President in large measure because he had been divorced and remarried, which, in the 1960s, was considered to be the mark of an irreligious man. Yet Barry Goldwater, whose grandfather was a Jew and whose name unmistakably identified his personal history, had no trouble securing the nomination in that same decade.

As America moved through the second half of the 2Oth century, the religious identification of candidates became less important than their professed political stances. The leadership of the civil rights movement in this country were all religious men and women. Do not forget that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was first and foremost the REVEREND Dr. MLK, Jr. Seeing the success of mobilizing large numbers of church-goers for social change, Rev. Jerry Falwell brilliantly organized the Moral Majority out of a sound bite and direct mail as a force for change in society. Religions began to identify themselves with social causes, and the religious credentials of candidates were scored not as much on the church they attended as the support they gave to these partisan issues.

A woman's right to choose, family values, a moment of silence in public school, were all euphemisms for advocacy on the part of religious groups to influence the direction of the country. Consider the irony- nowhere in the Bible or the Qur'an does the phrase "human rights" occur, or any approximation of it. The notion is the product of modern philosophy. Yet it is argued as if it had been revealed at Sinai, included in the Sermon on the Mount or been proclaimed at Mecca.

Even issues not really theological in nature became identified religiously. The Jewish community weighed in on affirmative action calling it discriminatory not on the basis of Jewish teachings -I can actually prove that -but on the basis of self-interest and historical experience.

By 1984, the two candidates were Michael Dukakis, of Greek Orthodox background, married to a Jew, and Ronald Reagan, who was divorced and remarried at the same time as Nelson Rockefeller, and who was only mildly involved in organized religion. In spite of the vagaries of the two men's religious beliefs and practices, religious organizations fell all over themselves seeking to endorse one or the other. And at that point. the forces of religious conservatism aligned themselves with the Republicans, and the forces of religious progressivism aligned themselves with the Democrats.

Not too many years later, organizations like the Christian Coalition on the right and The Interfaith Alliance on the left sought to stake out the turf of religion in politics. More religious denominations than ever have full.time public policy staff in Washington and some even in state capitals.

That's already too much history, but it's where I end the beginning of my presentation which, you will be happy to know, is much longer than the end of my presentation.

There are three different ways that religion can approach politics. The theocratic approach suggests that religious belief determines public policy. From Pharaoh in Egypt to the Ayatollah in Iran, history, including the Bible, is filled with societies in which religious law was also the law of the land.

The free market approach suggests that religious beliefs should be considered in the discussions of public policy. Religious sensitivities should be taken into consideration and may even be codified civilly if it seems to be in the best interests of the society. With both successes and failures, the United States has relied for most of its history on this approach. The founding fathers were delightfully neglectful of their religion--respecting its influence on them and on civilization, but heady with the independence from a king who claimed to derive his powers from God. Everything from blue laws to exemptions from taxes for non-profit organizations flows from this notion, and the consideration given to religious teachings on controversial issues reflects it as well. For better or for worse, religious teachings are believed by some to have more authority and power and are therefore promoted more forcefully by some and resisted more forcefully by others than ideas which flow from philosophy, common law or innovative thinking.

The utilitarian approach takes a different view entirely. Once religion became private and compartmentalized, some began to see the role of government and the politics associated with it to protect this once.formidable, now-vulnerable commodity. The wall between church and state is seen not as a protection for the state, but as a protection for religious practice. Hence, in both policy and politics, individuals advocate for influence and protections as they would for any other special interest.

All three of these approaches are present in our current society, and we see them being played out in the current election. The selection of Senator Joseph Lieberman as the first Jew to run for national office has thrown people into a tizzy because it has challenged a presumption about American society which has persisted for 230 years. America is a Christian nation -it was founded by people who considered themselves Christians and built by people who argued about what type of Christianity best served this Christian nation. Sen. Lieberman' s nomination has left people scrambling for a sense of grounding they did not even know they needed.

And so you have folks like Pat Buchanan being honest about their desire to return to a theocratic model--where the teachings of a particular religious tradition form the basis of civil society which cares for minorities out of a sense of noblesse oblige.

You have folks like At Gore who are willing to consider religion as part of the free marketplace of ideas on an equal footing, or perhaps as first among equals, with other overarching considerations.

And you have folks like George W. Bush who take a utilitarian approach to religion, seeking to preserve for religious communities, and especially the majority community, the protections and advantages they once presumed.

However, the monolithic Protestantism of the early days of the Republic is no longer the default position, neither for society nor for religious discourse in the United States. And people used to being comfortable in an overwhelmingly white Christian society now find themselves struggling to cope with the same sense of disenfranchisement and confusion with which people of color, Jews and other non-Christians in America have always had to contend. The conversation over the role of religion in politics is like the discussion of cyber-punk in science fiction movies--an old conversation in a new and unfamiliar context.

Those of us, like me, who resist the notion of compartmentalized religion face a particular challenge. My faith is not a private matter and very much a part of who I am. The question is, can I have the self-awareness and integrity to recognize the difference between the demands of my faith which seek to preserve my faith and the wisdom of my faith which seeks to build and preserve a multi-valanced society? So when evaluating the positives or negatives of religion's influence on politics, it is important to neither lionize nor demonize the religious world-view. Rather, it is, to paraphrase President Kennedy, a function of asking not what public policy can do for religion, but what religion can do for public policy.

As a rabbi, I feel compelled to end with a positive message and a story. So I share with you a Talmudic story with a message for our day. (Men 29b) When Moses ascended to heaven, he found God busy at work affixing crowns to the letters calligraphed in the Torah scroll. Moses asked God why He was making the words so elaborate--why not just write the plain meaning, unadorned and unconfusing. God replied that at the end of many generations there would be a rabbi nameed Akiva who would explain each point on the crowns in such a way that would extract new laws and understandings from the basic teachings. Moses asked to see him.

Magically, God transported Moses to the study hall of Rabbi Akiva and placed him in the very back, the place reserved for new students. Akiva lectured and his more advanced students challenged him and poor Moses did not understand a word of what was going on. He was so distressed at his inability to follow the discussion that he almost passed out. Just then, a student asked Rabbi Akiva, "But how do you know what you are teaching?" And Akiva replied, "It is just what God taught Moses at Sinai."

And Moses was reassured.

Somewhere in the back of this room, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower are looking at each other in confusion. And Moses and Akiva, Paul and John, Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther aren't much help. The Buddha, I think, has a knowing smile. But struggling with these questions in contemporary context is the mandate we have received from both of our heritages -American and faith-based. And so, even though I have no idea what cyber-punk is, let alone its role in science fiction movies, I, like Moses, am reassured.

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