Many Americans have watched their investments compromised in the wave of bankruptcies and corporate scandals that have washed over our country in the past several months. Others have seen their jobs disappear and still others have had to return to the work force from retirement. Why? Primarily, the answer lies with a few skilled manipulators. Using a combination of expertise and greed, they realized huge profits at the expense of investors and consumers. In the aftermath, the victims are left with emptier pockets and a new-found distrust of the way of American life: business. Businesses with integrity, the overwhelming majority in this country, suffer for the excesses of the few.
I have experienced those feelings, even in the past prosperous decade. I am a rabbi, and I have watched with alarm as public figures - some of them politicians and some of them clergy - have manipulated the cause of religion to advance their public agenda. A few skilled manipulators have exploited the language of faith to send the misguided message that there is a link between God's will and the outcome of an election or a legislative initiative. They have sometimes reaped short-term success at the expense of voters and society. In the aftermath, we are left distrustful of the integrity of religion, politics, and religious and political leaders. Traditions with great wisdom to impart are impugned and the work of healing and inspiration that is so necessary suffers for the excesses of the few.
I remember how disappointed I was during the last campaign when the sitting President of the United States made an overt appeal for his candidates from a Sunday pulpit in a local church. I was equally shocked when candidates from the other party were endorsed by national figures proclaiming the exclusivity of their faith at a restricted religious college. Those violations of ethics received widespread attention in the media.
In state and local elections, such inappropriate behavior often slides by unnoticed. Candidates pander to the sympathies of the crowd, or feel free to marginalize minority constituencies by invoking religious rhetoric or appealing to values that set particular religious interests ahead of pluralistic American values.
By setting religion against religion - or religion against America - public figures set up a false dichotomy. They force neighbor to choose not between positions on an issue, but between heaven and hell. Honest disagreement devolves into sacred vendetta. No matter the outcome, we all lose.
How do I know? Well, the Bible tells me so. In chapter 16 of the Book of Numbers, Moses is challenged for leadership by Korach. Moses is floored by the challenge, not because of his ego, but because of the nature of Korach's words: You take too much upon yourself, seeing as the entire congregation is holy, every one of them.
Later commentators expanded on this story, presuming the "proof" brought by the rebels. Mocking the necessary taxes and restrictions of society, Korach invented a widow taxed into the street by Moses. He asked the people who knew God's will better - wicked Moses or compassionate Korach?
The defeat of the demagogue was inevitable, but even in defeat, his toll was taken. The people were demoralized by the rebellion, for the nature of the challenge undercut not just the leaders, but leadership in general. It took a generation to recover.
How much the more should this lesson apply in a society such as ours. Wisely, we have made politics the common ground on which our individual religious traditions meet. We should debate the applications of diverse values, but not the diversity itself. And certainly, we must be vigilant against those who would employ our own religious convictions for the purpose of advancing an unjust/partisan agenda against others, or vice versa.
That's where citizens of religious integrity have a special role to play. The Interfaith Alliance (TIA), dedicated to the positive role of religion in American life, invites the people of America to participate in their Call To a Faithful Decision election year program. By emphasizing the importance of voting one's conscience as part of the civic duty of every citizen, TIA lifts up the intersection of personal faith and responsible citizenship. And with special emphasis on the Use of Religion in Campaigns (URC) project, TIA invites religious leaders to highlight the candidates' positive and negative uses of the vocabulary of faith in the campaign process.
Often, by stepping away from rhetoric we can separate the message from the mode. The URC project represents the best of America by keeping us informed. By underscoring the use of religion in campaigns, we can help not only to preserve America's faiths, but also to preserve faith in America.
Religious leaders interested in joining The Interfaith Alliance's URC network should call Sam Goldberg at (800) 510-0969 or visit www.interfaithalliance.org.