I am Rabbi Jack Moline, Vice-chair at-large of The Interfaith Alliance. I am also on the back end of a summer cold, so please forgive the huskiness of my voice.
The father of our country, George Washington, was a surveyor by trade. Part of his duties included the determination of exactly where the property of one owner left off and the other owner began. You might wonder what possible difference a few inches, even a few feet in either direction would make to a farmer with acres of land. But Washington knew as we all know that crops do not grow only in the center of a field, and that cattle do not graze only a distance from the fence, and that injuries do not always occur close to the barn. Good surveying produces good boundaries. And good boundaries keep good neighbors from unnecessary conflict.
As a rabbi, I have studied similar boundary issues in the Talmud. Entire sections are taken up discussing the boundaries between properties, between businesses, between Sabbath and weekdays, between the holy and the profane. Violating those boundaries throws a system into turmoil. Preserving them avoids unnecessary conflict.
We Americans have become experts in testing boundaries. You can make your own list of the boundaries we have tried to survey, and where we have been successful and where we have not. In culture, in business, in public policy and in politics, the lines that separate one domain from another have been confronted by those who wish to preserve them and by those who wish to redraw them.
When the Bill of Rights of our Constitution established what Thomas Jefferson wisely called the wall of separation between church and state, it created a two-hundred-year-old tradition of surveying that boundary, trying to find the exact place to keep good neighbors from unnecessary conflict.
The Senate Judiciary Committee failed in their latest attempt last week when Alabama Attorney General William Pryor, nominee for a federal judgeship, was asked by a supporting Senator about his religious affiliation. The result, as you have seen, was an unnecessary conflict between good neighbors. In fact, we are counting our blessings that the Capitol Police were not called to intervene in the ensuing arguments.
The religious beliefs of a nominee are relevant only to the extent that they interfere with his or her ability to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. Frankly, I would be alarmed to see the influences of religious conviction expunged from any aspect of American government. And I think it is entirely relevant to ask any candidate for the executive, legislative or judiciary if personal convictions would interfere with the ability to support and defend the Constitution and its resultant laws as they exist today.
Frankly, that is the relevant question – not a question of affiliation. Do the values, beliefs or proclivities that Mr. Pryor or anybody else holds prevent him from meeting the responsibilities of the office. The question is about his beliefs and no one else’s. By affixing a label to the question and generalizing the issue, the legitimate business of the Senate Judiciary Committee was catapulted onto the other side of that carefully surveyed boundary. And lest you think the fault lies only on one side, the subsequent responses of opposing senators are a good indication of the reason we rely on articulated rules in our society and not good will.
It is time to return to the tradition of Washington and Jefferson and survey again that necessary boundary. And once it has been reestablished, then it behooves both the Senators and the nominees they examine to respect the values on which this country was founded.