LOS ANGELES — As the Presidential race progresses, once again the role of religion in politics has re-emerged as a common tension that cannot be dismissed.
American Jews have often feared bringing religion into the political discourse out of fear of anti-Semitism, but this concern has hopefully lessened since U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman became the first Jew on a major party ticket in 2000 (he was Al Gore’s running mate). In our commitment to build a just society, we have an imperative to ask questions about the religious views of our politicians.
A recent study in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion found that there is no difference between the ethical behavior of religious believers and nonbelievers; rather, the key difference was the type of, and approach to, religious belief.
For example, they found that those who believed in a loving, compassionate god were more likely to cheat than those who believed in an angry, punitive one. Religious beliefs matter in moral decision-making.
I would propose that we use a positive, rather than a negative, test for analyzing the religious beliefs of our leaders. Rather than not voting for someone who isn’t a part of our religious sect or who doesn’t hold our particular ideology, we must vote for someone, regardless of their sect, who holds the core values that we cherish most. Religious values should be critically considered just as we consider good judgment and policy experience. By taking an affirmative approach, we can work to remove religion as a source of divisiveness and strive to include it as a source of inspiration, direction and unity.
The full range of Christian-American lives has been represented in this year’s crop of candidates for the Republican presidential nomination. Michele Bachmann is an Evangelical Lutheran, Rick Perry is a Methodist, Herman Cain and Ron Paul are Baptists, Newt Gingrich is (now) a Catholic and Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman are Mormons.
General national acceptance of this diversity is a significant change from the days when people wouldn’t vote for Kennedy, the first Catholic president, because of his religion. Even four years ago, 40 percent of voters said that they would not vote for a Mormon president and now Romney is a serious candidate.
Politicians’ different ideologies do matter. Even our forefathers had very different relationships with God (our prayer liturgy differentiates between Elokei Avraham, Elokei Yitzchak, and Elokei Yaakov), and those relationships produced very different types of ethical personalities.
A few months ago, Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry held an all-day Christian prayer event where he “called on Jesus to bless and guide the nation’s military and political leaders and those who cannot see the light in the midst of all the darkness.” More recently, he shared a thought: “In every person’s heart, in every person’s soul, there is a hole that could be filled by the Lord Jesus Christ.” In a conversation about his faith, he referred to evolution as “a theory out there.” To what extent should Perry’s public pronouncements of faith over science and the promotion of his own faith legitimately affect our judgment of his fitness as a politician one way or another?
Bachmann, another aspirant for the GOP nomination, was recently asked what she meant when she said that the Bible necessitates that she be submissive to her husband, and the crowd booed the question. For many, probing about the specifics of religious beliefs and practices seems to be strangely taboo. We, as a country, should be able to hold a sophisticated discourse about religion without descending into bigotry.
Ignoring the religious views of our politicians only impoverishes the conversation. Our choices of leadership are made with more nuances if we allow theology a place at the table and it can help ensure more honest and passionate deliberation. When we debate politics, we cannot check our moral and spiritual convictions at the door, nor can we expect politicians to do so.
For my part, I want to know that those leading our country feel humble before the Divine, see God in all people on the planet, value spiritual transcendence over personal materialistic gain, and believe that at the end of their lives they will be held accountable for their actions. I also want to know how their particular beliefs influence their economic and social policies.
Religion, at its best, shapes our community of shared responsibility. The Talmud teaches that one must pray only where there are windows (Berakhot 31a). Our religious lives must connect to the outside world — religion fails when it is reserved merely for the sanctuary. So we must not only publicly advocate for the value of religion but for good religion that furthers love, tolerance and service.
What are some Jewish questions that we ask of our politicians? When we ignore the religious beliefs, practices and communities of our leaders, we abandon our hope in the possibility of uniting our diverse country while honoring the distinct differences among us and of intertwining the wisdom of our ancestors with the wisdom of our founding fathers.
It matters to me how the president of the United States makes decisions. I want to know how a politician explains theodicy and conceptualizes the problem of evil. I want to know whether they believe God as an activist or pacifist, and what they believe about the source and limits of human freedom and responsibility. I want to know how each candidate interprets and is guided by the Scriptures on issues of reward and punishment.
There are questions we should all be grappling with: Are we a Christian nation? Can an observant Jew or committed Muslim or absolute atheist lead this country? How do particular religious values impact political policy?
Last year, sociologists Paul Froese and Christopher Bader found that 95 percent of Americans believe in God, but the god that is believed in varies greatly. About 28 percent believe in an authoritative god, who is engaged in the world but is judgmental, while about 22 percent believe in an engaged but benevolent god. About 24 percent believe in a “distant” god that is removed from the day-to-day happenings of the world, while 21 percent believe in a god that keeps close track of every misstep and sin.
A 2010 Gallup Poll showed that the number of Americans who believe that religion “can answer all or most of today’s problems” fell from 82 percent to 58 percent, and that religion “is old-fashioned and out of date” leaped from 7 percent to 28 percent. If this is true, then these people have a lot of fair questions to ask politicians who are guided by different religious values. The various ways that Americans view God can have real-world practical implications, thus, it is important for us to probe into the theology of our candidates since this knowledge may be deeply telling of their likely behavior in office. After all, when religion works, it penetrates the mind, body and soul. These are the very faculties that are employed when a president decides whether our country is going to war, whether welfare should be granted, whether the death penalty should be allowed, and what values are prioritized in our national marketplace of ideas.
(Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice organization guided by Torah values and dedicated to combating suffering and oppression.)