A Place for Politics in the Pulpit


By David Klinghoffer

Published September 17, 2004, issue of September 17, 2004.
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I used to be one of those conservatives who bemoan political sermons from the pulpit. This was some years ago — starting when I was in high school and the rabbi at our Reform temple would spend his precious half hour after the High Holy Days fund-raising appeal browbeating the congregation about the perils of the arms race, nuclear winter (which preceded global warming as a favorite liberal issue) and so on.

In a curious irony, it’s now liberals who are doing the bellyaching about how “synagogues, churches, and other houses of worship should not be abused for the purposes of politicking.” So the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, Abraham Foxman, puts it. Nor is Foxman alone.

To coincide with the first day of this year’s Republican national convention, the liberal Christian magazine Sojourners took out an ad in The New York Times, signed by 45 ministers, theologians and other big shots. “GOD IS NOT A REPUBLICAN,” the ad proclaimed. “OR A DEMOCRAT.” The text singled out for infamy the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who has said it is the “responsibility” of every religious person, including “every traditional Jew,” to “get serious about re-electing President Bush.”

While Sojourners doesn’t oppose mixing politics and religion per se, editor the Rev. Jim Wallis (a Kerry supporter) does deny that any political ideology can meaningfully be said to represent God’s perspective: “The best public contribution of religion is precisely not to be ideologically predictable or a loyal partisan.”

Other clergymen go further. One of the country’s most prominent Conservative (which is to say, liberal) rabbis, David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, says: “My principle is that being a rabbi gives me no special political insight, not into Israel and not into America, [so] using the pulpit to announce my political positions is illegitimate.”

But if a rabbi has no “special insight” into politics, then one wonders if he has a “special insight” into anything else that matters.

Before going on, I should clarify. Yes, I understand that current tax law forbids churches and synagogues from endorsing candidates — though Rep. Bill Thomas, a California Republican, has been pushing interesting legislation in Congress to allow religious groups to get more involved politically while retaining their tax-exempt status.

And no, I am not calling upon all rabbis to follow the common and uninspired practice of basing each Saturday’s sermon on an article from the past week’s New York Times.

You do, however, deserve a rabbi who will serve as your guide to understanding the worlds of personal and public life — the spiritual, the mystical, the ethical, the sexual, the familial, the legal and, yes, the political — in a word, everything.

Why? Let’s posit that God made the world, and that the wisdom He reveals through holy texts extends beyond legal topics, like what constitutes kosher food or authentic Sabbath observance — crucial though such matters are.

What got me excited about traditional Judaism to begin with was the observation, illuminating all the rabbinic sources, that Jewish law is a framework that when held up to the light — or, the Light –— reveals a comprehensive philosophical world view. If Judaism isn’t so expansive and comprehensive, if it is not relevant to every corner of our daily existence, that would make Torah simply an exercise in lawyerly fastidiousness without meaning.

As for Wallis’s point that religion need not entail political partisanship, it’s no accident that Americans line up along either one of two parallel but contrasting philosophical axes, the liberal and the conservative. It’s not by chance that if you ask someone what he thinks about, say, court-legislated homosexual marriage, there’s a strong likelihood you will be able to predict his opinions on seemingly unrelated issues — from the Iraq war to gun control, taxes, the death penalty, even campaign finance reform.

This is because the differences between the liberal set of views and the conservative set arise from a more basic difference of opinion on a deeper, timeless question, having to do with whether we possess moral free will, a big topic that must wait till a later column.

For now, it’s enough to see that conservatives are conservatives, and liberals are liberal, because they respectively share some underlying value or values. Partisanship is thus only natural. The best thing about political sermons is that if your rabbi does not share your values, you should know that up front. Let him take a side.

Rabbis who prefer not to do so will be glad to hear they have a majority of Americans on their side. An August 24 poll by the Pew Forum and the Pew Research Center indicates that 65% of us think that churches and synagogues should abstain from parsing political issues and from endorsing candidates. Well, 65% of Americans are wrong, and if you happen to hear a sermon to that effect this Yom Kippur, you shouldn’t complain a bit.

David Klinghoffer’s new book, “Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History,” will be published by Doubleday in March 2005.

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