A few months ago, I got a call from one of the most respected rabbis in the country. This is a Midwestern colleague who combines a passion for his congregation with creativity, energy, innovation, and intellectual brilliance. If I become even half the rabbi he is, I would be satisfied. I would follow this rabbi’s lead on almost any issue.
He had asked me four years ago to join “Rabbis for Obama” an organization that was formed to support the candidacy of Barak Obama for President. I was a natural choice. I knew Mr Obama ever so slightly when I served a congregation on the South Side of Chicago. I respected and liked the people who were then backing Mr Obama for his presidential run. My brother is a well known Chicago celebrity and my last name would be known. I declined in 2008. A few months ago, I was asked again. Again, I feel I must decline.
I believe that one of the greatest threats to our American way of life and the values we have fought for has been the insidious intermingling of religion and politics. This mingling manifests itself in multiple ways. Prominent clergymen endorse political figures and urge their congregants to vote for specific candidates. In return, these clergymen are rewarded with access to power and celebrity status. Political candidates sound more like preachers than secular leaders in their effort to “court” religious voters. Narrow religious views are taught in public schools across the nation. Religious symbols now litter our public spaces. So called “religious” voters vote in blocs in return for generous government grants.
Has this led to more tolerance? Has this led to more love, more forbearance, more forgiveness? Just the opposite, in my opinion. The tone of our political discourse has become angrier and more combative. Religious groups jockey with one another for representation in the public square. Political candidates wear their “religion” like a belligerent form of armor, calling anyone who disagrees with them “anti-faith.” My own view is that there has been a resurgent intolerance in our time, even a resurgent genteel anti-semitism.
The irony of course, is that the Judeo-Christian heritage, of which politicans, both Jewish and Christian, like to cite, was grounded in an anti-establishment sentiment. Jeremiah and Amos railed against the corrupt rulers of their time. Jesus was hated and feared by the Roman authorities. These figures would be horrified to see modern clergymen and women, speaking in their name, backing political candidates in return for access and power.
Now, I don’t think that my friends who are part of “Rabbis for Obama” or “Rabbis for Romney” or any other organization are doing so for access or prestige. They join these organizations because they believe that these political figures stand for principles they support. I like these colleagues, and respect them and their choices. But maybe I am too stubborn, or too idealistic, or too naive-but I cannot lend my pulpit to support a political candidate. I know that as a result I will never get invited to the White House. I doubt that I will be invited for strategy sessions by high level aides. I’ll probably never be mentioned by name during a stump speech. But how can I keep the pulpit of Temple Emanu-El free-free to speak for the absolute separation of Church and State, free to call out the corrupt and the venal, free to demand justice for the poor and the helpless-when I publicly endorse one political candidate over another?