Does Religion Have Any Legitimate Role to Play in a Political Campaign?

Jeff Pasek, JSPAN president, has written the following review of JSPAN's March 24th program. On March 24th, members of JSPAN got to hear contrasting views of this subject from well-known figures of both major political parties, each of whom brought a personal dimension to the discussion. Reverend William H. Gray, III, is an ordained Baptist minister who served 13 years in the United States House of Representatives, from 1978 until 1991. A Democrat, he rose to the powerful role of majority whip, the third most important post in the House, and the most powerful elected African American leader in the United States. Throughout his service in Congress, Rev. Gray also continued to hold down the post of senior pastor at the Bright Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia. He resigned from Congress to begin a 13-year career as head of the United Negro College Fund. Also joining the program was Justice Sandra Schultz Newman, a Republican, who resigned from the bench at the beginning of 2007 to head the national appellate practice at the Cozen O'Connor law firm. In 1995, Justice Newman became the first woman elected to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the oldest court in the United States. She previously served as an elected judge on the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court. Barry Ungar, former President of the Jewish Community Relations Council and JSPAN board member, served as the moderator. He began by challenging both panelists to address the meaning of the provision in the United States Constitution declaring "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." Rev. Gray responded by observing, "America is pro God and anti religion." He went on to explain his understanding that the Constitution does not want one religion to be established. He noted that we are a nation where there can be a diversity of religious beliefs, but one where the Constitution prohibits us from declaring, "In Baptists we trust." At the same time, he acknowledged that religion ought to inform a democracy. Citing the example of Jimmy Carter, Rev. Gray explained how religion played a prominent role in the way candidate Carter defined himself and molded his public image. Justice Newman threw down a challenge to the Jewish community based on her own experience when she first sought statewide office in 1992. She described an ad her campaign ran in the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent citing her own Jewish background and expressing the view that any Jewish girl could grow up to be President. At the time, her ad drew criticism from major Jewish defense agencies that objected to her injection of her religion into the campaign. "I was very hurt by the Jewish community," she remarked, noting that Jewish groups refused to invite her or introduce her while other religious groups welcomed her to their public events during the campaign. Rev. Gray described the protocol that his church followed, never giving the pulpit over to a candidate. The only exception was permitting the President of the United States to address the congregation. In response to a question from Barry Ungar, he noted that tax laws prohibit churches from participating in political campaigns and the IRS can move to revoke the tax exemption of a violator. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that all churches have not universally followed IRS requirements. "You could hear some interesting theological constructs as ministers explained who to vote for." Justice Newman related that politics often topped faith. Despite her Jewish upbringing and involvement in several Jewish organizations, in some of the more conservative parts of Pennsylvania, local religious leaders explained that she was German and had only married a Jewish doctor. Justice Newman's late husband was a world famous plastic surgeon whose prominence made the whole story believable in some circles. In response to both panelists' observations, Barry Ungar presented them with an example from the current presidential campaign and asked what is the appropriate response of a person who is asked to establish his or her religious bona fides. Rev. Gray observed, "My job is not to legislate my dogma or my creed, but to be informed by my faith about concerns for justice." He added, "You can't have a pluralistic society if someone says, 'I have the truth, and you are a fake.'" People have a concern about religion because "we want to make sure that candidates have something that anchors them." Ted Mann, a JSPAN Board member and the former Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, noted that Justice Newman was not alone in her feelings about the way the organized Jewish community reacted to the injection of religion into her campaign. He referred to an unnamed, Democratic United States Senator who objected strenuously several years ago when Jewish groups criticized the way he injected religion into his campaign. In response to a question about the impact of Rev. Jeremiah Wright's inflammatory sermons on the Obama campaign, Rev. Gray noted that Reverend Wright was a friend of his father but that Wright's rhetoric was wrong because it was so divisive. He noted that it was very important to keep churches free of direct political influence. The current Bush administration's faith-based initiative has funneled large amounts of money directly into the coffers of religious organizations whose leaders have endorsed President Bush. Rev. Gray asked rhetorically whether such an apparent quid pro quo isn't real corruption of both church and state. At the end of the program, Barry Ungar returned to his opening question about the constitutional ban on any religious test for public office. Nothing bars a candidate from running, but nothing prevents voters from using religion as their personal litmus test of whom to support. Rev. Gray suggested that we might be moving to an acceptable cultural compromise between the imposition of a religious test on one hand and blatant appeals to vote for a candidate because he or she is a member of a certain faith.