Religion in Politics: A Long View

With the program held in March, JSPAN has opened up a topic that deserves further analysis and discussion. Of course, no single program and no two speakers could evaluate this knotty subject alone. But they have launched us on a serious study. Conventionally, we in the Jewish community see the issue as one of protecting the freedom to be ourselves. We don't wish to be told by politicians that this is a Christian country, although surely there is as much truth in that statement as in much else we hear from those on the election stump. We don't want to hear a politician urge a position because the Bible or other religious work says so. But those who become politicians, like the rest of us, were assigned a religion at birth; if there are atheists in electoral politics, it is difficult to identify them. Indeed many of us want to know that our elected representatives can be trusted, and we place "God-fearing" among the qualities that we think may justify our trust. How can we ask a candidate to be "God-fearing," but not explicitly accept the binding force of any particular body of religious rules? This is one of the difficult balancing acts we place before the politicians. Historians tell us that religious issues were present in many elections from the Nineteenth Century forward, not always below the surface, and that the tenor of debate has probably improved overall. Many of us can recall questions asked about John Kennedy's campaign for the Presidency: could a Catholic uphold American law and separation of church and state if (hypothetically) the Church instructed him that preservation of his immortal soul required a particular course of action? The oldest among us and those well read in 20th Century history will add the Al Smith presidential campaign to the list of elections in which religion may have played an important role. Are we over those problems -- for Catholic candidates? for Jews and followers of other major minoritarian religions? Is the situation different if the candidate is a member of the clergy, who has taken an oath to uphold a particular religion, and who may even have an obligation to proselytize for that religion? A significant number of ministers have served in the Congress over many years, and not only from the Black community. Yet it is understood that the Church became concerned about a backlash, and caused Father Drinan, a popular Boston Representative in Congress, to leave his seat. The complexities remain for those who succeed in election to office. The present Administration favors the use of federal funds to support sectarian community institutions, even church projects. Members of the Senate and House enjoy "earmarks" to steer funding to pet projects, typically in their districts. Should these legislators attempt to maintain a higher level of church-state separation than the White House, at the risk of looking out of step and losing political support? And there are the symbolic issues: the President lighting the national Christmas tree, the inscriptions on our coinage and paper money, the Pledge of Allegiance, and others. Some of us are quite satisfied, even entertained by these celebrations, considering them largely meaningless. Others rankle at the appearance even of a reindeer on public property at the usual time of year. JSPAN will delve deeper into these topics in the future, pointing out some of the inconsistencies between our wishes and reality, and educating our sensitivity and expectations regarding what candidates can or should do or say. Stay tuned.