Is there anything more infuriating than having to sit through what seems to
be a political sermon delivered by the rabbi of your congregation?
Now that I think of it, let me rephrase the question: Is there anything more
infuriating than having to sit through a political sermon with which you
Of course, most of us don't go to synagogues where the homilies from the pulpit give us indigestion. And if we do, we wind up switching synagogues or, if
enough congregants give the okay, switching rabbis.
Rabbis do well to avoid the pitfalls of partisanship; but in an era when
Americans seem to be more sharply divided about the great issues of the day,
religious institutions are not immune to the virus of partisanship.
While the line that divides religion and state in this country is, in
practice, not the high wall that some would like it to be, any church, synagogue or
mosque that allows itself to be used as a political headquarters is asking for
POLITICS IN THE CHURCH?
And that's why a lot of people got upset when they learned that earlier this
month, the Bush campaign was reaching out to 1,600 Pennsylvania churches that
were characterized as "friendly" to the president. Liberal groups screamed
bloody murder about the mass e-mail, and threatened to challenge the tax-exempt
status of any institution that allowed itself to be co-opted into the
The critics of the Bush effort were right that nonprofits and religious
groups ought not to pretend to nonpartisanship on their tax forms while endorsing
Those made uncomfortable by this practice also do well to point out the
dangers for religion itself when their leaders confuse faith with partisanship. One
need only look at Israel to name a nation where denominationalism has
manifested itself in separate religious parties who compete for votes in the name
of a particular brand of faith to see the problems that arise when there is
no separation between religion and state. Heaven help America if our political
parties become thinly-veiled tools of religious beliefs.
But before we call out the constitutional police on the Bush brigades, we
should remember one pertinent fact about the practice of politics in America's
houses of worship: It has been going on undisturbed and almost uncommented upon
for many years.
Anyone who covers politics in this country has done time sitting in churches
listening to candidates speak from pulpits. While the backlash against the
Bush effort is focused on Republican use of conservative Christian chapels, the
truth is, African-American churches have been playing that same role for the
Democrats for decades.
Black churches have played an essential part in energizing a key Democratic
constituency, with endorsements by pastors in major political races being the
rule, rather than the exception. The leadership of these churches make sure
their congregants get out to vote and know who to vote for. Which is, more or
less, exactly what the Republicans would like those 1,600 "friendly" churches to
So is the outrage about conservative Christians mobilizing for Bush on the
part of the American Civil Liberties Union and others hypocritical? Sure, it is.
Critics of the right who are silent about the role of black churches in
backing liberals and Democrats argue that the purpose of the two efforts is
completely different. They see conservative churches as seeking to impose their
religion on others and actually want to create a theocracy, while the black
churches are merely defending the endangered interests of a minority group that has
been victimized by discrimination and racism.
But that supposed distinction tells us more about how divisive American
politics is today than it does about the motivations of either group.
As New York Times columnist David Brooks the self-described "cosmic
sociologist" has written, already deeply polarized Americans have increasingly
divided themselves into groups that neither speak nor listen to each other, and
are inclined to think the worst of those who disagree with them.
The most obvious example hits close to home. Jewish liberals are particularly
fearful of the influence of conservative Christians, seeing evangelicals and
others associated with the right as intolerant of minorities both religious
and ethnic and an inherent threat to the democratic nature of our society.
They fear conservatives want an America where non-Christians are
disenfranchised both figuratively and literally and where their brand of Christianity
will become the state religion.
But if you actually talk to conservative Christians, they live in a very
different reality. They see a country where secularism is the state religion. They
believe the ethos of that secularism has created a political and cultural
reality, where religious speech is the only type of expression that can be banned
or discriminated against.
They believe their values are derided and marginalized by mainstream
institutions, and so look to their churches and to like-minded politicians for help in
defending their rights. The majority of them are also confused by accusations
of anti-Semitism since they, for the most part, are the most pro-Israel
sector of American society.
NO MORE DEMONS
So who is right? Liberals and secularists have gone overboard in their
attempt to make the public square an unfriendly place for religious speech. But the
use of churches or synagogues for partisan political purposes is wrong. And
it's wrong when it happens on the left or the right.
Religious values have had an impact on the left and the right. And there's
nothing wrong with either side using those values or religious speech or imagery
in making their cases to an American public that is itself still deeply
In a country where religious and secular cultures clash, it is inevitable
that this conflict will spill over into politics. But what we need to avoid is a
situation where that split begins to define us.
Even though it's hard, let's try to listen to the other side. And let us all
pray for the patience to do so.