Rabbi offers ten commandments of politics

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

“Social Justice: The Use and Abuse of Religion in the 2008 Elections” was the topic of a presentation by Rabbi David Saperstein, longtime director of the Religious Action Center, an arm of the Union for Reform Judaism.

Saperstein offered a “Ten Commandments” of do’s and don’ts as to what is or is not appropriate when congregations, rabbis or lay leaders deal with political issues or election campaigns. The program and workshop was part of a weekend Midwest Council URJ kallah, held last weekend at the Marriott St. Louis West Hotel, United Hebrew Congregation and Congregation Shaare Emeth. Described in a profile in The Washington Post as “the quintessential religious lobbyist on Capitol Hill,” Rabbi Saperstein represents the American Reform Jewish movement to Congress and the Administration. During his 30 years as director of the RAC, he has headed several national religious coalitions. He currently co-chairs the Coalition to Preserve Religious Liberty, made up of more than 50 national and religious denominations and educational organizations. Rabbi Saperstein is often on national TV news programs, including Nightline, ABC’s Sunday Morning and PBS’s The News Hour with Jim Leherer.

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Saperstein told attendees of the workshop on “The Use and Abuse of Religion in the 2008 Elections,” that the Jewish community has historically always been politically aware and active. “In 2008, we have presidential elections as well as elections for House and Senate.” He added that the spirited contest for the Democratic nomination between Senators Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Clinton of New York are of particular interest to the U.S. Jewish community, “because for the past 90 years, 75% of American Jews have voted for Democratic presidential candidates. In fact, the last time a plurality of American Jews voted for the Republican presidential candidate was for Warren G. Harding in the 1920 election. Some 42% of Jews voted for Harding.”

Saperstein pointed out that while there has not been an overall shift to the right on the part of American Jews, when Commentary magazine under Norman Podhoretz switched from being liberal to “neo-conservative,” a number of Jewish intellectuals “became emboldened to write and speak out from a conservative perspective, and also a growing number of active Jewish Republicans began to emerge.”

Saperstein said that the movement of Jewish activists into the Republican Party had some positive effects, including, “it blunted the influence of the Pat Robertsons and Pat Buchanans, and it took the Republican Party away from its isolationist roots. The party has also become more pro-Israel as another result.”

Saperstein stressed that despite the phenomenon of increased Jewish participation in conservative movements, publications and the GOP, “Jews are still by far the most liberal group in the United States. On issues like abortion, gay rights, etc., blacks tend to be more conservative than Jews.”

Turning to what is and is not appropriate regarding politics and election campaigns within synagogues, Saperstein offered his “Ten Commandments on Campaigns and Candidates,” which included:

* Thou shalt not offer an explanation to the electorate about how your religious beliefs shape or alter your views on the issues. “It is all right for candidates to refer to their religious values as having an influence, but candidates should never base a policy position only on religious beliefs. Then it becomes a faith statement.”

* (Candidates) shalt discuss their views on political and legal issues that directly affect religion. This category would include church-state separation views, prayer in public schools and similar issues, Sapterstein said.

* (Candidates) shalt feel free to use religious language to explain how their beliefs or practices would affect their ability to perform as President or in another office. “For example, Senator Joe Lieberman, who observes Shabbat, addressed how he would deal with the need to be in Congress on Saturdays by either walking or else staying overnight in the Capitol Building. And John F. Kennedy addressed concerns about how being Catholic would or would not affect his conduct in office, just as Governor Mitt Romney gave a similar speech about being a Mormon,” Saperstein said.

* (Candidates) shalt feel free to discuss the role religion plays in shaping his or her values. “In this category, care must be taken not to suggest a ‘religious test’ while expressing religious values,” Saperstein cautioned.

* (Congregations) shalt NOT seek to organize partisan support in houses of worship. Saperstein said that not only would such activities be wrong in themselves, but could also run afoul of the rule that synagogues and groups with a federal 501(c)(3) tax exempt status could lose the status if they engage in partisan endorsements or activities.

* (Religious organizations or clergy) shalt not use authority or threats of religious discipline to coerce decisions or actions by American citizens. Saperstein cited actions taken by Catholic bishops who threatened to withhold communion from pro-choice candidates or those who voted for them, or who have said it would be a “sin” to vote for a particular candidate. He added that it would also be wrong for rabbis to take positions for or against political candidates for office.

* (Congregations) shalt not endorse or oppose candidates. “Doing so woud violate the spirit and the letter of the concerns mentioned above,” Saperstein said.

Over 75 delegates from Reform congregations in several Midwestern states took part in the weekend kallah. Rabbi Saperstein’s workshop was hosted by Congregation Shaare Emeth.