Wrestling With The New Culture Wars

Jews struggle with implications of political-religious fusion.

02/28/12
Associate Editor
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An election year that was supposed to be about jobs, jobs, jobs, is suddenly about Job, Leviticus and Corinthians.

Perhaps because of a slight economic uptick, and with wars winding down and Iran an unknown, the election, at least with former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum’s surge, seems increasingly focused on morality, religion and the discontented, with arguments too short on mercy and too long on wrath.

On the one hand, says Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, president of CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, “Everything we’re not to talk about in polite company — religion, politics and sex — are precisely the things we need to talk about most. Part of the reason Santorum is able to do what he’s doing is that there’s a genuine hunger for the language of faith in public discourse.”

On the other hand, the Anti-Defamation League, which was troubled even by Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s far more modest but frequent endorsements of religion in the public square during his vice presidential race, joined a diverse coalition of non-Jewish and Jewish groups including the American Jewish Committee, and the Union for Reform Judaism, in calling on all presidential candidates to lower the campaign volume on religion. The reason: because “there is a point when an emphasis on religion becomes inappropriate and even unsettling in a religiously diverse society such as ours.”

“It’s not an exact science,” admits Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director. “It’s OK to say ‘vote for me, I’m a person of faith,” but not to say, ‘vote for me, I’m a Christian.’ When you become too specific, that crosses the line. We see this every four years. Remember when Al Gore was asked how he’d make decisions in the White House, and he said, ‘I would ask what Jesus would do.’ [President George W.] Bush was asked, who was his favorite philosopher, and he said ‘Jesus.’ When you preach your particular faith,” says Foxman, “you’re crossing the line.”

And yet, the other week at a prayer breakfast, President Barack Obama was talking about Jesus, and “we didn’t complain,” says Foxman. “It was a prayer breakfast. No one was excluded. He covered all the bases. It was OK. But it’s a thin line.”

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, says, “We have a robust expression of religion in America’s public square: in books, television, radio, music — indeed at candidate forums.” But Santorum, argues Rabbi Saperstein, in confusing the public square with the government square, “distorts the role of religion in the American constitutional framework.”

“No other candidate is so over the line,” says Foxman. “Santorum is the worst. No one matches Santorum.”

Even aside from Santorum’s imagery that’s been on a wild rodeo ride from Jesus to Satan, to wanting to “throw up” from fellow Catholic John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech on the separation of church and state, to calling Obama a “snob” (about college education) with a “phony theology” (about the environment), to his Vatican-orthodox views on contraception and abortion, the news has been filled with other religious issues.

There was the government mandate (prior to a quick compromise) that all employers, including most religious institutions offer birth control coverage, and there was the recent Supreme Court decision (Hosanna-Tabor vs. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission), in which the Court ruled 9-0 against the government’s attempt to allow discrimination lawsuits against religious institutions, a ruling that the Beckett Fund, a legal group that monitors First Amendment issues, called the “most important religious liberty case in 20 years.”

But through it all, the intensely personal nature of Santorum’s religious beliefs were uniquely flammable, and the absence of mercy was a two-way street. In January, several commentators made light of the way Santorum handled the death of his baby in 1996, when he brought the deceased infant boy to lie in repose, as at a Catholic wake, in the Santorum home prior to the funeral. One television commentator said Santorum took the dead baby home “to play with his other children.” Another pundit in the Washington Post and on MSNBC wrote that Santorum is “not a little weird. He’s really weird,” taking the baby home “to kind of sleep with and introduce to the rest of the family.”

Perhaps this mockery of his pain and faith unleashed Santorum’s wounded protestations and sympathy on his behalf, regarding the sanctity of a baby’s life, and against abortion. He also has a daughter with a genetic disease that “almost 100 percent of the time,” he said, “are encouraged to be aborted.”

“It’s legitimate for Santorum to talk about his children because it’s his gestalt,” says Foxman. “He is speaking about himself as a person of faith. It happens to be his religious view, but it doesn’t disqualify that experience. People will then make their decision.”

In fact, some commentators were kind, such as Time’s Joe Klein, often critical of Santorum, who nevertheless wrote, “I’m grateful to Santorum for forcing on me the discomfort of having to think about the moral implications of his daughter’s smile.”

Nevertheless, Santorum’s insistence on fusing politics and piety made many Jews uncomfortable.

Nancy Kaufman, chief executive of the National Council on Jewish Women, was “disturbed” by Santorum’s fusion. She noted the irony of Republicans “who on the one hand say they want a less intrusive government,” with fewer safety-net entitlements, “at a time when people really need [economic] help, but yet want a government that can dictate to us about our bodies and personal moral decisions; people who believe they can use government to impose their own religious values.”

Gil Kahn, a professor of political science at Kean University, also found the mix of religion and politics to be troubling.

“The American Jewish community is not where Santorum is at on social issues, says Kahn. Yet, he has the sense that there are Jews, primarily on the Jewish religious right, who “are happy about it, who support his agenda.” But there are others on the right “who don’t find Santorum’s approach acceptable.” However, Kahn points out, if the other “anyone but Obama” candidates are no longer viable, “then this group that earlier rejected Santorum” will make their peace.

Kean says the talk of Satan “has historically raised concerns for Jews,” and are “very troublesome. That’s not the language that brings a comfort level to the Jewish community [regarding] how politicians ought to address issues.”

CLAL’s Rabbi Hirschfield points out that some Jews aren’t bothered by Santorum’s infusion of religion “because they, by and large, agree with Santorum on other things. If they thought Santorum was the same as Obama about Israel, I don’t think they’d be as happy with Santorum talking about Satan. There’s no question, one part of the community is more comfortable with the marriage of religion and political thought. But it’s also true that many of the people who like the religious political talk, like the politics of the people who are talking religion.”

The real issue, he says, is not candidates talking about religion so much as that “we have not sufficiently evolved an ethic of how we talk about it in a way that is not toxic but safe and healthy. Instead, one party runs as if it had an allergy to religion. The other runs as if to say they have exactly the right mix. One side runs away from it, one side tries to co-opt it. They’re both wrong.”

Adena Berkowitz, a scholar-in-residence at Manhattan’s Kol HaNeshamah congregation, recalled that Rev. Martin Luther King could invoke “the Hebrew Bible for the sake of civil rights legislation, and we were comfortable with that. The problem comes when politicians come across as the Grand Moralizers.” Berkowitz, who is also on the advisory board of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (though she is not speaking for them), says that what most disturbs her is the “shrill, my-way-or-the-highway” theology being heard on the campaign trail. “Politics is the art of the compromise but religion isn’t. When the two mix, that’s a difficult construct.”

Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs, said Orthodox Jews are less troubled by the infusion of religion into the campaign than other Jews; it is similar, he says, to the fact that Orthodox Jews are usually less offended by public displays of Christmas trees and nativity scenes. “Orthodox Jews are not uncomfortable with religious Christians, as long as — and I don’t think Rick Santorum is in this camp — there are no assertions such as ‘America is a Christian nation.’ Santorum has said that faith should be a central part of American debate and culture, that faith informs him in terms of the policies he promotes, but he’s not saying that somehow he wants policies that are discriminatory against non-Christians.”

If anything, says Diament, Santorum “has been a great friend of the Jewish community and worked with us on religious freedom issues, both domestically and internationally. He’s staunchly pro-Israel.”

Rabbi Saperstein says the election may yet hinge on the economy, “but we should never forget that with or without economic problems, the social issues have deep resonance in public life and will continue to come to the fore in our debates.”

Staff writer Stewart Ain contributed to this report.

Last Update:

02/28/2012 - 22:11

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