We can talk about religion and politics — but be careful about combining them

CHICAGO (JTA) – At a campaign event in Virginia late last month, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders invoked his Judaism in response to a question about Islamophobia in the media. The exchange drew widespread attention, in part because Sanders has mostly avoided discussion of how his religion informs his politics.

The contrast between his approach and that of other candidates is striking. But whatever else we might say about the merits of his candidacy, Sanders’ reticence to don the cloak of sanctimony is refreshing.

Americans in general, and American Jews in particular, must come to terms with the blatant hypocrisy that currently informs our political debate, on both sides of the aisle. Simply stated, we need to decide whether cloaking our political positions in religious principle is fair and legitimate discourse. And if it is, we must ask if we are willing to extend those same rights to our political opponents.

For many years, the putatively solid Democratic Jewish coalition voiced vociferous objection each time those on the right invoked religion to oppose seminal policy issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. On those occasions, it was argued that religion is a decidedly private matter that has no place in the public square. Evangelicals were told to stay out of our bedrooms and keep their fundamentalist views to themselves.

Curiously, however, American Jewish progressives seem to have no problem incorporating their own religious language when advocating a decidedly liberal agenda, most notably through amorphous references to tikkun olam and social justice.

This same dynamic, albeit with tables turned, was brought into sharp relief recently when Christian conservatives suddenly decried papal declarations about global warming, Palestinian rights and the needs of the poor. The pope, whose religious leadership had to that point largely been lauded, was suddenly excoriated, told to stick to what he knows and stay out of politics.

No doubt, many American Jews can relate. Among our coreligionists, both liberals and conservatives appear to agree that when it comes to advancing a “Jewish” political agenda, we would prefer that our rabbis and organizational heads speak out when we agree with them, and stand down and know their place when we don’t.

The duplicity is striking. Such shameless cherry picking — in which we randomly select only those religious positions that conform to our political perspectives, discarding the rest as irrelevant or inconvenient — demands our honest evaluation.

If we are willing to hold up a mirror to our communal discourse, we would find that what often passes for religiously inspired politics is nothing more than the sin of Procrustes on a grand scale. American Jews would do well to recall the wisdom of our 16th president, who said: “In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time … It is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party.”

Almost exactly a hundred years later, Bob Dylan would challenge his listeners with a similar message in the song “With God on Our Side.” Both Lincoln and Dylan remind us that picking and choosing when and under what circumstance to admit religious thinking into our politics is a dangerous, albeit enduring, tendency.

Beyond the inherent hypocrisy, American Jews must contemplate an even more important question. When American Jews couch their politics in religious terms, are they doing so based upon a thoughtful analysis of Jewish teachings? Or are they the sort of Jews whom Leonard Fein once noted would be hard-pressed to name the very Jewish values they purport to invoke?

Does a liberal Jew who uses religious principles to buttress his support for a pro-choice agenda do so because he understands Judaism’s complex teachings on abortion? Or is a Jewish conservative, who claims that her religious worldview obligates her to reject regulation and embrace an unbridled free market, truly conversant with Judaism’s intricate teachings about how to treat the poor?

What Jews do, or want to do, is not the same as what Judaism teaches. And categorical claims that Judaism is pro-this or anti-that do not make them so, however consistent those simplistic views might be with our personal political proclivities.

I do not suggest that every attempt to offer a religious context for a political position demands scholarly rigor. But the reality is, Jewish ethics, like Judaism itself, is far from a monolith. Judaism’s positions on most of the vexing social and political issues of our day are nuanced, and often have multiple understandings and interpretations. The Torah has 70 faces, the Midrash teaches. To suggest that Judaism has a singular perspective on issues of political contentiousness does a disservice to the breadth and depth of Judaism.

Broad categories of moral instruction – care for the poor, the value of human life, the sanctity of marriage, concern for the environment – are just that, broad categories. They are not sophisticated policy formulations, and they are fecund with the possibility of divergent, sometimes dueling political agendas.

As Dylan and Lincoln remind us, cloaking ourselves in nebulous religious principles, however lofty, to suit our political ends is disingenuous. Doing so while criticizing our adversaries for the selfsame behavior is self-righteous piety, whether it happens on the right or the left.

Hal Lewis is the president and chief executive officer of the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago. His books include “Models and Meanings in the History of Jewish Leadership” and “From Sanctuary to Boardroom: A Jewish Approach to Leadership.”