I endorse… religious leaders not endorsing candidates.
October 7 was declared Pulpit Freedom Sunday as part of an ongoing effort spearheaded by by a group calling itself the “Alliance Defending Freedom” to defy IRS restrictions on pulpit endorsements. The Alliance claims that over 1,600 pastors have participated thus far. Pulpit endorsements are, of course, not relegated to conservative groups like the Alliance, or to Christians. Over 600 of my rabbinic colleagues have signed on to “Rabbis for Obama,” which has led to the creation of a”Rabbis for Romney” group, though those Romney Ravs have chosen to remain anonymous.
The history of the 1954 tax amendment is fascinating. It was offered by Senator Lyndon Johnson, evidently without any connection to church-state issues or the Bill of Rights. It was a simple amendment to a bill and there was almost no discussion. It is targeted toward churches institutionally rather than their employees, referencing clergy only inasmuch as they endorse candidates from the pulpit itself, but not when they speak of their own volition, outside church grounds. It’s hard to say what the original goal was, but it seems clear that it was not to preserve that precious Wall of Separation. It was more likely intended to keep those pesky Texas evangelicals from upsetting the LBJ apple cart.
But these days, people assume this is all about that Wall. Even though it may not have been the intent either of LBJ or the framers to place these restrictions on the church, it should have been.
It is understandable that clergy are chomping at the bit to declare an allegiance to a candidate. The stakes are enormously high, passions are at a fever pitch and the core issues of this campaign touch on those values that define our faith traditions. If clergy can’t speak out on one of the most important decisions their parishioners are going to make, what can they speak out on?
I could endorse a candidate right here, in this posting, without risking my synagogue’s tax exempt status, since this blog is not owned by my synagogue and, although I’m typing on a shul-owned computer, I’m speaking solely for myself. But I refuse to take the bait. It’s clear to most of my congregants that my priorities and values will lead me toward one candidate over the other. But by not endorsing a candidate, I maintain the autonomy to differ markedly from party platforms and stump speeches. I remain a free agent.
In my view, clergy can and should speak to the values their traditions hold dear, but directly endorsing candidates blurs that precious Wall of church/state separation, the very thing that makes religious freedom possible in our country. In most countries, (including, alas, Israel), religion and politics are hopelessly intertwined. In America, at least in theory, religion speaks from a position of independence and autonomy, rather than as a cog in any partisan political machine. That enables religious leaders to work toward building bridges that can link those on both sides of the political chasm, bringing together those with divergent views. It also enables us to speak truth to power authentically and independently, though it can still be supportively.
We can wink and hint and smile and laugh at our guy’s jokes – and I think the I.R.S. would say that’s OK. We can advocate actively for causes that we care about. But as a pulpit rabbi, I also want my synagogue to be a safe zone for all my congregants, a place where no one will feel rejected by their rabbi, where no one will be fearful of expressing their views openly. I want them to know that at day’s end this is where they can come for solace when their candidate has lost, or when they suffer far more painful personal losses.
I also like the idea that these restrictions force me to think extra hard before I say anything about politics. That extra filter helps train me to think extra hard about the implications of everything else that I say or write. Restraint is a good thing, even for a blogger. It might seem foolish to have all that winking going on, but it signals that the word coming from the pulpit is not a commandment from on high, but rather a still small voice of nuance and questioning. That voice can turn powerful and prophetic at times too, and it’s all the more powerful when it doesn’t sound like an infomercial financed by a Super PAC.
I don’t believe God endorses candidates. So I don’t endorse.
There is no question that enormous issues are at stake in this election. For me, as with many (hopefully most) Jews, Israel is high on that list. I feel that both major candidates are very supportive of Israel and I’m delighted to see that over the past few weeks a real consensus has emerged between them regarding how to deal with the Iranian threat (as we saw particularly in the foreign policy and Vice Presidential debates). Israel has stronger bipartisan support in the U.S. than ever before, and we all need to keep it that way. You don’t get unanimous Senate votes like the recent Iran sanctions resolution other than with strong bipartisanship. It’s strong, but like everything else in this turbulent world, it’s fragile. We can’t and mustn’t play political games with it.
I strongly endorse… bipartisanship on Israel and not turning it into a wedge issue. If that is considered a wink toward one candidate, it shouldn’t be, but I’m willing to take that risk.
That’s how the system works these days. Clergy speak to issues and passions. We rant and rave. We don’t shy away from any important issue. We can hint all we like, trying to buoy our favorite on a wink and a prayer.
But we shouldn’t endorse a candidate.