The purpose for religion, for many people, is a way to attempt to do the right thing in the world, according to some notion of morality. What do we do, then, when our religious ideologies get different people to arrive at different outcomes? And what do we do when we are faced with politically motivated ethical questions?
This is the question that stuck with me when I read an article in the New York Times last week that looked at political party affiliation amongst American religious leaders. The study assessed what percentage of rabbis, priests, pastors, and other religious authorities throw their support behind a particular political party, and what that means in terms of their leadership of their congregations. According to the story “like their congregants, religious leaders have sharply divided themselves along political lines.”
Interestingly enough, the study also found that the religious leaders tended to find themselves even further down the political spectrum than their congregants. A rabbi who supports the democratic party, for example, is generally more liberally leaning than the congregants they serve. A pastor who identifies as a republican does so more vehemently than do most of their flock. Why is it, then, that religious leadership and political activism seem to go so hand-in-hand?
It is first important to note how fascinating it is that, as a general rule, religious leaders are coming to their political beliefs based on ideas of morality. Religious thinkers generally are trying to “do what is right” according to some kind of faith-based doctrine, generally by looking through the Bible itself or historical commentary on it. The fact that rabbis, pastors, priests, and leaders can read some of the same books, thinking through the same notions of morality and come to such dramatically different conclusions is proof that we cannot rest upon a single idea of right and wrong. The waters are far murkier, leaving us with the challenge of figuring out how to apply the religious dogma of our faith with the reality in which our modern lives put us.
Incidentally, this article came at almost the same time that the question arose of whether or not religious leaders should be engaging with politics in a vocal manner from the pulpit. A fascinating debate between Rabbi David Wolpe and Rabbi Rick Jacobs recently asked the question: Should we use the opportunity of the sermon to try to inspire the political leanings of those who seek our guidance? Rabbi Wolpe argued “I know outstanding rabbis on the left of the political spectrum and others on the right. You can love Torah and vote for Trump. You can love Torah and think Trump is a blot on the American system. What you may not do, if you are intellectually honest, is say that the Torah points in only one political direction.” His argument is that we should be reading the Torah for higher values, rather than bringing it to the level of the headlines. Rabbi Jacobs argues instead that “The Judaism that I live compels me to use those lessons to understand the most urgent challenges we face.”
In today’s world, politics are everywhere, including, as the New York Times’ piece alerted us, on the pulpit. Our religious leaders hold strong political beliefs, some of which they discuss, some of which they hold privately. In either case, the politics of today is finding its way into our congregations and our churches, and demands some kind of answer in terms of how we guide people to a morally and ethically right decision.
It is possible to be religiously ethical and be a republican. It is possible to be religiously ethical and be a democrat. It is not possible to be religiously ethical and to ignore what is going on in the world around us. How we choose to use those voices is what will determine how we move the future of faith-based leadership forward.