TIME

Religion, Hypocrisy, and Obamacare

Eric Yoffie was President of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012.

It is not OK for a religiously serious person to offer no plan at all to help truly poor, weak, and helpless Americans.

“Now, when you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small. But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor. You better have a good answer.”

These words, spoken last year to a member of the Ohio legislature by John Kasich, the now reelected Republican governor of Ohio, are significant for two reasons.

First and most important, they are a reminder of a simple religious truth: If you don’t care about the poor, the suffering, and the sick, you cannot be a good Christian — or a good Jew, or a good Muslim. You may pretend to be a good religious person, of course. You can convince yourself, perhaps, that you are God-fearing and upright. But in the final analysis, if you forget the downtrodden and ignore the stranger and the widow, and fail to show kindness and mercy to the least among us, you have failed in your religious obligations. As Governor Kasich pointedly reminded the legislator, like him a conservative and a man of faith, St. Peter will be waiting with some very specific questions, and he will not be satisfied with platitudes or evasions.

And while the Governor was speaking as a believing Christian, his words hold true for all the Abrahamic traditions. True, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam offer a stunning diversity of practices and beliefs. Their adherents observe different rituals and pray with different liturgies. Each proposes a distinct path to salvation, and at times, each suggests the superiority of its own religious way. Still, for all of their traditional differences, there are common pillars upon which they all rest. All three assert some version of the Golden Rule, demanding that we act toward others as we would have others act toward us. And all three require compassion for the weak and the poor, requiring us to go beyond ourselves, feel pain that is not our own, and then reach out to the truly needy in our midst.

As a politician, and a good one, Governor Kasich, if pressed, would undoubtedly not say that he was calling his opponents un-Christian. Nonetheless, his words were clear in their intent and very much on target. He was reminding us that despite all the palaver that we hear about the Judeo-Christian tradition, too many religious Americans have lost sight of what religion must always be: A force for compassion, healing, and hope.

The second reason that the Governor’s words are significant is because of the context in which they were expressed.

The Governor said what he said while convincing the members of the Ohio legislature to approve an expansion of Medicaid, a government healthcare program for the poor. The expansion is provided for by the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), and therefore was unpopular with conservatives, even though it extended medical insurance to 275,000 needy Ohioans.

It would be absurd to suggest that religion requires support for Obamacare. There are a variety of ways in which government could expand health coverage, and in fact, Kasich opposes the Affordable Care Act as an inefficient, “top-down” program. But what was important was his assertion that despite opposing Obamacare, a responsible religious person could — and, in fact, must — endorse selective use of the legislation if that is the only way to help poor and desperate people, such as the 26,000 veterans and 55,000 mentally ill persons who had no other options available to assist them.

In his little sermon to the legislator, the Governor was making it clear that it is fine to say you prefer Plan A to Plan B, but it is not fine for a religiously serious person to offer no plan at all to help truly poor, weak, and helpless Americans. To do that is to contribute to the increasingly common image of political leaders as cynical and complacent and cut off from any real understanding of the people they represent. To do that is to be untrue to the fundamental teachings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and to ignore religion’s understanding of our higher selves.

Twenty-two states have not yet expanded Medicaid, and most, alas, are offering no alternative to their most disadvantaged citizens. I can only hope that politicians in these states will follow the lead of the Governor of Ohio, who understood that turning our back on those at the very bottom of the ladder is not the American way, and it is not the Judeo-Christian way, either. If you are a practical politician with high ideals and religious convictions, you need to put real solutions on the table. And whatever your personal theology or the state of your belief, why not assume that the Governor’s right? If the time comes that someone is standing at heaven’s gate, asking what you did for the poor, it’s best to be ready with an answer.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME faith

Is Alliance Defending Freedom the Next Hobby Lobby?

God Meets Profit as Justices Weigh Obamacare Contraceptive Rule
Paul Clement, lawyer arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., center, speaks to the media with David Cortman, senior counsel and vice-president of religious liberty with Alliance Defending Freedom, right, following arguments in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, March 25, 2014. Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Eric Yoffie was President of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012.

If a church or its religious leader wants to enter the partisan political fray and support a specific candidate, that is one step too far

Electioneering from the pulpit is a very bad idea, but champions of this particular bad idea seem to feel that its time has come. Let’s hope, for the sake of religion in America, that they are wrong.

On October 5, referred to by its organizers as “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” more than 1,500 pastors preached sermons about political candidates and their views on matters before the electorate. The day was organized by Alliance Defending Freedom, a group that advocates the absolute right of clergy to endorse candidates or parties without interference from the government or the IRS.

According to IRS regulations, churches can speak out on issues and values; however, they are forbidden to participate in political campaigns or to intervene in any way on behalf of any political candidate. A pastor can give a sermon on poverty or health care, but violates IRS policy if he endorses a candidate. Breaking these rules can lead to the revocation of the church’s tax-exempt status.

The rules, supported by most Americans, are eminently sensible. Freedom of speech and religion are guaranteed by the Constitution, and a priest, rabbi or imam can say whatever he or she pleases from the pulpit. But the Constitution does not guarantee places of worship the benefits of tax exemption, which are considerable. According to Dylan Matthews in the Washington Post, these subsidies cost the government $80 billion in revenue every year. In short, the American people value religion and are prepared, by way of their government’s taxing authority, to foot the bill for much of the good work that places of worship do. But if a church or its religious leader wants to enter the partisan political fray and support a specific candidate, that is one step too far. In that case, the church is required to give up its tax exemption and pay for its electioneering itself.

But the Alliance disagrees. It contends that freedom of religion confers on clergy the right to endorse local, state and national candidates from the pulpit while their churches retain all of their tax benefits. And the purpose of its current campaign is to prod the IRS into taking action against a pastor who violates the rules, thereby generating a test case that it can carry to the U.S. Supreme Court.

One would like to think that the efforts of the Alliance are doomed to failure. Indeed, for most of the last half century, such a campaign would have seemed fanciful, if not absurd. Its goal, after all, is contrary to both established practice and common sense. Nonetheless, there is reason for concern.

In the first place, the IRS has not consistently enforced its own policies. While the overwhelming majority of clergy do not endorse political candidates, there are exceptions; conservative, Evangelical churches, such as those organized by the Alliance, are one example, and left-leaning African-American churches are another. It’s interesting that Pulpit Freedom Sunday was also the day that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, running for a second term, visited churches in Queens and Brooklyn to ask for support from black congregants. At the Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral in Jamaica, Queens, the Rev. Floyd H. Flake, a former congressman, expressed his support for Cuomo, offering the equivalent of a political endorsement if not a formal one.

Part of the issue seems to be that the IRS does not want a challenge in the courts. Therefore, it has refused to be goaded into taking action by the law breakers, and in particular by the Pulpit Freedom Sunday participants, who have been holding an annual event and growing in numbers for six years. But ignoring enforcement is always a bad strategy. It breeds disrespect for the law and encourages more pulpit law breaking from every political direction.

In the second place, if the IRS finally stands its ground and the result is a legal challenge that reaches the Supreme Court, it is more likely now than before that the Supreme Court will be sympathetic to the Alliance arguments. In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., arguably the most significant case of the Supreme Court term, the Court granted a special status to religious objectors and religious freedom that was seemingly without basis in precedent. This is good in some ways, but not so good in others; freedom of religion is not absolute and needs to be balanced against other rights and freedoms. It is hard to imagine the legal grounds for a decision that would grant churches the unrestricted right to enter the political process while still benefiting from the financial largesse of the taxpayer, but such an outcome is no longer impossible.

Once ministers, priests, rabbis and imams are entitled to endorse candidates without restriction, they will be increasingly pressured to do so. The same people who pour money into political campaigns will direct their dollars to houses of worship. And churches, synagogues and mosques will no longer be places of worship; they will be political bazaars.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, a writer and lecturer, was President of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. His writings are collected at ericyoffie.com.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME faith

The Theology Behind Obama’s Speech on ISIS

Obama drew from prominent Protestant minister Reinhold Niebuhr

Religion is creating havoc in the world. Authoritarian governments are collapsing in the Middle East, and in the absence of credible alternatives, Sunni and Shi’ite religious groupings, fueled by ancient hatreds, are fighting each other to fill the void.

President Obama gave a speech last week on what to do about it. It was a sane and sensible speech, and one that may have drawn some inspiration from a Protestant minister who was a profound political thinker and one of America’s great public intellectuals of the mid-20th century.

In 2007, presidential candidate Barack Obama told columnist David Brooks that Reinhold Niebuhr was one of his “favorite philosophers.” “I love him,” Obama said, and despite the fact that Niebuhr was not a philosopher but a theologian, the President-to-be proceeded to give a very respectable capsule summary of his thinking.

Niebuhr is mentioned less frequently these days, but I heard a distinct Niebuhrian strain in the President’s speech. And that is a good thing. There is no foreign policy consensus today; in fact, there is barely any foreign policy coherence. The Republicans veer wildly from the interventionism of John McCain to the isolationism of Rand Paul. On the Democratic side, Hilary Clinton is dismissive of the President’s foreign policy positions but seems to have none of her own. Yet amidst this confusion, the President spoke wisely and well, and I heard in his words some of the clarity, depth, and moral power that characterize the writings of his “favorite philosopher.”

A liberal clergyman, Niebuhr wrote forcefully about original sin and the existence of evil in the world. Setting aside the pacifism of his youth, he came to believe that liberal reformers too often exaggerate human goodness. And since nations are even more flawed than individuals, he saw power politics as inevitable. This meant that if justice were to be achieved in this world, America would have to be prepared to exercise the power that she possesses. For great nations in a messy world, there is no opting out; great powers must take chances and get their hands dirty in order to do right.

In this vein, the President was specific about the evil that is ISIS; he spoke of the attempted genocide, the mass executions, the abuse of women, and the killing of children. He mentioned the gruesome beheadings of American journalists. And he spoke as well of America’s obligation to lead in the world and to promote both justice and freedom, and did so with more passion than has been his custom of late.

But there is another side to Niebuhr, and there was another side to the President’s speech. Niebuhr affirmed power but also feared it. While individuals are sometimes humble, he believed that nations—and especially great powers—never are. They assume that they can change the world in ways they cannot. They act for their own benefit rather than for the benefit of those they are supposedly helping. They deify their own states and their own intentions. They fail to ask if what they are undertaking will help or hurt. And they do all of this, often, with the very best of intentions, certain of their own virtue. And the result? Tragedies such as Vietnam, where American pretensions led not to the justice that Americans aspired to but to suffering and disaster.

The President, it seemed to me, was clearly aware of the dangers of overreach, and he did a reasonably good job, to use David Brooks’ phrase, of “thread(ing) the Niebuhrian needle.” He talked about things that America can reasonably expect to accomplish, such as air strikes on ISIS targets and delivering humanitarian aid. He avoided the temptation to inflate the threat of terrorism, even as he pledged to keep America safe. And he refrained from the language of jingoism and belligerence to which such occasions lend themselves. And above all, he made a firm commitment that American troops would not fight a battle that, if it is to be won, must be fought by Arab armies. In short, the President more or less succeeded in balancing American assertiveness with the humility that Niebuhr prized as the essential—and usually the missing—ingredient of American foreign policy.

And this too: Niebuhr was an enthusiastic champion of the checks and balances of the Constitution. He was reassured by the idea that each branch of government would ride herd on the others and thereby prevent abuses of power in pursuing foreign adventures. Here too the President got it right in calling for the full and robust engagement of the Congress in authorizing and shaping the campaign against ISIS.

I have no doubt that the President will be subjected to a barrage of criticism from the warmongering elements of the opposition, but I find his performance impressive. The American people needed to hear a plan, and they did; they needed to be reassured, and they were. And they needed to know, as they now do, that their government will not rush off and engage us in a battle that will exacerbate rather than calm the deeply troubled waters of the Middle East, taking many American lives in the process.

What would Reinhold Niebuhr say? I can only speculate. He died in 1971, and we will never know what he would say or do. But my guess is that the President was paying attention to his teachings, and the great theologian would be pleased.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, a writer and lecturer, was President of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. His writings are collected at ericyoffie.com.

 

 

TIME faith

The AIPAC Wars are Underway Again

Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to the cheering audience as he arrives to speak to the AIPAC meeting at the Washington Convention Center on March 4, 2014, in Washington. Carolyn Kaster—AP

The latest attack on AIPAC is seriously flawed

AIPAC—the American Israel Public Affairs Committee—is a lobby created by American Jews and devoted to improving relations between the United States and Israel. Every 5 or 6 years a book or major article is published, containing an “exposé” on how AIPAC operates. The latest version, a 12,000-word article written by Connie Bruck and entitled “Friends of Israel,” appears in the September 1 edition of “The New Yorker.”

The problem with this most recent effort, like the ones that precede it, is that it tells us very little we don’t already know. The workings of AIPAC are not a secret. The organization was founded 50 years ago with a small office in Washington, D.C., but now has a hundred thousand members and a grassroots presence in every state and congressional district. It does not endorse candidates or raise funds for campaigns, but many in the Jewish community will donate or not depending on whether a politician backs AIPAC positions.

AIPAC is committed to the proposition that Israel is a vital ally of the United States, and it supports military aid and political backing for the Jewish state. It operates by initiating email campaigns, offering trips to Israel for politicians and community leaders, developing constituency groups that will contact their Senators and Congressmen, and providing educational programs. In short, it does what all lobbies do, and while it lacks the clout of the banking or oil lobby, it is enormously effective for the simple reason that the American people are supportive of Israel. In addition, AIPAC is very good at its job.

If this sounds admirable, it is. In America’s vibrant democracy, a group of citizens has come together to defend another democracy, a tiny state surrounded by enemies in the radicalized Middle East. What then is there to “expose”?

Bruck offers more or less the same far-fetched answers that we heard from the last major “exposé,” written by Professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in 2007. AIPAC, she suggests, basically controls American foreign policy in the Middle East. Members of Congress are victims of the AIPAC machine, forced by its political pressure to put the interests of Israel before the interests of America. Furthermore, as Israel has moved to the right, AIPAC has allowed itself to become a tool of rightwing Republicans who want to use Israel as a wedge issue to undermine President Obama. But, Bruck concludes, things are looking up. The American public, members of Congress, and even American Jews are fed up with the increasing extremism of both AIPAC and the Netanyahu government, and AIPAC’s support is declining.

The Bruck article does offer a few interesting insights, but its hostility to AIPAC and Israel is so intense that it is impossible to take seriously. Bruck professes to see AIPAC as a terrible bully, but the kind of arm-twisting that she describes happens every day in Washington. Since lobbying and tough talk on every issue imaginable are the very lifeblood of our political system, why exactly is advocacy for Israel any less legitimate than advocacy for any of the other matters, foreign and domestic, that come before Congress?

Furthermore, Bruck’s portrayal of Israel as the villain in Gaza is the best gauge of how she really feels about the Jewish state. Since Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007, more than 15,000 rockets have been fired at Israel’s civilian centers, traumatizing the population and bringing ordinary life in large parts of Israel to a halt. While the civilian casualties in Gaza are tragic, Israel is the victim of Hamas, and not the other way around.

And finally, the picture that she presents of members of Congress borders on the absurd. They do pay attention to AIPAC—and to other lobbying groups, their own sense of duty, and most important, what they see, rightly, as the pro-Israel sentiments of their constituents. Even an American public that does not hold Senators and Congresspersons in high regard is not prepared to accept as credible that they are mindless automatons, disregarding principle and blindly accepting AIPAC’s dictates.

Bruck gets some things right. While the danger of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons is a serious issue and a legitimate concern of Congress, we see from Bruck’s account that AIPAC bungled its handling of the matter. And she is right that despite its claim of bipartisanship, it has not always done well in that regard. As an example of AIPAC’s professed intentions, she quotes a statement by the AIPAC spokesman: “Our position in support of the Oslo process and the two-state solution have generated criticism from some on the right, just as our stand for strong prospective Iran sanctions has spurred criticism from on the left.” Fair enough. But while AIPAC leaders frequently talk about Iran sanctions, they hardly ever mention the two-state solution—or the settlements that may prevent such a solution from happening. These subjects are virtually absent from their educational materials and their annual conferences. If AIPAC is serious about bipartisanship and about bringing more Democrats, liberals, and young people into the AIPAC tent, it will need to advocate for the two-state solution that it already supports.

These virtues notwithstanding, the Bruck article is seriously flawed. AIPAC is one of American Jewry’s proudest accomplishments, and is invaluable for the survival of Israel—America’s most devoted Middle Eastern ally. An honest and thoughtful analysis of the organization would have been welcome. Sadly, what Ms. Bruck provides is a biased exposé, filled more with fantasy than with fact.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, a writer and lecturer, was President of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. His writings are collected at ericyoffie.com.

TIME foreign affairs

The Bizarre Moral Criticism Against Israel

ISRAEL-GAZA-BORDER-OPERATION PROTECTIVE EDGE
Israeli soldiers rest beside shells for a 155mm M109 Dores self-propelled howitzer at a position in Southern Israel near the border with Gaza, on the seventh day of Operation Protective Edge, on July 14, 2014. Li Rui—Xinhua/Sipa

What does it mean to say that casualties are “disproportionate”?

On “NBC Nightly News” on July 12, David Gregory spoke of growing pressure from the United Nations for a ceasefire in Gaza. He noted that the United States and many other nations believed that Israel had a right to self-defense. Nonetheless, Gregory reported, these countries were likely to be sympathetic to calls for a ceasefire because of the “disproportionate” number of casualties between the two sides. Among the residents of Gaza, the death toll then exceeded 100, while Israel had suffered dozens of injuries but no casualties.

Mr. Gregory was simply reporting the news, but I found his comments disturbing, nonetheless. What does it mean to say that the casualties are “disproportionate”? And is that really the moral issue that we need to be concerned about?

The implication of the “disproportionality” claim is that, given their losses, the people of Gaza are the real victims. But morally and politically, this is an intolerable and distorted interpretation of the realities in the region.

The reason that Hamas has not killed more Israelis is not because they haven’t tried. In the seven years during which it has controlled Gaza, Hamas and its proxies have fired more than 5000 rockets into Israel; almost 800 have been launched just this past week. Each one has been aimed at civilians and intended to murder and maim. The reason that more Israelis have not died is that the weapons are mostly crude and inaccurate and that, over time, Israel has prepared herself with shelters, warning sirens and an anti-missile system. In addition, Israelis have been just plain lucky.

But that luck could change at any moment. If a single rocket were to hit a school or a mall, the number of dead could balance out in a flash. Then, to be sure, you would have “proportionality,” but there is no moral calculus by which additional dead civilians is a preferable outcome.

For Israel, the fundamental issue is the responsibility of its government to protect its citizens. As missiles have fallen on her cities over the years, the government has not succeeded in providing that protection. The reasons are many, including sensitivity to American wishes and a concern for world opinion; but the desire not to hurt the innocent is the most important. Now, however, as children in the south continue to live in terror and civilians throughout Israel flee to shelters several times daily, Israel’s leaders have concluded that they must act.

There is something bizarre, in fact, about the idea of “proportionality” being used as a moral criticism against Israel. A proportional response by Israel to the attacks of the last seven years would mean that every time a rocket is fired by Hamas at an Israeli civilian center, Israel would respond by firing a rocket at a civilian center in Gaza. Israel, of course, rejected that, then and now. Still, when Hamas violated the ceasefire yet again and got its hands on longer-range rockets, something had to be done.

The best way to evaluate Israel’s action is to imagine how we as Americans would respond to similar provocations. Assume the following: a terrorist group embedded in Mexico that the Mexican government refused to disarm is firing missiles into Houston night after night, endangering American lives. Our government would not wait a week or a month; indeed, it would not wait a single day before taking action to assure the well-being of her citizens. In fact, we need only remember how American forces flew half way around the world to engage in a war in Afghanistan against terrorists who carried out an attack on American soil. The talk then was not of proportionality, but of providing security for our country and stopping those who wished to do us harm.

Of course, let us not think for a moment, God forbid, that we can be indifferent to the death of innocents. The death of any child, Israeli or Arab, Muslim or Jew, is an unspeakable tragedy that rends the heart. Israel must do everything humanly possible to avoid the civilian casualties; already she issues warnings and calls for evacuation of areas about to be attacked, and must do more. Still, for any country, morality begins with a reasonable measure of security for her own citizens, and it is not right to say that Israel must protect Palestinian civilians at the cost of abandoning her own.

The issue was never “proportionality”; it is the suffering and dying of too many Arabs and Jews. And while there is much that is complicated about the Middle East, ending the violence in Gaza is not complicated. Hamas needs to halt the missile attacks and provide credible assurances to Israel and the world that they will not be resumed. If the rockets stop, quiet can come tomorrow. And tomorrow is not soon enough.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, a writer and lecturer, was President of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. His writings are collected at ericyoffie.com.

TIME faith

Why I’m Thankful for America’s Immigrants and Religion this Fourth of July

Two reasons I love America: her immigrants and religiosity.

The Fourth of July is nearly upon us. As always, we Americans will barbeque in our backyards, watch fireworks, and celebrate America. And there is much to celebrate.

We love this country, and with good reason.

Americans are informal and down-to-earth. We introduce ourselves by our first names to practically everyone. We say “hi” on elevators to people that we have never laid eyes on. We don’t like folks who put on airs. We are unfailingly helpful and friendly. And if you think everyone is like that, spend a few weeks in Europe.

We talk a lot about freedom in America, and we mostly mean it. Rich, poor, or in between, we are assertive about our rights and stubborn about our liberty.

We are also a patriotic bunch, and reasonably united, despite our diversity. In a world where tribal loyalties are reasserting themselves, we have no ties of blood to bind us together. But we have the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, and the essential idealism and optimism of the American people.

There are two things about which I feel special pride.

The first is the way that America continually remakes herself. Great countries require periodic injections of new thinking and energy, and America is now rearranging herself before our very eyes, like a scrambled kaleidoscope.

The arrival of new immigrants is primarily responsible. Most come out of desperation, but they learn our ways with startling speed, and then, like others before them, they reshape America.

Last year a pipe burst in my home on a weekend and the shut-off valve did not work. With water pouring onto the kitchen floor, I called the two plumbers that I have used for 30 years; both informed me that they no longer provide emergency service. I grabbed the phone book and started calling plumbers; on the third try, I reached someone who said they would be there in 10 minutes. Two Hispanic men with heavy accents arrived, stopped the flow of water, did the repair, cleaned up the area, and charged a reasonable fee for their service. These immigrants saved my home.

And then there is the family of Asian immigrants that runs a fruit and vegetable store in my neighborhood. The produce is better quality than in the supermarket, the prices are lower, and the store is open every day, from early morning to late at night. And of course there are the immigrant nannies that care for so many children in my area.

It distresses me when I hear the strident sounds of ugly nativism from our politicians, directed against both legal and illegal immigrants, children and adults. Yes, the issues are complicated, but much of what they are saying is simply old-fashioned mean-spiritedness. And in trying to reserve America only for those already here, they will only strangle her spirit. Most Americans, I am convinced, want a more inclusive America. They know that there is room here for immigrants; and they know too that the invitation extended on the Statue of Liberty to all those “who yearn to breathe free” is an expression of who we really are.

The second thing of which I am especially proud is America’s exuberant religiosity. The talk of religious decline is mostly nonsense. American religion is constantly reinventing itself, but our country remains a place of deep spiritual energy. Four out of five Americans identify with a religious denomination; and of the 20% who don’t, more than half believe in God. In the industrialized West, no other country comes close to this level of religious engagement.

Religion thrives for many reasons. The Founding Fathers knew that separating church from state would promote religious commitment. And Americans are wise enough not to banish religion entirely from the public sphere; America pays for military chaplains, gives tax exemptions to places of worship, and allows occasional ceremonial prayer. Most important, Americans understand that religion provides an anchor of stability in uncertain times, and that when a people lose faith in God, it often means they have lost faith in their country and in themselves.

Sure, there is plenty to worry about. Our infrastructure is falling apart, and inequality is much greater than it was. And in dealing with all of this, our politics seem both petty and paralyzed.

But it would be a mistake to romanticize earlier eras. Those was no time in America’s past when harmony reigned. And the reason is that our raucous democracy invites contentiousness. Our task, then, is to accept controversy and do what Americans have always done: Battle for our values, and fight to fill the moral void in our land. But, at the same time, reach out to our fellow citizens, strive for mutual respect, and try to articulate political concerns that will draw us together as Americans at least some of the time.

Happy July 4th.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, a writer and lecturer, was President of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. His writings are collected at ericyoffie.com.

TIME faith

No, Eric Cantor Did Not Lose Because He’s Jewish

Despite what sensational headlines have suggested, anti-semitism isn't to blame for Eric Cantor's stunning primary defeat

Eric Cantor’s primary defeat by David Brat, an economics professor at Randolph-Macon College, sent the pundits scurrying. Shocked and bewildered, they searched around for theories to makes sense of what they had not anticipated happening. Hundreds of articles were written and dozens of explanations were offered.

One of the more fascinating threads that emerged from the cacophony of ideas put forward in the days following the primary was the effort to find a Jewish dimension to the story. Cantor, the House Majority Leader, was the highest ranking Jewish lawmaker in American history, with aspirations to be Speaker of the House. When one adds to that the fact that Brat is a religious Christian who speaks frequently of his faith, the temptation to uncover a Jewish angle became irresistible. The New York Times, the Washington Post, the leading Jewish weekly the Forward, and a variety of other publications duly turned out articles examining, from every perspective, the Jewish and religious sides of the election.

The problem was that there was no Jewish angle, at least not one of any consequence.

David Wasserman, a normally sensible political analyst, got things going with a much-quoted statement to the Times suggesting that anti-Semitism was at play in Cantor’s defeat. Cantor was culturally out of step with his redrawn district, according to Wasserman, “and part of this plays into his religion. You can’t ignore the elephant in the room.” Sensationalist headlines soon followed. The Week, a news magazine, ran a story entitled “Did Eric Cantor lose because he’s Jewish?” And the Forward ran an opinion column with the headline “Did Eric Cantor Lose Because He’s Jewish? You Betcha.”

But there was no elephant in the room. There wasn’t even a mosquito in the room. Nobody could turn up a single statement or piece of literature coming from the Brat campaign or anyone else that was even remotely anti-Semitic. And sensationalism aside, the ultimate consensus of virtually everyone was that anti-Semitism was not a factor of any kind in Cantor’s loss.

Conservatives, including Jewish conservatives, cried foul, charging that the point of the coverage was a deliberate attempt by liberals to smear Republican voters as bigots. Perhaps, although my own view is that it reflected media sloppiness and obsessiveness more than political conspiracy.

Another claim was that even in the absence of explicit anti-Semitism, the Brat victory represented a victory for evangelicalism and Christian politics and therefore a long-term threat to Jews and all non-Christian minorities. Vigilance about church-state separation is always appropriate, of course, but it is hard to see the threat here. Brat is often described as aligned with the Tea Party, which is a motley collection of organizations and activists; it has ill-defined religious positions not at all identical with those of evangelical groups, which are diverse themselves. Most important, there is much evidence that Americans are becoming less religious and not more so, and, as the gay marriage issue demonstrates, more tolerant in their religious outlooks.

Mr. Brat, of course, likes to talk publicly of his belief in God, and that is distressing to some people, both Jews and Christians. But God talk is acceptable in America, and people with liberal religious outlooks, President Obama included, also make reference to their religious beliefs from time to time. The key for politicians is to be sure that they ground their statements in a language of morality that is accessible to everyone; Americans need a common political discourse not dominated by exclusivist theology. As long as Brat—and others—stay on the right side of that political line, there is no reason to see this election as a religious watershed for Jews or anyone else, or a victory for religious coercion.

A third claim is that the Cantor defeat represents a disastrous decline of Jewish political fortunes. In this view, Cantor’s defeat is seen as part of a broader pattern: There are 33 Jews in the current Congress, both the House and the Senate, as compared with 39 in the previous one. But here again, this seems like an altogether arbitrary and unfounded assumption. Jews are well represented in all areas of America’s educational, business, and political life, and that is not changed in any way by the defeat of a Jewish Majority Leader in the House of Representatives.

Eric Cantor’s fall from political power is interesting and in some ways important. For decades to come, politicians and professors will study it as an example of what happens when a serious but self-referential politician loses touch with the things that ordinary Americans care about and gets caught up in the big-dollar culture of Washington. But they will say very little about the Jewish dimension of this affair—and that is for the simple reason that it doesn’t exist.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, a writer and lecturer, was President of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. His writings are collected at ericyoffie.com.

TIME Religion

Anti-Semitism: Not a Threat to American Jews

There are plenty of things for American Jews to worry about, but anti-Semitism is not one of them.

Anti-Semitism is not a threat to the security and well-being of the Jews of America.

This is not to deny the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe or the explosion of Jew hatred—often disguised as anti-Zionism—in much of the Muslim world. The reappearance of these murderous lunacies in certain regions of the world is a solemn reminder that anti-Semitism never disappears from the human heart.

Nonetheless, a little perspective is in order. The just-released study by the Anti-Defamation League on global anti-Semitism, which suggests that one-quarter of the world’s population is anti-Semitic, argues that 21 million Americans can reasonably be classified anti-Semites. This has caused much dismay among some American Jews. Twenty-one million may be fewer than 10% of all Americans, but it is still a very large number.

Nonetheless, I am counted among those who see no cause for alarm. It is important to remember that the ADL survey is an attempt to measure anti-Semitic attitudes, which are notoriously difficult to gauge; and it does so using methodologies that are much in dispute. What it does not do is measure anti-Semitic behaviors, which are a reasonably objective matter and the means by which Jews traditionally determine their progress in gaining full acceptance in America.

And by behavioral standards, it is difficult to see anti-Semitism as a factor of any consequence in American life. Jews in America are able to live in neighborhoods where they want to live, work in businesses where they want to work, and gain acceptance to any universities that they are qualified to attend. This was not always the case in this country; even in the post-World War II period, discrimination against Jews in all these realms was commonplace. But no more. For half a century, practical prejudice of this sort has essentially disappeared.

Of course, anti-Semitic remarks can still be heard in America today; and yes, there are occasional acts of vandalism against Jewish cemeteries and even, from time to time, a violent attack against a Jewish institution. But these are not the things that make anti-Semitism a real danger; it becomes truly ominous only when those in authority sanction anti-Semitism or choose to remain silent and look the other way. And that does not happen in America. Government officials and political leaders can be counted on to raise their voices in protest and activate the machinery of government to combat the forces of hate.

Why then do some American Jews obsess about anti-Semitism in the U.S. and exaggerate the vulnerability of their community? An important reason is that we live in the shadow of the Holocaust, which has colored our thinking in indelible ways, thereby enhancing the chronic insecurity characteristic of earlier generations. Another is our longstanding concern for Israel, still struggling for survival in an increasingly dangerous neighborhood. And yet another is the long list of trouble spots for Jews around the world: the grim situation of Jews in France, the emergence of anti-Semitic parties in Hungary and Greece, and the growing anti-Semitism of an Arab world that appears to hate Jews and Israel with equal fervor. Feeling both appalled by the goings-on abroad and unsure of how best to respond to them, American Jews are not always able to distinguish clearly between their condition here and Jewish realities in other places.

Yet there can be no excuse for seeing our situation as different from what it really is. And our reality, as American Jews, is that we are not a community under siege. Let us say it plainly: the anti-Semitism that is festering elsewhere poses no danger to us.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, a writer and lecturer, was President of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. His writings are collected at ericyoffie.com.

 

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