Ephraim Mirvis, Britain’s Chief Rabbi (according to The Guardian), this week accused Jeremy Corbyn of allowing “a poison [anti-Semitism] sanctioned from the top,” and urged all Jews in Britain to vote for Boris Johnson in the forthcoming general election. “The soul of the nation is at stake,” the rabbi declared, placing the political issue well within the bounds of religion. Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, appearing to agree with the rabbi, tweeted that there is a “deep sense of insecurity and fear by many British Jews.” It was the latest kerfuffle on both sides of the Atlantic, in which religion and politics have been mixed. The mass media in Britain gleefully spent the next few days distorting the mess by “straightening out” what the politicians and religious leaders meant.
What was going on, as always, was entirely political. Rabbi Mirvis was being political in his charge that Jews would be threatened by a Labour government led by Corbyn.
We from the USA know how that goes. In Washington DC there is more religion mixed in politics than at any time in living memory. Everyone from residents in the White House to judges in Alabama quotes religious reasons for making political decisions. It is not, presently, a winning strategy to advocate a strict separation of church and state.
On the other hand, it is one thing for politicians to use religion when they want to put icing on some confection they are concocting, and quite another thing for religious leaders to resort to politics. Even current religious scions from families with famous names such as Falwell and Graham are usually at least a little careful how they word such things as their call to pray for the President because “he’s under attack as no President has ever been.” But a week ago Franklin Graham declared, in an interview as the impeachment hearings ended, that those who oppose Donald Trump are “demon possessed.” Demons are far inside religious discourse, but the comment was completely political. Nobody, surely, misunderstood Graham to mean there are actual demons infesting every single one who disagrees with the President, but US evangelical leaders have drifted farther into politics than anyone would have imagined just a few months ago.
What do people think of this?
The Pew Research Center on November 15, 2019 reported that 63% of those polled agree that “churches and houses of worship should stay out of politics,” whereas only 36% thought “churches and houses of worship should express views on social/political questions. When it comes to endorsing candidates (as the Chief Rabbi did), US opinion is even more one sided: 76% of US citizens polled said “NO” when asked to agree with the statement, “During political elections churches and houses of worship should come out in favor of one candidate or another.” Only 23% said YES.
So, should pastors, preachers, priests and pontiffs tell people how to vote or not?
It is not a remote hypothetical question. It is a contentious issue right now, and as elections draw near it is growing more so. The Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield Illinois also doesn’t hold back from warning Catholics they can be excommunicated for voting for people who refuse to oppose abortion or who are sinfully in love with people of the same sex.
A moderate “keep your distance” point of view was posted on-line just yesterday (as I write this). “Faith leaders have a duty to respect the intelligence and freedom of their co-religionaires by keeping out of such matters [i.e. advising congregants how to vote].” Presumably it’s OK to talk about things like justice as long as it’s kept abstract, or at least not pasted onto a characterization of an individual running for office.
Nevertheless, two friends, one an English Episcopalian priest and the other a Presbyterian pastor in American, have been posting things daily on social media lambasting Boris Johnson and the Tories and Donald Trump and the Republicans.
Contentious social issues and divisive political issues can be examined from religious as well as political perspectives. Human slavery is not only inhumane and unjust, it is sinful. That is settled. We may not, as a human race, have ended all slavery but we have decided we should try to do it. We’ve moved on to newer contentious issues in need of being worked out.
It is unclear (at least to me) that these things will be worked out by sorting out the principles rather than measuring popular opinion. Sometimes it is just not possible to decide a matter until the full effects of a course of action or a political faction are becoming clear and clearly devastating. In that way 20th Century Fascism was not wrong until its results were so undeniable that sufficient opposition was generated to go to war against it. Soviet Communism, on the other hand, ended when the Soviet leadership concluded it could no longer be afforded because it was devastating the Russian economy (Gorbachev withdrew military support for Soviet satellite states because the money was needed to build Russia). Clear consequences can be convincing.
Perhaps the ethical-philosophical question is does a religious leader have a right to publicly express a political point of view on social media and/or from the pulpit? The answer must be, on the first half of the proposition, that every citizen has the right to express their personal opinion on political issues as long as the nation state permits such free expression. That includes priests and preachers, rabbis and imams. My friend in Illinois has the right to write, “Each and every day this Administration reveals itself to be following in the footsteps of Fascism.” He has the right to name names, and he has done so. My Episcopal friend has the right to be entirely one-sided in support of Labour.
But there are consequences, and they expand if those partisan political opinions are characterized as religious guidance, and a line is crossed if that guidance becomes a demand for conformity on religious grounds. It is one thing to agree that a religious leader can march in a Gay Pride parade, but if he or she carries a banner with the name of the congregation there had better be solid assurance that “the congregation” has agreed. One of my heroes was the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA) who marched on the front line in civil rights demonstrations with Martin Luther King, Jr. But he did that on his own, as a religious celebrity of sorts but not officially representing the denomination. It can be argued that everything a religious leader does reflects on the religion he or she leads, but unless that action is official by the religious organization the charge does not stick. Or it should not. History is full of incidents, just or not, in which religious leaders were punished for their personal stands on politically charged social matters.
I cannot imagine either of my two friends insisting that everyone within the sound of his voice or within reach of his chalice must be of one political opinion. I’m almost positive, however, that all the members of their congregations know without needing to be told from the pulpit how they would prefer for them to vote and why.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.