With John McCain and Barack Obama both enmeshed in their own "pastorgate" problems, it is, perhaps, time to explore some of the issues being raised.
In McCain’s case, the presumptive GOP nominee accepted the endorsement of the Rev. John Hagee, an outspoken evangelical pastor whose past criticisms of Catholicism for its anti-Semitic history is, to say the least, controversial. Hagee this week apologized for the comments that caused the most offense (namely, that Pope Pius XII did little to help save Jews, which, on a simplistic level, is true, even if Catholics do not like hearing it).
Hagee is not McCain’s pastor. He heads up John Hagee Ministries, as well as an evangelical megachurch in San Antonio, Texas, and a nonprofit mini media empire — Global Evangelism Television. He also is the driving force behind Christians United for Israel, which he helped found in ‘006.
McCain does very poorly with the Christian Right and he accepted Hagee’s endorsement because he hopes Hagee will help improve his standing with that crowd. As a side benefit, McCain probably also hopes that Hagee will help him garner a larger share of the Jewish vote.
The relevant issue here is whether voters should listen to anything religious leaders have to say about matters political. There is this whole separation of church and state thing to consider, after all.
A relevant issue for Jews, of course, is whether to listen to anything someone like John Hagee has to say. That requires a column all its own, but suffice it to say here that the fascination for the good reverend in some Jewish quarters is dangerously misguided. He is a "friend of the Jews" only so long as it suits his purpose to be so, that purpose being to bring about the so-called Second Coming. That still requires, at some future point, the conversion of the Jews.
A more serious problem for McCain is the support he accepted from the Rev. Rod Parsley (definitely not sage), another evangelical preacher, with a megachurch based in Columbus, Ohio. McCain has referred to Parsley — dangerously anti-gay and anti-Muslim, and who reportedly advocates the destruction of Israel as a prelude to Armageddon — as a "moral compass" for America.
Alas, though, I digress. Before addressing the central issue, let us turn to the Obama side of "pastorgate," it being the larger half of the equation.
Obama’s pastor was the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. A former Marine, Wright is an outspoken advocate for the rights of black people and that is what attracted Obama to him and his church over 30 years ago. Wright, who accuses America of being a racist nation (he is not wrong about that, sad to say), is, however, a racist himself, including being anti-Israel and anti-Semitic, even if he chooses to deny it. He is also part of the Louis Farrakhan cheering squad, which is telling all by itself.
Whether Wright held such beliefs when Obama first came into contact with him is not certain, but he has held them for many years now and yet Obama has remained loyal to his pastor.
There are two relevant issues here. The first is the same as that with John McCain: whether voters should listen to anything religious leaders have to say about anything political. The second is whether we should be concerned that a candidate for public office would remain loyal to a religious leader whose views are so repugnant to the public at large and, according to said candidate, are so repugnant to him as well.
We will deal with the last issue first because it is the simplest. No — and it matters not whether one is a candidate for office or just an ordinary congregant. If the leader of your church, mosque, or synagogue holds views that you find repugnant, that amount to "giving comfort to those who prey on hate," as Obama belatedly described Wright’s words, leave. If you are a candidate for something, you do not invite him to give the invocation at the event announcing your candidacy, only to withdraw the invitation the night before. You do not put him on a campaign advisory committee of black religious leaders, only to quietly remove his name weeks later. You resign your membership and you lose his phone number.
Readers of this newspaper will recall that when a Bergen County resident, the Anti-Defamation League leader Abraham Foxman, found he no longer could agree with the views of his rabbi, he resigned from his synagogue. Obama should have left his church. He still needs to explain why he did not.
As to the first issue, I will rephrase it: Should a religious leader discuss blatantly political issues?
Answer: I have no idea what that question means.
As I have discussed in the past, from the Torah’s standpoint, there is no division between the "secular" and the "religious."
Leviticus 19, which we read just a few weeks ago, is the perfect example of why I am confused. The chapter is God’s short-form recipe for achieving holiness in our lives. One law follows another in quick succession and they are all to be equally observed for one reason only: "You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy."
Reverence for parents is followed by Shabbat observance; is followed by a ban on idol worship; is followed by rules about a sacrifice; is followed by laws about what we owe to the poor and the stranger; is followed by a rule against misusing God’s Sacred Name; is followed by a prohibition against fraud; and so on.
At Sinai, when we accepted God’s assignment as His "kingdom of priests and holy nation," we agreed to obey God’s mitzvot, period. Whatever classification people subsequently gave to each mitzvah was irrelevant. All the mitzvot were God’s mitzvot; all had to be observed equally.
That being the case, no topic is off the table, from poverty, to immigration, to global warming, to business ethics, to education, and so on.
It is not our job to tell people how to vote. It is our job to teach our congregants the values the Torah wants them to carry with them from the time they wake up in the morning until the moment they fall asleep at night; to carry with them into the supermarket, onto the highway, into the classroom, into the boardroom — and even into the voting booth. How they choose to best put those values into practice is between them and the God who demands it of them.
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of the Conservative synagogue Temple Israel Community Center in Cliffside Park and an instructor in the UJA-Federation-sponsored Florence Melton Adult Mini-School of the Hebrew University. He is the editor of Judaism: A Journal of Jewish Life and Thought.