Religious rhetoric and the upcoming election
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Religious rhetoric and the upcoming election

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, notes the “pervasive presence” of religious language in the current electoral campaign.

“This is one of the richest elections [in terms of] religious issues and rhetoric,” he told The Jewish Standard.

Saperstein said the upcoming election “ranks right up there” with such famous contests as that between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who was accused of being an atheist. The rabbi will speak at Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes on Oct. 26 about how to draw the line “between appropriate and inappropriate religious rhetoric and activity in American elections and political life.”

Rabbi David Saperstein

Saperstein told the Standard that over the past decade, religious voters who attend houses of worship fairly regularly (once or twice a month) have been one of the major swing groups in elections.

As a result, he said, “both parties are trying vigorously to use language that speaks to the religious sensibilities of these groups.

“Religious rhetoric can be used to bring Americans together,” he said, noting the “inclusive” language found in the Declaration of Independence, the speeches of Abraham Lincoln, and the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King.

Some candidates, he said, have used that kind of language effectively, noting that Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Mike Huckabee have, on occasion, used such rhetoric in “inspirational” ways.

On the other hand, he said, “some have used language with a divisive impact; language that exacerbates the culture wars in America.” For example, he said, such language has been used to get the votes of fundamentalist Christians.

Saperstein said that there have been some “wonderful uses of rhetoric” in U.S. political history and urged that candidates “try conscientiously to be inclusive” in their choice of words.

“There is a positive role for religion,” he said. It is a “tremendous source of common morality” that may help “inspire us to a higher good.”

He stressed, however, that it is “enormously important” for the Jewish community to ensure that candidates for public office do not suggest that there are “religious tests for office.”

That would have the potential to “undo the great achievements of this country, where one’s rights and opportunities have never depended on religion,” he said.

At the Oct. 26 meeting, Saperstein will present examples of how candidates in the last two elections used religious rhetoric both positively and negatively, focusing on political ads using religious language.

The speaker, who has written numerous books and articles on social justice and religion in the public square, suggested in previous writings (“On Faith,” washingtonpost.com) that candidates should not ignore the subject of religion, since it can help explain who they are and the forces that shaped them. In addition, he wrote, candidates should express their views on policy issues concerning religion (for example, school prayer, the posting of the Ten Commandments in government settings, and the like). On the other hand, “it is inappropriate to suggest that one should support or oppose a policy solely because of religious beliefs.”

With reference to the issue of abortion, which came up during the third presidential debate, Saperstein told the Standard that “while it certainly has religious resonance, there are proper ways to talk about it. Clearly it is a proper issue to talk about,” he said. But while it has “religious overtones, it must not be reduced only to that.”

Rick Greenberg, one of Barnert’s social action chairs, said that Saperstein will be a “wonderful resource” to help the congregation study the issues involved in the upcoming election.”

“Given his role in the area of social action and his deep understanding of the electoral process, he will be able to convey the idea of becoming involved in the community while answering any questions about the election that our members may have,” said Greenberg.

For further information, call (201) 848-1800.

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