Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Column: Barack Obama, Jeremiah Wright and Spiritual Politicans

I submitted the following column to the Allentown Morning Call on Friday Feb. 29, and it ran today. (They changed the headline in the version they printed here, and that does slant the column's meaning, but they seem to have left the actual text intact.)

The Political Candidate and his Spiritual Advisor
At the February 26th Democratic debate between Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, Mr. Obama was questioned regarding the political views of his pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Jr. As Tom Raum described it in an Associated Press analysis,[1] the moment was awkward.

This type of questioning is certainly not new to American politics; it is reminiscent of religious challenges put to recent presidential candidates like Orthodox Jew Joseph Lieberman (regarding Israel) and Roman Catholic John Kerry (regarding abortion). There is a long historical pedigree behind these questions, too - think of John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Al Smith in 1928. Nonetheless, the approach remains troubling: In a country so solidly committed to separating Church and State, why is a candidate’s religious guide entertained as a factor?

I suspect the electorate is skeptical because of the way Americans view spirituality. Today’s churchgoers tend to view their lives as an integrated whole, merging spiritual life with day-to-day existence - the two arms of the Cross, as Reverend Wright himself put it in a recent interview[2] - and so it is hard to imagine any citizen or candidate separating the two.

The mix of religion and practical life affects every citizen, beyond the realm of the ballot box; witness the religion-oriented marketing of today’s major issues. Controversies on issues as varied as abortion, the welfare state, environmentalism, healthcare, war, right to die and gender discrimination are argued not only for secular ideals but also for the religious doctrines on each side.

Religion plays the same role at the executive level of government, and has done so for millenia. Students of the history of Christian monarchs recognize that Church-affiliated monarchs have long been mightily influenced by their spiritual advisors. Constantine, Justinian, Ferdinand and Isabella and many other European kings acted in the perceived interests of their Church. There have been rebels, too, like King James I of Aragon - who defied the Church in an attempt to defend Spanish Jewry from expulsion - but they have been the exception rather than the rule.

Jewish history, too, positions clergy as key counselors to political leaders. The prophet Samuel rebuked King Saul, and ultimately removed him from the throne. King David was chastised by prophets Nathan and Gad, King Solomon was guided by his mentor, scholar Shimi ben Geira. In the Gaonic era of the 7th to 10th centuries, the Jews of Northern Africa and Europe were led by a political Exilarch and a religious Gaon, who were supposed to work in tandem to guide the nation. In modern Israel, religious legislators tend to approach their spiritual advisors for political guidance.

The upshot of this analysis is that today’s Americans, heirs to a long tradition of combining spiritual and practical considerations, are unlikely to accept any candidate’s distinction between religious pastor and political master. Until a candidate builds up a track record to the contrary, religious Americans will assume that he weighs seriously the beliefs of his religious affiliation when determining policy.

Is a candidate’s merger of religion and political philosophy harmful? Not necessarily. Candidates whose spirituality affects their public policies are more likely to have a stable religious worldview than those whose spirituality is divorced from reality.

Religion which dwells entirely in the untroubled realm of theory develops as a cloistered, naïve, even shallow philosophy which can offer little to edify its adherents. An abortion philosophy which is unfamiliar with the reality of teen pregnancy and the population explosion, or an environmental philosophy which is uneducated in the hard facts of business, employment and climate change, can have little to say to a citizen of the 21st century. However, religion which plays a robust role in daily life gains a savvy which forces its followers to face hard questions and develop a sophisticated worldview.

Therefore, I’m not sure I would not want a chief executive whose religious faith was divorced from the real world; perhaps it might be better to have a candidate who has a foot in both worlds, and is forced to mediate between the two.

[1] http://www.mcall.com/news/nationworld/politics/sns-ap-democrats-analysis,0,781296.story
[2] http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/week1028/interview.html

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