Note: If this had not been a general readership newspaper, I would have used the term צניעות Tzniut, privacy, to describe the third point below, toward the end of the article. Public discussion of deeply personal beliefs seems to defy that צניעות we are taught to hold dear.
Is there a place for The Compassion Forum in the political process?
Is it hypocritical to wish for spirituality in our political representatives, but to wish equally that they not discuss it in public?
I found myself pondering that question as I sat in the audience at The Compassion Forum at Messiah College on Sunday night, April 13th, watching Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama answer faith-oriented questions both personal and political. As a guest of the Orthodox Union I felt honored to have been invited, but as a Jewish American I felt more than a little uncomfortable.
Certainly, I find nothing inappropriate in a politician incorporating religious beliefs into decisions; just as they rely upon education, upbringing, friends and advisors, so our elected officials may draw on religious beliefs. More, their application of religious beliefs to practical policy displays an encouraging sophistication of faith and depth of thought. Nonetheless, this sort of forum does trigger deep discomfort in many Americans - myself included.
In my view, one problem is that these discussions unnecessarily spotlighted disagreements for voters of different religious persuasions. Many Americans vote based on practical policy and track record and overlook differences in religious philosophy, and many of those voters don’t want to have the underlying religious disagreement waved in their faces.
As a member of a Jewish minority, and as a member of an Orthodox minority within even that Jewish population, I have disagreed with basic religious beliefs held by every political candidate for whom I have voted in the past eighteen years. My own sensibilities have survived that conflict - but I do appreciate the candidates who don’t emphasize those differences.
A second issue is that these interviews flew in the face of our American freedom of religion. As a nation, we have valued that freedom since the colonial period. As a Jew, I particularly appreciate the fact that my right of worship is honored in our great country. No American should ever be made to justify, or even explain, his own religious ideals - but that was exactly what happened on Sunday night.
There was an awkward resemblance between Sunday’s public dialogue and the savage religious persecutions of the past millenium. Placing a political leader - or anyone - on a stage to answer questions like, “Do you believe God punishes nations in realtime,” and “Do you believe God created the world in six days,” white leather chairs and glasses of water notwithstanding, calls forth images of the Catholic Inquisition in the late Middle Ages and the Mutazilite Muslim Inquisition of the 9th century.
And to this I would add a third piece of the problem: The role of public display in religion, altogether.
Certainly, the Bible itself is mixed regarding public declamation of religious belief. At no time in the Pentateuch are the Israelites instructed to spread their Sinaitic tradition to other nations. On the other hand, Canaanites who opt to adopt Judaism are accepted into that early Jewish nation.
As a viewer whose tradition is ambiguous regarding evangelism, and whose personal beliefs include the words of the prophet Micah (6:8), “and walk modestly with thy God,” I mistrust a forum in which a politician is called upon to publicly answer the question, “When did you experience the Spirit?”
I attended the Forum out of curiosity, and my curiosity was duly satisfied. More, the Compassion Forum did highlight elements in both candidates’ beliefs with which I could agree, and which likely resonated with people of many faiths. Senator Obama spoke about the way his bible-based faith had inspired his work with impoverished people in the south side of Chicago. Senator Clinton voiced a very Jewish belief when she said that her response to suffering is not to ask why God permits it, but rather to ask how she can help. And yet, for all three of the reasons outlined above - spotlighting religious differences, the resemblance to an Inquisition and the public display of personal beliefs - I was less than comfortable with The Compassion Forum.
May our political representatives always remain strong in their beliefs, but - so far as I am concerned - may they keep those beliefs to themselves.