Religion & Beliefs

How Much Does Your Shul Impact Your Vote? A Look at Jewish Political Theology

I just finished reading the epic New York Times Magazine article called The Politics of God by Mark Lilla, which is currently the second most emailed story in the Times. It’s pretty hefty, but worth at least a skim, so … Read More

By / August 20, 2007
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I just finished reading the epic New York Times Magazine article called The Politics of God by Mark Lilla, which is currently the second most emailed story in the Times. It’s pretty hefty, but worth at least a skim, so by all means look it over. One of the things the article touches on is the American ideal of at once being dedicated to faith, and committed to its separation from government:

As for the American experience, it is utterly exceptional: there is no other fully developed industrial society with a population so committed to its faiths (and such exotic ones), while being equally committed to the Great Separation. Our political rhetoric, which owes much to the Protestant sectarians of the 17th century, vibrates with messianic energy, and it is only thanks to a strong constitutional structure and various lucky breaks that political theology has never seriously challenged the basic legitimacy of our institutions. Americans have potentially explosive religious differences over abortion, prayer in schools, censorship, euthanasia, biological research and countless other issues, yet they generally settle them within the bounds of the Constitution. It’s a miracle.

It’s certainly true that I’m committed both to my faith and to the separation of church and state, but I’m committed to the separation because I’m a member of a minority. I’m not so sure how gung ho I’d be about religion playing no role in government if I was a believing Christian in an overwhelmingly Christian nation. Bypassing the question of how all this ends up in a Jewish state, I’m wondering about my own political affiliations, and the political theologies of my respected American elders and rabbis. How much of their politics is religious? And if I look up to them religiously, and their politics are overwhelmingly religious, do I then have to look up to them politically? My answer, at least, is that I don’t look to my religious leaders for political pointers. I’m sure as we come closer to the next big elections places like the AJC, AIPAC and various Jewish Federations will give us plenty of input on who they think we should vote for based on “Jewish issues” like Israel policy, school vouchers, diversity education etc. But I’m much more interested in the greater issues which have a comparatively low connection to Judaism, but which have a huge impact on the quality of life and opportunities of millions of Americans. For instance, education, health care and civil rights are the biggies that I inspect in a candidate. And I don’t really care of Obama eats matzah ball soup or if Hillary can sing Alenu. I don’t need either of them to do those things as President. I need them to fix a broken education system, and get everybody health insurance and close the racial educational gap. Unless any of the candidates have seriously scary policies towards Jews—and to my knowledge, none of them do—then I am most committed to finding a President who’d be a good President to everyone else in this country. My needs are rather inconsequential. But the millions of eighth graders who can’t read need someone who’s going to put some fire under the asses of their principles. And if that person doesn’t know the words to David Melech Yisrael, that’s a-okay with me.