Unease over faith in politics


Can a political candidate be too religious?

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman's selection as the first Jewish vice presidential nominee was greeted by the Jewish community with pride that one of their own had broken a major barrier. Here was a man who is religiously observant and comfortable with the language of faith. Even the religious right said that this was a candidate it could relate to.

Lieberman has used that faith language prominently in his stump speeches. In his appearance at a Detroit church, he called for the creation of a role for religion in public life. "As a people, we need to reaffirm our faith and renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God's purpose," he said.

Not all share Lieberman's efforts to insert the sacred into the profane world of politics. And the most prominent complaint came from a Jewish group, the Anti-Defamation League.

What is the ADL and why is it doing this?

The ADL was founded in 1913, in response to a wave of anti-Semitism before World War I. Its establishment was in part a reaction to the trial in 1913 of Leo Frank, a Georgia Jew who was wrongly accused of murdering a Christian girl, an incident that gave rise to a revival of the Ku Klux Klan. Frank's sentence was commuted two years later by a Georgia governor who became convinced of his innocence, but he was then lynched by a mob.

The ADL was established by members of B'nai B'rith, a Jewish fraternal and service organization, as an independent organization to combat anti-Jewish bigotry. Although still primarily a Jewish group, it has expanded its mission, says Abraham Foxman, ADL's executive director.

"We continue to be what we were founded to be, which is a Jewish organization," Foxman says. "However, we were founded on two pillars based on the teachings of [the first century Jewish sage, Rabbi] Hillel, who said: 'If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?'

"Yes, we care about the safety and security of the Jewish people, but at the same time, if we only care about the safety and security of the Jewish people and others' rights are trampled, what kind of society would we have?"

The ADL was outspoken in 1996 during a rash of arsons of black churches. It called for a Justice Department investigation and successfully urged changes in hate-crime legislation to make it easier to prosecute cases involving attacks on churches.

The ADL keeps track of acts of bigotry against Jews in its annual Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents. And it promotes religious liberty and the separation of church and state, which is what brought it into the debate over religion and presidential politics.

The letter the ADL sent to Lieberman "is only the latest in a series of letters we have issued," Foxman says. "What started happening during the primary season, primarily in the Republican part of it, was we were seeing some Republican candidates for the nomination competing with each other as to who was holier than thou. We began to be concerned at that point.

"Then it began to spill over into the general campaign."

First, there was George W. Bush's statement that his favorite political philosopher was Jesus Christ. He got a letter from the ADL.

"He would not have gotten a letter if he said his spiritual mentor was Jesus Christ," Foxman says. "But he said political mentor, which means Jesus would influence his political philosophy and his policy. ... We said 'That's crossing the line between religion and state,' and we wrote him a letter."

Then Al Gore told an interviewer that before he made a major decision, he would ask himself, "What would Jesus do?" That phrase has become so popular among evangelical Christians that teen-agers sport WWJD jewelry.

"He got a letter from us saying, 'Hey, that's not what this country is about.'"

"It was similar when Senator Lieberman gave his 'sermon,'" Foxman says. "It's not where he gave it. It's the intensity and degree. We feel he crossed the line and we sent him a letter saying. 'You crossed the line.'

Where is that line?

"There is a time and place for everything," Foxman says. "We're not out there saying there's no place for religion. But certainly, religion in this country belongs primarily in the church, the synagogue, the home and heart. We do not believe it belongs on the campaign trail. We do not believe people should be urged to vote based on how pious a person is."

"You don't have to hide it," Foxman says. "But this is almost hawking it."

The ADL could be swimming against the tide. There hasn't been a stampede of Jewish organizations to support its call for a moratorium on religious rhetoric.

"There's a big difference between a breach of church-state relations a call for greater faith and spirituality," says Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, president of the Orthodox Union, the country's largest Orthodox Jewish organization. "At first blush, everybody's happy because of how proud we are that the Jewish community has come so far. But when he starts talking about his beliefs, a certain segment gets goose bumps."

Even its parent organization, the B'nai B'rith, isn't going to back the ADL on this one.

"B'nai B'rith feels that it would be difficult to impose discipline on every public figure who might say that their faith has molded them and has molded who they are," says Dan Mariaschin, executive vice president of B'nai B'rith. "For a person to talk about how faith has influenced the world around them, that is acceptable."

Part of the reason the ADL felt comfortable about criticizing a fellow Jew is that the organization and the Jewish community have more confidence than in past decades and generations.

Who would have imagined 50 years ago, Foxman says, "that we would have taken out ads about Rwanda or Bosnia? We've come of age in terms of self-confidence."

Foxman says he is optimistic and apprehensive about the future and the ADL's role in shaping it. "We have not eradicated anti-Semitism, but anti-Semitism is on a lower level in America than it has ever been," he says. "But anti-Semitism is a virus; it's a disease. We have not found the antidote, so we continue to worry about it."

What he most worries about these days is the Internet, which he calls "a superhighway of hate."

"Overnight, the Internet has made hate and anti-Semitism a more potent force," he says. "Ten years ago, if you were a white-supremacist or an anti-Semitic group and wanted to recruit, you would have to go to a prison, the military and use a post office box. Today, you're global. You can seduce virtually. You can move globally, quickly and cheaply to recruit thousands of people, including kids."

The issues have not changed," he says. "But the technology and techniques have changed."

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