Piety And The Presidency: What Are Jews To Do?


During Bill Clinton’s successful campaign for the presidency, he famously donned a black kipa during a visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem and shed a tear in a prayerful (and highly photogenic) moment. And in that moment, the organized Jewish community — then awkwardly watching the tensions between Prime Minister Shamir and President Bush — fawned over the philo-Semitism and lined up for Clinton’s subsequent election.

The consequences of Clinton’s visit were symbolically profound for the American Jewish conversation on religion and the lives of our politicians: Clinton personalized religion as a critical feature of the political landscape, elevating sentimentality towards religion as a value for the discerning voter. When we hear the frequent yet vague critiques of President Obama that we do not know what he feels in his heart of hearts about Israel, the echo of Clinton’s (and then subsequently George W. Bush’s) visits and rhetoric ring loudly. The Obama administration responds that there is no substantive policy difference towards Israel than previous administrations, that military and security cooperation and support have reached unprecedented levels.

But the sentimentality card sticks. Impossible to evaluate and easily manipulated, apparently we care to see politicians display a kind of sentimentality with their religious identity, above and beyond what they actually do.

This means there is an underlying subtext on how we want our politicians to act and talk vis-à-vis religion, a “hidden curriculum” that is defining the public square. Most recently, the Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum ripped into John F. Kennedy’s rhetoric on the separation of church and state, saying it made him want to “throw up.” This language creates panic on the left about the role of religion in public leadership, and predictably then some defensiveness on the right.

In the current climate, without a fully articulated sensibility about a desirable standard for “presidential piety,” and without real metrics to evaluate how the candidates live up to these standards, we risk responding instinctively to displays of religion merely on the basis of whether we support the candidate’s policies. Even worse, we are likely to become religiously intolerant because of our partisan attitudes. America’s freedom of religion makes our political system comfortable for religious people to participate and even dominate; the same freedom should make us comfortable understanding and testing our own underlying hypotheses on how religion should form a part of public leadership.

In order to move beyond sentimentality, I want to suggest that we currently operate with three other conscious and unconscious categories when we evaluate the public religious identities of our leaders, and it makes for tricky business for Jewish voters: values, moral authenticity and loyalty.

Values are the most obvious site of how we evaluate religious identity in relationship to political leadership. Values usually mean the principles the candidates stand for and their relationship to a religious identity. This is probably the most sincere and fair of the categories, for it is completely reasonable to want our politicians to not only mirror but model the values we hold dear; and for those values to be consistent with the religious and personal background from which they come.

The skepticism from the conservative base about Mitt Romney concerning his “evolving” views hinges on this: for a party that has been successful for sustaining a coherent orthodoxy on social issues, Romney models political pragmatism more than a consistent values-based political philosophy, and he suffers for it. This critique of flapping in the wind of political circumstances is connected to skepticism about his Mormonism, a fast-growing religion that many Americans simply do not understand (and perhaps find foreign.) Our culture fixates on the importance of consistency between values and political views, even as voters individually — and not surprisingly — reflect much more of the human complexity and even dissonance that we should more naturally expect from fallible human beings. Rick Santorum, a Catholic, has yet to win the Catholic vote in any of his primaries: does that not tell us something?

Nevertheless, it is murky, as the very language of “values” tends to be co-opted by specific partisan political attitudes, and the candidates themselves model dramatically different relationships between the values they articulate and the values by which they live (see Gingrich, Newt; Clinton, Bill.) The tricky part of all of this is that in the English language, “values” can mean I don’t cheat on my wife; in the American political context, the “values” candidate may very well do that, but believe gay people shouldn’t get married. The first question we need to ask is, What are the values that we believe religion produces and stands for, and to what extent does the candidate embody these personally and politically.

This bridges to our second category. If we assume that our electorate is driven by a genuine desire for moral leadership — a questionable proposition that has not often been rewarded with genuine moral leaders — then we have to consider how religion creates qualities of authenticity and integrity in our politicians, and how it enables them to emerge as leaders with moral authority. Unfortunately, in a polarized political discourse and with the rising financial and personal costs involved with seeking political office, the system does not reward humility or other moral characteristics. Does political leadership necessarily breed moral leadership? And does a religious identity automatically cultivate an ethical sensibility?

What’s more, we often do not effectively differentiate between Martin Buber’s categories of “religion” vs. “religiosity,” as we emphasize religion more as a feature of biography more than a feature of ethics. Consider the Jeremiah Wright flap during the Obama candidacy: Obama’s most obvious defense to his alleged complicity in his pastor’s offensive diatribes was that he was not often in attendance when these diatribes took place. But in the American political discourse, lack of religious behavior is more discrediting than the wrong religious attitudes! To say “I am not a church-goer” is more politically dangerous than to hem and haw about what happened in church. We are not rigorous enough in asking the right questions about ethical integrity and authenticity, and focus too much on thin litmus tests of identity.

Religion is a mechanism by which we ascertain the personal qualities and characteristics of candidates, a proxy for determining who they are and what they really stand for. Sadly, we know too many religionists who effortlessly slide by, and way too many for whom their religion does not seem to get in the way of their unethical and illegal ways. We need to clarify how and why religious identity is meant to shape and define personal values and behaviors, before we freely elide the two together.

And finally, religion is the mechanism by which we ascertain or question our candidates’ true loyalty. Rick Santorum’s two audiences with the pope are considered newsworthy; Jewish leaders look to Romney to disavow the abhorrent Mormon practice of posthumous baptism of Jews; Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison causes a stir when he wishes to take his oath on a Koran rather than a Bible. These stories embed an unspoken test to which these leaders are being subjected: To whom are you more loyal — to Rome (or, Islam, or the elders of Salt Lake), or to the fragile religious pluralism on which the public order depends? This is tricky territory for Jews, given how often we have found ourselves subject to the same suspicions with pernicious outcomes. It is fair to ask about the relationship between “ultimate authority” and loyalty to office, but it needs a fair mechanism that surpasses the current smell test.

Americans — and especially Jewish Americans — are long overdue for a serious consideration about what it means for religion to influence the values that our society should reflect, to what extent those religiously determined and thus idiosyncratic values should interface with the value of a free and safe public square, and then what processes should exist for the sorting and choosing among the values that emerge. We are shrouded in bias we do not admit, governed by partisan instincts, and with a free association between religion and values that leads to silly public performance of the worst, least sophisticated, and yet most telegenic versions of religion in public life. Perhaps these categories — this unhidden curriculum — can help us to at least ask the right questions.

Yehuda Kurtzer is president of The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, and the author of “Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past.” 

is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute.