We are now into the fall election season with two unpopular presidential candidates widely perceived as seriously flawed. But dissatisfaction is not an excuse to stand on the sidelines. Choices must be made and there is no shortage of experts, commentators, and pundits vying to convince us that one candidate is far superior to the other. Among them are religious leaders of all faiths and denominations, including rabbis and other leaders of the Jewish community.
What should their role be?
Many people — including a large number of religious leaders themselves — are ambivalent about the role of clergy in partisan politics. Nevertheless, the stakes are so high and passions are so inflamed in this particular election year that we are seeing more and more members of the clergy line up behind one presidential candidate or another. Catholic priests, evangelical ministers, and mainstream Protestant clergy have voiced their preferences. So too have rabbis, who have even organized themselves into advocacy groups, as in “Rabbis For __.” Most of these religious leaders have taken on a role not dissimilar to the traditional role played by vice-presidential candidates—attacking the positions of the opposing candidate on grounds of morals, ethics, or character.
But I would suggest that religious leaders — and as a committed Jew, I speak particularly to the religious leaders of my own community — should play a distinctive role, one more informed by our prophetic tradition. As Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in his landmark study, “The Prophets,” “Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profaned riches of the world.” With great courage, prophets stood up to the political leaders of their time who failed to protect the most vulnerable in their societies: “O, My people, your leaders mislead you … What do you mean by crushing My people, by grinding the face of the poor?” (Isaiah 3:12, 14-15).
By prophetic standards, both candidates are worthy of criticism for largely ignoring the dire condition of widespread poverty in America. More than 43 million people live below the poverty line in the United States. Every day, millions of American children go to bed hungry and yet neither candidate — one a billionaire and the other someone who spends a great deal of time in the company of billionaires—has made the elimination of poverty a priority of his or her campaign. As The New York Times recently pointed out, “Poverty in the United States is deeper than in all other wealthy nations. Yet neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump has a specific anti-poverty agenda.”
"Neither presidential candidate speaks of poverty in America as the moral crisis it is."
To be sure, one candidate — stung by criticism in the Times and elsewhere — recently published an op-ed laying out a cursory plan for helping America’s poor. And it is also true that some of the positions advocated by one or the other candidate would have a beneficial impact on the poor. Job creation programs, raising the federal minimum wage and child care subsidies would help the poor or those close to the poverty line. But these proposals — usually addressed to the middle class — are a far cry from a comprehensive anti-poverty program. What is more, neither presidential candidate speaks of poverty in America as the moral crisis it is. Indeed, they virtually never mention it on the campaign trail. They pander to the upper class and seek to position themselves as champions of the middle class (who surely have their own challenges), but when it comes to those barely able to sustain an existence—the ones who populate our urban homeless shelters or live five to a room in dilapidated Appalachian cabins — they are by and large silent.
There is little political gain to be had by addressing the national shame of poverty in America, but that is precisely why religious leaders — instead of simply jumping on one political bandwagon or the other — can offer a desperately needed and distinctly religious voice. I am not suggesting that politically involved clergy should refrain from stating their preferences for one candidate over the other, nor am I suggesting that there is a moral equivalency among the positions and actions that the respective candidates have taken. What I am asking is that religious leaders to be the voices of the oppressed and forgotten, even if those voices are critical of the candidates they support.
Extreme and widespread poverty in the richest country in the world is a stain on the American character. The absence of that topic from the political discourse during a presidential election year is more than a national embarrassment; it is a moral outrage. The prophets of the Bible would be horrified. They would not remain silent for the sake of partisan politics and neither should our religious leaders today. n
Marc Gary is executive vice chancellor and CEO of the Jewish Theological Seminary.