Close to 63 years ago, a young senator from Texas proposed an amendment which was soon enacted into law. That Amendment stated that nonprofit organizations are prohibited from conducting political campaign activities that intervene in elections to public office. Should they do so, they risk losing their tax exempt (501) status. Succinctly stated, that amendment reminded us that politics and piety are a poor mix, and blessed is the religious leader who can detach himself from D.C. or the state capitol or City Hall. That amendment came to be known as the Johnson Amendment, named for its sponsor Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Last week, an executive order revisiting the Johnson Amendment was signed, permitting (religious leaders of) tax exempt places of worship to more actively participate in politics. Amendments aside, I truly believe that any imam, priest, preacher, rabbi or swami who spouts politics from the pulpit is a “dang fool.” I speak from three and a half decades experience in the rabbinate.
Politics divides. As a relatively young and naïve rabbi, I used Rosh Hashanah 1988, of all days, to speak about what was in store for us as American Jews in the upcoming presidential elections if on the one hand we were to vote for George (Poppy) Bush and if we were to vote for Michael Dukakis on the other. I based my remarks on a recent article in Moment Magazine. The day after Rosh Hashanah, I was visited by a congregant who politely and respectfully (I report this without any sarcasm whatsoever) felt that I was favoring and endorsing George Bush. For me, it was an important lesson that I never forgot. When it comes to politics from the pulpit, there is no such thing as evenhandedness. People will hear what they want to hear. People will be swayed by body language (real or imaginary) and tone of voice (real or imaginary).
I recall seeing a cartoon attached to the wall of a synagogue. It read: “Fellow Jew! If you come here to talk, where will you go to daven?” As poignant a message as that may be, I suggest a similar cartoon: “If you come to the synagogue for politics, where will you go for religion?” Throughout the last several decades, there was any number of clergy who spoke mainly politics and social justice from the pulpit. They were successful beyond their wildest dreams. They were able to raise generations of politically involved congregants, who were very much attuned to social action. Funny thing, though, those priests and ministers never were able to produce more devout Christians with even more fervent faith in Jesus; those rabbis were never able to strengthen their congregants’ kashrut, davening, or Shabbat observance.
Sanctuary is meant to be a turmoil-free zone; it’s a place where one gains comfort and inspiration when the world is getting you down. Sanctuary should be a place where agita (heartburn) is not on the agenda. It is therefore beyond me why any clergy would use the sanctuary to curdle one’s blood, raise one’s blood pressure and stir up one’s anger, which inevitably occurs when politics is proffered from the pulpit. The goal of clergy is to comfort the disturbed; the goal of clergy is to disturb the comfortable; that is to say, to rouse the laity from their lethargy with regard to self-betterment and religious/spiritual growth. Unless the President or Prime Minister were in attendance at services, one would do well to wonder why the imam, priest, preacher, rabbi or swami would see it as his sacred duty to bring up politics. And even if the President or Prime Minister was in attendance, chances are that – political expediency aside- the President or Prime Minister attends religious services to escape politics.
Isn’t it remarkable how the very same individuals who give “thumbs up” to hearing politics from the pulpit would be the first to be up in arms if religion were ever heard coming out of the Oval Office?