Religion in the Public Square, Part I

May 12th: Emor

Rabbi David E. Ostrich

The Biblical idiom is one of communal covenant: the community is bound by covenant to God, and the community is responsible for maintaining standards of behavior. Given individuality, however, it has been a struggle throughout the ages for the community to enforce its standards on its members.

In this week’s Torah portion, we have two examples of very strong enforcement texts. Crossing some lines resulted in serious punishments.
(1)  In Leviticus 23.26-30’s rules for Yom Kippur, we read: “You shall do no work on that day for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement for you before the Lord your God. Any soul who does not practice self-affliction on that day shall be cut off from among his kin; any soul who does any work on that day, I will cause that person to perish from among his people.”

(2)  In Leviticus 24.15-16, we are warned: “Anyone who blasphemes his God shall bear his guilt; if he also pronounces the name “Lord” (the Tetragrammaton, the four letter name of God we do not pronounce), he shall be put to death. The whole community shall stone him. Whether stranger or citizen, if he has thus pronounced the Name, he shall be put to death.”

The social contract assigned the entire community a kind of responsibility for the sins of the individual. Either the community prevents the sins or punishes the sinners, OR the community itself is punished by God.

There is a tendency in religious rhetoric to invoke this same sensibility, i.e., for the speaker to command behavior in God’s name and to expect compliance. And yet, the horse of modernity has already left the barn. People insist on their individual autonomy, and, no matter what the preacher preaches, individuals make up their own minds.

I am thinking of this dynamic in the light of President Trump’s recent executive order in re religious freedom and the Johnson Amendment. Will the newfound freedom to preach politics from the pulpit have much of an effect? I wonder.

There has been for many years a vigorous debate among clergy and civil libertarians about political speech from the pulpit, and the issue is obscured by the curious way the line is drawn. It is not in regard to the First Amendment and Freedom of Speech. Rather, the line is drawn in the Tax Code and involves the tax-exempt status of the speaker’s religious institution.

Though the First Amendment says that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…,”the fact is that governments do a variety of things that help or support religions. From granting religious institutions exemptions from property taxes, sales taxes, or income taxes, to considering housing for clergy non-taxable for income tax purposes, to busing parochial school children on public school busses, the government is clearly involved with religion in a supportive role. The nature of this support has been a matter of negotiation for over 200 years, and I see the current controversy as part of that long-term give and take. Does the state’s special treatment of religious institutions—relative freedom from taxes—carry conditions of limited political action? The Johnson Amendment establishes such a condition: political opinions may be spoken “from the pulpit,” but not endorsements of particular candidates. President Trump’s executive order seems to have loosened that constraint.

However, given the ways religious institutions play games with the Johnson Amendment, I doubt that there will be any real effect. Though preachers and priests are not supposed to endorse particular candidates from the pulpit, it is often no secret whom the preacher or church supports. When a Roman Catholic Bishop says that voting for a candidate who is in favor of abortion rights is against Church teaching, the name of the candidates are unnecessary for the message to be communicated. In the Evangelical Christian community, the game is played by making available—in the vestibules of the sanctuary—voter’s guides detailing the candidates’ positions on various subjects: abortion rights, prayer in public schools, pornography, LGBT rights, etc. The preacher may not say, “Vote for Candidate A,” but the voter’s guide—published by various Evangelical or Conservative organizations—makes such an official endorsement unnecessary.

To be fair, the same can be said of African American Churches in re candidates’ stands on Civil Rights or of Jewish synagogues in re stands on Israel or religious liberties. It does not take an official statement from the pulpit for congregants to know what the preacher/priest/rabbi/imam thinks about the issues of the day and which candidates are in agreement.

And, there is that other little issue about people obeying the religion’s dictates. Look at all the Orthodox Jews who eat ham or shrimp. Look at all the Baptists who drink whiskey. Look at all the Catholics who use artificial contraception. It’s not like our religious communities are tightly controlled or capable of any kind of enforcement. The days of the Bible are long gone, and, even if people today listen to their religions, they make up their own minds.

Who knows what the whole executive order actually says—or what it will actually bring? My suspicion is that it will have more bark than bite.