The Importance of a Candidate’s Faith

Sermon delivered on August 15, 2008, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block

Religion has been a major topic of discussion in this year’s presidential campaign. Can America embrace a Mormon President? Is Barack Obama a closet Muslim? Or if not, is he Christian enough? Or, for that matter, is John McCain the “right kind of Christian,” whose faith can satisfy the religious right, key to his party’s base?

Sadly, Jews have been among those posing at least one of these questions. Far-right-wing, or simply naïve, Jewish involvement in spreading scurrilous rumors about Sen. Obama’s supposed religious leanings led a diverse coalition of Jewish leaders to spring to the Senator’s defense during the primary season. These Jewish luminaries included folks who did not and do not back Sen. Obama or any Democrat. However, they united with more liberal leaders to distance themselves from Jewish complicity in denouncing a candidate on the basis of his supposed religion. Having been victims of such libelous whisper campaigns for centuries, we Jews cannot stand idly by.

However, if we examine our own Bible, we may well draw the conclusion that Judaism teaches that a leader’s religion matters a great deal. As King David is dying, he charges his son, Solomon, who is to become King. “Keep the charge of the Lord your God, walking in God’s ways and following God’s laws, commandments, rules and admonitions as recorded in the Torah of Moses.” David’s message is repeated: The Kings of Israel must rule with the Torah at their right hand. When they are faithful to God, Israel prospers. When they bow down to false gods, the kingdom is conquered. In the eyes of our ancient faith, religious fidelity is more than the most important quality by which a King is to be judged; it may be all that matters.

We can test the theory, by examining the life and the rule of Solomon himself. Early in his reign, the wise king is faithful to God and Torah. He erects the great Temple in Jerusalem. He expands the kingdom to the greatest territory and power that Israel has ever known.

Then, Solomon gets greedy. He amasses great personal wealth. He marries a variety of foreign wives, no doubt with the idea of shoring up his far-flung empire. He may even join some of these wives in the worship of their gods. He abandons the faith of his father and the Torah of Moses. By the time Solomon dies, he is unable to leave a large, prosperous kingdom to a single successor. Two sons fight over the throne; and the kingdom is divided, ten tribes to the north and two to the south. Ultimately, the ten are lost to our people, to this very day.

Solomon’s example is – like those of other, less successful and more unfaithful kings to follow – a cautionary tale for us today. If a leader is not true to the faith upon which the nation is founded, the state will fall. If the President is corrupt, utilizing the office as a source of personal enrichment – for himself, for his tribe, for his cronies – the people will suffer.

The ancient kingdom of Israel was founded upon faith in the Lord and the words of Torah. Our prophets predicted doom when princes and priests ignored God’s word. When a King and his courtiers would “trample the heads of the poor,” as the prophets put it, they were disobeying God’s law. Breaches of faith would lead to breaches in the walls that protected Jerusalem.

The same is true today.

Our Presidential candidates’ faithfulness does matter. The success of the next President will rise or fall on his fidelity to the principles and founding words of our nation. On January 20, Senator McCain or Senator Obama will take an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States. If he does, American will surely prosper. If he does not, our nation will continue to decline.

If the President protects the liberty that the Constitution grants to all the nation’s citizens, then America will show the world its character.

If the President respects both the powers of, and the limitations upon, his office, he will embody humility born of true greatness.

If the President upholds the Constitution, when it is convenient and when it is not, we will know that we have chosen the right man.

That Constitution specifies that a person is eligible for election or appointment to any position in our government, irrespective of his or her religious faith or lack thereof.

To be sure, the Constitution also protects each American’s right to vote by secret ballot, and to the free exercise of religion. Any individual citizen may choose to vote for, or against, a candidate, on the basis of religion. All would do well, though, to follow the advice of our first President, George Washington, who wrote that America “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” Note that President Washington equated bigotry with persecution. He understood, as the history of our own people has taught, that one would lead to the other.

During the primary season, we were subjected to a constant, quiet drumbeat of suspicion about the religion of one candidate, former Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts. Gov. Romney is a Mormon, more properly a member of the Church of Jesus Christ – Latter Day Saints. Now, I do not pretend to be an expert with respect to that religion. What I do know is that Gov. Romney has been in public life for decades, as have other Mormons, his late father among them. In no instance has a legitimate claim been made that Gov. Romney or any who came before him have turned aside from the Constitution of the United States because of the dictates of their Church. Suspicions about a Mormon President, per se, were pure bigotry, whatever one might have thought of the candidacy of Gov. Romney himself.

Similarly reprehensible rumblings surrounded the candidacy of John F. Kennedy, when he ran for President in 1960. President Kennedy was Catholic, not Mormon, but the unfounded suspicions were similar. Would a Catholic President take his cues from the Pope? Kennedy even went before a panel of Evangelical pastors in Houston, to plead his case. Ultimately, though several doubtless did not support Kennedy for President, those clergy did declare that his religion did not render him unfit. The claims that he would put the Constitution second to Papal decree were preposterous, and based on nothing but ignorance and bigotry.

Comments or trumped-up questions about Sen. Obama’s supposedly being Muslim come with the implication that Islam is some kind of rogue religion. Islam is subject to perversion, and sadly has been overtaken by evil through much of the Muslim world. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is also susceptible to fundamentalist distortion. The Catholic Church has not always been forthcoming and responsible in handling sexual predators among its priests. Members of our own faith warp Torah to justify murder and ethnic cleansing. The Rabbi will quote Jesus tonight: “Let one who is without blemish cast the first stone!”

Perhaps the claims about Sen. McCain’s Christianity are most disturbing. Nobody wonders if he is a Christian, but many on the far right are demanding that he be more forthcoming about his faith. John McCain has always viewed his faith as private. His detractors would like for him to say that his Christianity will dictate his policies as President. We can hope that Sen. McCain will continue to resist such a proclamation; and that, like Sen. Obama – and like President Kennedy and Gov. Romney before them – he would govern in accordance with the Constitution, not the dictates of his Church.

Some commentators, among them comics, have suggested that the rhetoric of the current campaign suggests that we’re voting for Preacher, not President of the United States. Nevertheless, I must admit that, occasionally, I have been moved by a politician’s statement of faith. A candidate’s faith does matter, when she tells us that her Church teaches her to respect folks who worship in others. A candidate’s religion does make a difference, when he tells us that he believes that even the leader of the most powerful nation on Earth must be humble. And let us not forget: Just as a King of Israel could succeed only if he was loyal to Torah, so will our next President raise his right hand in January, swearing his allegiance to the Constitution of the United States. May that be God’s will.