Ask The Rabbis | Will It Matter to Jews If There Is a Mormon President?
Historically, the religious affiliation of a governmental leader has never been an issue for the Jewish people, as long as the government involved was not itself oppressive. Although Jews were thoroughly and severely oppressed over more than 1,600 years by leaders with Catholic or Protestant beliefs, the Mormon Church has been extra nice to us, even going so far as to beseech God on our behalf for entry to Heaven. And although we would prefer that they cease and desist from such beseeching—namely, from baptizing us post-mortem—it’s still a far nicer gesture on their part than the historic campaigns by other Christian denominations to Christianize us by way of torture, expulsions, forced conversions and seasonal auto da fés, which often included burning us at the stake in the public square.
Some Jews might see Romney’s belief system as more pagan-like than the more familiar Christian denominations. Then again, some of our best times in history were under the reigns of outright pagan rulers, such as Alexander of Macedonia. He was so nice to us that we still name our children after him. Later, there was a short-lived reprieve from Church oppression during the 20-month reign of the pagan Roman emperor Julian the Apostate (361 C.E.), who rejected Christianity and its anti-Jewish edicts and even encouraged the Jews to reconstruct their fallen commonwealth and rebuild their Temple.
So would a Mormon president be okay for the Jews? As the ancient rabbis taught: “It matters not whether one is Jew or Gentile, slave or freeperson, woman or man, all are judged according to their actions” (Midrash Tana D’Bei Eliyahu 10:1)—not their religious beliefs or affiliation.
Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Thousand Oaks, CA
When the Jewish boy rushed home to tell his immigrant grandfather that the Yankees had won the ball game, hiszayde, unschooled in American ways, asked, “Is it good for the Jews?” Every action and event to some extent continues to be examined through this cautious lens.
If John Kennedy’s 1960 election broke the barrier that held back Catholics from becoming president, then might the nomination and potential election of a Mormon in 2012 be a harbinger for the electability one day—in 100 years, maybe—of a Jewish president? And would that be good for the Jews? And if it were to happen, mirabile dictu, would that hasten the coming of the day when we elect someone without any religion at all—maybe even a secular Jew? Halevai, it should only be so!
In the end, the label doesn’t matter. What does count is the person’s ability to hold convictions without extremism or fanaticism and to accept that others may see things differently. Does the candidate castigate and condemn others who don’t share his beliefs? Or does she protect and respect a multiplicity of viewpoints? The real question is not “Is it good for the Jews?” but rather, “Is it good for all Americans?”—not to mention for all humanity.
Rabbi Peter H. Schweitzer
The City Congregation for
New York, NY
In the heat of a presidential campaign, how would you feel if the question were “Will it make a difference to the Mormons if there is a Jewish president?” As Jews, we would cry, “Foul! Anti-Semitism!” to such a question—for in normal circumstances, a president’s religion should not factor into consideration. We have come to expect an ethical president to distance her- or himself from religious dogma while in office.
Unfortunately, these are not “normal” times. The problem with Mitt Romney’s candidacy is not his Mormon religious affiliation; it is his capitulation to the Republican Party’s insertion of right-wing religious values into legislation. The unifying agenda of Jews in America has long been to preserve freedom of religion and privacy for all, that is, to ensure that no religious group can impose its values on another.
Jews aspire to live mitzvah-centered lives—“Tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” we pursue justice. We watch for presidential commitments to safe shores for the persecuted, funding for education, a higher-quality safety net and the privacy to apply our ethics to our bodies without government interference. Unquestionably, a country where abortion or government payment for contraception became illegal would signal an end to freedom of religion for Jews: All branches of Judaism affirm preservation of the life of the mother from pregnancies that threaten her survival or sanity. When homosexuals are denied civil marriage, that too breaches freedom of religion. Our sacred obligation is to ensure that the laws and leaders of our land will continue to ensure liberty and justice forall.
Rabbi Goldie Milgram
Let candidates be judged by their record, their values, their policy positions and their character. Though all are informed by faith, none is defined by it. So having a Latter Day Saints president should not be a Jewish issue one way or the other. Jews have always flourished best in open societies, secure only when other minority faiths are too. Policy issues aside, such an American first might even be “good for the Jews.” We and our Mormon friends, each from misunderstood and persecuted faiths, both “know the heart of a stranger.”
Consider Joseph Smith’s 1842 “Articles of Faith.” (He lists 13, just like Maimonides!) Number 11: We worship “according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.” This is a clarion statement of religious pluralism. And number 13 is beautiful: “We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all… If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.” Would that all people, LDS or otherwise, did just that.
Jews should lead in multicultural understanding, celebrate commonalities with others and help religious pluralism prevail. And that said, let us elect only candidates who are “true” to the people, “benevolent” to the underprivileged and “doing good” to the world.
Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb
Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation
The question brings to mind the famous address by then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy in September 1960. Speaking to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, Kennedy said the office of the president “must neither be humbled by making it the instrument of any one religious group, nor tarnished by arbitrarily withholding its occupancy from the members of any one religious group. I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation, nor imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office.” Kennedy went on to say that he would make decisions based on the national interest of our country rather than on any pressure from a religious body or leader. I hope all candidates for the presidency would do the same, whether they be Mormon, Jewish, Buddhist or otherwise.
The same should be said about our own decision-making process as voters. It is our right and responsibility as citizens of the United States to make decisions based on a candidate’s factual record of performance rather than on his or her religious identity.
Rabbi Laura Novak Winer
Why should it matter at all if the president of the United States is a Mormon? To my way of looking at it, the Mormons have an odd theology, although objectively it’s no more odd than the belief that God chose an obscure nation of ex-slaves wandering through the desert to receive the Law. Odd or not, we have agreed in this country that personal religious beliefs do not determine eligibility for political office and in fact have enshrined that belief in our Constitution. For obvious historical reasons, Jews should be especially suspicious of concerns that focus on a person having a different or unusual religion. Jews should be particularly mindful that being different, especially religiously different, has no bearing on the ability to govern honestly and in the best interests of the United States.
Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz
Temple Beth El
A Mormon president: Is it good for the Jews? It all depends on how you define the Jewish good. If a Mormon is elected, it will show that voters continue to deemphasize a candidate’s religion as a factor; this improves the chance that a Jew will be elected president someday. Also, Mormons—like evangelical Christians—have become strongly and emotionally pro-Israel. Finally, Jews were influential in the birth of Mormonism. Joseph Smith, the founder, was inspired by his reading of the Old (as well as the New) Testament. Christianity grew out of Judaism, claiming that God had extended a new covenant; it sees itself as rooted in the Jewish brit while carrying on many of its messages in a new way. Mormonism likewise presents a new covenant growing out of the Jewish and Christian covenants but carrying the messages in new ways.
Theology aside, the main impact of a Mormon president on the Jews will be in his economic, social and cultural policies. If you believe that the conservative agenda is correct—whether in economics, attitudes to government or cultural issues, ranging from women’s status to global warming—then this Mormon president, if elected, will be good for the Jews. If you prefer the liberal agenda—more steps to reduce inequality, higher taxes, more regulation, more help for the unemployed and the needy and for the environment—then this Mormon president will not be good for the Jews.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg
One of the fundamental principles that protect the freedom of our society is the separation of church and state. This is taken to mean that the government will not endorse or promote any particular religious creed or faith tradition. Realistically, of course, a human being’s values and decisions will inevitably be shaped to some extent by the religious tradition to which he or she subscribes. We cannot reasonably expect any president or public official to disregard his or her innate sense of morality when dealing with public policy; in fact, I would not want them to ignore the voice of conscience when forming political opinions. I believe that most Americans prefer to have a president with profound moral and ethical convictions that enrich and ennoble his or her character and that it matters little which religion ultimately serves as the source of those convictions.
On the other hand, any president who attempted to foist specific doctrinal beliefs upon our citizenry would pose a grave danger to the liberties we enjoy. What would be objectionable would not be the particular beliefs in question but the promotion of those teachings by government in direct contradiction of the First Amendment. In such a case, it would make no difference to us whether the offending president were Jewish, Christian, Muslim or Mormon. Compromising the freedom of any group threatens the freedom of every group.
Rabbi Joshua Maroof
Magen David Sephardic Congregation
There was a time, not really so long ago, when Jews had to be ever-wary of the majority religion and its leaders, the perennial source of their own persecution. Today the problem has been reversed: We are integral participants in a society that suffers from the anomie of its own materialism. Faith in a higher power and a sense of responsibility to the Creator of the wondrous universe will only serve to heal that wound and fill that emptiness.
True, there is a need for careful balance. Religious coercion by any one group is always a danger. We hope that today there are enough checks and balances in the system to discourage that. But “In G-d we trust,” engraved onto America’s currency, is also part of that vital balance.
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman