The View From Here | Like Oil and Water, Politics and Religion Don’t Mix Well in United States


In the American system of adversarial justice — which you can see any time you want by walking into a courtroom — we rely on vigorously opposed parties essentially duking it out, whether in negotiations or in a trial, so that a judge might determine an equitable result. Truth is not the end goal. And the relative weight of certain facts over others lead the jurist to what is hoped is the closest approximation to justice.

Politics, in that regard, isn’t very different from law. On any given issue or question, no one citizen is truly objective and is much like the attorney arguing her client’s case, while the citizenry at large through the medium of an election sits as judge.

Just take a look at the fallout from last week’s White House reception of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas: There sat Abbas, the successor of Yasser Arafat and a man who has time and again failed to rein in a vengeful populace, but has found plenty of opportunity to gin up grievances against Israel — remember his claim that the Jews had no connection to the Temple Mount? — flanked by a beaming President Donald Trump and the American flag on one side, a Palestinian flag on the other.

It’s just the sort of photo op that would have made various elements of the pro-Israel community apoplectic … had it been a Democratic president welcoming the Palestinian leader to the Oval Office.

Was such condemnation to be found? Yes, but tempered by the sort of equivocation, praise for America’s friendship with Israel and pleas to just give the president time that were all too commonplace among the left during the last administration.

Some of the very same critics who castigated then-candidate Hillary Clinton, her former-president husband and President Barack Obama for being too friendly with the Palestinians and not sufficiently on Israel’s side were still hailing Trump as the masterful negotiator and the true friend of the Jewish state.

How can this be? Because politics has never — I repeat, never — been concerned with truth. The very same act is only wrong when committed by your opponent. When committed by your favored standard-bearer, if not outright applauded, it’s at the very least condoned.

Is it hypocrisy at its finest? Not necessarily. Politicians, like lawyers, can and do wield every tool at their disposal to achieve their goals. The hope is that in the long run, something approximating justice is achieved.

But it sure is dirty and is far from absolute. That’s why blessing the marriage of politics and religion, as Trump did last week when he signed an executive order explicitly ordering the Treasury Department to look the other way if houses of worship engaged in previously-forbidden electoral politics, is not only a bad idea, it’s downright un-American.

It is true that the so-called Johnson Amendment — the provision of the tax code that threatened nonprofits with the revocation of their tax-exempt status if they endorsed candidates — was rarely enforced. But there’s a big difference between investigators having an enforcement tool at their disposal and not using it, and their boss outright forbidding them from doing so. Inexplicably, the move was applauded by many evangelicals and Orthodox rabbis, a fact that can only be rooted in an incredibly shortsighted vision.

As opposed to politics, religion — most of them, anyway — is uniquely dedicated to discerning that which is true. Rabbis, preachers, really anyone who speaks from a pulpit, ideally do so as transmitters of divinely inspired wisdom. Divinity, at least the Jewish conception of it, doesn’t change. That which is wrong today will continue to be wrong tomorrow. The mitzvah of yesterday will be a mitzvah for all time.

That is not the world of politics, a world of compromises and distortions.

On moral reasons alone, the two shouldn’t mix. But there’s another, fundamentally constitutional way of looking at it. When you give a check to your synagogue, your donation — assuming the synagogue has 501(c)(3) status — is tax deductible. As opposed to giving money to a candidate or a political action committee, your support of a synagogue is effectively subsidized by the government in recognition of the charitable and good work — including inspiring its members to acknowledge a higher morality — that house of worship performs.

Allow it to also partake from the trough of American politics, and all of a sudden society has created a new type of religious-political speech given favored status over mere civil-political speech. That’s not religious liberty; it’s bastardized religion in the service of a bastardized liberty.

A fairer result would be either to make all donations, even to candidates, tax deductible or, God forbid, to tax synagogues and other nonprofit entities like everyone else. Faced with such a choice — of either opening the floodgates to even more money in politics or of robbing houses of worship of their tax-exempt status — maybe it’s best to leave the Johnson Amendment alone.

Joshua Runyan is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at [email protected]


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