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America’s Anti-Gun Theocrats

Should rabbis and other clerics engage in politics? Only, it seems, if they support liberal policies.

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Imagine if a group of prominent religious leaders went to Washington, D.C., to advocate against abortion. Imagine these clerics filmed a television ad in which they made a faith-based appeal for the cause, citing scripture while dressed in full religious regalia. And suppose this campaign were funded by a political action committee backed by one of America’s wealthiest politicians. Can you imagine the outcry from the commentariat? How quickly such an initiative would be denounced by liberal columnists and politicians as a religious encroachment on our country’s politics—a dangerous theocratic imposition on our secular democracy?

This past weekend, such a faith-fueled campaign kicked off in the nation’s capital, except it wasn’t pushing restrictions on abortions—it was pushing restrictions on guns. Backed by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the political action committee co-chaired by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, dozens of esteemed faith leaders converged on Washington on Friday to kick off National Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath. The event coincided with the release of a pro-gun control TV ad featuring many of these clerics, including Rev. Gary Hall, dean of the Washington National Cathedral, and Rabbi David Saperstein, head of the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center.

Not a single column was written protesting these religious leaders preaching in service of a partisan political cause. But such selective censure should not be surprising: The charge that faith leaders are inappropriately meddling in our politics is one that only seems to be leveled at religious conservatives and not at their liberal counterparts. For the overwhelming majority of critics, it’s not really the fact of religion’s involvement in politics that’s troubling—it’s the “wrong” religious views being involved in politics. Take a closer look and one finds that their cries of “theocracy!” tend to be motivated more by partisanship than principle.


Consider the following statement: “I don’t see how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith. Our faith informs us in everything we do. My faith informs me about how to take care of the vulnerable, of how to make sure that people have a chance in life.” It’s a fairly anodyne sentiment. But when Rep. Paul Ryan said these words in response to a moderator’s query during October’s vice presidential debate, the reaction was anything but mild.

“That’s a shocking answer—a mullah’s answer, what those scary Iranian ‘Ayatollahs’ [Ryan] kept referring to when talking about Iran would say as well,” exclaimed The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik. “Ryan was rejecting secularism itself, casually insisting, as the Roman Catholic Andrew Sullivan put it, that ‘the usual necessary distinction between politics and religion, between state and church, cannot and should not exist.’ ”

But now consider this statement, uttered by another American politician: “If we leave our values at the door, we abandon much of the moral glue that has held our nation together for centuries and allowed us to become somewhat more perfect a union. Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Jane Addams, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, Abraham Heschel—the majority of great reformers in American history did their work not just because it was sound policy, or they had done good analysis, or understood how to exercise good politics, but because their faith and their values dictated it.”

Those are the words of President Barack Obama at the February 2011 National Prayer Breakfast. He went on to say: “I’d be remiss if I stopped there; if my values were limited to personal moments of prayer or private conversations with pastors or friends. So instead, I must try—imperfectly, but I must try—to make sure those values motivate me as one leader of this great nation.”

Neither Gopnik nor Sullivan flagged that Obama speech as objectionable.

Of course, vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan was not the only member of the GOP ticket to come under fire for his faith. As many will recall, Republican nominee Mitt Romney was repeatedly assailed for his Mormonism and accused of having theocratic designs on the American government. Attacking Romney’s candidacy, writers from the New York Times to Salon claimed that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints sought to instantiate a “theodemocracy” with the former Massachusetts governor as their standard-bearer.

Yet the authors of these dire warnings against creeping Mormonism were nowhere to be found earlier this month, when one of the LDS Church’s apostles unreservedly endorsed President Obama’s liberal immigration reforms, declaring them “totally in line with our values.” Had the church instead embraced Romney’s more restrictive proposals, would these same writers be silent? For that matter, where were the policemen of palatable political parlance when organizations representing tens of millions of evangelical Christians launched a Bible-based push for immigration reform in January?


The double standard is hard to miss. In each of these cases, it is not religion’s entanglement in politics that is the real target of criticism, but religious conservatism. Religious liberalism, on the other hand, gets a free pass. Certainly, religious conservatives have organized more effectively than their liberal compatriots, meriting greater scrutiny for their side. But that doesn’t explain or excuse the uneven character of that coverage. Thus, when Paul Ryan and Barack Obama make nearly identical statements on the role faith plays in their politics, only the former is pilloried for it. Likewise, the LDS Church’s staunch social conservativism draws accusations that it “does not respect separation of church and state,” but its pronounced liberalism on immigration goes without such objections.

In truth, however, there is little functional difference between the activities of a conservative evangelical pastor affiliated with the Christian Right and a liberal rabbi at the Religious Action Center. Both individuals seek to bring their deeply held values to bear on the political process. Substantively, the contents of their views are vastly different. But the way their faith informs and affects their advocacy is the same.

Now, there is no question that lurking on the fringes of the religious right are those whose true aim is not to participate in American democracy but to fundamentally reshape it. But these extremists no more represent mainstream religious conservatives than the socialist fringe of American liberalism (or Jeremiah Wright) represents Barack Obama and his allies, or jihadis represent mainstream Muslims. Simply put, the vast majority of both religious liberals and conservatives operate happily and responsibly within the framework of American democracy and have no desire to capsize it.

There’s a more honest way to talk about religion’s role in our politics. It starts with being consistent and exorcising this selective specter of theocracy. Those who are uncomfortable with religion in the public square should cry foul at any cleric’s attempt to use faith to influence the political debate, whether in a liberal or conservative direction. Those who, like President Obama and Rep. Ryan, believe religion has always been an essential part of our national conversation, should permit faith leaders of all political persuasions to say their piece. These sentiments should by no means be exempt from criticism—but one should critique the content of the view, not delegitimize its source. Either of these positions is intellectually honest and defensible. Picking and choosing which faith leaders are theocrats based on how much they affirm one’s partisan politics is not.


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Jessica Epstein says:

And this writer is surprised there is a double-standard for conservative thought in today’s media? Nu? If orthodox rabbis got together and made videos against gay marriage/lifestyle based upon the teachings of Judaism, the apoplexy would be nuclear. Oh, but gun-control support by rabbis/ministers is ok. Hypocrisy is nothing new to the Left.

Mike Perry says:

So what is new about this?

Mike Perry says:

So what is new about this?

PhillipNagle says:

The truth is this double standard has always existed and always in favor of the left. I remember during the Viet Nam war, left wing clergy were never critized for mixing religion and politics. Nothing has changed.

    Papa493 says:

    Yes, the clergy has no business speaking out against war or getting mixed up in politics. Just imaging what a shame it would’ve been if the German clergy had spoken up.

      PhillipNagle says:

      The clergy have right and even a duty to speak on many subjects. The problem exists when those who disagree with religious leaders on an issue demand seperation of church and state but they see nothing wrong with the clergy speaking out on issues they agree with. That is where the hypocracy comes in.

      Some German clergy did, to their own cost.

PhillipNagle says:

The truth is this double standard has always existed and always in favor of the left. I remember during the Viet Nam war, left wing clergy were never critized for mixing religion and politics. Nothing has changed.

A free IMPARTIAL media is essential in a republican form of government. And the founders were quite outspoken about it. I’m not so naive to believe that the press hasn’t always been opinonated. But once upon a time if one paper was Democrat, another was Republican. The same held true on most issues. Now however, the TV media is almost entirely left/Democrat, the print media almost so. Yet where do the left aim there bile. Talk Radio. The one outlet almost entirely conservative. The left would never tolerate the “Fairness Doctrine” for TV news. Why is it acceptible for Talk Radio?
Yes indeed. There IS a double standard.

William Rosenfeld says:

A Canadian reads your piece with fascination and dismay. How does gun control become a “partisan political cause”? We simply watch you slay kindergarten children with assault weapons (which, as soldiers, we well know how to use) and shake our heads very, very sadly.
Sorry, but we have also listened to the NRA on US television – and that position has also been expressed quite clearly. Is that not somewhat theocratic media expression?

Perhaps I am missing something, but it would seem that “liberal religious” opinions are reflective of the secular majority, that is to say the majority of secular voters, not that secular voters are a majority. I can’t say I know a single non-religious person who is a conservative, of course, I come from a family full of very religious conservatives, so perhaps my perception is skewed. It was always my observation that religion tends to inform the conservative opinion, therefore it would make perfect sense that the “liberal” clergy would be more palatable to the secular masses and thereby meet with less protest. Also, gun control is not a partisan issue. Most of my “liberal” friends are pro-gun ownership with reasonable limits and responsibility. I consider myself a liberal, and I was on the ROTC rifle squad in college. Furthermore, big roll of the eyes every time I hear the biased media charge. Some media is biased toward the more liberal side, some toward the conservative. Your level of awareness of this unavoidable bias, as it stems from the simple fact that human beings are incapable of being perfectly unbiased and media is made by human beings, negates any bias the media may contain. In other words, the author of the story, then the editor, then the reader all do their own share of filtering. A simple awareness of bias should make any reader approach all media with a level of skepticism which negates said bias. Furthermore, it is necessary for a well rounded person to look at all perspectives on an issue with due consideration before making a judgment and how would that be possible unless all sides are presented?

    Cha5678 says:

    Is it possible that secularism’s ultimate end is liberalism? Absent a respect for the transcendental authority, the secularist finds new rulers in either the self or his/her chosen communion. The result being even those more secular clerics eventually replace the words of whatever they name their deity with the words of themselves or their conspiring set of allies. This is not to say they are motivated by selfishness – evidence suggests otherwise – but it would seem there is a touch of idolatry or as we call it today, materialism or naturalism, in there.

SurfFlorist says:

Forgive me, but I am tired of the complaints from the right that only the left gets good pr. But it seems to me that Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, Jerry Falwall, Jimmy Bakker (as long as he kept his pants on), Jimmy Swaggert (ditto) and, in our own community, Nathan Korff got more than their fair share of good pr even though they were giving a conservative message. All are clergy and all are conservative. They certainly mixed politics with religion yet many on the right
gave no complaint to this volatile mixture.
Similarly, the right is always complaining that organizations on the left are the source of all of America’s problems and they trot out Planned Parenthood, the ACLU et al as leading the United States down the course of failure. But the John Birch Society, the KKK and the American Nazi party are all children of the right. If you want to believe that only organizations on the left can be detrimental to the past, present and future of America, then I can believe just as much that the organizations on the right can be just as detrimental to the past, present and future of America.

This is good news actually, it means the religious moderates wish to distance themselves from the far-right zealots who are armed to the teeth while claiming to be “pro-life”.

    cken says:

    Being armed to the teeth is pro-life – my life! should you ever be
    victim of a home invasion, aggravated assault, or been shot or shot at
    you will develop a desire to be able respond with equal or greater
    force, preferably a gun. Then again maybe you don’t think your life is worth protecting.

Anti-abortion (and anti-birth-control) are religious subjects. Gun violence control is a non-religious subject. We don’t want clergy telling us how to manage our medical affairs. We do want all possible citizens to try to help us do something about the crazy proliferation of guns and lack of control over the people who misuse them. It is a moral stance, perhaps, but not particularly a religious one. Our Canadian correspondent points out that the NRA is expressing a religious view – call it worship of the Second Amendment! Of course, the Golden Calf, in the form of the gun industry, is not far behind. Do you realize that the NRA fight removal of guns from men who are the subject of an order of protection?

    Cha5678 says:

    If birth control is a religious subject, then shouldn’t the separation of church and state make Title X as an unconstitutional act? How can government get so involved in a religious subject? Or is separation one sided? To keep religion institutions out of government while government occasionally hops the fence and rebuilds the fence further into religion’s yard?

Only in America! So often said, yet true. Guns hold a strange place in the American psyche. I’ve never lived there, and the thought of gun-totin’ citizens puts me off the idea that I ever will. All I can say is in UK and Ireland (where I’m living now) there are plenty people from the majority Catholic and most of the minority Protestant population who will strongly oppose abortion (it’s still illegal here) . The anti abortionists and the pro-choice camps both would not want to see gun ownership either. Even our police are normally unarmed, though in certain circumstances they do carry firearms. To us, the NRA seem like a bunch of “nut jobs”.

Papa493 says:

Seems like Rosenberg has forgotten when just before the presidential election dozens of clergymen announced that they were going to preach against Obama in their churches and dared the government to do anything about it.

    & how is this relevant to anything?

    Cha5678 says:

    And you forgot that dozens of clergymen preached for Obama and even invited campaign surrogates to take over the pulpit.

    Also, did you read the complete newspaper stories about the event you cited? Had you, you would have realized it was an act of civil disobedience to force the government to act upon the Johnson Amendment. So far it has only been used as a threat, but never taken to the limit to allow a church or synagogue or temple the legal standing to challenge its constitutionality. The point of making pointed remarks, taping their sermons, sending them to the government, and promoting their efforts through the press was to beg the government to give them legal standing.

Great article right on point…

Meh. Besides a couple of writers, I’m not sure who on the left is screaming theocracy these days. The best response to the religious right-ers is better, stronger, faster religious progressives.

I don’t believe for one second that Obama “thinks religion should be part of our national conversation”. It is just one more thing he can use. As to “those (lurking –oooooh!– on the religious right) whose true aim is not to participate in American democracy but to fundamentally reshape it”: this is a strawman, for what is the meaning of “participating in democracy”? A rubber-stamp on whatever the governing class wants? You think Obama isn’t trying to “fundamentally reshape” our society? You attempt to make a valid point with this article –bemoaning the selective indignation of liberal clergy, and their selective acceptance by those in power. But you undermine it with shopworn cliches and insipid bromides, and a genuine failure to recognize how ruthlessly ambitious the current president is.

aggy_0 says:

Excellent article.

The main distinction between liberal religious voices and conservative religious voices is that the liberals generally want to increase rights and freedoms and argue for things that there are also clear secular arguments for (civil rights, gay rights, banning the death penalty, etc.). By contrast, religious conservatives generally want to restrict the rights of everyone based on their own religious teachings (gay rights, abortion, etc.)

Like with his opposition to gay marriage on religious grounds, Obama gets a pass because the left knows he doesn’t mean it. If lip service to religion helps sell liberal policies, so be it. But if religion is taken seriously, not as a means to promote left-wingery, that is a different story.

This is but another effort on the part of ultra-right reactionary elents to paint themselves as victims. Fact is that dozens of groups advocating public policy by religious leaders slosh around all over town. The difference is that there is rarely the type of consensus among religious leaders about anything as has been achieved by the slaughter of innocent children by an “average Joe” who used his mother’s easily obtained weapon of war as if he were in the hills of Vietnam, fighting for his unit’s survival.

Don’t pretend that clergy of all stripes participate in the national debate; just accept the fact that on this issue, there is a lot more consensus and common ground among religious leaders than on virtually any other.

silverbackV says:

It is beyond my understanding why people with bloated senses of self worth think they are capable and qualified to determine that J. Q Public should not be allowed to own and bear arms. Even more confounding is why a Jew would want the populace to be disarmed. Are liberal Jews Holocaust deniers? Some body please clue me in, but before you do, read the following. Particularly the entry of “11 November 1938.”

Yechiel Gordon says:

The author is entirely correct: Surely no one like Isaiah, Amos or others in the Jewish prophetic tradition would ever presume to desecrate religion by invoking its principles in order to reduce violence.

Great article.

But I do think there is an answer to this “double standard” complaint. Religious Conservatives and Religious Liberals both sound similar when they talk about their religious views influencing politics.

To me, the difference is that Religious Conservatives want to inject views that are actual religious laws into secular law. Religious Liberals want to inject secular that are influenced by religion into secular law. I think this is a distinction that does make a difference.


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America’s Anti-Gun Theocrats

Should rabbis and other clerics engage in politics? Only, it seems, if they support liberal policies.

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