LOS ANGELES –
"Get me my brother’s speech," Sen. Edward Kennedy said to me on the fall day in 1980 when I told him that the then-Cardinal in Boston was taking to his pulpit, and instructing the priests within his jurisdiction to do so, to tell their parishioners to vote against our friend Rep. Barney Frank because of his support for abortion rights.
I paused, if only for a minute. He had two famous brothers, who had given a lot of famous speeches. But given the context, the brother and the speech was pretty obvious: it had to be JFK's Houston Ministries speech-- the one where he so famously addressed the objections to a Catholic in the White House by affirming his belief in an America in which no Catholic priest and no Protestant minister and no Jewish rabbi ever tells his parishioners how to vote.
I found the speech, and drafted a statement about the need for separation between church and state, for the Church to stay out of the business of telling believers how to do their politics.
But even as I did, I knew it was a little more complicated than I was trying to make it seem. It was only the preceding spring, during the heat of Sen. Kennedy’s primary challenge to then-President Carter, that I had found myself on the ground in New Jersey, trying to figure out how to get Jews to vote for Kennedy.
The problem was that most of the leaders of the Jewish community, the civic leaders that is, were already with Carter by the time I got there, even though our polling told us that Jewish voters overwhelmingly favored Kennedy. But how would I get them to vote in a primary that many people considered irrelevant, given that Carter was all but assured of the votes he needed for the nomination?
That’s when I came up with my “rabbis strategy.” They might have the Federation crowd, but the rabbis were up for grabs. I didn’t need them to endorse Kennedy per se, which I knew many would be uncomfortable doing, at least from the pulpit on the Sabbath before the election; all I needed them to do was give sermons about the importance of voting.
No one has ever courted rabbis as assiduously as I did. I arranged a special reception for them, and their wives, with Senator and Mrs. Kennedy; I arranged VIP seating for them at a speech at the local temple; I put them on call lists for personal attention.
Every week before the election, I took long ads in the Jewish newspapers, quoting prominent rabbis on the Jewish tradition of civic engagement. “Jews read,” I remember explaining to my friends John Sasso and Jack Corrigan, who were doing New Jersey with me, and used to check in with me regularly about how I was doing with my rabbis.
Did I mention that we won New Jersey soundly, with a major turnout, and margin, in the Jewish community? Or that the Carter campaign later borrowed me to send me to Miami, in the hopes that I could work some of the same magic in Jewish-heavy Dade County? Rabbis stay out of politics? Not on my watch.
Of course, I was hardly the first to tap into the potential of religious leaders to influence politics. The civil rights movement in this country was based, in not insignificant part, in churches, black and white. Religious leaders had been deeply involved in the anti-war movement in the 1970's; churches have long served as sanctuaries for individuals seeking asylum; temples regularly offer up forums on the impact of upcoming elections on Israel’s security.
In my own experience, I’ll never forget the sight of every church bus in the state of Iowa on the cold and snowy roads that February in 1988 when Ralph Reed succeeded in organizing evangelicals into a political force; every church in the state, literally, scheduled suppers for caucus night, and all the voters then got on the waiting buses-- in the process giving birth to the “Christian Coalition” that allowed Pat Robertson to score a surprising second place finish ahead of the first George Bush.
I’m scheduled to speak next week at a major Convention of Reform Jews on the possible impact of the next election on issues before the United States Supreme Court, in the hopes of encouraging more congregations and Jewish organizations to involve themselves in forthcoming judicial nomination issues.
When Mitt Romney, his numbers falling in Iowa, pledges to keep his Mormonism out of the White House, of course he doesn’t really mean that. I have no doubt that his faith, like mine, plays an important part in his decision to devote his professional energies to the business of politics, as well as to the positions he takes and the values he holds dear.
Being Jewish isn’t irrelevant to my politics, and its influence certainly isn’t limited to where I stand on issues relating to the Middle East. My commitments to social justice and equality, my progressive values, my concern for the disadvantaged and the victims of discrimination, all find their routes in the lessons I learned as a child at Temple Israel in Swampscott, and in the family and tradition in which I was raised.
I’ll never forget my mother’s first words, upon hearing that John F. Kennedy had been shot. “Thank God it wasn’t a Jew.”
It has always been a double-edged sword. I may not approach every issue, the way so many in the generation before me did, in terms of “what’s good for the Jews,” but I certainly bring my religious background to my politics and my religious loyalties to my judgments. So it can’t be right to say that religion is irrelevant to politics. Separation of church and state means that the government should not be picking and choosing among religions, should not be favoring the practice of religion over its rejection, should not be punishing non-believers, or making observance part of our civic culture.
But has there ever been a candidate who did not present himself, or herself, as a person of faith? Would we have confidence in them if they didn’t?
If they believed in a “religion” that many of us found offensive, can we really claim that it would have no bearing on our support of them?
The personal is political, and that applies to a person’s religion.
I was sitting at a dinner last year with some distinguished Southern Baptist educators, university leaders. I asked them if they would consider voting for Mitt Romney, expecting them either to say that they would, or at least that their reasons for saying "no" would have nothing to do with his Mormonism. There was a moment of silence, before one finally looked at me and said, quite simply, “No. He doesn’t believe in the Trinity.”
I did not point out what should have been obvious: neither do I. For me, at least, the only honest answer I can find is one that is, perhaps ironically, rooted in our religious tradition. It is the imperative of fairness, the mandate of consideration, the rule that we should treat others as we would have them treat us. It is because of my religion, in the end, that I think it is wrong to hold Mitt Romney’s against him.
It is not because religion has no place in politics, but because no message of the Judaeo-Christian tradition is stronger than the Golden Rule that I believe Gov. Romney should be judged based on his qualifications, and not his faith. And when I see all those rabbis next week, that’s what I plan to tell them.
Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first woman President of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.
Estrich's books include the just published “Soulless,” “The Case for Hillary Clinton,” “How to Get Into Law School,” “Sex & Power,” “Real Rape,” “Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System” and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women.”
She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the “Blue Streak” column for FOXNews.com.