New York Congressman Charlie Rangel can’t decide which religious teachers to invoke, and he keeps waffling about whether he actually knows what they would say, but it’s pretty clear to him that whatever the faith, they would be totally opposed to any politics other than Mr. Rangel’s. That’s a pretty arrogant claim, especially for someone who refuses to be pinned down about the specific response he believes would be offered.
To be sure, invoking religious teachers and traditions to build support for political positions is not unusual, and certainly not the unique domain of either political party. And while it would be especially easy to attack the use of such Church-State entanglement by a liberal Democrat, especially one with his own sketchy past in terms of personal ethics, that too is not the real concern with Rangel’s recent pronouncements. After all, people of faith should and will look to their chosen faiths and traditions for guidance on the biggest challenges they face personally and communally – that is the role of deeply held and well-integrated convictions. And if the use of faith teachings were limited to those without moral and ethical failings, they would never be used at all.
The problem with Rangel’s use of faith in this case lies in its divisive and sanctimonious presumptions.
There is little doubt about biblical concern with those who are most vulnerable. Mountains of proof texts can be brought, from both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, to demonstrate the obligation to care for those most in need. But Mr. Rangel’s implicit claim that only those who side with him politically are sensitive to those teachings is outrageous.
While Rangel may disagree with them, and they may in fact be wrong, those who support such cuts are often motivated by the same things which motivate Mr. Rangel and many others on his side of the aisle, i.e., securing as much benefit to as many people as possible. Where the two sides differ is in their understandings of what is possible and using religion to make it sound otherwise is, forgive the term, bad faith.
Charlie Rangel is right – how a nation spends its money is a moral issue. But like most moral issues, there is a vast difference between easy moralizing, which offers one-sided answers to complex questions, and teaching traditions which always seek to make all people on all sides of whatever the issue more sensitive to others. That sensitivity can translate into any number of different policy conclusions, and presuming otherwise reduces eternal traditions to momentary slogans. I hope that is not what Congressman Rangel intended, and I know it is something we ought not to do.
I welcome Mr. Rangel’s invitation to religious leaders, inviting us to add our voices to the debt and deficit conversations, but not as simple-minded cheerleaders for either side.
Religious wisdom has endured for thousands of years precisely because it has real contributions to make, and that is as true today as it has ever been. The greatest contributions will be, as they have always been, to opening people’s hearts and minds to seeing a bigger and more complex picture, one that puts people ahead of any political ideology.
Much would in fact be gained from including religious teachings in the ongoing debt debate, but only if the inclusion was more than the kind of cherry-picking which Mr. Rangel seems to want.
We would, for example, need to include the wisdom of loving one’s enemy from Christian tradition and the rabbinic approach of always presuming the best about others’ intentions and actions.
Neither of these teachings demands a wishy-washy approach, but their real contribution lies not in “proving” which way is right in terms of what cuts to make, but in making the national debate smarter and more civilized.
I know that’s not the simplistic proof-texting which Rangel wants, but it is a real contribution which people of faith could make as the national debt/deficit debate comes down to the wire.
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the author of "You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism," and president of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.