Damon Linker, Kennedy, Public Office and Rabbinical Vision

In the Washington Post, Damon Linker (author of “Theocons”), proposes a “religious test” for all political candidates:Instead of attempting the impossible task of abolishing faith from the political conversation, we need a new kind of religious test for our leaders. “Religious convictions do not always harmonize with the practice of democratic government, and allowing voters to explore the dissonance is legitimate.”

This “test’s” questions would include the following:
How might the doctrines and practices of your religion conflict with the fulfillment of your official duties?
How would you respond if your church issued an edict that clashed with the duties of your office?

Linker identifies, as an example of such an “edict”, the teaching of many Catholic bishops that Catholic leaders should work to outlaw abortion, “even though the Supreme Court has declared it a constitutionally protected right, and even if the candidate’s constituents are overwhelmingly pro-choice.”

Fifty years ago last week, Senator John F. Kennedy’s addressed the Greater Houston Ministerial Association to explain why he can be Catholic and still be president. How can he be trusted not to follow the Pope as a Catholic? If Bishops claim to decide an issue-how can he serve the best interests of the country?  Kennedy followed the thought of John Courtney Murray that eventually led to Gaudium et Spes, a broader vision of the Catholic Church in the world.

Here we are fifty years later and we have no equivalent halakhic version. If Poskim or Roshei yeshiva claim extra terrestrial & extra officio authority to  decide issues then: can there be a Halakhic politician? If every matter claimed to be effecting society is “pikuah nefesh” requiring a pesak, then can an Orthodox politician override it? Kennedy offered to step down if there was a conflict of conscious and public good. Could an orthodox Jew rise in politics without having to switch to “traditional” or “observant”?

Here is a post from Mirror of Justice blog emphasizing another aspect. Is there a traditional/halakhic/orthodox mandate to solve questions of global economics and politics? Chief Rabbi Sacks creates such a mandate but would it stand up as fodder for speeches for an observant candidate? In the 1980’s we were still justifying an ethic in/out of halakhah, but what of the international issues that were already there 50 years ago. What was the Orthodox Congressman Herbert Tenzer thinking in the 1960’s. (Does anyone know if  he ever gave such a speech- his archives and oral history interviews are in YU but undetailed). Can a Jewish politician speak of  “social welfare and human rights, of disarmament and international order and peace” and be more specific than “tikkun olam” or the “dignity of Adam I”.

While recognizing that the religious issue was an important matter before the voters (Can a Catholic be a loyal American office holder? Well, the fact that he had been a holder of elective office for some time would suggest an affirmative answer to this question.)… Still, as a politician seeking office, he made a gamble which was this: telling not only the Protestant ministers gathered at the site where he was delivering his address but also the American people that he believed “in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.” I suspect that this statement was intended to placate those who believed without question that no one who claimed to be Catholic could also be a loyal citizen and, therefore, a competent and effective President.

So, perhaps with Saint Thomas More in mind, he concluded this address by pointing out that “if the time should ever come—and I do not concede any conflict to be even remotely possible—when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious public servant would do the same. But I do not intend to apologize for these views to my critics of either Catholic or Protestant faith—nor do I intend to disavow either my views or my church in order to win this election.”

Now we must fast forward a bit to a little over four months later….as the President of the United States duly elected by his fellow citizens… Many recall his famous words: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” But other words spoken by the new President demand our attention today.

Before his audience—wherever they were—heard this famous exhortation about service, President Kennedy declared in the first substantive paragraph of the address these words of significance: “The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forbears fought are still at issue around the globe-the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.”

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