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    Should clergy keep out of politics?

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared on the ABC Religion and Ethics website on 8 November 2019.

    Australian life was robust and lively in the days when religion — notably, the Catholic Church — was a major player in Labor politics. And though the religious aspect has declined, it still erupts from time to time.

    American politics, by contrast, doggedly retains its religious dimension, and American clergy are not reticent to use their pulpits to support or slam presidents and policies.

    Britain is more subdued, though I suspect that Brexit has a subtle religious dimension.

    A number of other nations have religious terms in their central documents — “Christian” or “Islamic” or whatever — though what this means in terms of political attitudes and action is not always easy to predict.

    One of the main arenas where religion and politics mix freely is the State of Israel, where votes and coalitions are heavily influenced by right-wing religious movements that owe certain allegiances to often elderly rabbinic decision-makers. Most Israeli voters strongly object to rabbis “mixing in” and argue that they have no right to bring religion into the polling booth. Nonetheless, the religious “ultras” are growing in strength.

    I don’t think the Bible would have automatically approved. In ancient Israel the priests who controlled Temple worship combined it with a broad concern for public health and education. The prophets spoke up and spoke out and constantly goaded the government. Personal power and prosperity were not the point: the ethical climate was.

    By Graeco-Roman times, biblical prophecy had waned. The priests became the formal face of the community and some were even mercenaries. The people were wary, but there was a new category of spiritual leadership developing: the sages. Some sages were kohanim (priests); some kohanim were sages. Some sages were charismatics, some charismatics were sages. Biblical prophecy was in limbo.

    Post-biblically, the Talmud said that after the Temple was destroyed, prophecy was left in the hands of infants and idiots, whose innocent minds had the gift of perception.

    In modern democracies things are different. The clergy of all faiths, including rabbis, go everywhere and speak out on everything. However, whenever vested interests feel threatened, voices are raised: “Clergy, get back to your Bibles! Stick to your sermons! Return to your rostrums!”

    Let me reflect on my time as a rabbi in Australia. I more or less had two full-time jobs at the one time. I ministered to my congregation and community; I was also active on a national canvas, saying and doing what I thought necessary at a particular time. Other clergy (of all faiths) privately acknowledged that they agreed with me. In Britain at an earlier stage of my career, my views on racism were quoted in the House of Lords, though some of the noble peers thought I was a nuisance and nosey-parker.

    I weighed into many Australian national debates: Should abortion be restricted? Should the unemployed have to look for a job? Should the media peddle smut? Should shops open on Sundays? Should athletes pray for victory? Should Australia keep the Queen? Should politicians take courses in civics? Should gays parade in the streets? Should advertising tell the truth? Should immigration be controlled? Should rich nations help the poor? Should education recognise individual differences? Should dole recipients do voluntary work? Should it be compulsory to vote in elections?

    I engaged with such issues, sometimes because I was asked to, sometimes because I felt a duty to speak out. I attacked the media — not just for bias against IsraeI or Jews, but for ethical unreliability. After I gave a blunt address at a media convention, I got a standing ovation: all very flattering, but the next day things were just as before.

    I spoke as an Australian and a Jew. I was careful not to let either side down. I was honoured to be one of 20 citizens interviewed on television about whether Australia should retain the Queen. No one in the Australian Jewish community, as far as I know, objected to what I said. I always took up a clear position, but I put it across diplomatically.

    Yes, there were a few grumbles. When I spoke up on Aboriginal welfare and was seen at public events featuring Indigenous Australians, one of my congregation said she would not attend services unless I kept quiet. I received abusive phone calls and even death threats, but these were rare, and apart from taking obvious precautions I just kept going with my normal activities and opinions.

    I knew that some people on whose toes I trod said the clergy should stick to teaching the Bible. My response was that speaking up and speaking out were actually “teaching the Bible.” Justice, peace and truth are what the biblical prophets spoke about, knowing that they risked being ostracised or jailed because they would not hold their tongues.

    When Australian film stars and athletes spoke out on education and the economy, I objected that they had no expertise on such issues. I said that the experts on the quality of society were the clergy.

    True, clergy views vary because the Bible has many faces. But bringing biblical principles into the market-place is not just being nosey. As the Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple said, “God is interested in many other things besides religion.”

    Writing in the Jewish Heritage in the 1960s, Joseph C Landis made an interesting distinction between God-religions which sell spirituality, and man-religions that focus on life in society. There is, says Landis, a third option: God-and-man religions in which “man finds his meaning precisely and uniquely under God.”

    Man is a better person because of God (it would be interesting to ask whether God is a better God because of man). In a God-and-man religion, the believer raises the quality of society because of the urge of the ethical dimensions of his belief. This is the sort of religion factor that is good for a nation.

    It’s not good for society when religious politicians promote their own agendas and seek hand-outs and power. They speak their minds but rarely mind their speech. Their wrangling and horse-trading bring religion no credit. Rarely do we hear the prophetic voice on broader issues such as education and communications, science and medicine, health, penology and the economy.

    We hear slogans and stereotypes, but rarely do we hear voices that uphold the dignity of human beings and people’s right to be themselves, believing or disbelieving in a set of ideas.

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