February 21, 2020

Jewish, Christian and Muslim Panelists Discuss the Role of Religion in American Politics

From left: Reinhard Krauss, Rabbi Adam Greenwald, Rev. Jonathan Chute and Aziza Hasan discussed religion and politics at American Jewish University. Photo by Laura-Beth Sholkoff, American Jewish University's Whizin Center for Continuing Education

“We are here to learn something about the distinctive insights and perhaps the helpful wisdom that Judaism, Christianity and Islam can bring to this crucial conversation of religion and politics based on the long history of each of these religious traditions.”

This is how Reinhard Krauss, executive director of the Academy for Judaic, Christian and Islamic Studies, introduced a panel discussion on March 27 held at the American Jewish University campus.

The event was part of the speaker series, “Let’s Talk About Religion,” which features interreligious conversations that highlight the similarities and differences between Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Krauss served as the moderator on a panel titled “God in the Voting Booth? The Role of Religion in American Politics.” The event drew around 40 people and the panel featured Rabbi Adam Greenwald, director of AJU’s Miller Introduction to Judaism Program; Jonathan Chute, senior pastor at Rolling Hills United Methodist Church and Aziza Hasan, executive director of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change. 

 Hasan said religion and politics have always intermingled, noting how America’s first president, George Washington, addressed a synagogue about religious freedom and how former Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) was sworn in to the U.S. House on Thomas Jefferson’s Koran.

Greenwald said the sacred texts of the three monotheistic faiths do not prescribe policy positions. “So I believe one can be motivated by good religion and be a Democrat and one can be motivated by good religion and be a Republican,” he said. “The question is, are they both responding to the call of religion to be aware of the social ills?”

While religion has been used as a tool to oppress, Chute said the most sustainable religions are those that ask people to look inward. 

“I believe one can be motivated by good religion and be a Democrat and one can be motivated by good religion and be a Republican. The question is, are they both responding to the call of religion to be aware of the social ills?” — Rabbi Adam Greenwald

“I tend to feel that a healthy religious impulse is one that is more critical and actually more specifically self-critical and one of the differences between what I think of as a healthy religious expression and something that is more reflective of a cult is its capacity for self-criticism,” Chute said. 

Each speaker spoke about the importance of people of various political beliefs listening to one another. Hassan said she was struck by a recent article in USA Today that said an increasing amount of people feel like their way of life is being threatened by America becoming more diverse.

“If people are feeling like their values, their way of life is going to be threatened because minorities are taking over, we better start listening really quickly,” she said. 

She added she was heartened that following the 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, people of diverse political beliefs came together for a vigil at the Federal Building in Westwood.“We all got to grieve that night,” she said.

Similarly, Greenwald said that the same groups that turned out to support each other after the Tree of Life shooting came out to express solidarity following the recent shootings at the mosques in New Zealand.

Greenwald connected ideas about religion and civic life to the Passover story, including how Egypt is a place of constriction. The journey to the Promised Land is a “tough one and the only way to make it is together,” he said.

Chute spoke about the Johnson Amendment, a provision in the U.S. tax code that prohibits nonprofit organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates. 

“I’m comfortable working not to violate that,” he said.

While Greenwald said it is inappropriate for a rabbi to advise others on how to vote, he is comfortable sharing his opinions on the issues of the day. He added it is natural for elected officials to share how their religious beliefs inform their political positions, noting religion is how they bring their “full selves” to their work.

While the speakers said religion is a force for good in political and civil life, Krauss said religion was not always aligned with causes including the Civil Rights movement and figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr.

During the Q-and-A, an audience member asked about Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who has made anti-Israel statements on Twitter. Hasan, who was raised in Jordan by a Christian-American mother and a Muslim-Palestinian father, denounced the rise of “anti-Jewish sentiment.” She said the controversy surrounding Omar’s anti-Israel statements has furthered her education about the many forms of anti-Semitism.

“I can see tropes I was blind to before and it’s been a journey,” Hasan Said.

When an audience member said that clergy who use their pulpits to express political positions bothered him, Chute agreed. “I try to preach in a way that invites people to ask their own questions and to wrestle with things that I think are substantive and important,” Chute said, “but I really seek to avoid proscription and partisan pronouncement.”