Jewish Take on Religion and Politics

The race for president in 2016 is heating up. For presidential candidates, landing at top three in the early primary contests is crucial if they want a chance of being their parties’ nominee in the fall. To that end, several candidates have started to pitch their religion, not only as being part of their daily lives but also as something that will guide them if they are elected president.

Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio has made it part of his closing argument in the final push before next week’s Iowa Caucuses. In an attempt to win, or, at least, come in 3rd, in Iowa, Rubio has in recent days upped his talk about God in aggressively trying to persuade Christian and Evangelical voters to consider him as their first choice.

Rubio, a practicing Roman Catholic, told voters in Iowa on Tuesday that his faith will influence him as president if elected in the fall. “Will faith influence me as president? Absolutely. I hope [that it will] every day.”

“I do think it’s important for our president to be someone who is influenced by their faith, especially if it’s Christianity, because it is a faith that teaches you to care for the less fortunate, to seek peace, to care for one another, even to love your enemy,” Rubio added, speaking to reporters. The Republican presidential hopeful has been airing this week a TV commercial in Iowa called “Faith.

“Our goal is eternity, the ability to live alongside our creator for all time. To accept the free gift of salvation offered to us by Jesus Christ,” Rubio says in the TV spot.

Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, and Rand Paul have all recently rolled out endorsements from prominent Christian leaders. The more cultural candidates like Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee have never made it a secret as to how much faith guides them in their thinking and policy-making decisions.

Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton, a Methodist, started discussing her faith in a more personal manner on the trail as she fights off a challenge by Bernie Sanders, the Jewish Senator from Vermont. “I think that any of us who are Christian have a constantly, constant, conversation in our own heads about what we are called to do and how we are asked to do it, and I think it is absolutely appropriate for people to have very strong convictions and also, though, to discuss those with other people of faith,” Hillary said during a town hall meeting in Knoxville, Iowa. “Because different experiences can lead to different conclusions about what is consonant with our faith and how best to exercise it.”

A new Pew Research Center survey, published on Wednesday, found that 51 percent of American adults say they would be less likely to vote for a presidential candidate who does not believe in God. Among Republicans, 64 percent say it’s important to have a president who shares their religious beliefs. 53 percent of Republicans and those who lean toward the GOP say there has been too little religious talk from political leaders.

From a Jewish standpoint, while a candidate’s religious affiliation might not be a litmus test for political support, being overly religious may well matter, says Rabbi Jason Miller, an influential speaker and writer about technology and Jewish life from Detroit.

“I think Jewish voters really don’t care whether a candidate is religiously observant,” Rabbi Miller told Jewish Insider. “Certainly, if a candidate has strongly held religious beliefs that inform their political views in ways that are contradictory to a Jewish voter’s values, that would be taken into strong consideration in the voting booth.”

Rabbi Abba Cohen, Vice President for Federal Affairs as well as Washington Director and Counsel for Agudath Israel of America, shares the same sentiment. “Whether a candidate is religious or not is beside the point. A candidate, whatever his or her personal belief or observance, should certainly not be hostile to religion, should appreciate religion’s role in our society and heritage, and make every effort to reasonably accommodate religious faith and practice,” Cohen stressed in a conversation with Jewish Insider. “These are American ideals.”

But according to Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, there should be no religious test for candidates running for office.

“Reform Jews, like millions of Americans, find meaning, strength, comfort and community in their faith. Yet a candidate’s faith or lack thereof has no bearing on his or her fitness for office,” Rabbi Pesner told Jewish Insider. “And just as there can be no religious tests for the presidency, we and all Americans should expect that anyone elected is committed to pursuing policies grounded in shared American values that apply equally to people of all faiths and no faith.”

The Pew Research poll, mentioned above, also showed that being Jewish is considered a liability for 10 percent of Americans. Over 80 percent say it does not matter. Bernie Sanders is the only Jewish candidate in the presidential race.

Among Republicans/leaning Republican, 10 percent said they were more likely to vote for a candidate who is Jewish, while 7 percent said they were ess likely. Among Democrats/leaning Democratic, 5 percent are more likely to vote for a Jewish candidate, while 10 percent see it as a liability.

The poll did not examine whether Jewish-American voters are more likely to vote for a candidate of their own religion. But in what seems to be the most Jewish election in history, there’s certainly a sense that Jewish voters are aligned with the general public. “Leading up to the 2000 election, Jewish people were excited when Al Gore chose Joe Lieberman as a running mate. However, I don’t see that same sense of Jewish pride when it comes to Bernie Sanders or even the discussion of Michael Bloomberg entering the race,” Miller said. “I’ve heard a lot of Jewish people who are supportive of Hillary Clinton, but no one mentions her Jewish son-in-law (Chelsea Clinton’s husband Marc Mezvinsky). The same is true of Donald Trump’s Jewish daughter (Ivanka).”

Whoever emerges as the respective parties’ nominee and the favorite to win the presidential election, Cohen said the most important measure is that the candidate should “possess the universal values of honesty, integrity, compassion and courage.”

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