How Faith Leaders Can Guide Morality in Election Years

By: Jack Moline

April 7, 2020

Ethical Questions for the Religious Voter

The founders of our country rightly enshrined as the first of our constitutional rights the freedom of religion, the freedom of conscience for every citizen, and the freedom from government infringement on beliefs. Scholars and laypeople continue to argue about whether the architects of the First Amendment were trying to protect religion or contain it. Regardless of how one views it, however, religion and personal conviction certainly enjoy privileged status in the United States.

A lesson in the Talmud, the sprawling compendium of rabbinic teachings and debates, insists that the famous disagreements between two first-century rabbis, Hillel and Shammai, were valuable at least as much for their engagement with sacred concerns as they were for their conclusions. In fact, the narrative voice of the Talmud proclaims that each school of thought produced “the words of the Living God.” 

Though almost every disagreement was resolved through deliberation, during the long periods of debate, adherents of Hillel’s teachings followed his principles, while adherents of Shammai’s opposing opinions followed his. And still, they mingled socially, and their children married freely with children from the other camp.

Reading that brief summary of a longer discussion reminds me of the lamented olden days of Congress when members would bitterly denounce the legislation (and sometimes character) of members of the other party, and then go out for drinks and dinner, finding enough in common to return each day to forge a legislative path. 

In the end, both Congress and the assembly of rabbis had to come to a decision. The price of citizenship was to accept the resolution, even if the record of the disagreement was considered worth preserving.

The Talmud also records a less gentle approach to legal disagreement that occurred two centuries later. It tells a beautiful story of an ancient friendship between Rabbi Yohanan and Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish. The story turns dark and tragic when they reach an impasse on a minor point of law. The angry insistence of Yohanan that he is right results in his diminishment of his friend, leveling a personal insult that devastates Shimon. Yohanan refuses to reconcile; Shimon dies of a broken heart. Realizing his transgression too late, Yohanan succumbs to heartbreak as well. These were not “the words of the Living God.” In fact, they were quite the opposite.

This story cuts close to the bone these days when public insult and uncompromising self-righteousness seem to be the stock and trade of political discourse. What is the difference between the principled disagreements between Hillel and Shammai on the one hand, and the spiraling antagonism between Yohanan and Shimon ben Lakish on the other? 

It seems to be the willingness of the former pair to live out deeply held religious convictions while simultaneously accepting the possibility that those convictions might not, in the end, be accepted as determinative. By contrast, the lack of humility in the position of Rabbi Yohanan obscures the policy difference and ultimately causes both houses to collapse.

The instruction of these two stories might seem dependent on the rarified context of the Talmud, but I think they are quite contemporary in their implications. At stake for all the rabbis was what they understood to be the right and righteous thing to do in the common context of their faith. It’s undeniable that the document that set that context was the Old Testament. 

But the right and righteous thing to do in the United States is defined by the Constitution, including its primary instruction about separating government and religion while protecting personal conscience. No matter how fiercely any individual or group affirms the Bible (or the Quran or the Bhagavad Gita or Bertrand Russell), it is the Constitution which is the law of the land.

Faith leaders have a choice to make in exercising their protected beliefs (and free speech). Will they make a passionate case for their positions in the manner of Hillel and Shammai, engaging disagreement with respect and humility, or will they risk everything—including love—for the sake of proving themselves right? The lesson of these two examples from my own tradition is that respect for God’s word does not preclude respect for God’s creations.

The Constitution protects the right of anyone, religious or otherwise, to advocate for their values. Every citizen, and every group with which they freely assemble, ought absolutely to advocate for the platforms they prefer the candidates to lead on. But the price of that freedom is the responsibility to affirm that the neutral position of government on religion—whether to protect or contain it—is equally absolute.

Moreover, the notion that disagreement is honorable, even sacred, is an important element of America’s religious ethos. We should aspire to be disciples of Hillel and Shammai, viewing both passions as living expressions of godliness. Religious leaders, most especially clergy, should be cautioned by Rabbi Yohanan and Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish.

As I have settled into a truer certainty about my theology in my senior years, I have noticed that I am less threatened by those who do not share my beliefs. It initially seemed counterintuitive, but I now think that I have become less reliant on the affirmation of others to secure my faith. As such, I tend to view rage and intolerance toward differing perspectives as driven by insecurity. The louder they proclaim their rectitude, the less certain they really are.

It is inevitable that such overweening and preening self-confidence has resulted in divisions between former friendly rivals and has driven the perception that disagreement defines an opponent as an enemy. An irreconcilable enemy, as Yohanan discovered, causes both houses to collapse. This is a tenet we can reflect on as we carry ourselves amid a contentious election. 

The privileged status of religion and personal conviction under the Constitution generates the same responsibility as the other First Amendment rights. They are useless if they go unexercised, but if elevated above the whole, they compromise their very reason to exist.

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