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Asking the Clergy: Should spiritual leaders conceal political leanings?

Rabbi Joel M. Levenson of Midway Jewish Center,

Rabbi Joel M. Levenson of Midway Jewish Center, the Rev. Karen Ann Campbell of Christ Episcopal Church, and Mahmood Kauser of Ahmadiyya Muslim Community with mosques in Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Amityville.  Credit: Alex M. Wolff; Karen Ann Campbell; Mahmood Kauser

A Pew Research Center survey published this month finds that almost half of people who attend worship services in the United States don’t know their religious leader’s political affiliation. On the whole, according to the survey, these worship attendees felt that sermons had the right amount of politics. This week’s clergy discuss how they share their own views.

The Rev. Karen Ann Campbell, Rector, Christ Episcopal Church, Sag Harbor

The church, as followers of Jesus, began as a countercultural movement following the lead of our Jewish forebears. Unfortunately, over the millenniums, the church became the tepid endorser of everything the government did.

In U.S. history, a few brave Gospel bearers spoke out against the tyranny of England during the American Revolution and against slavery during the Civil War; courageous spiritual leaders stood against Nazi Germany’s Holocaust and spoke out for equal rights for people of color, and LBGTQ people. Throughout the history of humans and God, there have arisen times when people of faith have taken action. God sent German pastor, theologian and anti-Nazi dissident Dietrich Bonhoeffer (who died in a Nazi concentration camp) and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to speak the Gospel truth to power.

I recently returned from the U.S. border in Brownsville, Texas, with Matamoros, Mexico, where I witnessed what I believe to be cruel and evil policies designed to keep “poor" and "huddled masses” out. Many of these people from South and Central America have walked two months to get here, knowing that the United States used to take in asylum seekers who said their lives were in danger.

“Verses Suggested by the Current Crisis,” an 1845 poem by abolitionist James Russell Lowell that was incorporated into a well-known hymn about social responsibility, begins “Once to every man and nation comes a time to decide …” As an Episcopal priest, I took a vow to proclaim the Gospel. I have decided to let people know where I stand. We clergy must speak.

Mahmood Kauser, Imam, Ahmadiyya Muslim Community with Mosques in Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Amityville

A spiritual leader has a very defined role, to lead his flock through a series of spiritual heights. Religious principles may affect a congregant’s choice at the ballot, but a clear distinction of separation of mosque and state is established in Islam. Those nations that have done away with such partitions have seen religious figures dominate the political landscape pushing their personal agendas, often at the cost of justice and tolerance.

Religious leaders have power to influence, and even a 10-year-old knows that “with great power comes great responsibility.” At the same time, Islam urges every person to be part of the process. It’s necessary for everyone to vote, and make their voices heard. Unfortunately, party lines have been more valuable to politicians than the actual needs of the people, and this could be a reason people are turning to others for clarity.

Instead of sharing political leanings, spiritual leaders should continue to speak out about absolute justice in order to hold politicians accountable when they do not deliver and, above all, vote for those who are best suited for the job.

Rabbi Joel M. Levenson, Midway Jewish Center, Syosset

The Bible is an inherently political document. The story of slaves rising up before the most powerful, tyrannical ruler in the ancient world to demand freedom and dignity for all people is an inherently political message.

We can’t help that politics touches houses of worship. When we discuss security, the discussions touch on terrorism and gun control. When it comes to policy debates, we can't expect everyone to be on the same page politically or religiously, but we can expect everyone to be civil, if not kind, even when we disagree. I know that the respect I desire for my beliefs is the same respect people with different sets of beliefs also deserve. The respect we all seek is protected by the U.S. Constitution, which preserves our freedoms of personal belief and religious observance, and our country’s historical belief in the separation of religion and government.

Faith leaders in our community serve best by remaining focused on principles and values rather than personalities and opinions. So I avoid explicitly or implicitly endorsing a partisan political agenda or candidate, or making prescriptive recommendations about which candidate or political agenda congregants should support or oppose. Before we go to the polls, I like to remind my community that we should be grateful for the opportunity and responsibility that we have to choose our governmental leaders, and that voting is a holy act — a mitzvah. Let us use that opportunity well.

DO YOU HAVE QUESTIONS you’d like Newsday to ask the clergy? Email them to LILife@newsday.com.

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