A controversy exploded into the national forum when President Obama and his family crossed the street to attend Easter services at St. John’s Church, an Episcopal church attended by every President since James Madison. In the end both the Reverend who delivered the sermon and the President were wrong.
In the sermon, Reverend Luis Leon lurched into a political diatribe against conservatives. He is quoted as saying “It drives me crazy when the captains of the religious right are always calling us back…for blacks to be back in the back of the bus, for women to be back in the kitchen, for gays to be in the closet, and for immigrants to be back on their side of the border.”
First, Leon is wrong on the facts. Maybe he needs a primer on history. As for Blacks, he could just watch the recent movie Lincoln where he would see it is Republicans who lead the fight for the emancipation of Black people. He could go back to 1964 where the people stonewalling against The Civil Rights Act of 1964 were Democrats. Or he could take measure of the recent Supreme Court case regarding Gay Rights. The centerpiece of the case was a woman who was unable to inherit her partner’s assets upon her death in the same manner as heterosexual couples. The Reverend should look at who has tried to eliminate the Death Tax and which party has kept Gays from equal rights on inheritance – Democrats. Lastly, Leon should point out the Conservative or member of the religious right that has ever spoken negatively about legal immigrants to this country. He would be hard-pressed to find one.
The more important issue focuses on why Reverend Leon delivered this sermon in the first place. As a Jew, I am not an expert on Christian customs. But it would seem to me there are two days where religious leaders might keep their opinions on public policy to themselves – that would be Christmas and Easter. One would think they could stick to the subject at hand because it would seem those days are like the Super Bowl of Christianity. But Mr. Leon could not help himself and had to divert from the discussion of the Resurrection to assert himself into the national debate.
Now we do not believe that President Obama had anything to do with the inappropriate behavior of the Reverend as he used the opportunity of having the leader of the Free World to pontificate. Instead of taking a position of principle and state that as a Christian he would have preferred to hear a strictly religious sermon, Mr. Obama sent his spokesperson out to flop and flounder defending the non-defensible. Another instance of no leadership from this President.
That there are people that are upset about the Reverend doing this is almost laughable – to Jews. We have been abused by this political rhetoric at the Jewish High Holy Day services for years. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur would seem to be sacrosanct times where Rabbis would reserve their comments to be focused on the Torah, Israel, and a commitment to Jewish Life. Just as frequently Rabbis see their biggest crowd of the year and think it is their opportunity to educate the flock on great Jewish issues like Climate Change. When George W. Bush was President, many Rabbis railed against whatever Bush had recently done that irritated them.
A bigger-picture question has to be what makes these people qualified to be religious leaders in the first place. Certainly we have seen religious leaders like Catholic Cardinal Timothy Dolan -- a man of massive abilities and leadership. The new Pope appears to be that way. But there are a lot of people entering the clergy who are doing so to further their public policy positions. Many of the candidates coming out of rabbinical school seem as impressive as wet noodles.
We have had some discussions with experienced rabbis who are summarily unimpressed with young Rabbis. When we asked what the credentials are for getting into rabbinical school, it certainly seemed like it was not high standards. More importantly, they are not drawing the cream of the crop of Jewish youth. Many are deeply confused about a central tenet of Jewish life today – Israel. They are not becoming Rabbis because they have heard a calling, but as we said to advance their favorite social issues.
What I saw of Reverend Leon fit right into this class of political leader. He seems entirely unimpressive as a man and deeply confused about what he should be doing in front of his parishioners. Unfortunately, our President did not see the clear rationale to set him straight. Easter is a holy day. Keep your political opinions off the pulpit.