Synagogues, Clergy And Politics: Democracy In Action

I marvel at democracy in action.

When our son Zack was in high school, his political views were always a bit more conservative than mine.  Hard to imagine, right? I loved our discussions about the candidates and about the issues, both of us with such passion and zeal. At the end of our conversations, my final comment would always be “This is why America is such a great country”.

Right now we find ourselves in the midst of another election season. TV ads are constant. The advent of social media has certainly added one more avenue for us to be bombarded constantly.

I actually thought of writing on the topic of the election and the role of synagogues and rabbis on Rosh Hashanah morning when my Rabbi – Rabbi Steven Kushner – delivered an extraordinary sermon on this topic. More on this below.

Last Sunday was “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” where more than 1500 pastors participated in preaching biblical truth on the position of the electoral candidates. They want to defy the IRS regulations governing houses of worships and not-for-profit organizations that receive a tax exemption that provide that they “not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office”.

It is interesting how laws come about. Then Senator Lyndon Johnson was in a tough reelection campaign in 1954. Anti-communist groups were mobilizing churches and not-for-profit organizations to defeat him and he won by 87 votes. He later inserted the language in the IRS regulations that I have highlighted above.  This became known as the Johnson Amendment.

Today, Rabbis are involved in endorsing both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.  Arriving at such a decision can’t be so easy for congregational rabbis. They have to be concerned about the views or all of their congregants, and not all of them will have leanings to the same political party. But clergy endorsements of candidates do not violate IRS regulations. It is when sermons on the pulpit support a particular candidate that may put a synagogue’s tax-exempt status in jeopardy.

I don’t think the IRS is going to pursue each of the 1500 churches whose pastors participated in “Pulpit Freedom Sunday”.  But it would not surprise me of a few were selected as an example. Supporters of this movement actually want a test legal case to move forward.

There is much to consider here. Tax-exempt status is not something houses of worship should take lightly. In synagogues, most congregants are declaring what they pay in dues/annual commitments as a tax-deductible contribution on their income tax return. And all other contributions, too. This wouldn’t be the case if a synagogue lost its tax-exempt status. Church income would be impacted in a similar fashion.

So what should happen in synagogues in terms of elections? You can always invite all competing candidates at any level to come and speak at a community forum for the purposes of educating the congregation and the greater community. Do what you can to be sure that everyone is registered to vote. Voter registration drives in the synagogue and throughout the community is so important.

I have re-read Rabbi Kushner’s Rosh Hashanah sermon a couple of times.  One theme he addressed was that  “…The prophets embrace it, the rabbis concurred – the law of kashrut and ritual purity and Shabbat observance notwithstanding – the pursuit of justice and the doing of right are at the core of Torah and Judaism. “

Others in the sanctuary thought that this was Rabbi Kushner’s endorsement of President Obama and the policies of the Democratic Party. I disagreed.  I don’t think anything he said that morning with the entire community present would give cause for an IRS investigation.

He wants all of us to think about the issues, to care about others in the world and to make a difference in the lives of people in need of our help.  This is what Democracy and Torah is all about.

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