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May 21st
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Moral and Messy: Faith and the Political Process

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May 8, 2012, The Princeton Theological Seminary hosted the Peace Islands Institute in an Abraham's Table. The theme was "Moral and Messy, Faith and the Political Process". Each speaker shared their own perspective on the topic. Lunch was provided by PII volunteers. PII thanks Fellowship in Prayer for partnership and for making this event possible.


Dr. Roland Anglin, Rutgers University

Rabbi Robert Wolkoff, Congregation B'nai Tikvah

Dr. Mesut Sahin, NJIT

Below are the speeches.

Dr. Roland Anglin

I’m a political scientist by training and we are taught to locate all aspects of political system, what impacts the political system.  So, today’s topic is especially pointing an important role about the democratic project, especially the democratic project we called America.

But, if we’re honest, I think we should be all disturbed about how important faith is rather than just sex with our political lives in the United States.  And I do believe it’s a recent phenomenon. Some 20 to 25 years ago, at an age where I get called an old fogy, it refers to a day when things were better. But in this respect, I think we have better times being the future change between politics and religion.

And I’ll tell you why I’m a big believer in using the foundational documents when I teach, and I often teach a course in urban politics.  And everybody expects me to use standard text.  Well, I don’t, I use John Winthrop and his speech on the Arabella when the Puritans were coming to the United States to set up a new colony. And people say “wow, why are you doing that?”  Because if you look at Winthrop’s speech, you’ll understand what America is about.  In America, it is about not the separation or the ignorance of religion and its role in political life, but the settlement that you should coexist and coexist with respect.

The Puritans when they came here believed religion should have its own place. In truth, in fact, if you read the foundational documents, commerce had more of a role in those documents than religion did.  It was the sense that you did good works; you’ve established a community, like the community of brothers in which you help your brother through commerce and through community life.

Religion in turn, the ballpark so to speak, if what you did on earth because the foundational documents believed or Winthrop and others believed, in the perfect built human beings on earth, because God did or he is present. You should go ahead and have a religious faith.

We have a choice as human beings in our political life, in our community life, everything about us.  We should do good works on earth, and then we find our reward some place else.  And you see that life throughout, not only the goal of philanthropy in the United States, we need the institution of it, not only Argonauts but around the world.

And it’s the same tenor of the relationship between what you do on earth and what you achieve in the afterlife. That is, I think, quite important, and this goes across communities. It was the same for Andrew Carnegie, it was the same for Julius Rosen Wald, but my point is that religion always had its own sacred sphere. If it bled over into the political lives it was managed.  If you look at what Jefferson and Washington said about religion.  They always mention the role of God in the United States but they never mentioned Christianity.  They were extremely careful to separate mentioning one religion over another.  I think that when you read what Eisenhower said about religion, if you read what John F. Kennedy’s speech, inaugural speech, you see that that tradition helped.

I think that tradition has changed.  I think religion, now bled over on our entire political life is danger of poisoning, influencing in a way that corrodes our democracy.  Now, there is a litmus test about religion, how religious you are, and that is extremely dangerous for our democratic traditions.  Now, why does it occur?  I don’t know.  I think it’s because we’ve changed so much demographically. We’re part of the globalized world. So we could, in some respect, have been truly so generous in the past that we were also the same afloat with the degrees of freedom.

But the degrees of freedom are much greater now.  And so with new people coming to our shores, I mean in the past it has extended to Judaism and Mormonism. Now, we have Jainism, we have Islam, we have all sorts of religion and we actually don’t know what to do with them.

So we’re going back to the prime-ordinal sphere where we have to vivify that we are Christian. That is dangerous for a nation in a globalized world because we cannot stay in those boxes.  So, the point I will leave you with is, we have to figure out what institutions we’ll push back against this bleeding of religion into our political life. Because it doesn’t strengthen it, it corrodes it.  We have to find ways of talking about and respecting different religions because the truth, in fact if we don’t, it will paralyze our democracy.

Rabbi Wolkoff

Hi, I’d like to begin by telling two contradictory stories.  This is one wonderful story about Mr. Tangle Harrington during the Vietnam War, I quote it’s true with the treasury member Henry Kissinger in Washington, and urging him to end the war in Vietnam.  Henry Kissinger said how exactly do you expect me to do that and Tangle Harrington replied and said, sir, our job is to be reminded of the words of the prophet that justice shall roll like a mighty stream.  Your job is to the secretaries to take care of the plumbing.

So if you follow that story, the indication is that our job as religious people is to propose certain values or certain standards and then call on our politicians to do whatever is practical to make that work; but of course that distinction is no artificial distinction.  It’s a cute story but in reality, the politician is going to say hey, I’ve got practical problems I’ve got to address but, what exactly do you want me to do?

So fast forward to a number of years and I was at a political assembly.  The political assembly is the International organization of Conservative Rabbis and that’s a religious political designation.  So we had this international convention and in all international convention, we always have a series of political resolutions that were voted on by the body and recognized as virtually everybody, every religious organization when they have their convention always have resolutions that I assure you that nobody in Washington is waiting to read. But nevertheless, it’s an exercise for the organization to articulate their  positions and to start thinking about this movement and bring it back to our congregation.

So one of your discussion was about raising the minimum wage so there was a resolution that’s being offered immediately because working people are not really getting a fair share that we should raise the minimum wage and my initial inclination was to support the resolution but then I started asking myself, what exactly do I know about raising the minimum wage?  I mean I certainly 100% believed that people in the lower end of the economic spectrum to be helped and support and certainly need to be treated fairly and I would like it to be approved and as a citizen of the United States, yeah, I think its fine with me, raising the minimum wage would be a good idea but as a Rabbi, I don’t remember taking any course on that directly when I was at the seminary.  I don’t know anything.  I can imagine the particular effect but do I know enough to vote in favor of the resolution like that.  It’s simply not a reasonable proposition.

What I would like to suggest today is that there is something about religion and faith and in particular about prayer that offers us other possibilities, so to speak, a way. I’ve recently had the privilege of experiencing spiritual direction.  I’ve been on a training course for it and have learned tremendously about the spiritual direction as a kind of method where the director helps find critical stage where they open themselves up towards God.  One of the essential things that is supposed to happen when that prayerful space is opened up is something that is referred to as discernment.  It’s the ability to to distinguish between the thoughts that go in our mind, rational thoughts just come up by thinking about it and distinguishing that from the war that is so to speak comes from us either deep inside or from outside that moves us in different direction that breaks our own internal logic.  And although I’ve gotten enough of it what I experience every single time. I’ve experienced learning something that I did not come up with myself that I do not come up from my own logical thinking.  Whether that’s the word of God, but certainly it’s something worth thinking about.  And I found it to be a tremendously humbling experience because as a professional, as a clergyman the academic thing and you go through years of training and lots of years of experience and “I’m supposed to know everything” and it is a true emotional revolution to have the revelation that I don’t come up with my own and that God can speak to you and in fact the most valuable things that I can learn are precisely those things that I don’t come up with myself.

So what I’m suggesting is that and I come to this truly,  the clergy to vote 30 years before I really started praying and when I have started praying, it is a stumbling experience and what it underscores to me is this idea that there’s no place for litmus test that are based on the what’s right and what’s wrong. What we’re supposed to take instead we should have a prayerful attitude and seek God’s help from the discernment of what we should and where we should go.

I will conclude. He said that once we surround ourselves with people who are seeking truth and flee from those who have found.  Now, the bad news here is that in the political spectrum. Everybody has found the truth.  They thought they all know everything.  Any problem, any political circumstance, anywhere in the world, they know the answer.  They do find the answer but they don’t know the answer.  And to me that is suspect on its face.  Is there nothing that you don’t know?  Is there no area where we could use to be quiet, listen to each other, seek a different way, seek God.  No, nothing at all.  A politician that will ever get up and say I’m sorry I don’t have an answer to that question.  I remember, it was right before this election, for the politician and he was being interviewed by a foreign correspondents and they were asking him about Uzbekistan, they were asking him about Brazil, everything and anything for that matter, and then finally some reporter from New Zealand asked about some island that is close to New Zealand and some sub territorial disputes and then said I’m sorry let me go back to answer your question.  That’s the one thing he didn’t know.  Everything else in the planet he knew but that’s the one thing he didn’t know.  This is to me the [even scary that we have that massive lack of humility.  That’s the bad news.

The good news is that with faith, we really can move forward.  With faith we really can move forward.  With faith, we really can move forward.  And we can do so by encouraging people not to vote for politician that has the best sound voice but the politician who has the best ability to open himself to us.

Dr. Mesut Sahin

It’s just the nicest introduction that somebody has for my talk.  So let me first say that I have spent the first half of my life in a Muslim country and literally have been here in the US for the second half of my life.  So in fact, this is the only qualification that I have for this talk and to be here so I felt that I need to say this.

This big project, democracy project, first let me a little bit talk about that.  Democracy is a sort of perfection.  It continually updates itself to organize and re-organize itself to send us to where rights individuals are best protected.  Therefore, a key element in democracy is to be tolerant to others.  When they exercise their own rights, whether they go with whichever, whatever ethnical or religious group they want.  So with this point in mind, I must say that United States is one of the good experiences where Muslims are at least in general when compared to many other countries in the world.

Is it perfect?  Obviously, there are still lots of perfection that needs work.  So my first point is that in the US and in the western world in general, people are getting more and more materialistic in the past few decades or so and at the moment the governments are also becoming less and less sensitive to the needs of faith-based communities.

So we all understand of course the separation of the church and the state and of Muslims as people of faith in general living in this country, I do not think anyone has any problem with this separation.  However, being sensitive to the needs of faith-based communities or groups and treating the entire population based on the general premises I think is a mistake they’re all [richly] developed.  In the ideal society, in an ideal democracy, the government should consider not only the materialistic needs of the people but also the spiritual and religious needs of people.  I think that is the next level, the next level of democracy that’s where we should be for the betterment of human lives and citizens.  So with that in mind, I’d like to say that all faiths has some common traits and common grounds.

First of all, we need to be recognized as faith-based groups.  US is a haven, so to speak, for recognizing the different denominations and different faith-based group but as the large piece of community added to this family, Muslims probably suffered from this lack of recognition the most.  So I may mention a few things that religious people and people for all faith-based groups of course need to be practiced; and Mosques are right now in Newark area, New Jersey, they’re under surveillance.  This of course makes the families very uncomfortable and people think twice as to which mosque they be going and be part of.

Muslims as you might know, there’s 7-8 million people follow the Islam as a religion in this country and yet still are considered almost like as foreigners by the politicians.  That maybe partially because the voting power is very little, most of us are first or second generation in this country; and to be honest at the end, probably we go to the election poll every four years but the result doesn’t seem to be changing very much whether you vote for the Democratic party or Republican party.  I am by no means an expert on politics, I must say that the politics in this country seems to be a little bit disattached with people.  At the time of the elections, yes, we vote but between the elections, it’s the job of congress and the senators to make our voice be heard at the local and states of the government.  Yet it seems like these people are also paying more attention to what the big companies, mostly international, big cartels are saying for favor.  So in that regard there’s a big gap between the people obviously and the governmental institutions.  As a result, the government is taking some initiatives and decisions that could nationally and internationally, which may or may not agreeable by the faith-based communities.

As people, we all want of course our government to be morally and spiritually responsible.  Of course, faith is one of the strongest bonds that bring people together.  Whether you are Christian, Jew or Muslim, there’s other countries in the world that you may feel sympathized toward; and therefore, while the US has presence in so many different countries for one reason or another as a faith-based community, you have some feelings or sympathy for those communities.  Yet, it seems that the US government does not really pay attention to Muslim concern by any means.  So again, this makes Muslim communities feel that we’re not yet part of this global family.

So in general, democracy going back to the same point, I think if the movement; what I like to say is that for the government to be more sensitive, well let me add a few more points here first before I move; that for instance, in those communities, the people in the nation, sometimes people may also be more concerned about the majority like in the case of the mosques being under surveillance, there was this survey in New York where many people indicated that if that’s initiative is for the security of the population.  So that indicated to me that lack of sensitivity just because Muslim populations are yet less in number, it should not mean that the concerns should be less for those groups.  Even before the economic crisis, it was difficult for Muslim ladies to find a job in the US and I think this is more so during this time.  The job for Muslim dressing for ladies is just a dress code to identify themselves from the society as Muslims and to be treated accordingly and nothing more than that.  So it should be just a personal choice.

So with these points, again I would like to say that we need to be much more sensitive to the needs and values of faith-based communities and that’s how it should be shaped maybe it be in the local and state level and national level; and only then we can be confident that our children will inherit a better democracy .  Thank you very much.


More pictures from the event:






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