An Imam, a Rabbi, and a Ronin were sitting on the bimah. Their host asked each to comment on this question: What is the line between religion and politics?
In a country that officially embraces the separation of church and state, the audience of mostly Jews and Christians at Temple Beth El in Charlotte, North Carolina, were eager to hear their views. This was the kickoff session of a six-part series on religion and politics. You judge whether the answers by the Muslim, Jew, and Buddhist had more, or less, in common.
The Imam strummed a welcome chord when he pronounced that he who says he should have power is not who should be in power. Only those whom others say should be in power should rule. In the current crush of egos courting voters in the 2016 U. S. presidential elections, the Imam’s words are discordant with the rush of “Me, me, me” on screen, stage, and town halls. The Imam would ask: But whom do the people say should serve? Elizabeth Warren? Michael Bloomberg? Nikki Haley? Jesse Jackson? Rupert Murdoch? Joe Biden? Jon Stewart? Mitt Romney? Alec Baldwin? The Imam seemed to suggest that we need a nomination process based on the masses’ identification of who should lead, and then ask the nominees to campaign appropriately. This reminds me of Shakespeare’s “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” (Twelfth Night, II,v) The Imam would seem to urge the latter—that the people should press their desired leaders into service—no more teaching, lawyering, or banking for you: time to lead your country. The role of religion in politics, then, would be to assist the people in identifying right leaders and encouraging them to serve.
The Rabbi took a different approach, addressing not so much who should serve, but how religion should behave towards those who do serve. “Speak truth to power,” she urged. That is the role of religion. Hold leaders accountable, and do not let them obfuscate fact with fiction. Where the people have great need, and their leaders discount those needs, religionists should hold the leaders to their tacit contract: Keep your eyes on what the people need and do not lose your focus. Do not let ego, fame, power, or the desire to be reelected distract you from compassion for the poor and ill-treated and the need of the electorate to be educated and safe.
The Ronin eschewed the issue of who should serve and how they might be identified, but he did expand on the Rabbi’s plea to speak truth to power. However, the Buddhist leader urged a different style for speaking the truth: It was not so much about calling out a leader’s lies, deceptions, and mistakes, but rather holding a mirror to them so that leaders might discover, and own up to, their distractions from what is right. How? Said the Ronin: It is better that I ask more questions than that I give more answers. Thus, the task of religion is to have dialog, Socrates-like, with our political leaders, such that the people may see their leaders’ ability to withstand the scrutiny of thoughtful interaction, or even interrogation.
To me, the three religious leaders focused not on the dividing line between religion and politics, but on the responsibility of religionists towards politicians. Get the right people to serve, guide them through thoughtful questions, and call them to task when gentle dialog is not enough.