Renowned rabbi discusses the role of religion in American policy

By Rose Gottlieb

World Economic Forum/Wikimedia Commons
World Economic Forum/Wikimedia Commons

Reform Jewish Rabbi and advocate David Saperstein came to the University of Massachusetts Tuesday evening to discuss the role of religion in American policy.

During the talk, Saperstein spoke about the importance of religious groups advocating for social justice and equality, as well as the importance of the separation of church and state. This separation, he said, has allowed religion in the United States to flourish with diversity.

Saperstein is the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, or the RAC, which is a group that advocates for resolutions of political issues from a reform Jewish standpoint. In addition to working for the RAC, in 2009, Saperstein was appointed by President Barack Obama as a member of the first White House Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

The talk, held in the UMass Honors College Events Hall, was organized by the Political Science Undergraduate Board, along with the Department of Political Science, Department of History, UMass Hillel, UMass Ruach, Jewish Community Center of Amherst and Beit Ahavah of Northampton.

Saperstein said that Judaism has always believed in moral guidance. He added that many Jews express their religious beliefs through involvement in social justice, as do many mainstream Protestants and Catholics.

Saperstein also spoke about the role that fundamentalist Christian groups play in American politics. According to Saperstein, prior to the 1950s, fundamentalist Christians may have been very influential in their own communities, but had less influence in national politics.

However, when television and radio brought what these groups considered to be immoral aspects of American culture into people’s homes, parents felt they couldn’t protect their children. Therefore, they decided to “protect the outside world” instead.

This, Saperstein said, led to many questions about various societal issues, including the breakdown of family, loss of respect for authority, divorce and drug use.

“I agree with those questions, I just disagree with their answers,” Saperstein said.

Saperstein believes that religion has a duty to address questions of morality in society. However, the solution, Saperstein said, is not to tell people when to pray in school, to teach the Bible as science or to hang the Ten Commandments in every classroom.

“We don’t want the government picking and choosing” whose prayers get said and which religions get certain benefits, Saperstein said.

But, Saperstein added, “(Religion) at its best can be transformational for social justice.”

According to Saperstein, in the 1990s, people on the progressive side of the religious agenda tried to find common ground with the religious right.

People from all different religious backgrounds began to combine their efforts on issues of social justice that mattered to them. Religious communities began to discuss issues such as environmental concerns, debt relief, human trafficking and the spread of HIV.

“When the religious community weighed in, it transformed the debate,” Saperstein said. Because the religious community has such a strong influence among its members, various religious groups working together advocated very successfully.

Saperstein argued that although all religions have their differences, and at their core they share the same basic moral values – belief in the fundamental dignity of every human being, belief in the equality of all people, belief in possibility of perfecting human society, rule of law and pursuit of peace and justice.

“Religion has played a powerful role in asserting these values,” Saperstein said.

One way Saperstein said religious groups can uphold these values is by advocating for a government that has many institutions dedicated to social justice. In Talmudic times, an ancient historic time period in Jewish history, “there was a social welfare institution akin to the liberal approach today,” Saperstein said. He added that every Jewish community that grew to a certain size had four or five major institutions run by the government, which were paid for by some form of taxation.

Although members of different religious groups may have different ideas of how these values translate into law, religion at its core, Saperstein said, “has always been inspired by that moral message.” He believes that the religious Americans should advocate for policies that uphold these fundamental values, rather than policies that try to impose one religion’s specific traditions on the rest of society.

“Religion has a voice of conscious at this particular point (in time),” Saperstein said. He added that it is the duty of every American citizen “to be the moral goad to our country.”

Sophomore Charlotte Kelly, a member of the Political Science Undergraduate Board, said that Saperstein’s talk “touches on so many aspects of what is taught here at UMass.” Because there are so many religious groups and social justice groups on campus, she believes that what Saperstein said is relevant to many people here.

Junior Jacob Stuckey, an organizer of the event and Saperstein’s nephew, added that his uncle’s advocacy is important. “There’s so much of the negative side of religion and politics together,” he said.

“There needs to be some moral high ground that we stand on,” Kelly said, adding that like Saperstein, she believes that religion gives us a context for that morality.

Rose Gottlieb can be reached at [email protected]