Protecting Religion from Politics

Susannah Heschel

It is hard to be a person of faith in secular America. I sympathize with Mark Souder: As an Orthodox Jew attending a secular private high school in New York City, I found it was hard not to be able to attend the class parties, held on Friday nights (my Sabbath), not to be able to eat the school lunches (which were not kosher), and to hear teachers mock the Hebrew Bible while extolling classical Greece. And then there was Hebrew School, which taught texts by rote memorization, using tactics of intimidation to scare the kids into studying. My faith was attacked by both sides.

It was the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and my father, Abraham Joshua Heschel, that rescued me from despair. In their words the Bible became the most vivid and powerful way to challenge the status quo. Martin Luther King changed the social and political fabric of America, just as my father changed the religious fabric of American Jewish life. Through the speeches and writings of these two men, Amos and Isaiah became perhaps the most important figures of the past, demanding social justice and purity of intention and, most of all, insisting that there is no room for complacency in a religious life. A religious person, my father said, can never say, "I am a good person." And that it is the goal of prayer to be subversive—subversive of our conventional values and of our self-righteousness. The words of Amos unsettle all of us, the pious as well as the cheaters, kings, priests, and merchants. Perfection belongs to God alone.

I try to understand why I am uncomfortable with Mark Souder's remarks. I certainly share his desire to have my personal religious commitments honored by schools; his school took the children to a movie, against his religious faith, while my school thought I should abandon my religious observances for the "privilege" of attending an elite institution. I, too, like the idea of schools reciting a psalm, teaching religious values, and talking about faith as an important dimension to human life.Why should religion be banned, when psychology and economics are standard parts of the curriculum, honored tools for understanding the nature of human life?

My hesitation derives, in large measure, from the dangers I have uncovered as a historian of the Protestant church in Nazi Germany. My research has uncovered the archives of a church-sponsored institute that sought to de-Judaize Christianity by removing the Old Testament from the canon, all positive statements about Judaism from the gospels, and Hebrew words from the hymnal. To become a Germanic faith, Christianity was to be cleansed of all Jewish accretions and Jesus declared an Aryan. Hundreds of thousands of de-Judaized hymnals and New Testaments were purchased by churches through the Reich. Swastikas were placed next to crosses on church altars, and Hitler was viewed as part of Christian salvation history. It was a theological deformity, a defamation of Christianity, to be sure, but a church-sponsored effort nonetheless, carried out by bishops, theologians, pastors, and religion teachers, with widespread public support.

In calling for an increased religious presence in the public sphere of America, my first fear is that, if religion can be brought into the public sphere, then the public sphere will more easily infiltrate the realm of religion. What is to protect our religion when we bring it into the public sphere from a comparable political corruption of our faith? In hindsight, the Nazi church sounds outrageous or perhaps absurd. But in its day some highly distinguished theologians supported with enthusiasm and scholarly justification the transformation of the church through National Socialist principles as well as the presence of the church within the realm of the Nazi regime, in its political arena as well as in its schools and other societal institutions. Remember that it was the goal of the Nazis to secularize German society, removing church figures from positions of institutional and symbolic prominence in the public realm. The churches protested, corrupting their teachings to show their sympathy with Nazi values. The Sermon on the Mount was changed to show a Jesus who was not meek but a fighter, in accord with a militarized Germany.

The Nazis wanted a Judenrein Germany (a Germany free of Jews), and the churches complied, creating a Judenrein Christianity. In some cases, the churches actually took the lead, anticipating Nazi policy: In 1932 the German Christian movement called for an end to marriages between Jews and Germans, something the Nazis did not implement officially until 1935. Naturally, some religious leaders protested, calling for support for non-Aryan Christians (Jews who had been baptized), but very few stood up in the name of Christianity in support of Jews. Mark Souder may urge a Bible in every classroom, but what if, in the future, some teachers bring an Aryanized New Testament into their classroom? Who will adjudicate religious claims to authenticity?

We as religious people often want greater involvement in our society's seats of power. My father, for example, was appalled that the My Lai massacre was revealed to the world by journalists: Where were the chaplains? He demanded. He called for a religious authority to be present in all military institutions and also in banks and corporate headquarters. Yet the moral authority and spiritual inspiration of such figures can be effective only if they stand outside our political institutions, as untainted as possible by political commitments. Had the prophets been receiving subsidies from the kings or priests, would they have criticized them? If American faith-based charities receive funding from the federal government, how will they dare to criticize that government? How will they be able to take a prophetic stance, speaking truth to power, if by so doing they jeopardize the monetary grants that make possible the charity they undertake? Will their faith become Americanized, their scriptures revised, in accord with the prevailing political winds? Strict separation of religion and politics may be essential to preserving the sanctity of religious teachings. The quickest way to compromise freedom is to cede moral authority to the state; that is a central lesson of the Nazi churches.

Both Mario Cuomo and Mark Souder call for the infusion of religious values into the work of political leaders (and, I imagine, all of us), and I applaud that. The classic difficulty, of course, is determining what our religious values actually demand of us. Cuomo believes that the death penalty is wrong; other Christians, even Catholics, arrive at opposing conclusions. Elsewhere, in discussing abortion, he has said that he cannot call a crime what other people do not consider a sin. For Cuomo, both individuality and community are central to religious concerns. The problem is that it is not always easy to define the position of one's religion.

Within the Jewish community some claim that Greater Israel is holy land and that keeping it in Jewish hands is a divine obligation and is central to Judaism. For other Jews ending the occupation of the West Bank and supporting a Palestinian state alongside a Jewish state represents the highest religious values of Judaism. Both groups can easily cite scripture to prove their points, both have wide support among other Jews, and each side feels the other is the enemy. How do we adjudicate two opposing interpretations that have led in recent years to extraordinary hostilities between Jews?

A major difference in the articulation of their positions by Souder and Cuomo is that the former speaks of his own faith and struggles to gain recognition for his convictions while the latter speaks far more inclusively, defining religion in language that can encompass nearly all faith traditions alive in America today. As an observant Jew, I have often stood on the margins and felt excluded, yet this quintessentially Jewish position has also created a sense of Jewish community and stimulated in Jews a remarkable intellectual creativity. It is a sacrifice with enormous benefits.

By contrast, Cuomo stands in the tradition of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, whose religious language is never exclusive. That King spoke of the civil rights movement as an exodus rather than a cross to bear (and quoting the prophets far more often than he did Jesus) was intended to create a religious language that could inspire all of us. The creation of a nonsectarian, public religious discourse gives us a chance to come together and experience an affirmation of ourselves as religious people without elevating one religion over another.

Precisely that unity of spirit in the public realm dramatically changed the nature of race in this country. The prophets were public religious figures during the 1960s, and it was their spirit, through King, that transformed the hearts of Americans. My father, whose book about the prophets was widely read by leaders of the civil rights movement, calls on us to focus not only on the words of the prophets but also on their religious consciousness: the nature of their experience of divine revelation. He speaks of that revelation as a divine pathos, God's identification with human beings and resonance to their suffering. In speaking of divine pathos, my father drew from a rabbinic concept, zoreh gavoha, a higher, divine need. God is not the detached, unmoved mover of the Aristotelian tradition, he insists, but is "the most moved" mover, deeply affected by human deeds. Divine pathos indicates a constant involvement of God in human history but insists that the involvement is an emotional engagement: God suffers when human beings are hurt, so that when I hurt another person, I injure God. The prophets' response is their passionate identification with the divine consciousness.

What manner of man is the prophet? asks my father in the opening pages of The Prophets. He answers that a prophet is a person of agony, whose "life and soul are at stake in what he says" and who is able to perceive "the silent sigh" of human anguish. Hence the prophet is not a messenger, an oracle, a seer, or an ecstatic but a witness to the divine pathos, bearing testimony to God's concern for human beings. God is not simply a topic of human interest but is also concerned with humans. Being gripped by the anguish experienced by God in response to human affliction leaves the prophet overwhelmed and tormented. Facing callousness and indifference, the prophet does not present God as a source of comfort and reassurance but as an incessant demand: "While the world is at ease and asleep, the prophet feels the blast from heaven." "God is raging in the prophet's words." While we may all criticize injustices in our society, they remain tolerable; to the prophet, however, "injustice assumes almost cosmic proportions." We may be troubled by social injustice and war crimes, but to the prophet these are unbearable.To the prophet Amos justice is not simply an idea or a moral norm but also a divine passion. The opposite of good is not evil; the opposite of good is indifference.1

In promoting the preferences of our own religious faith, perhaps we all have to remember that the greatest value is not to speak out for oneself but to speak out on behalf of others. Indeed, our very humanity depends upon our compassion. In speaking out against the war in Vietnam, against the killing of thousands of innocent civilians, my father warned, "Remember that the blood of the innocent cries forever. Should that blood stop to cry, humanity would cease to be." Hearing the silent anguish is not limited to the prophets but devolves upon all of us: "Few are guilty, but all are responsible."

If there is a role for religion in the public sphere, let it be an expression in which all may participate, and let us, as religious people, demonstrate what it means to be religious: a passion for justice, an assumption of responsibility, and a cultivation of our humanity so that we never lose our ability to hear the silent anguish of this world.


1. See Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets (Harper and Row, 1965), pp. 16, 5.

Reprinted with the permission of Brookings Institution Press

Share Episode

Shortened URL


is director of International Studies and chair of of the Political Science Department at Adrian College, and a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C..

Cheryl Sanders

is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at the Howard University School of Divinity, and Associate Pastor at the Third Street Church of God in Washington D.C..