Rabbi, scholar challenge religious bigotry in presidential politics

Published: Thursday, Dec. 1 2011 11:00 a.m. MST

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach speaks about the racial and political climate New Orleans evacuees face in their transition to life in Utah, in "Desert Bayou." Cineam Libre Studios

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach doesn't believe in the same religious teachings and principles espoused by presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman.

"Nor should it matter," he writes in the Jerusalem Post. "It is what a person does, rather than what they believe, that counts."

Rabbi Shmuley, often referred to as "America's Rabbi" because of his fame and popularity as a best-selling author and radio talk show host, writes of his long association with members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, beginning with Southern Utah University President Michael T. Benson, whom he befriended while the two were students at Oxford.

As a result of these associations, Rabbi Shmuley says he sees nothing to fear in the possibility of a Mormon president. All political candidates, he says, "should be judged on their merits as people and politicians, whatever their faith and whatever their beliefs."

In fact, the rabbi says he has been "amused" by evangelical Christians who ask if people "with such strange beliefs" should be trusted with high office.

"This is an interesting question coming from my evangelical brothers and sisters whose belief that a man, born of a virgin, was the son of God, only to die on a cross, and then be resurrected," Rabbi Shmuley writes. "With all due respect, that's not exactly the most rational belief, either.

"The criticisms are equally interesting coming from Orthodox Jews, like myself," he continued, "who believe that the Red Sea split, a donkey talked to Balaam and the sun stood still for Joshua."

Rabbi Shmuley's article also explores the notion of religious fanaticism and talks about the difference between worshipping God and worshipping religion.

Hence, the rabbi writes, "our concern need not be with a person's faith in public office. It does not matter if they are Jewish, evangelical, Mormon or Muslim. What does matter is whether their faith is focused on relating to God and, by extension, caring for God's children."

Taking the discussion a step further, scholar and editor Walter Russell Mead takes issue with the New York Times generally and Times contributor Harold Bloom specifically for what he calls "a recent spate of alarmist editorials about the faith of Mitt Romney."

"This is not about Governor Romney, and it is not about the faith of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," writes Mead, a professor of foreign affairs and humanities at Bard College and editor-at-large of The American Interest magazine. "But bigotry is something that needs to be fought in all its forms; unreasonable fears and prejudices based on religion will always be with us, but such fears belong in the gutter among the wackos, the haters and the tin-foil hat brigades on both the right and left. When they rise from the sewers and swamps into mainstream publications and can be casually uttered in polite company by distinguished professors, something is going very wrong, and people who believe in the American way need to speak up."

Mead focuses most of his attention on Bloom's recent column in the Times, in which the Yale professor speaks darkly of a potential Romney presidency primarily because of Romney's membership in the LDS Church.

"Mormonism's best inheritance from Joseph Smith was his passion for education, hardly evident in the anti-intellectual and semi-literate Southern Baptist Convention," Bloom wrote. "I wonder though which is more dangerous, a knowledge-hungry religious zealotry or a proudly stupid one? Either way we are condemned to remain a plutocracy and oligarchy. I can be forgiven for dreading a further strengthening of theocracy in that powerful brew."

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