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Your Turn, NH -- Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett: Ethics, faith and the race for the White House

January 15. 2016 7:36PM

LAST SPRING, seven clergy serving congregations of different faiths in Greater Nashua began meeting about the New Hampshire primary. As moral leaders, inspired by the biblical prophets, the Gospels, and the Torah, we felt a sense of unique responsibility toward the selection of our next president.

Quickly, we converged on two audacious goals. First, we decided to invite credible candidates from both parties to public forums about ethics, faith and the presidency. We would interview candidates one at a time in a manner completely different from the standard media coverage of the campaign.

Second, we aimed to affect not only voters but the candidates too. Our interviews, in the presence of hundreds of voters, would let the candidates know the public does not expect them to be perfect. That we understand they have gaps of knowledge and even judgment, worth naming and working on in the open – and still have the kind of excellence we seek in the President. We dreamed that our forum would stay with the candidate eventually elected.

We have issued invitations, and as of this writing no one has accepted. More on that below.

No candidate should have to make a show of personal piety. Nor would we clergy be adding to the process if we acted like any other interest group with a set of litmus-test issues. Voters like us are often pigeonholed, as “the religious right” or “spiritual progressives.”

Our contribution comes rather from commitments more fundamental than the philosophies of the two parties. Our faiths all teach a way of living that is reflective and probing. We believe there is a struggle between good and evil in each human heart that requires honest recognition and active work.

We are in awe of the power we have that few in history have had, as democratic citizens who shape life or death in our society and the world. We marvel at the candidates, with their irresistible pull to serve, to stretch a single human being across all the global responsibilities a president is responsible for, at great personal risk and physical toll.

These principles enable us uniquely to guide and hold a mirror up to religious and atheist alike, both candidates and citizens.

In the campaign, the answers to our problems are always clear, the philosophy is always completely coherent, and the qualifications of the candidate are always absolute. So our forum would be different.

Some of our questions are about the ethical dimensions of leadership. How do you integrate the ego necessary to see yourself as the leader of the free world, with the humility to realize that you cannot be wise or knowledgeable enough about everything? Where have you turned for ethical grounding when public responsibilities are impossibly weighty? What is an issue you have changed your mind about compared to ten years ago, because of something you have learned or rethought?

Some of our questions push candidates to explain their political philosophy. All of us share certain basic values: that people are created in the image of God and therefore are all infinitely valuable; to love our neighbor as ourselves. We want to know about candidates' particular translation of these values into a governing philosophy, particularly around issues that affect life and death. What were the key experiences and teachers that helped you codify your conservative or liberal philosophy?

We want to have a real back-and-forth, out of our own stories and experiences, about the ideal relationship between what the Federal government does and what local institutions, from government to nonprofits to congregations to the market, do for the common good.

To the candidates: There is still time. Between Martin Luther King Day and February 9, we stand ready to schedule these forums.

To the media: Whether you are based in New Hampshire or Washington, in the weeks ahead, talk to people who can shed light on the kinds of questions we have detailed.

As religious leaders in a free society, our authority is fundamentally that we are teachers. In this consequential year, we have a responsibility to frame the questions for our leaders and for voters to consider. If the candidates respond to our invitation, you will know. In any case, we commit to teaching about these dimensions of the election from our pulpits in the weeks and months ahead.

Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett serves Temple Beth Abraham, a community based in Nashua for Southern New Hampshire and nearby Massachusetts.

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