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The Surprising Role of Houses of Worship in the Presidential Election

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This country may be founded upon freedom of religion, but religion has been nothing but a burden in this election. For the most part, religious institutions have been at the forefront of the fire that dominates our political climate. Though illegal, the support of various religious institutions for their candidate -- and the vilification of the other guy -- is obvious to all.

I don't think there's any chance of rolling back the aggressive zeal that houses of worship display for contemporary politics. It may not even be desirable. However, I think that there is a unique role that churches, synagogues, mosques, et al can play in correcting and healing the yetzer harah (Hebrew for the evil impulse) that Americans have rampantly released in the past political years.

NPR recently interviewed an unemployed man who blames the president for the economy. Such a conceit is reasonable, whether accurate or not. However, he went on to say that the president and his wife hate white people. This idea is not reasonable at all.

People forget that our president is bi-racial: half African, half Caucasian. To say he hates white people forgets that fully half his family, and his mother, are white.

So from where does such a claim come?

The answer, I think, lies in the power of stories. America's story is of racial divide. Despite all of our progress in the last century, black and white in this country do not yet trust each other. Racial divides remain, and the narrative of racial divide is so strong among us that examples not fitting neatly into its categories are crammed into conformity. Thus any person who personally combines black and white is shunted fully to one side of the race debate regardless of inclination, and is slapped with the narrative dictated by their apparent skin color and features, no matter how specious.

The president said it himself:

"When people who don't know me well, black or white, discover my background ... They no longer know who I am ... I don't fault people their suspicions. I learned long ago to distrust my childhood and the stories that shaped it. It was only many years later, after I had sat at my father's grave and spoken to him through Africa's soil ... that I understood that I had spent much of my life trying to rewrite these stories ... all in hope of extracting some granite slab of truth upon which my unborn children can firmly stand." (Dreams from My Father, p. 16-17, e-book)

The ultimate point is not about the president, nor our political furor. The point is that we sacrifice the identities of others to the needs of our own stories. I offer this test as proof: would we call any man or woman in this country who comes from both black and white parentage, and whose skin is noticeably dark, anything but black? Thus the president, regardless of his internal reality, is drawn into the fear that black people hate white people for what white people did to them -- a particularly insidious tale that retroactively justifies contemporary racism.

Moreover, the same overpowering myth-making urge applies equally to the president's opponent. Mitt Romney has become the Mormon who contains within him the behavior of all Mormons, as well as our anxiety about this youthful, American-born religion. Regardless of true circumstance, he is the rich, white capitalist riding roughshod over the subservient poor. He is the embodiment of the fear that some control our lives from the shadows, without concern for the fate of the battered workers serving the wealthy, yet never better their own lot.

My favorite prophetic image is of the anakh, the plumb line. A plumb line (which loses something in translation from Hebrew) is a simple builder's tool -- a string with a weight at the end. By holding it out, one determines whether a vertical line is truly straight. Here's the prophet Amos:

"And HaShem said to me, 'What do you see Amos?' And I said 'A plumb line.' And my Lord said, 'Indeed I am placing a plumb line on my people Israel, and I will no longer let them off.'"

Truth, the straight plumb line, matters to God.

But the application of these stories of our collective unconscious bends the line by which we measure other people. At some point it is no longer they who interest us, but the stories they carry -- a burden given by us -- that matter.

Most often, these stories do their carriers a great injustice. I am a Jew. The stories slapped on my ancestors like so much wet paint led to millennia of suffering without a containing a shred of validity. If we control the banks, why haven't I received my check?

Houses of Worship can work to the good of America by teaching the application of the straight line of the anakh before the election. Their role should be to help people to separate the truth of the candidates they see from the stories that carry us. They can teach people to refrain from bending actual statements, true opinions and representative actions into the facile categories that our dark impulses have prepared. If anything can convince another to follow the straight line, it is the power of God's word. I say we apply it.

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