Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Union for Reform Judaism’s (URJ) Religious Action Center has been a subject of my posts in the past. For example, last December he sent around a solicitation for funds to members of URJ congregations in which he listed the greatest challenges facing us as Supreme Court nominations, civil rights protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people, climate change, the international health care crisis, and finally the Middle East conflict.
Without denying the seriousness of the other ‘challenges’, it seemed strange that a solicitation from a Jewish organization would put the life-and-death struggle of Israel last, and not even mention resurgent worldwide antisemitism. I also felt that his preferred approach to the Israeli-Arab conflict — “U.S. efforts to help craft a two-state solution” — was the worst possible that wasn’t explicitly pro-Arab.
Now Rabbi Saperstein has promulgated his ‘Ten Commandments’ for the use and abuse of religion in politics, by candidates and religious organizations. Most are unexceptionable, like not imperiling a congregation’s nonprofit tax status by endorsing a particular candidate. But here is the one that I found interesting:
Thou shalt not offer an explanation to the electorate about how your religious beliefs shape or alter your views on the issues. “It is all right for candidates to refer to their religious values as having an influence, but candidates should never base a policy position only on religious beliefs. Then it becomes a faith statement.”
What he seems to be saying is that a purely religious belief — or a moral principle that is based on it — is by definition not a legitimate premise in a sound argument. A “faith statement” for Saperstein is something subjective, a matter of taste like “I like spaghetti” which doesn’t necessarily apply to anyone else.
Indeed, although he allows for ‘influence’ I suspect that he would find a candidate’s statement that his Catholic background influenced him to oppose abortion unacceptable; ‘influence’ is probably allowed only in statements like “my religious background influenced me to be honest”.
In other words, for Saperstein, religion is not an acceptable source for the moral principles that guide our reasoning about moral questions, although religious training or belief can help create a person’s character.
But obviously everyone that ever makes moral decisions has such principles. Saperstein obviously has them himself, or he wouldn’t be able to see the need for gay rights, for example. He just doesn’t want them to come from religion.
So where can they come from? I am guessing that the answer is USH: Unexamined Secular Humanism, the moral philosophy actually held by many Reform Jews and liberal Protestants (my wife calls it “the niceness religion”). Here are some principles of USH, chosen at random and by all means not exhaustive:
- Happiness is good, pain is bad
- Limiting anyone’s freedom is bad, unless it’s necessary for the overriding social good
- Every human is of equal value
- Humans are basically good; conflicts are caused by insufficient knowledge or education
You get the idea. USH is a moral system, a collection of premises that can be the basis of a moral argument. But there are other moral systems — an Orthodox Jew might choose the Shulchan Aruch, for example — and there is nothing especially privileged about USH. But the fact that it is unexamined means that its practitioners often do not understand this, and they can be quite doctrinaire and even self-righteous — like Rabbi Saperstein.