A few years after my father’s death — and an ensuing crisis of faith — I wrote a deeply personal book about the role of religion in public policy, from my perspective as a Jewish progressive in the buckle of the Bible Belt. I traveled the country on a promotional tour, but my favorite forums were found in the hills and hollers of the Commonwealth, talking to gentile audiences about the commonalities between the Talmud and Rabbi Jesus’s teachings.
Invariably after each speech, at least one well-intentioned rural parishioner would approach me with a handshake or hug, proclaiming something to the effect of: “Jonathan, thank you for being so Christian.”
Fast forward a year later to the outset of my ill-fated 2007 gubernatorial bid. I had hoped to campaign on my book’s themes — speaking from the heart about how all world religions share the same core value: the notion that our highest moral duty is “to love your neighbor as yourself.” But as the pollsters conducted focus groups among Democratic primary voters, the same objection kept re-appearing: “I can’t support him. He’s a too conservative a Christian!”
Psst: I’m a liberal Jew.
This week, the language of faith — and what it means to be Christian — came under considerable scrutiny: both here among Kentucky’s kingmakers, and before a global political audience.
On Tuesday, I was honored to read a Hebrew Bible passage at Matt Bevin’s inaugural Governor’s Prayer Breakfast. (Of course, I chose instead to play my guitar and warble a Jewish prayer off-key; but that’s a story for another day.) The keynote speaker was the High Priest of the Big Blue Nation, University of Kentucky basketball coach, John Calipari.
Cal’s pal (and former United Nations’ delegate) Kelly Knight set the table with a poignant introduction that focused not on the legendary Coach Cal, but instead, as she described, her friend John. While we’re all familiar with Coach Cal’s hardwood triumphs and challenges, Kelly explained that her friend John is a devout man of faith, a daily mass-attending Catholic who regularly and instinctively proffers anonymous acts of kindness and compassion.
Calipari’s eight minute address challenged the rest of us to do the same. Unlike most on the podium that morning, the Coach’s remarks did not address his personal relationship with God. Rather, Cal spoke of honoring our moral responsibilities through good works. “Being one in God,” Calipari intoned, “actions speak louder than words.”
Remembering his life-affirming opportunity to meet Pope Francis last year, Cal noted that the Pontiff’s #1 lesson was to “treat people the way you want to be treated, the Golden Rule.” Accordingly, the Coach galvanized the audience of politicians and policymakers to advocate for Kentucky’s most vulnerable, to give them a “hand up, not a handout.” He even explained his player-centered coaching philosophy within the same ethical worldview: Mentoring and empowering the young, often-economically-disadvantaged men to which he has been entrusted was far more morally significant to him than winning championships.
Watch the whole speech here:
Cal taught a powerful and influential audience one critical element of what it means for him to be Christian.
There’s been no more elegant and eloquent champion of that same philosophy than Cal’s hero, Pope Francis. From the moment the world learned of his ministry, Francis focused on the needy: counseling the poor, embracing the disabled, even washing the feet of prisoners…serving, in Jesus’s words, “the least of us.” It’s no wonder that the Pope has focused so much attention on the plight of world refugees and the Biblical commandment to “welcome the stranger” through humane immigration policies.
So on Wednesday, when asked about Donald Trump’s harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric — which includes a plan to build a “big, beautiful” wall separating the U.S. and Mexico — the Pope did not mince words: “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.”
Francis’ language was met by the sound and fury that’s been typical of Campaign 2016. Trump fired back, aggrieved by His Holiness, claiming his comments were “disgraceful” and “unbelievable,” and even suggesting that the Mexican government put him up to it. Other conservative politicos and pundits chimed in, criticizing the Pontiff for daring to challenge someone’s — anyone’s — faith, often throwing back Francis’ own words: “who am I to judge?”
The critics have a point: an individual’s relationship with God is much too intimate and far too personal to be questioned.
But let’s give the infallible Francis the benefit of the doubt. Notice that he didn’t accuse the unnamed wall-builder of not being “a Christian,” but rather he claimed such behavior is “not Christian.” There is a distinction between the noun — which many believe refers to someone who first and foremost has accepted Christ as his Lord and Savior — and the adjective, which can be defined alternatively as “decent,” “humane,” and/or accepting of the obligation to pursue Jesus’s teachings. The latter was certainly part of Coach Cal’s personal definition of what it means to be Christian. And as some of my rural book tour attendees might argue, you don’t need to be “a Christian” to act “Christian.”
Perhaps you may consider the above paragraph to be the agonized-word parsing of an attorney and former proud Bill Clinton appointee. And as a Jew, I certainly have no standing to engage in the debate about the meaning of Christianity.
But I’m glad it’s happening. Too often when we discuss religion in the context of politics and public policy, we focus on the issues that divide us: how we interpret the Holy Books to govern personal behavior, usually involving consensual sex. Too rarely do we discuss the universal principles shared by all world religions that could bring us together: particularly those that implore us to act outside of our self-interest and serve our neighbors, primarily those that are suffering.
If the Pope/Trump debate has legs, perhaps more Christians — and Jews, and Muslims, and agnostics, and atheists… — will grasp a true tenant of all faiths and spiritual traditions, and accept Coach Cal’s challenge to take moral responsibility for the needs of our neediest. And if that happens, another typically brutal and ugly moment of the current campaign season could turn into something truly transcendent and beautiful.