A Declaration of Ignorance
By Steven Philp
Republican or Democrat, American Jews inherit a history of progressiveness concerning issues of race and religion. Yet a pledge released by the conservative organization Family Leader, expounding racism and religious intolerance uncharacteristic of our community, includes an unexpected Jewish stamp of approval. The document in question is the “Marriage Vow: A Declaration of Dependence on Marriage and Family.” Released on July 7, the pledge is intended for Republican presidential candidates looking for sponsorship from the Family Leader, a right-wing political organization that includes the Iowa Family Political Action Committee. Their influence is not limited to the Midwest swing states; considering their affiliations with national bodies like Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council, an endorsement from the Family Leader is a vital feather in the cap for any Republican hopeful looking to co-opt the conservative vote. The document—grounded in a concern for the integrity of the American family— includes promises of Constitutional fidelity, a commitment to upholding “traditional” marriage values and federal deficit reduction. This is undergirded by the unquestioned locus of “faithful monogamy…at the very heart of a designed a purposeful order.” This in turn is derived from “Jewish and Christian scripture,” “Classical philosophers,” “Natural Law,” and—of course—“the American Founders.” It may be time to modify synagogue curricula; according to the Family Leader, if you study enough Torah you may find elements of the “Marriage Vow.”
While having “Jewish scripture” appropriated by a group that defines itself as a “Christ-centered organization” may rankle progressive Jews, it would not be the first time that the Tanakh has been used in defense of “traditional” marriage values. We only have to look to the recent vote to legalize same-sex marriage in New York State to find examples of recalcitrance within the Jewish community, where a number of conservative Jewish groups used Biblical text to justify their opposition to the expansion of marriage rights. What is problematic is that a Christian organization has attempted to associate Judaism with a bigoted document that not only targets the usual suspects (divorcees, single parents and LGBTQ individuals), but also sets its sites on African-American and American Muslims. The document states that despite the ills of slavery, a black person born in 1860 “was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the USA’s first African-American president.” This garnered sharp criticism from moderate and liberal organizations, including the NAACP, who pointed to the fact that historical evidence shows that slaves were often prevented from marrying, and that selling family members to different slave owners was common practice. Furthermore, the implication that life was better for African-Americans under the burden of slavery is, at the very least, inaccurate and dangerously ignorant. The outcry forced the document’s first two signatories, presidential candidates Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum, to backpedal, according to The Huffington Post, and elicited a statement from the Family Leader saying, “After careful deliberation and wise insight and input from valued colleagues we deeply respect, we agree that the statement referencing children born into slavery can be misconstrued.” The passage has been removed from subsequent publications of the pledge.
Yet the statement concerning American Muslims is of equivalent ignorance; one of the fourteen points of the document has the presidential candidates vow to “[reject] Sharia Islam and all other forms of anti-woman, anti-human rights forms of totalitarian control.” Following the tragedy of September 11 and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the coexistence of Islam and the West has become a heated issue among American politicians, religious leaders and academics. One of the primary concerns—at least for conservative politicians—is Sharia, the code of personal and communal conduct for observant Muslims. Republican presidential candidates have offered several choice sound bytes concerning Sharia: Rick Santorum called it “an existential threat” to the United States, while Herman Cain explained that he would not readily appoint a Muslim to his Cabinet because “there is this attempt to gradually ease Sharia law and the Muslim faith into our government. It does not belong in our government.” While neither can provide concrete examples of an Islamic takeover, they do exemplify general ignorance concerning what Sharia is.
Translated to “path” or “way,” Sharia is not unlike Halakhah—a system of laws built over time from a central religious text (in this case, the Qur’an), the teachings of religious figures (for Muslims, these are the words of Mohammed recorded in the Sunnah) and subsequent centuries of religious scholarship. It is an evolving and diverse legal tradition, with tenets that reflect denominational and regional affiliations. To be Muslim is—in a way—to practice Sharia, of the type and to the degree befitting your desired level of observance. Like the Jewish tradition, there is the possibility for fundamentalism—this is exemplified in stories of stoning and beheading popularized by the global media. Yet also similar to Halakhah, Sharia is malleable; there is room for progressivism and adaptation. In the same way that every Jew engages with elements of Halakhah—applying it to our identity in unique and productive ways, debating with our peers over its applicability in contemporary society and embracing its place (in whatever form) in the history and structure of our community—so too Muslims also work with Sharia. The similarities between the two traditions are striking, from laws concerning ritual purity, to conduct in business relationships, to customs surrounding food consumption. One would think that in the United States, Jews would have the greatest empathy with our Muslim peers when their religious code is attacked.
Any Torah scholar— understanding that our moral structure, like Islam’s, is born of written and oral traditions—should recognize that Family Leader’s rejection of “Sharia Islam” is equivalent to forbidding “Halakhic Judaism;” this is the same as a ban on the faith tradition itself. Similarly, given the strong stance that Jews have taken against slavery and segregation—derived from our own narrative of bondage in Egypt—it is unlikely that the Jewish community would wax nostalgic on the subject position of the African-American slave. Associating the Jewish community with a document like the “Marriage Vow” to legitimize its bigotry shows that Family Leader is not only ignorant concerning the African-American community and Islam, but Judaism as well.