Is Your Candidate Keeping The Faith?

As the Republican convention continues, the major political parties are defining their positions — and many are focused on faith. Host Michel Martin speaks with a diverse panel of religious leaders to weigh how they balance faith and politics.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. All week long we've been hearing from the big shots on stage at the Republican National Convention, but in a few minutes we'll hear from people on the floor. We're going to introduce you to a couple of the interesting delegates that we've met there.

But first, it's time for a special Thursday edition of Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith, religion and spirituality, and we couldn't help but notice that, as both major parties are refining their closing arguments to voters, at the center of many of their perspectives that we've been hearing is faith. So we thought this would be a good time to check in with some faith leaders of different backgrounds and traditions to ask them how their faith is informing their politics and ask, frankly, how they advise those whom they lead in this sensitive area.

Joining us now are the Reverend Samuel Rodriguez. He is the president of the evangelical group the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. He gave a benediction earlier this week at the RNC. Ralph Hardy is with us. He has served in the leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints for many years. He's currently in an advisory role. Also with us is Daisy Khan. She's the executive director of the group American Society for Muslim Advancement. They're dedicated to creating relationships between Muslims and the general public. And also with us once again, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld. He's the leader of Ohev Sholom, the National Synagogue in Washington, D.C., and he's with (unintelligible) to talk about faith traditions and the Jewish tradition.

Welcome, everybody. Thank you so much for joining us.

SAMUEL RODRIGUEZ: Thank you.

RALPH HARDY: Thank you.

DAISY KAHN: Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: Ralph Hardy, I'm going to start with you because the last election was a breakthrough moment for many people, for African-Americans, certainly. You heard many conservative women and mothers of young children say that it was a breakthrough having Sarah Palin on the ticket for them, so Mitt Romney could be the first member of the LDS church to become president. Is this a special moment for you and for others within your - you know, within your group? Is this a moment that feels special to you?

HARDY: Well, it's certainly a very interesting moment for members of our church. Some people have called it a Mormon moment, simply because we haven't had a candidate for president of the United States who's been a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. We have, you know, a number of Mormon politicians, members of the House and the Senate, governors, people in the Cabinet, but this is the first member of our church who has actually been nominated by a major party.

MARTIN: Well, what about you? Do you feel kind of something special or...

HARDY: I do, I do.

MARTIN: ...do you have a tingle?

HARDY: I think it is, it is special. You know, I think of our church in its early years, which was driven from one place to another and emigrated, finally, for safety in the Rocky Mountains, became - you know, Utah became a state and, over the years, to see this happen is a very impressive thing.

MARTIN: Reverend Rodriguez, on the other side of the question, you know, Mitt Romney was not the first choice for many evangelicals during the early stages of this contest. The former Arkansas governor - he's currently a Fox News personality, Mike Huckabee - seemed to have been asked to address this in his remarks. I just want to play a short clip.

MIKE HUCKABEE: This isn't a battle about contraceptives and Catholics, but about conscience and the creator. Let me say to you tonight, I care far less as to where Mitt Romney takes his family to church than I do about where he takes this country.

(APPLAUSE)

MARTIN: Well, Reverend Rodriguez, obviously there's a lot going on in that clip there, a lot of things being alluded to there, but I wanted to ask you - do you think there is lingering discomfort about Mr. Romney's faith, and, if so, why?

RODRIGUEZ: If it does exist, I think it's de minimis. It's in the margins. I do believe it speaks to the maturity of the American collective faith experience. Around the world, one of the greatest challenges that we have is the idea of religious totalitarianism. We see that idea emerge particularly in the area we know as the Middle East.

I think the possibility of having Mitt Romney, a Mormon, as president of the United States speaks to modeling behavior, how much we have gone, that even evangelicals, conservative, biblical, orthodox evangelicals, voting for a Mormon candidate again reflects the fact that we have matured, that the antidote to religious totalitarianism is religious pluralism. So I think evangelicals have matured enough to understand that we're not electing a pastor or a bishop of the church. We're electing a commander-in-chief and the president of the United States.

MARTIN: Do you feel, though - do people express any discomfort to you or has that gone away, if it ever existed, in your circle?

RODRIGUEZ: Truly, it has gone away, and I can't deny the fact that initially, within circles of the most conservative evangelical groups, there was a bit of trepidation. It wasn't anything that permeated the conversation collectively, but it was out there. But it truly, in the past months, ever since Mitt Romney received the de facto nomination, it hasn't emerged.

MARTIN: Daisy Kahn, I want to turn to you now. Many Muslim-Americans are saying that the last couple of years have been difficult, you know, for them. There have been some very painful arguments, for example, about building new mosques in certain places. I just want to play a short clip from - this is not about that, per se, but I want to talk - or play a short clip from Paul Ryan, the vice presidential nominee, talking about how faith animates his life as a Roman Catholic, just the second to be a Republican running mate, by the way. He talked more generally about faith and I want to play what he had to say a little bit.

PAUL RYAN: Sometimes even presidents need reminding that our rights come from nature and God and not from government.

MARTIN: Daisy, when you hear political leaders talking about faith in this way, do you feel included?

KAHN: Well, I mean, the Constitution is very clear that, you know, we're all endowed by the same creator, you know, created equal in the eyes of God, so from that standpoint, you know, Muslims take comfort in that, knowing that the Constitution grants them equal rights. And it is - I know that Muslims around the country want to normalize American Muslim voices in the politics.

And one solution is to encourage Muslims to engage in politics, to vote and to educate one another about how to vote. For instance, you know, I know a group that is doing voter registration here because they want to be represented in New York.

And I mean, it also stems from our faith, because our prophet, Muhammad, was not only a spiritual leader. He was also - you know, he had a small group of people. He was de facto a political leader also. So - and Muslims are encouraged to get civically engaged, but also to, you know, spiritually connect with God. So it's almost an equal obligation.

MARTIN: What about you, Rabbi Herzfeld? Do the political conversations that seem to be animated by faith right now - do you feel included? And one of the reasons we're really glad to speak with you is you have a very politically diverse congregation. It's an Orthodox congregation, but it's very diverse and you can see that from the bumper stickers, you know, in the parking lot. So what about you?

RABBI SHMUEL HERZFELD: Well, I think that my rule of thumb is what the Talmud says. The Talmud says be wary of political leaders because they draw you close when they need you, but when you need them, in Talmudic terms, it says they forget to answer the telephone. And so the point is, I really tune out when political leaders start speaking about their faith because my faith teaches me that my politics is not my faith and I try not to get caught up in the soundbites and the sprint mentality, but the faith reminds me to look at the long term picture.

And so I'm not interested where Barack Obama goes to church as much as I'm interested as to his long term vision and Mitt Romney's long term vision for our society and for our people.

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting, though, because some people feel that it's better for political leaders to speak more openly about their personal faith commitments because that's part of being transparent. They feel that they're being more honest. You don't feel that way?

HERZFELD: They might be. They might be being more honest. It might be better from, you know, like the media, what makes them more likeable, but from the perspective of how I'm going to pick a candidate, that's not going to have an impact on my vote.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. It's convention time and we decided this would be a good time to check in with a diverse panel of faith leaders.

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld - that's who was speaking just now. The Reverend Samuel Rodriguez. Daisy Kahn of the American Society for Muslim Advancement. And Ralph Hardy, he's an advisor to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Ralph Hardy, turning back to you, this is a time when the LDS church has been in the spotlight - in the national spotlight - in a way that it has not always been. And, you know, just when Mr. Romney first ran for political office, there are those who see, in the LDS church, for example, a hostility to African-Americans who weren't eligible to conduct ministry until 1978. Or there are some who say that they think there's a role for women in either the church of in family life that they don't like. And I wondered - do you feel those conversations are fair game?

HARDY: Well, it's an aspect of history as to where the church has been. The church's position as it relates to African-Americans, what we call holding the priesthood, that was changed in 1978, and today in our church we have a number - not only a large number of African-Americans who are members of the church, but also within our leadership - excuse me - without our leadership structure.

So, you know, we can go - people go back to the past, but we want to look forward and say, what are we today and what is the church and our membership and our acceptance? And we've had members of the African-American community with us for many years, but they're now - they're a very major and a very significant part of who we are and in our leadership.

MARTIN: But on the question of women, for example, I mean there are those who are drawing conclusions about, you know, Mitt Romney, particularly given that his history on some of these issues - like on issues around abortion, for example, or reproductive rights - is mixed. I mean, that's just a fact that his record is mixed. I mean, he's said - earlier in his career he seemed to have one perspective and now he seems to have another.

And there are people who are drawing upon that, and also issues around same-sex marriage, for example. And I just wonder, do you think it's fair game to evaluate him on the basis of his faith commitments or not?

HARDY: Well, any candidate's - what any candidate has done and where they have been in their life is fair game to talk about, and people are. I want to make quite clear that I am not here, you know, speaking for the church, which is...

MARTIN: Or for the candidate, for that matter.

HARDY: Or for the candidate at all, and the church is absolutely, absolutely politically neutral on matters of politics like this. So, you know, Romney is obviously a member of the church. He has been an active lay leader in the church for many years. That is a matter of record. He's - I knew him years ago as a leader of the church up in Boston when I was here in Washington, and so that's part of who he is. It informs him, just like everyone's religious service in their churches informs them.

MARTIN: Reverend Rodriguez, you know, you've also been in the news recently because of your work in trying to create a connection in coalition or in support for comprehensive immigration reform, and also because you signed - I don't know if I want to call it a covenant or a kind of an open letter from other faith leaders around same-sex marriage.

Now, the GOP platform embraces a very kind of restrictionist view on immigration reform, which is not what you are hoping for, but it also does, I think, track with your point of view on same-sex marriage. So how do you reconcile those two? I mean, should we assume - your letter, in part, urged people to vote based on their conscience. In your case, what does that mean?

RODRIGUEZ: Well, first, I want to make it clear that I am not married to the Republican establishment, and to be very forthright, I am an independent voter who is committed not to the agenda of the donkey or the elephant. I'm married exclusively to the agenda of the lamb. I want to pursue an agenda of righteousness and justice, just like Cardinal Dolan, who's addressing(ph) the benediction for both parties.

Four years ago, I prayed in the inaugural prayer service for President Obama, so I don't want my participation to be perceived as a de facto endorsement of any candidate. I do take advantage of these platforms in order to lift Christ up and to convey a message of reconciling Billy Graham's message with Dr. King's march.

At the end of the day, there are things in the Republican platform that do resonate with the Hispanic evangelical community, particularly on family, religious freedom, conscience, faith. And there are issues like the immigration plank that, I think, it's not only egregious, it really alienates the 50 million-strong Hispanic demographic.

So we try to speak truth to power. Do it with integrity, do it with humility, making them understand that in my world view I would love to see the Hispanic Christian community not married to a particular ideology, but committed to values.

MARTIN: Rabbi Herzfeld, what about you? I mean, how do you advise those who seek your counsel on this question, how to reconcile different things about different candidates, that they may appreciate something in one and not in the other? How do you go about advising people on this question?

HERZFELD: Well, first of all, Michel, a lot of people in my synagogue ask me for a lot of advice, but they don't ask me about how to vote. They're very tuned in on their own. They don't need my help on that, but if they would ask me, I would tell them that they should be - they should have independent hearts, that they shouldn't worship the god of either political party because that's a false god. There are certainly benefits to each party, and - but as a result, the person, the individual has to decide for themselves.

Just to take an example, abortion. The plank of the Republican Party, the Republican Party's view on abortion and the Democratic Party view on abortion, neither one accurately reflects, in my opinion, what the Jewish view is. So, if you tie yourself to a party, you're not connected to what the actual Jewish view is.

MARTIN: Interesting. Daisy Kahn, what about you? I don't know that you see yourself as sort of a pastoral leader, but the same question applies to people who look to you for inspiration on some of these issues. You've been caught up in some of these issues around, for example, the placement of a new Muslim community center in New York. So how do you advise people who want your perspective on this?

KAHN: Well, I think that, you know, there is a divine plan and the divine plan was always to create pluralism and this land has been blessed by religious pluralism. Every conceivable world religion exists here in the United States, but rarely do you hear the minority religious views. In fact, they are downplayed and underrepresented.

You know, the rabbi just mentioned, for instance, when the candidates talk about legislation about abortion in Christian terms, mostly defined by men, the minority view, minority Islamic view, Jewish view, Hindu view, Buddhist view, is completely underrepresented, and certainly women's voices are silenced.

And I think that, you know, recent political developments all over the world have thrust Muslim women into the limelight of examination, but it's also happening here. Issues that affect women are so often the watershed issues of campaigns and yet women are never at the table. And in these campaigns we're wrangling about abortion and yet women's voices are completely excluded.

So I would say that, if they have to represent us, they have to represent all views. You know, I've been watching some of the speeches and I think one of the things that's coming across is that the Republican Party needs to be more sensitive - that this country is now, you know, not only white. And this is the reality of America. This is also the exciting story of America and its evolution. And if they would only embrace that, I think that we would create a robust discussion in this country that would not only be relegated to just a couple of key issues that keep surfacing every four years - you know, the issue of abortion and gay marriages.

And I think there's much more to religion and much more to our faith communities that we need to discuss.

MARTIN: Well, unfortunately, we have to leave it there for now, because you're right. There is so much more to discuss, so hopefully we'll be able to get all of you back together again to talk about these issues as we go forward.

Thank you all so much for joining us. That was Daisy Kahn, speaking just previously. She's the executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement. She was with us from our studios in New York. In Washington, D.C., Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, leader of Ohev Sholom, the National Synagogue. Ralph Hardy is currently an advisor to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. And with us from Sacramento, the Reverend Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.

Thank you all so much for speaking with us.

RODRIGUEZ: Thank you, Michel.

KAHN: Thank you for having us.

HARDY: Thank you.

HERZFELD: Thank you.

KAHN: Bye-bye.

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