Updated February 2013
Religion and Politics: A lethal cocktail?
By Niamh Whelan
Given the focus of the media this year on the political scene, it seems apt that we kicked off our education series with a quick look at the role of religion in politics. Do religious organizations have a consistent opinion on major social justice issues? Where do these opinions come from? Can your priest, rabbi or other religious leaders tell you how to vote?

On the Catholic side, Fr. Bernie explained that the Church does have strong opinions in the area of social justice and that these are driven by the hierarchical structure of the Church and the fact that there is a central figure – a CEO in many respects – in the form of the Pope. Rabbi Misha suggested that the more decentralized nature of Judaism means that there is no one voice on social issues within the Jewish religion. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t opinions on social justice but rather that there isn’t one central voice on the issues.

So what’s the basis for the themes on social justice?
The idea of social justice or “taking care of people who are in need” is firmly engrained in both Judaism and Catholicism. Fr. Bernie and Rabbi Misha agreed that the scriptures were the source for all of the teachings in this area (which come to think of it makes perfect sense since Jesus was Jewish!). While Catholic Popes from as far back as 1891 were issuing encyclicals (or social teachings) outlining the Church’s position on the issues of the day, many of the same ideas and themes were also echoed in Jewish teachings of the time.

Does either religion tell you how to vote? Or who the “right candidate” is?

In the past – and no doubt in the upcoming Presidential election - the Church has been accused of being more political than religious because its views seemed to be aligned more closely with one candidate than another. According to Fr. Bernie this is purely coincidental. The Church does not officially endorse any political candidates or parties.

In Judaism, some specific groups such Orthodox or Hassidic Jews for example, give their congregations clear direction on how to vote but for the majority of Jews, there is no endorsement on the religious side.

An informed conscience
In conclusion, we all know that the world we live in today is not black and white…There are lots of grey areas, there aren’t always clear answers to the issues that we face and indeed how individuals interpret the scriptures is largely shaped by their own personal experiences as they travel through life. On the religious side, both Catholicism and Judaism ask people to have “an informed conscience” – that is to take both the scriptures and the evolving teaching tradition of the Catholic Church through the ages to draw your own, informed decision from them.