In recent years, it seems that both religious values and leaders are becoming increasingly political – something we think is a very discouraging development. However, if Rabbi Dennis Ross’ new book title, All Politics is Religious, is an absolute and finite statement of fact, than we may need to rethink the work we do here at State of Belief and at Interfaith Alliance. Of course, a book is more complicated than its title. Rabbi Ross discusses the meaning behind the title of his new book – and what it means to speak faith to media, policy makers and community.
RUSH TRANSCRIPT: Rabbi Dennis Ross[REV. DR. C. WELTON GADDY, HOST]: Welcome back to State of Belief Radio, everyone, I’m Welton Gaddy.
All Politics is Religious. If the title of a new book by Rabbi Dennis Ross were an absolute and finite statement of fact, it would behoove us to rethink much of the work we do here at State of Belief and, indeed, at Interfaith Alliance! But of course, there’s much more to it than that.
First of all, the book’s subtitle is Speaking Faith to the Media, Policy Makers and Community. And second, Rabbi Ross is with us now to discuss what he means by that title. Rabbi Ross, welcome to State of Belief Radio![RABBI DENNIS ROSS, GUEST]: Thank you Rev. Gaddy, it’s a delight to be here with you. [WG]: Well, let’s start with that title: what do you mean when you say “all politics is religious”? [DR]: Well, there is a religious theme behind many of the public policy debates that we have in our country today. Sometimes the religion is obvious, as when people point to scripture with all kinds of claims about who we can marry or not marry and the like. Sometimes the religious theme is less evident, but it’s there very strongly – like when we’re talking about the needs for health care for women, men and families, for providing for the poor or for the expansion of the fund of human knowledge, for education. You know, there are religious themes running through all of these issues here in the United States today. [WG]: When you were writing the book, or when you were conceiving the book – who were you thinking about? Who was your audience? [DR]: I was thinking about people of faith who believe that individuals have the right to marry whoever they want regardless of their gender; I’m talking to people who feel that a woman is entitled to end her pregnancy if she believes that’s the right thing for her to do. I’m talking to people whose religious voices aren’t heard as widely as some of the others, although their feelings are as heartfelt as anyone else’s in the United States. [WG]: I think you understand why I’m asking these questions up front: because in dealing – across the years – in dealing with people on what we call the religious right side of things, what I have seen that discourages me is people turning politics into a religion itself, so that when they ask you about your faith they ask you who you voted for, rather than what you believe or what you do. [DR]: Yeah. [WG]: So that’s why I’m asking the questions, and I thought you might want to comment on that. [DR]: Yeah, I mean who I vote for is a very personal thing, I don’t discuss it from the pulpit, I don’t discuss it with the press, I mean, people can figure it out but, you know, I think the important thing is that people of faith who believe in marriage equality, who believe that women should be able to get the heath care that’s right for them, who believe in the advance of stem cell research need just a little bit of help to get those religious voices out there, and reclaim the public debate in a respectful, responsible way. [WG]: And I, as I read the book, you’re not demanding that religion be brought into every political conversation, in fact your book is a thoughtful analysis of what’s going on every day in our public rhetoric already – and you’re urging us to be more aware of it. Have I got that right? [DR]: Yeah, certainly, yeah, thank you, thank you. Yes, you certainly do; I think having a religion – look, we all live in this country – and having a religion doesn’t take away our right to speak of what we believe in, to speak about our faith – but that’s very different than going into Congress with a religious restriction about birth control and trying to impose that religious restriction on people of other faiths whose faiths have different teachings, that endorse a woman’s ability, a family’s ability to get birth control and other reproductive medicine. [WG]: Rabbi Ross, what would we gain through an honest inclusion of the language of religion in our conversations, and especially in our disagreements, that’s not happening now? [RD]: Well, I think one of the most important things we can gain is that I think people have the impression – in the larger community – some people come away with the impression that all religions see something wrong in birth control, that all religious people are opposed to marriage equality for same-gender couples. But I think that the most important thing is that we reclaim the position of our faith in the public eye, and let others know that religious people do endorse same-gender marriage. Plus, we get the opportunity to speak about our faith to the larger community – which I think is a very important fulfillment of our own faith teachings: to get the message, get the word out there about what we believe. [WG]: When people read this book All Politics is Religious – is there one key idea or feeling or thought that you really want them to take away from reading that book? [RD]: I think the most important thing people could learn from this book, or from any conversation, is that – you see, if I had the opportunity to make one call to one policy-maker – say I have a senator who’s opposed to something I believe in, and a senator who supports something I believe in – the most important call I could make, I learned this in transition from a congregational rabbi to becoming a religious advocate – the most important call that any of us could make is to a supportive policy-maker, to say: “Thank you for standing strong.” That, for instance, if it’s for women’s health: “Thank you for standing strong and ensuring access to birth control for women and families. I’m a religious person; I want you to know I support you in this endeavor.” And what will happen is, getting enough calls like that going through to a legislator, especially on the state level, emboldens that legislator to come forward, to get a bill out that’s stuck in committee down on the floor for a vote; to sponsor an important piece of legislation; so the most important thing I think we can do is keep our supporters close, let them know how much we support them, and that will give them confidence and courage to come forward. [WG]: Hmm, well said. You know, this strikes me as a rather personal book. I may be wrong, but I have the sense that it was bubbling around in your mind for a long time, and in your heart, and you wanted to get it out. What did it take for you to sit down and write this book? What motivated that? [RD]: Well, you know, I’ve been a congregational rabbi for 25 years. And my career took a turn, and I became a religious advocate; I direct Concerned Clergy for Choice for Family Planning Advocates of New York State, and as I entered this new position I said: “Well, you know, I’m going to be an advocate, I’ll work with clergy, I’ll meet with policy-makers, I’ll talk to the media – and I’m a rabbi, I’m experienced, I know how to do these things.” Well, when I sat down and began to get media training, when I sat down and began to learn about the fine points of advocacy and meeting with our elected officials, I said: “Gee, there is a whole bunch of things I learned that I would just love to be able to share with other people, people who look at the world the way I do, so they could come forward and join me in speaking out on behalf of the widow, the stranger and the orphan, just the scripture teaches;” the woman, immigrant and the youth – because they need our voices of faith. [WG]: Knowing that you are in that position – director of Concern Clergy for Choice – I can’t let you go today without us talking a little bit about that – because there was a historic development in reproductive health this past week as the new women’s health components of the Affordable Care Act came into effect this past Wednesday. There was a deafening roar of rhetoric from opponents, claiming nothing less than the death of religious liberty, and comparing this to 9/11! From your perspective, is there a threat to losing some of the coverage that’s just been added? [RD]: Well, you know, there is a threat but first we should point out that the Affordable Care Act that we’re discussing does more than just provide birth control without co-pay; it provides for well-women visits, gestational diabetes screenings for pregnant women, it provides for domestic and interpersonal violence screening and counseling, breastfeeding support for new mothers. So there’s a whole range of health care services in this bill that I feel every person of faith in this country needs to applaud. And what’s happening is that some religious people are singling out the birth control provision, to the detriment of women and families around this country. [WG]: I’m always deeply troubled by the one-sided nature of news coverage on issues like reproductive rights. Concerned Clergy for Choice is a group representing over a thousand religious leaders. But any time there’s a story about this issue, you can bet the guy in the collar is going to be spouting anti-choice rhetoric. What can we do to change that? [RD]: Well, yeah. You see, what happens is – this doesn’t explain everything, but I think what happens is – say the president says something positive about birth control, and some of the most reputable papers and media in the country were looking for an opponent – so they’ll find a religious voice. And then they run the story. So what everybody thinks is, well, here’s a voice for, voice against – and all religious people are against it, against, say, birth control or access to safe abortion. So a very important thing we can do is whenever you see an article like that in the paper is to write a letter, first of all thanking the editor for their coverage of birth control or coverage of the abortion issue, and say: I want your readers to know that there is another religious perspective about access to safe abortion, one that stands with women and families as they make these decisions and get the healthcare that they think is right for them. [WG]: There’s so much chipping away at reproductive rights that’s been happening at the state level. What do you think the future holds in that regard? [RD]: Well, I think the threats are very, very real – but I am heartened, though. You know, when I took over the directorship of Concern Clergy for Choice over eight years ago, pro-choice clergy in the New York State Capital were unusual. Now, our policy-makers here – they recognize us, they welcome us and they expect to see us. So I think it’s possible, like you say, if we just chip away and be persistent and work and work and work, our voices will be more and more heard. [WG]: Rabbi Ross, I’d like for you to tell our listeners how they can learn more about your work, and also to take a second to tell us what are the priorities for Concern Clergy for Choice going forward? [RD]: Well, as we look ahead, as Concern Clergy for Choice looks ahead we have significant challenges. I am concerned that, we are concerned, my network is concerned that this Affordable Care Act – for all the wonderful things that it provides in terms of health care for millions and millions in this nation – is under attack; it’s being litigated; we are seeing challenges to access to safe abortion in many state capitals across the United States as well as in Congress. Let’s keep in mind that the United States House of Representative has voted to defund Planned Parenthood! I mean, they are on record; this issue keeps coming back in the presidential race; so I think there are some real significant threats – and they are faith-based. All this politics is religious, these threats are faith-driven, and we have to be strong and vigorous in resisting them. [WG]: And how can our people listening to us learn more about you work? [RD]: Well they can visit Concern Clergy for Choice on the web, we are right there; they can come see me at www.dennisross.net – that’s my website – and there they can learn about my new book, All Politics is Religious, which talks about ways to bring forward these positive, respectful, dignified and compassionate and compelling religious voices into the public arena. [WG]: I’ve been talking with Rabbi Dennis Ross, he’s just told you more about his new book All Politics is Religious: Speaking Faith to the Media, Policy Makers and Community. Rabbi Ross directs Concerned Clergy for Choice – it’s a nationally-recognized multi-faith network of religious leaders supporting reproductive rights. He serves congregation Beth Emeth in Albany, New York.
Rabbi Ross, I really do appreciate you joining us today. You’ve helped introduce us to your book, which we hope people will read, and also to your work, which we know is important. So thanks for joining us on State of Belief Radio.[RD]: Thanks Rev. Gaddy, it was a real treat.
State of Belief is based on the proposition that religion has a positive and healing role to play in the life of the nation. The show explains and explores that role by illustrating the vast diversity of beliefs in America – the most religiously diverse country in the world – while exposing and critiquing both the political manipulation of religion for partisan purposes and the religious manipulation of government for sectarian purposes.
Each week, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy offers listeners critical analysis of the news of religion and politics, and seeks to provide listeners with an understanding and appreciation of religious liberty. Rev. Gaddy tackles politics with the firm belief that the best way to secure freedom for religion in America is to secure freedom from religion. State of Belief illustrates how the Religious Right is wrong – wrong for America and bad for religion.
Through interviews with celebrities and newsmakers and field reports from around the country, State of Belief explores the intersection of religion with politics, culture, media, and activism, and promotes diverse religious voices in a religiously pluralistic world.
Author of more than 20 books, including First Freedom First: A Citizen’s Guide to Protecting Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy leads the national non-partisan grassroots and educational organization Interfaith Alliance and serves as Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Northminster (Baptist) Church in Monroe, Louisiana.
In addition to being a prolific writer, Dr. Gaddy hosts the weekly State of Belief radio program, where he explores the role of religion in the life of the nation by illustrating the vast diversity of beliefs in America, while exposing and critiquing both the political manipulation of religion for partisan purposes and the religious manipulation of government for sectarian purposes.
Dr. Gaddy provides regular commentary to the national media on issues relating to religion and politics. He has appeared on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show and Hardball, NBC’s Nightly News and Dateline, PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly and The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, ABC’s World News, and CNN’s American Morning. Former host of Morally Speaking on NBC affiliate KTVE in Monroe, Louisiana, Dr. Gaddy is a regular contributor to mainstream and religious news outlets.
While ministering to churches with a message of inclusion, Dr. Gaddy emerged as a leader among progressive and moderate Baptists. Among his many leadership roles, he is a past president of the Alliance of Baptists and has been a 20-year member of the Commission of Christian Ethics of the Baptist World Alliance. His past leadership roles include serving as a member of the General Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, President of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Chair of the Pastoral Leadership Commission of the Baptist World Alliance and member of the World Economic Forum’s Council of 100. Rev. Gaddy currently serves on the White House task force on the reform of the Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
Prior to the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), Dr. Gaddy served in many SBC leadership roles including as a member of the convention’s Executive Committee from 1980-84 and Director of Christian Citizenship Development of the Christian Life Commission from 1973-77.
Dr. Gaddy received his undergraduate degree from Union University in Jackson, Tennessee and his doctoral degree and divinity training from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.