Last week Mitt Romney gave a speech that was supposed to clarify how his Mormon faith would influence him if he were to be elected president of the United States. In his more than 2,000 word statement he only said the word “Mormon” once.
In order to explain what I think about that, I want to tell you a story. Last Christmas, Rabbi Victor Mirelmann got up before sunrise and walked the two blocks from West Suburban Temple Har Zion to the Dominican Priory to say a prayer in Hebrew for a program called Christmas Cheer.
Incongruous? Here’s what Rabbi Mirelmann said about the 400 volunteers who packaged and delivered 12,000 meals to needy and sometimes lonely people throughout the metro area: “The program is a very inspiring event, and those who volunteer get the benefit of doing a very good deed at a crucial time in the lives of the recipients. [I] saw many Jews like myself, from all areas of Chicagoland, taking time to help fellow human beings celebrate their Christmas with a little more joy and human kindness.”
The good rabbi could have focused on the religious differences between him and Christmas Cheer’s organizer, an Italian Roman Catholic named Phil Calabreze. Instead, Mirelmann chose to value what they had in common. The result? The lives of a lot of people were made a little better for one day.
Mitt Romney chose to emphasize what he had in common with other people of faith in this country. He acknowledged that Mormons and Christians-and certainly Jews, Muslims and Buddhists-have beliefs that differ. He acknowledged that, but declared that regarding life in the public square, the differences didn’t matter. I think he’s right.
One of my best friends is an agnostic. When we’re bored and want some excitement, Pete and I get into a debate about religion. On that subject we differ. If we get tired of discussing religion, we turn to politics. On that one, we’re not always on the same page but at least we’re in the same chapter, and we’re certainly reading the same book.
Pete and Rabbi Mirelmann are two friends of mine who come from different places than I come from. Regarding life in the public square, where you’re coming from is irrelevant. All that matters is where you’re going. Jews work side by side with Christians on, of all times, Christmas morning because they too value bringing “a little more joy and human kindness” to their neighbors.
When I was a boy-back in the days when music came from what we called record players-a book entitled “Protestant, Catholic, Jew” was a bestseller. If the book were to come out today in a revised edition, the title would have to be changed to “Protestant, Catholic, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Bahai, Wickan, Pagan, Druid, Sikh, Unitarian, Spiritualist, Scientologist, Taois, Eckankar.”
Pluralism is here to stay. We can choose to emphasize differences and follow Iraq, Yugoslavia, Lebanon and the Holy Land down the road to polarization and conflict, or we can choose to emphasize what we have in common and make some progress in responding to the big issues in our society.
Vineyard Church in Oak Park sometimes describes its approach to doing church as a “search for the radical middle.” I think that’s what Rabbi Mirelmann was doing last Christmas. I think that’s what Mitt Romney was doing last week.