Article Last Updated: Monday, November 18, 2002 - 3:01:06 AM MST
Religious leaders preaching politics
Controversial sermons fill temples, churches as threat
Taking politics to the pulpit is a lot like gambling: risky, unpredictable and controversial.
But as the possibility of a U.S. strike against Iraq draws closer, more local religious leaders are taking their chances with politically charged sermons.
Some speak their minds in hopes of spurring letters to President Bush. Others know that voicing their views will probably spark dissent in the flock. But as the international debate surrounding Iraq thickens, these men and women don't resist the urge to preach politics.
Rabbi Harry Manhoff of San Leandro's Temple Beth Sholom -- the liberal leader of a fairly conservative congregation -- kept his ideas about the impending strikes on Iraq to himself through late summer and early fall.
But when the Torah readings cycled to the story about Abraham begging God to save the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, he said, the moment to comment had come.
"If Abraham argued to save two cities that did not even have 10 righteous people, one should argue that (Iraq) has too many righteous people who would be killed for the wickedness of one leader," he said.
Manhoff added that he does not think Iraq poses a serious threat to the United States. Though he doesn't regret giving the unpopular sermon, Manhoff said he is dismayed that one young couple hasn't returned to temple since then.
For other leaders such as the Rev. John Wichman of Westminster Hills Presbyterian Church in Hayward, personal political views jibe with those of parishioners. But Wichman said this allows his congregation to skip the soapbox and get down to letter-writing and political action. He added that parishioners are vulnerable enough to his opinions.
Every time he wears his clerical collar to a peace rally, he reminds himself that he's exploiting his pastoral position, he said.
"Wearing my collar to the (Oct. 26 rally in San Francisco) wasn't an easy decision. Always, always there should be tension about taking advantage of the fact that people will put clergy on a pedestal," Wichman said. "But this situation is drastic enough that it calls for a little bit of drama. There comes a time to say, based on our faith, 'This is wrong.'"
Elsewhere in Hayward, Pastor Steve Pineda of Victory Outreach Church said congregants know where he stands. Why sermonize?
Pineda doesn't publicly endorse Bush's possible offensive against Iraq. Instead he preaches support for a "spiritual war" against terrorism.
"I talk about spiritual warfare. It's God against the devil -- it's all in the Bible," Pineda said. "Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden look at us as infidels while they are in Indonesia trying to kill people."
After the bombing of a nightclub in Bali, Indonesia, Pineda said he almost called home the Victory Outreach missionaries working in Indonesia. But after a churchwide prayer, Pineda decided the missionaries would stay to "fight the spiritual battle."
Other Christian leaders believe that publicly taking sides on the Iraq issue fails to help parishioners think for themselves.
The Rev. Kathryn Schreiber of the United Church of Hayward said her role is simply to ask questions -- not to give answers. Espousing her personal views only drives people back into their political camps, she said. Rev. Kathryn Schreiber of the United Church of Hayward said her role is simply to ask her parishioners questions not give answers. Espousing her personal views only drives people back into their political camps, she said."I want to ask (my parishioners) what constitutes security for them? What would really create sustainable security? I think this question will resonate no matter where they are politically," Schreiber said.
"Because whether we're on the left or right I know one thing: we are all scared."
An Islamic organization called the Zaytuna Institute in Hayward is also taking steps to cope with today's social climate of fear.
On Oct. 20 the Zaytuna Institute hosted a daylong seminar at the University of California, Berkeley where Muslims discussed how to counteract and cope with the anti-Muslim sentiments of other Americans.
Meanwhile within the sacred space of the mosques, politics are usually avoided altogether.
Saifullah Samadi, the imam of the Mosque of the Muhajireen in Hayward, said he steers clear of all political discussion, especially during Ramadan, the current Muslim holy month of fasting and introspection.
"We never go to the politics, because politics always brings problems," he said as he prepared for his midday prayer on Friday.
Other religions agree with Samadi's non-partisan stance. Baha'is refrain from all political gestures because they believe politics are fundamentally corrupt.
Marta Reinus of the Baha'i Center of Hayward said rather than writing to government officials, Baha'is are calling on high-ranking religious leaders to dialogue with one another.
"At this moment there is a lot of strife in the world because there is a lot of religious discord," she said. "I don't think politics will change the world. Man needs to change in his heart to start seeing humans are humans no matter what."
©Copyright 2002, Tri-Valley Herald (CA)