Canvassing in God’s Country: Assessing the Religious Divide

Election 2004 | Building/Consensus

Palm Beach County, Florida would not ordinarily be confused with “God’s Country”, a phrase which typically connotes a wide open spance of nature unspoiled by civilization. On the other hand, to take the term at its literal meaning, it might indicate a place of extraordinary religiosity. Who knew that Palm Beach was ranked second among Florida counties in the proportion of residents who regularly attend houses of worship? (anyone who read this 2002 newspaper story “Keeping the Faith in Florida” did). With growing numbers hispanic Catholic and elderly Jewish populations, its 56% ranked above the Panhandle counties. Granted, while may be God’s County in Florida, it would rank 12th in Massachusetts and 66th in Kansas. To paraphrase Harry Golden, the most famous Southern Jew a half century ago, people in Florida talk to God, so Operation Bubbe went down to Florida to talk to them.


A couple of motivations drove us specifically to South Florida. The obvious was the expectation that as in 2000, the Presidential election hinged on Florida, and in particular, the tens of thousands of elderly Jewish voters in Palm Beach County, who had been overwhelmed by the butterfly ballots last time around. They weren’t the only ones to be overhelmed, but they were one-sixth of the county’s population and even greater proportion of the regular voters, and the ones least likely to be voting for Pat Buchanan. Our worry was that this time they’d be overwhelmed by George Bush’s support for Israel over all other issues (see my essay God and the Single-Issue Voter).

In the end, our efforts didn’t matter: Florida was a washout. Exit polls indicated that the Jewish vote for the Republican candidate edged up to 25% nationwide, but in Florida the number stayed at 20%, as the largely elderly population stuck with the party of FDR. Besides, it was the rare Jewish voter was undecided this late in the game. This was confirmed by my host for the weekend, Hy Lampe of Boynton Beach, who at 82 kept spry by organizing a weekly crew of liberal friends to talk current events with. He knew conservatives as well that he couldn’t convince to come around. A generation ago had led my parents canvassing door-to-door in local White Plains politics, so it was nice to continue to the tradition. (My grandparents, aged 96 and 100, are well in Yonkers, having tired of Florida many years ago).

The second motivation to bring us there was that we could undertake this mission with a shared Jewish sense and common values. We would work, live, and pray together over the course of the weekend. This was much more of a sustained effort than an canvassing outing I did earlier in the season on a day trip up to Portsmouth, NH with a group of Boston “Jews For Kerry”. At the Portsmouth Kerry office someone asked whether this was a synagogue group. “Not if we want to keep our tax status,” I replied. But I suspect that a number of other religious institutions had no such qaulms.

Jews don’t need a synagogue to congregate– and many conspicuously avoid it– as historically Judaism has been quite portable. The founding event of the Jewish people is the Exodus, celebrated in the spring holiday of Passover; at the other equinox is Sukkoth, literally, the festival of booths, to signify the portable tents used for shelter on the journey through the Sinai. The fixture in the Jewish universe, as the theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel explained, is not a place but a time, the Sabbath. Observers of American politics might point to Israel as a particular geographic fixture of the Jewish universe. The next generation could well be by Kevin, a young man my age in New York City, who maintains the JPerspective blog. In inviting the JewsForKerry website (to which I was a contributor) to an online debate, he cited Israel’s security as of the utmost importance in the election, even higher than American security. (Judge for yourself whether his backtrack was genuine). Nonetheless most Jewish voters consider a range of issues in voting from civil rights, social justice, and the separation of church and state.

Any group of Jews can get together to prayer. It is not necessary to have an ordained clergy lead. Our spiritual leader for this Sabbath was Nigel Savage, emigrant of Manchester who is the founder of Hazon a Jewish environmental awareness group in New York. I had missed Friday night services by dawdling too long in Miami at the Bette Midler-Bruce Springsteen-John Kerry rally, but made the tail end of dinner as well as Saturday services the next day as I regularly do here in Brookline. It is services like these, in a tiny function room in a hotel off I-95, which are the most memorable.

Not all Jews go to services on Saturday. And few but the most observant Jews take an hour each of the other days of the week to pray each morning, afternoon, and evening. Who has the time, when we must do mitzvot (deeds) as humble as visiting the sick and the elderly, and as great as making sure that we live in a society that cares for the larger needs of the sick and the elderly are? I do not know what Heschel would have said– when Heschel came down South in 1965 to march with Martin Luther King in Selma, he flew down after the Sabbath on Saturday night (as his daughter Susannah writes). But I can tell you what Hillel Levine said– Hillel, who had studied with Heschel at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Nigel quoted him: “While some of us were canvassing on Saturday morning thinking that we we should be praying and studying Torah, it was good to know that others were studying Torah, thinking they should be canvassing.” To a cynic this may be a waffling sort of position. But to the contemporary Jew, it’s the spiritual koan at the heart of our daily experience.

In a typical synagogue, the Torah scroll is brought out from its resting place, the ark, and a portion of it is chanted aloud in Hebrew, often followed by commentary from the Rabbi. Nigel told us that he’d thought of that, but settled on something more practical. He made copies of the portion and handed them out for discussion. The portion was the fourth one of the Jewish year, Vayera, which is translated as “vision (of God)”. It was most appropriate for our canvassing operations: it begins with the visting of three strangers to Abraham, informing him of Sarah’s coming pregnancy of the son who would be born Isaac; the next generation of feuding brothers, Isaac and Ishmael; Abraham casts out Ishmael and his mother Hagar, but they are saved by a vision; God tells Abraham he is intent on destroying Sodom and Gomorrah, whose main crime we learn is their hostility to visitors; Abraham, challenging God where Noah would not, negotiates on behalf of the righteous minority which he believes to exist in those cities. That would be as high a “global test” for anyone to endure, but Abraham is put to test one final time, that of being asked to slay his son Isaac. Only with the call of an angel, and a vision of a ram, is Isaac spared. It was this story, the akedah, which we spent our time analyzing. It gets no simpler to understand each year. One thing unnerving to us was the dearth of dialogue between Abraham and his own son throughout the affair, when one considers how much Abraham communicates with everyone else through the portion. After this episode father and son never speak again.

And with that in mind, some of us continued to rest on the Sabbath. I went out to my first canvassing, in a van with five people just arrived from NY and Boston, who had not found the time to change out of their jeans. We went to Delray Beach, the Coco Wood development, which would be the only Jewish neighborhood I would canvas that weekend. My canvassing partner, to my surprise, turned out to be Steve Brodner, the illustrator of polticians and personalities whom I have admired for years. (That’s not actually Steve in the photo above; that’s David, photographed the next day, whose claim to fame is that he’s in the same MIT grad program as my friend Erik.)


It was in Delray I encountered my one test, a faith-based voter, a Catholic woman who was outside watching her children were play. She felt that she was with Kerry on most issues, but she read the signs that no Catholics could vote for Kerry. Where did she see those signs, I asked? At her children’s Catholic school, she told me. Well, I told her, I was here canvassing as part of a Jewish group, and that our beliefs informed our vote as well. It didn’t seem to touch her at all. She said she’d go back and read the papers. As I left I remembered the name of a person I should have recommended– James Carroll, who had once studied to be a Paulist priest, is now a writer and contributor to the Globe, and in fact attends the same church as John Kerry in Beacon Hill. Perhaps his words would have spoken better to her, and she was at a loss to know any Catholic supporting Kerry– aside from her brother-in-law, who took his cue from late night television shows. I confessed my error to Steve. He remarked wryly, “You should have had her talk to me. I married a Catholic.”

The idea that “moral values” played a role in this election has been floated, and rejected my many, most recently Paul Freedman in Slate, with the point “Terrorism, not values, drove Bush’s re-election“. Andrew Sullivan discovered that the values-voters proportion is down from 1996-2000. Sullivan’s lament is that values punditry is simply used to divide us.

Here’s a sample of the divide. In Palm Beach County I passed by one Christian radio station on the FM band and took it in for a few minutes. “Christians are persecuted in America… they are persecuted by the new religion sweeping the country… it is called secular humanism.” When I later told this to friends in Boston, I could see their eyes widen in shock. But they shouldn’t have, if they recalled what I wrote about while researching the reactions to charges of anti-Semitism in Mel Gibson’s The Passion. It may be part of a cynical marketing strategy, but the rhetoric is for real.

Just who are these preachers of secular humanism? Put yourself in the persecuted mindset, and imagine if you had turned your television dial over to HBO for “Real Time with Bill Maher” this weekend. Now, Bill Maher is a terifically funny guy. I don’t remember the last time I laught as hard as seeing him don a wolf mask on top of his head and then speaking up for “lupine-Americans” offended by the latest Bush-Cheney campaign commercial (turning to guest Kevin Costner, Maher dubbed the President “Dances-Around-The-Facts”). Yet Maher, like Jon Stewart, has the audacity to actually feign serious coversations with serious guests. Here is his voice of New York smugness, discussing morality with Pat Schroeder and Andrew Sullivan:

“A lot of things that religious people do, they do because it makes them feel moral, but they are not really moral. Look at the Ten Commandments. ‘Don’t curse.’ What does that have to do with morality or values? You know, ‘Take Sunday off.’ ‘Don’t make statues of gods.’ Even having one god. I mean, somebody could be polytheistic and be generous and kind and tolerant. And he would be moral.”

I shut the TV off, not waiting for a response through the shouting. (The show’s transcript, revealed Sullivan’s response that the secularists do their share of demonization). Maher may be a passionate comedian, but poor as a moderator and as a listener. If you’re going to talk about morality, even if you’re an avowed atheist, you should get the commandments straight. The third which forbids swearing– but not simply the blue language that Bill Maher can toss around on HBO. The third forbids the casual use of God’s name, just as the second forbids the casual depiction of His image.

For the most powerful, and the most dangerous, words in any language are God says. I have much less problem with a football player thanking God for scoring a touchtown then I do with someone making the case that Israel is to be sovereign over the West Bank of the Jordan merely because God says so. Part of the responsibility of the Jewish faith is to teach others that the comprehension of God is so beyond our grasp that no one group can claim exclusivity over Him. And we can do this because it is right there in the Ten Commandments.

I had one more chance to have this conversation in Florida before I left. At Miramar on election day, a lone woman held signs for Bush-Cheney. One my the assorted uncoordinated poll watchers, snidely remarked to me that she was truly there for another cause. She had information handy about the amendment 1, parental notifications for abortion. Voters went on to approve this by a 2:1 ratio, adding a constitutional amendment as a bulwark against the State Supreme Court’s ability to overturn a law. So I would have talked with the woman, not in the aim of trying to convince each other, just to talk. I am even well versed in the narrow allowance for abortion that is understand from Leviticus. Perhaps the lesson from the akedah story may have have had a particular meaning for this issue. She stopped me when I was on my way to the car to change my shoes. I did not ask her, but I could have: “Was Isaac right in being submissive to his father? Who has more rights, the would-be parent over their fetus, or the parent over their 16-year old seeking an abortion?” Instead I told her that I was not a Florida voter and shrugged her off. I felt I had my duty to the party to count the votes trickling in.

I had nothing to lose. And everything to gain. A small conversation, one about values, with someone who wanted to talk the same.