There’s a role for God in governing — but it’s limited

Photo by Shelby Knowles

As a lawmaker, I wholeheartedly support the concept of separation of church and state — and in the Texas House, I often find myself fighting to preserve it. Routinely, I hear my colleagues citing scripture to make their case, and voting by faith instead of what’s necessarily in the best interests of the people of Texas.

While I do personally believe there is a role for faith and religion in the legislative process, there is never a time when religious beliefs should be proffered as a rationale for failing to perform your sworn duties as an elected official. I take seriously the oath of office I take every two years, right hand held high, as mandated in the Texas Constitution.

In refusing to issue marriages licenses to same-sex couples in Rowan County, Kentucky, County Clerk Kim Davis suggested she was acting “under God’s authority” and said the reason for her incontrovertibly questionable actions — really, for her legal disobedience — was “the word of God.”  Davis was jailed because she refused to carry out her responsibilities as county clerk. A public official has a duty, and takes a solemn oath, to do what the law requires.

That said, as a Jew, there are two concepts that guide and inform me in relation to virtually every decision I make as a member of the Texas House.

The first is “Tzedakah,” which translates into charitable giving, and helping individuals in need. It is directly related to the Biblical admonition to show concern for the poor, especially in terms of providing basic necessities, including food, clothing and shelter. Tzedakah also signifies “righteous behavior,” and is often coupled with the concept of “justice.” As Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett of Temple Beth Abraham in Nashua, N.H., has eloquently stated, “The Bible backed up its exhortations to assist the poor with laws and practices that gave poor people a claim to a share of society’s wealth.”

The second concept that guides me in legislative decision-making is “Tikkun Olam,” which translates into “repairing the world,” and is understood today to encompass both social action and social justice. In Biblical writings, including the Mishna — the first major work of Rabbinic literature — Tikkun Olam refers directly to “social policy legislation that provides extra protection to those potentially at a disadvantage.”

Helping to repair the world and striving to ensure that there is social justice in society, which includes meaningfully addressing the health and human services needs of people who sometimes need assistance from their government, should be high on the list of priorities when lawmakers discuss and debate relevant funding and policy issues in the Legislature.

To me, integrating the concepts of Tzedakah and Tikkum Olam into my work and using them to guide and inform the decisions I make as a member of the Texas Legislature is a most appropriate way for faith to play a role in the process of developing, debating and passing or defeating legislation, including the state budget.

But there is a stark difference between religion and faith guiding or informing your decisions as an elected official, versus dictating your decisions. What could County Clerk Kim Davis have done instead of refusing to comply with the law? She could have held her head high and resigned.

Elliott Naishtat

State representative, D-Austin

@ElliottNaishtat

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