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  • Rabbi Mordecai Finley

Before I Offer Any Political Opinions. . .


Seeking the Good

As the election cycle heats up, I think people are going to ask my opinion here and there. I am writing these words with a very specific goal in mind: to set the background for any statement I might make on any political issue or candidate. Instead of explaining my starting point again and again, I can refer people (maybe you) to these words, and we can start any conversation from here.

I considered myself to be a “passionate centrist,” for lack of a better term, but unfortunately, it seems to imply that I hold a center position on every issue. Not so. For me, centrist means that on any given issue or candidate, I start out with certain core values and political tendencies, but am otherwise agnostic, until I hear more. I could lean either way politically as I think an issue through. I try to give any position or politician a fair hearing, and I don’t think that one bad decision or policy, or even a few, makes a person bad for the country.

I want anyone who is interested in what I have to say to know that I don’t consider myself reactive, dogmatic or ideological. Those who know me know that on any issue that I care about, I spend an inordinate amount of time doing research for facts (admittedly, often hard to get at), and I read opinions from many perspectives – New York Times and Wall Street Journal, Weekly Standard and New Republic, for example.

As a rabbi, people often ask me for my opinion on issues that have little to do with my qualifications as a rabbi. I have a doctorate in Religion-Social Ethics, so I do happen to be a trained ethicist and am a competent moral philosopher. People who ask me my opinion, even (especially) those who differ from me, seem to trust that I am fair, judicious, try to think things out clearly, will admit when I wrong, and, as in this blog post, am careful to admit my biases.

As a passionate centrist, politically unaffiliated, with little ideological conviction, I strongly advocate civility in discourse. As a rabbi, I feel the duty to tenaciously enforce civil discourse in our community.

My axioms are a perhaps strange brew of progressive social values, libertarian instincts to let people be free from unnecessary government meddling, economic caution, and doubts about the competency of government, especially big government. I believe that, as a nation, we have done heroic and redemptive work addressing the grievous sins of our past, especially regarding blacks. I believe that the U.S. has a great role to play as an agent for the good on the world stage. You might say, I am a cautious neo-con, when it comes to foreign policy. So much for a few of my axioms.

On some issues I lean left: I support gay rights and marriage in particular, immigration rights – including creating a path for legal residency for people who reside here now illegally. I support an effective firearms policy (gun control) – any policy that has a likelihood of reducing violence with firearms. For example, I see nothing wrong whatsoever with increasing background checks to include every firearm purchase and I oppose straw purchases. I support workers’ rights to unionize. I strongly value care and empathy for weak. The list goes on.

Other issues, I lean a bit starboard: I favor charter schools and don’t think that teachers unions always have the best interests of students in mind. I am doubtful that elected officials, regulatory agencies and the often well-intentioned bureaucrats that staff them have the ability or competence to solve great social issues. Start small and assess. I think political policy should be based on values and facts, and not feelings, especially fear and feeling sorry for someone. I strongly value justice and fairness. In general, I am against “affirmative action” (reverse racism) and think that most “diversity” policies are race based in intent. True diversity in a university, for example would not mean a faculty of different colors all agreeing on something. True diversity would mean a faculty of people who think in diverse ways.

To give some more specifics: I strongly favor government involvement in addressing health care in America, though I was opposed to the Affordable Care Act (Obama-care). At the time it was passed, the bill seemed to be too long, too complex, and guilty of overreach. For something this ambitious, I think the hurried and confused legislative process did not lend itself to creating the best bill possible. I did not like that it was passed in the Senate purely on party lines, and that in the House, it was passed by a slim majority of 219-212. I would have preferred greater consensus.

The fact that “something had to be done” (I agree with that) does not mean that the ACA was the best our government could do.

On its effectiveness, I have to remain a troubled agnostic. I am not enough of an expert to assess it on all the levels such an assessment would require, or to know whether any attempts to repeal or replace it would make things better or worse. I don’t seem to be able to find a sustained, impartial analysis.

Firearms policy: The right to bear arms is not an absolute right. I am in favor of any firearms policy that has a likelihood of lowering our deplorable rate of gun violence. This is one reason, by the way, I am so frustrated by the focus on “assault rifles.” After all these years of debate, I still find that intelligent and thoughtful people think that fully automatic rifles (or any fully automatic firearms) are available for purchase. Automatic weapons have been outlawed since 1934. What people call an “assault rifle” is just like any other semi-automatic rifle, but dressed up to look tough. There is no evidence anywhere whatsoever that bans on pistol grips, bayonet lugs or flash suppressors (the main things that make a semi-automatic rifle an “assault rifle”) reduces gun violence. The main reason I am against this focus on so-called “assault rifles” is that this debate, I believe, is either an ignorant or cynical attempt to distract us from two real issues: handguns, and the vastly disproportionate number of black and Hispanic young men between about 14 and 30 from poor neighborhoods, as perpetrators and victims. On this issue, we need to not get distracted by the low hanging fruit of rifles that look tough. Rifles - of all kinds, including tough looking ones – are responsible for about 1% of homicides in America, behind handguns, knives and blunt objects. We need to get serious about reducing gun violence, and not saying and doing things that make us look tough on crime.

My friends on the right are very upset that I just don’t denounce Obama-care, for example. My friends on the left are upset that I am not angry about “assault rifles”.

As a “passionate centrist”, I operate from core axioms, not from party loyalty. I assess policies by their likely effectiveness in addressing the issue at hand. I could end up just about anywhere on the political spectrum, depending on the issue. You can expect me to rest my opinions on core values that I am very frank about, and then on facts, not feelings.

If I am wrong, show me. I am happy to change my opinion, just as I have done many times in the past.


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