“White Christian Nationalism and Civic Engagement”: Rabbi Freedman’s Yom Kippur Sermon 5783

A few years ago we took our Rodeph Shalom teens to Israel over winter break. One sunny Monday morning, as we were touring the Galilee, we saw people going about their day as normal – heading to school or the office, sitting in cafes, catching up with friends. As the day went on, our tour guide announced over the bus speakers, “Oh, by the way, everyone, Merry Christmas!” We all started laughing; we had no idea it was Christmas.

In Israel, Christmas is not a public, national holiday. For many of our teens, this was the first time in their lives that they were a part of the religious majority of a country. It was so striking, it was comedic. And at that moment, our students understood what it means to be a religious minority, a Jew, living in Christian majority America. 

On June 24 of this year, Roe v. Wade was overturned, creating a devastating reality to so many people in this country who no longer have the freedom of reproductive choice. The overturning of Roe was another nail in the coffin to the freedom of religion and the separation of church and state guaranteed by our Constitution. This is a warning sign of the dangerous rise of white Christian nationalism.

I want to be clear, I have no problem with Christianity. Some of my best friends are Christian; (really) like Bishop Dwayne Royster, who recently told me and a group of multi-faith leaders, “White Christian nationalism is not Christianity – It is idolatry!” 

White Christian nationalism is the belief that America is – and must remain – a Christian nation founded for its white Christian inhabitants, and that our laws and policies must reflect this premise. White Christian nationalists oppose equality for people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, and our Jewish community, along with other religious minorities. White Christian nationalism is anti-American and anti-democratic. 

Christians are free to practice their religion, just like us, just like any other religious community. White Christian nationalists seek to force those Christian beliefs on others.

This morning we read from Isaiah, “Do not hold back, lift up your voice like the shofar!” The shofar is loud. The shofar is unapologetic. The shofar isn’t a melodic instrument. The shofar is discordant and jarring. It’s time to lift up our voices like the shofar.

Because without the federal protections of Roe, 26 states are going to ban abortion. It’s already illegal in 12. Abortion bans impose significant hurdles to obtaining medical care, especially for the most vulnerable in our society – minorities, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, and low-income families.

The Torah tells us to protect the widow, the orphan, and the stranger – the most vulnerable in biblical society. Who are the vulnerable in our society today? How can we protect them? The first amendment is meant to protect the minority, the vulnerable, and white Christian nationalists are using it to protect the majority. This is not ok and it’s time to lift up our voice like the shofar!

This past year, the Supreme Court also ruled in favor of allowing prayer in school. What’s the big deal, you might ask? Buddhist prayer, Sikh prayer, any prayer is allowed – it’s equal, right? No! Allowing prayer in public school favors the majority religion and unfairly targets minority students. My wife grew up in Texas and was the only Jewish student at her public high school. She sat through school wide assemblies with students and teachers kneeling in Christian prayer. She was ostracized; she felt othered. Prayer does not belong in schools. It’s time to lift up our voice like the shofar!

Religious freedom is crucial to our Jewish community. The prophet Micah, in looking to the messianic age, writes:

And every person shall sit under their vine or fig tree with no one to disturb them.

And all people will walk, each in the names of their God,

And we will walk in the name of Adonai, our God.

We will walk in the name of our God, and everyone else can walk in the name of their God. We are free to practice our religion and others to practice theirs. When we impose religion on others, we are walking a dangerous path. 

Civil rights litigator Roberta Kaplan writes, “The historical record is unambiguous; it has never gone well for us in the past when the government has tried to assert domination by the majority faith.” From the Spanish Inquisition to present day Iran, living as a Jew, a religious minority, in a country that has sought to impose the majority religion, has had dire and deadly consequences. Mother Emmanuel, Tree of Life, Charlottesville, El Paso, Buffalo… all acts of domestic terror, fueled by white Christian nationalist thinking. 

White Christian nationalists want power at any cost. For over forty years, they have been undermining our democracy by systematically disenfranchising voters through gerrymandering and unnecessarily cumbersome voting restrictions. According to a recent poll, the 20 percent of white Americans who strongly embrace Christian nationalism – about 30 million adults – are more likely to believe that we make it “too easy to vote” in the U.S.

It’s time to lift up our voice like the shofar!

As Jews, and as Americans, let’s stand up for democracy. Stand up for the voice of the vulnerable. Ensure their voice is not silenced.

In our Vidui, our communal confessional, we just read:

Al cheit shechatanu l’fanecha
Through my failure to take time to educate myself about complex social problems
Through my failure to do my part as an active citizen and make my voice heard
Through resigning myself to the way things are, rather than working for change
For these failures of judgment and will, God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, lead us to atonement. 

Don’t just say the words. T’shuvah requires action. t’shuvah needs follow through; t’shuvah is a commitment to change. 

“Lift up your voice like the shofar!” Or, to quote Bishop Royster, “we need to tell a different story about faith in Pennsylvania!”

Here’s the story I want to tell. The story of a diverse religious group, representing all aspects of our society, dedicated to protecting the vulnerable. POWER Interfaith, a network of over 50 congregations in our state, is going on a “Get Out the Vote!” bus tour. We’re calling it the “Freedom Express.” This tour is about restoring faith in democracy, helping people imagine a Pennsylvania where we all thrive, and calling out the evils of white Christian nationalism.  The tour is kicking off at Independence Hall on Oct 18th at 10am, I’ll be there and I want to see all of you there as well.

“Do not hold back, lift up your voice like the shofar!”

We are also working with RAC-PA, the Pennsylvania branch of the Religious Action Center, our Reform movement’s social justice arm. With our partners at RAC, we’ve already tackled gerrymandering and fair districting after the 2020 census. Now, we are joining together once again to increase voter turnout. Congregations in Lancaster, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, Erie, Altoona, and across the state are working together to engage voters. White Christian nationalists don’t want us to vote. They don’t want people of color to vote. They don’t want the LBGTQ community to vote. They don’t want immigrants to vote. 

We’re not going to stand for that. Because we know that every citizen deserves to have their voice heard. 

“Do not hold back, lift up your voice like the shofar!”

On your way out of the sanctuary today, you will see fellow congregants handing out postcards in the lobby. Take a pack of five postcards with five addresses for you to handwrite. Studies have shown that a handwritten postcard is much more likely to get the attention of a potential voter than a form letter or phone call. Write a compelling non-partisan message reminding fellow Pennsylvanians about the importance of voting. The cards even have a stamp already on them. (Thank you to our Berkman Mercaz Limud Bamidbar teens for your help last Sunday.) 

“Lift up your voice, like the shofar,” and empower others to lift up their voices. 

If you’re joining us online or we run out of postcards, we have another opportunity. Join congregants for a virtual phone banking event on Thursday, October 13th from 5:30pm to 8:00 p.m to call Pennsylvanians not registered to vote. You can find all the information to register on our website or in our weekly email. “Do not hold back, lift up your voice like the shofar!” implored Isaiah. Do not hold back – and encourage others to lift up their voices too. 

The work is hard and it’s going to take all of us. But I have hope. I truly believe if we each do our part, if we each use our voice, we can make a difference. Everytime I put on my tallis, I am reminded of the words of Rabbi Tarfon, “Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor… It is not up to you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” I can’t do it alone, you can’t do it alone, but if each of us does our part, if each of us lifts our voice, we can do it.

It can be overwhelming and daunting. The prophet Jonah tried to run from his calling. But National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, reminds us in her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” that we need not run, if we bravely face the darkness together, we can find the light, we can find justice:

When day comes, we ask ourselves:
Where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry. A sea we must wade.
We braved the belly of the beast.
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace,
and the norms and notions of what “just is”
isn’t always justice.
And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it.
Somehow we do it.
Somehow we weathered and witnessed
a nation that isn’t broken, but simply

It is not up to you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it. It’s time to tell a new story, a different faith narrative; to redefine what it means to be religious in this country; inclusive, loving, and protecting the most vulnerable among us.

Be loud. Speak out. “Do not hold back, lift up your voice like the shofar!”