Usually when a religious figure offers an invocation at a political gathering, they try to embrace everyone present and focus on what we have in common, shying away from overtly political statements. That's what I did when I was asked to give an invocation at a local county commissioner's meeting. But such tradition was thrown out the window at last night's Republican National Convention invocation given by Rabbi Aryeh Spero. He was brazenly political and focused on President Trump and America's particular form of government viewed through a conservative lens, all sprinkled with a dose of God's blessing (which god, exactly?). When Spero's prayer ended, rather then feeling uplifted or inspired, I felt angry and excluded. From an interfaith perspective in a religiously diverse country like ours, Spero's prayer was a lesson in what not to say. Typically, I wouldn't speak out against someone giving an invocation, but since Spero chose to go political, then so will I.
First, let's get my pettiness out of the way. Does this man not know how to dress himself? His suit is way too big, making his head look teeny-tiny. Yes, I know that isn't important, but I notice these things. Sorry, his Zika head is distracting from the message!
Second, some news outlets got the man's name wrong, which may have been the fault of the RNC. This C-SPAN video I've shared has it correct, but other outlets identified him as Shubert Spero, a different Orthodox rabbi who is 96 and living in Israel. That's important because I started Googling Shubert Spero while watching and was confused as to how this man had stayed so young and why he was allowed to travel to the U.S. during a pandemic.
A regular commentator on Fox News, Rabbi Aryeh Spero is an Orthodox rabbi with long-time Republican ties who runs right-wing political advocacy groups including Caucus for America and the Conference for Jewish Affairs. He certainly has the right to do so, and he has the right to his political opinions, as do we all. However, what scares me is Spero's willingness to invoke a very specific idea of God at a political event and to tie that deity to a person like Trump and his policies. Given the history of the Jewish people, particularly the Holocaust, I'd hope Spero would know better how this sort of thing can go very wrong. But maybe it's that history that leads him to advocate for arming parishioners in churches and synagogues (no thanks).
Anyways, here are some of Spero's statements and why they anger me:
He talks a lot about "God-given rights," being "God's people" and touts we have these rights "only in America." Sure, much of this comes from our Constitution, which is all fine and well. But it's a political document, not a sacred writing like the Bible or the Torah. What Spero dismisses is that many countries today have democratic rights like the U.S. Next, did "God" actually give us these rights? If so, why did God deny them to other countries? Does God play favorites? And which god are we talking about? Jesus, Yahweh, Allah, Krishna, Buddha, Waheguru, Olorun, etc? Spero makes it clear when he singles out Judeo-Christian values. That's fine--he is Jewish after all. Except it leaves out every American who isn't Judeo-Christian. Sure, America was founded as a Judeo-Christian country, but we are changing. And Judeo-Christian values aren't the only religious or spiritual values that have worth. In fact, I'd argue that some of our vaulted values are the root cause of some of this country's most difficult challenges. The deeper changes we're seeing in our country may scare some people, but it is reality. I think our country can adapt, but Spero is obviously afraid of losing the power he thinks is somehow is God-given birthright.
Much of Spero's speech also glosses over America's more disturbing history, such as slavery and discrimination against immigrants (including Jews) and genocide against Native Americans. Twice he uses the word "providential" to describe America's founding. Providential for whom? The millions of enslaved Africans brought here against their will? The millions of Native peoples who lost their homes, land and lives to white European settlers? And if this was providential--God's plan--then God basically planned slavery and genocide. Wow. No thanks--you can keep your god, Spero.
He also lauds Americans who "honor, defend and preserve our heritage." What does that even mean? It's way too broad. To me, it sounds like the same kind of argument supporters of Confederate monuments make for preserving "heritage."
Finally, Spero celebrates anyone who "stand up to those corrupting social justice." This is clearly a reference to protests against police brutality and in support of black communities. Yet he gives no definition of what his own version of social justice looks like. Then he tries to link this to something about "denying Americans" their rights. What does this even mean? Excuse me, rabbi, but those people being shot by police and those protestors are also Americans. Or maybe it's some anti-immigration dog whistle. Again, Spero needs to be careful because Jewish immigrants haven't always been welcome in America either.
Given it's the RNC, none of this is surprising. All week long, speakers have been claiming that God is on their side. Historically, this is always dangerous, and all people of faith should be very concerned about this growing trend in our political culture.