Q: Is it ethical to stay in a race you cannot win to damage your opponent?
A: ‘Cannot’ is a parlous word. Mistakes and unforseen events can make the ‘evident’ winner an also-ran. It’s difficult on prudential grounds to insist a candidate has no chance. Little chance, certainly; no chance, never.
However, it is unethical to seek to damage your opponent out of personal pique. Politics is not a vehicle for revenge. To treat it as such damages the public trust, the unspoken bond between a people and their presumptive representative.
But if a candidate believes the leading opponent would be damaging to the national interest, you could make the opposite case—that pulling out of the race is unethical. Motivations are always somewhat shrouded and mixed: “The secret things,” as the Bible reminds us in Deuteronomy 29:29, “belong to God.”
Q: Why do some people have a problem with Rev. Jeremiah Wright going on a nationwide speaking tour in the midst of the heated Democratic race for president?
A: The spectacle of Rev. Wright choosing a delicate moment to say controversial things struck many as unsavory, at best. But this was a human drama as well as a political tussle.
Preachers everywhere have experienced the dilemma: Do you say what you believe when it will hurt those close to you? Is there a responsibility that overrides public policy or an election? At what point are you being wholehearted with your faith and at what point is speaking out publicly simple self-righteousness?
Pastor Wright could easily contend that there would never be a more propitious time for his message to be heard by the public. The world was listening. Would he hurt the candidacy of his former parishioner? Perhaps so, but should that constrain him from teaching what he understands to be the truth? Much of Wright’s message was repellant, but the act of speaking was not inconsistent with his responsibility.
As a final caution, clergy should always be aware that a pulpit gives their views added heft, which is not always warranted by their expertise. Why should religious knowledge be equivalent to wisdom in public policy? Humility is not only a value to be preached, but a value for preachers.
Rabbi David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.