We slouched into the New Year with a resolution to the so-called “fiscal cliff” situation that satisfied no one. With issues ranging from gun control to the debt ceiling, there’s little confidence within the beltway that our national leaders are capable of responsibly doing pretty much anything. Across the nation, worries over the economy contribute to a sense of insecurity. Globally, the Syrian crisis and other tragedies seem unresolvable. Rabbi Irwin Kula joins us to talk about the ways we can break out of a pessimistic mindset, and why we are morally obligated to do so.

Irwin Kula is president of Clal, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. Learn more about Clal here.

Click the “play” button above to hear the extended interview. To download this audio, click here. Scroll down for transcript. To hear the entire January 12, 2013 State of Belief Radio program, click here.



[REV. DR. C. WELTON GADDY, HOST]: Do you know why pay-per-view broadcasts of prizefights and some other major sporting events are able to charge incredible amounts of money for a few hours of conflict up-close? I suspect it’s our hunger for a clear win-lose narrative, at least in part. But I don’t think it’s particularly healthy for us as a society to have everything, absolutely everything that the mainstream media brings into our homes reduced to boxing match type coverage. And yet it seems to be happening more and more. So far this year, it’s been about the “fiscal cliff”; the upcoming debt ceiling negotiations; President Obama’s cabinet nominees, and lots more.

Not two weeks into the New Year, I want to take a step back, and look for something beyond short-term conflicts, wins and losses. And a favorite guest for that kind of insight is always Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of Clal, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, in New York City.

Irwin, welcome back to State of Belief Radio!

[RABBI IRWIN KULA, GUEST]: Hi, great to be here, and happy New Year!

[WG]: Thank you, same to you. OK, I started the segment with some pretty dark stuff. You were listening. I know you’re optimistic, though we haven’t talked about it. So I want to know what makes you optimistic, as we start this New Year.

[IK]: All right, well, first, I was loved very much by my parents, so I guess it starts right there, that I fundamentally have an optimistic view of the world, OK? Second, I think that if you have any kind of whatever-we-mean by “spiritual” or “faithful” outlook, in whatever, it’s hard to be a pessimistic person, because you know it’s a long-term story. And there’s something about pessimism – especially by baby boomers, and even a little older than baby boomers – there’s something about pessimism that strikes me to be a touch arrogant and hubris. Because if we step back, many of us who are pessimistic and a touch cynical – we have it better than any group of people in the history of the planet. So the first thing, it seems to me, is to take a deep breath and say, “OK, we’ve got some government malfunction here; yes, we have very significant problems, we have global problems… But if you’re a faithful person, in the scheme of things – and by the way, if you’re a liberal person – in the scheme of things, things do get better. And they are getting better. Doesn’t mean it’s linear; sometimes it’s one step back. But tell me, when in history you would rather live, OK? Does that mean that we should be where we are – infant mortality in the United States of America? No. Does that mean that we shouldn’t have a better educational system in America? No. Do we have distribution of wealth problems, and equality of opportunity problems in America? Yes. OK. But we have to be careful not to confuse very significant problems with a kind of pessimistic worldview.

[WG]: Irwin, I’m curious – I know that that perspective is inherent in your faith tradition; It is a part of my faith tradition. Do you see much of that perspective outside the tradition of faith?

[IK]: Oh, I think very serious, sober Humanists who say, “Look at the human experience since the beginning of time; and look how human beings have evolved. Look at the complexity and capacity for altruism and compassion!” I mean, for most of history, people only cared about their tribe. They didn’t extend in their compassionate circle beyond tribe. Now we may have a problem the media doesn’t cover it as much, but look how many people cross their family kinship ties, across their tribal ties are willing to help and out of a sense of connection and compassion? All you need to do is look at when there’s trauma in this country. Now, it shouldn’t take trauma, but that’s the first stage! Why should I care about anything that’s happening in Haiti? Why should I care about anything that’s happening 20 miles from here in Staten Island, where I live? They’re not my family; they’re not my nuclear family; they’re barely my extended family! But there’s something that has happened in the development of human consciousness and human awareness that makes me aware that somehow, they are in my family, and I have some obligation to them. So, if you’re a humanist, who senses the evolution of the human spirit – and not only the spirit here in the religious sense – the human character, the psychological and emotional development of human beings is towards greater and greater compassion. Look what we have! Look what we have.

So I think that it’s very important, when we get scared and fearful and sad and depressed, take a little perspective – I mean, that’s why we need sabbaths, I don’t mean the Sabbath of a literal Sabbath necessarily of any faith tradition, but a sabbath as a moment of saying, “The whole of creation is a hell of a gift, and we’ve been evolving, and as difficult as life is, it’s probably never been better for more people than ever!”

[WG]: Hmm. Do you think that as a community, we had the opportunity to learn something important last year, and did we miss that opportunity?

[IK]: I think we’re all learning different things at different points. I mean, amongst the things that I think were most important that we did learn was, one in relation to the hurricane here in New York, and I can say, having been here, I think that the response of the country and the response of New Yorkers and Connecticut and the tri-state area – I think, then again, we saw how the human spirit is incredibly resilient. I mean, people went out and cleaned other people’s homes, and I know even us, the little bit that my daughter had friends in the East Village, and they had to sleep in our house, and people opened up their homes. So I think we learned that.

I think things we haven’t learned, i think we need to have more civil discourse in our political debate. But that’s less about our politicians, and more about us. When we stop watching Fox or watching MSNBC simply so that we can feel triumphant about our own views, and we actually start trying to talk seriously to people with whom we deeply disagree, and try to understand why they feel what they do, and fear what they do, and hope what they do – we’ll have a better body politic. So i think that’s something we have not learned well enough yet. But hopefully we will. Hopefully we will engage a political class that will actually challenge us rather than simply tell us what we know already. We know we can’t have everything; there are scarce resources. What are we going to do? We know it’s not right to have a military that equals the top ten militaries of every other country, but what are we going to do? And let’s be honest about it. My God, the teachers’ union in California had major positions in guns that they just had to actually divest themselves of. So, you know, everybody has to begin critiquing themselves more than they critique the other. I think that’s the best way to learn right now.

[WG]: I know you talk with a lot of people; you talk with congregations, you talk with individuals – this year, as we have moved into 2013, what has been your primary message for the months ahead?

[IK]: My primary message is: we have to begin to do self-critique, and listening to the other for the partial truth of that person’s position. And that’s on everything; we’re simply going to have to do that. Otherwise, we wind up in these idealogical debates: assault weapons vs. no assault weapons, right? The real issue is, we’re going to have to speak; we have a lot of different kinds of people in this country. People on the left are going to have to ask, not the person who’s using assault weapons to kill people, but what is it that those people who hold assault weapons are thinking and feeling? The good people in them. The good people on the other side of any issue. It’s so easy to take an issue we disagree with and to listen to only the people who are most crazy on that view. And that’s what we have to stop doing. We have to start really listening carefully to the smartest people who can share what it is they think and feel on the position we most deeply disagree with.

[WG]: And that is a matter of intentionality, isn’t it? I mean, that is a matter of self-will, to create that…

[IK]: Absolutely! I think it’s the single most important act of empowerment that we can do as Americans right now. And that’s all – that’s within our families, all the way to our body politic. Because our political leadership, for a variety of reasons, is right now stymied into idealogical sides. So we’re going to have to own that. We have exactly the leadership we want. In fact, there is a case to be made that we don’t have gridlock! The majority of Americans actually have conservative predispositions, and so we have a government that continues to move a touch conservative, right? And we’re getting the government that we want; and we’re getting exactly… But it turns out to be something else: at the same time that we have conservative predispositions, we want government that operationalizes itself, very often, liberal. So we actually want a government that takes care of people; we want a government in which Medicare is not stripped away; we want a government in which schools are run well; we want a government in which we get all those services – operationally, a liberal government, a bigger government – but we have a conservative preference, right, philosophically. And right now, we’re being taken advantage by politicians on all sides on that. And so what we’re going to have to own is, what does it mean to marry a conservative predisposition – which very often is a healthy predisposition – to move slowly; to be careful in the classic way of being conservative, right, with a more liberal kind of predisposition that we do want to take care of people; we do want a country that’s safe for our children. Now, how to marry those two things – the only way we’ll do that is to be listening very carefully to the smartest people on the other side.

[WG]: Well, and you know and I know that we – and I’m putting myself in that “we” – are not real great at self-evaluation.

[IK]: Yeah, well I think that part of the issue is that there’s deep within us, we have a sense that even our positions – especially our positions that we’re most ferocious about and most fierce about – somewhere deep down, we’re not sure that they’re 100% right. And that’s on every issue.

[WG]: I think one of the healthiest things that’s happened to me in a long time is, I had a chance, not long ago, to visit with a – he’s not a close acquaintance, but a good guy, very liberal in his thoughts – and after our conversation went on a bit, to my great surprise, he looked me straight in the face and he said, “Welton, what if we’re wrong?”

[IK]: Right! I think that’s a brilliant person. That’s what we need to ask: “You know, what if I’m wrong?” Not wrong 100%, no one’s so smart that they can be wrong 100% – but, what if I’m wrong? What if I’m wrong? But we need leadership. We need religious leadership to say that, we need political leadership to say that, we need financial leadership to say that, we need the media… It would be great if we saw from media, “You know, we want 100% freedom of the press, freedom of expression. But you know, what if this actually isn’t something I should… This isn’t the film I should make. Right? Not that somebody against the film should say: “You’re not allowed to make that film!” That’s never happening in this country, because freedom is so, so, so inherent in the system. But with freedom, that means people have to take a kind of personal responsibility. Not just the conservative understanding of personal responsibility, but a personal responsibility that everything we do affects the body politic.

[WG]: Wow. Well listen, not as if you need to, but is there anything else important on your mind that you need to share with us for this coming year?

[IK]: I think that we have a year in which – here’s a political hope; I guess it’s a psychosocial hope, too, in that we do have a year in which there are no elections, OK? No dramatic elections, OK? 2013. 2014 we’ll have the midterms again, and then we’re already running for president. Maybe we can just take a breath from the politicizing of everything, and it’s a little easier to learn about positions that we don’t know about. And it’s just a little easier if we don’t politicize right away. I would urge everybody to get a magazine or journal from a political persuasion or religious persuasion that they haven’t… To watch a documentary of something, and to say, “What is the partial truth here?” Maybe we can use 2013 to just grow a little bit more in our understanding of what it will be to be the United States of America, as part of a larger global planet.

[WG]: That’s why we call this Rabbi regularly. Rabbi Irwin Kula is president of Clal, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He’s the author of the book “Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life.”

It’s always, always without exception, great talking to you, and i thank you for sharing your thoughts with us today on State of Belief Radio, and you have helped us know a good direction to go in this year. Thank you, Irwin.

[IK]: Thank you so much, and be well.


State of Belief is based on the proposition that religion has a positive and healing role to play in the life of the nation. The show explains and explores that role by illustrating the vast diversity of beliefs in America – the most religiously diverse country in the world – while exposing and critiquing both the political manipulation of religion for partisan purposes and the religious manipulation of government for sectarian purposes.

Each week, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy offers listeners critical analysis of the news of religion and politics, and seeks to provide listeners with an understanding and appreciation of religious liberty. Rev. Gaddy tackles politics with the firm belief that the best way to secure freedom for religion in America is to secure freedom from religion. State of Belief illustrates how the Religious Right is wrong – wrong for America and bad for religion.

Through interviews with celebrities and newsmakers and field reports from around the country, State of Belief explores the intersection of religion with politics, culture, media, and activism, and promotes diverse religious voices in a religiously pluralistic world.


Author of more than 20 books, including First Freedom First: A Citizen’s Guide to Protecting Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy leads the national non-partisan grassroots and educational organization Interfaith Alliance and serves as Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Northminster (Baptist) Church in Monroe, Louisiana.

In addition to being a prolific writer, Dr. Gaddy hosts the weekly State of Belief radio program, where he explores the role of religion in the life of the nation by illustrating the vast diversity of beliefs in America, while exposing and critiquing both the political manipulation of religion for partisan purposes and the religious manipulation of government for sectarian purposes.

Dr. Gaddy provides regular commentary to the national media on issues relating to religion and politics. He has appeared on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show and Hardball, NBC’s Nightly News and Dateline, PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly and The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, ABC’s World News, and CNN’s American Morning. Former host of Morally Speaking on NBC affiliate KTVE in Monroe, Louisiana, Dr. Gaddy is a regular contributor to mainstream and religious news outlets.

While ministering to churches with a message of inclusion, Dr. Gaddy emerged as a leader among progressive and moderate Baptists. Among his many leadership roles, he is a past president of the Alliance of Baptists and has been a 20-year member of the Commission of Christian Ethics of the Baptist World Alliance. His past leadership roles include serving as a member of the General Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, President of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Chair of the Pastoral Leadership Commission of the Baptist World Alliance and member of the World Economic Forum’s Council of 100. Rev. Gaddy currently serves on the White House task force on the reform of the Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Prior to the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), Dr. Gaddy served in many SBC leadership roles including as a member of the convention’s Executive Committee from 1980-84 and Director of Christian Citizenship Development of the Christian Life Commission from 1973-77.

Dr. Gaddy received his undergraduate degree from Union University in Jackson, Tennessee and his doctoral degree and divinity training from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.


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