Religion on the sleeve

I've mumbled to myself how interesting it is that New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, not known for his strong defense of property rights, has been so good on the issue when it comes to the proposed Cordoba mosque project. This Wall Street Journal story attempts to show a similar discrepancy on Bloomberg's religious views. I think it fails because it confuses personal religious views with civic duty. Here's how it begins:

In a speech at Gracie Mansion this week, Mayor Michael Bloomberg heralded New York City as the ultimate symbol of religious tolerance. "We in New York are Jews and Christians and Muslims, and we always have been," he declared.

But the role of religion in the Jewish mayor's life has been marked mostly by detachment during his nearly nine years as chief executive of the nation's most populous city.

Now, the story goes on to explain that Bloomberg is a member of a synagogue, that he attends that synagogue on high holy days, that he attends his sister's Passover seders, had a bar mitzvah, and contributes to Jewish charity projects. It also explains that he's most likely to visit a house of worship for a political reason than a religious one. While I understand he may not be the most devout of adherents, I'm not sure if "detachment" is the best word to describe his religious practice.

But even if Bloomberg was much less religious, these two paragraphs aren't fair. I mean, he's making a political point about religious diversity, not about his own views.

The story itself is full of people discussing Bloomberg's religiosity. And I think that it's certainly a fine topic to discuss. Despite what some people say, religion is not exclusively private. The simple act of affiliating with one religion over another or worshiping at a mosque, synagogue or church is extremely public.

The article has some strong points. It shows that Bloomberg's ideas about religious tolerance are derived from his religious views. It is nice to see the media discuss the idea that tolerance is an outgrowth of particular religious views. Of course, it's also true that you don't have to be religious to support the idea of tolerance -- which is my beef with the hook at the top of the story.

Former City Council member Simcha Felder, an Orthodox Jew who joined the mayor on that trip, said, "The only one that should judge people's religiosity or level of observance is God." He noted that a basic tenet of all religions is charity--and Mr. Bloomberg, a billionaire, is one of the nation's most generous philanthropists.

But the mayor has never worn his Judaism on his sleeve, Mr. Felder said. Case in point, at the beginning of Mr. Bloomberg's first term, the mayor had no interest in a rabbinical blessing to help him steer the city out of a massive budget crisis.

"A friend of mine who is a rabbi asked the mayor if he would like a blessing," Mr. Felder recalled. "And the mayor said, 'I'd rather have $6 billion to fix the budget.'"

It's nice to see a story that gives readers a bit of insight into the particular religious practices of Mayor Bloomberg. But sometimes I think that the media have a particular idea about religion being more meaningful to someone based on how much they talk about it in public speeches. It's hard to know how much Bloomberg's funny response to the rabbi indicates his particular religious views.

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