Dan Gilgoff, God & Country
Interviewing Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, N.J., and a rising Democratic star, this week for an upcoming U.S. News issue on leadership, the first thing I noticed in his city hall office was the tall stack of books on a corner of his desk. "There are two Bibles, a Tanakh"—the Hebrew name for the Old Testament—"a Torah that I'm borrowing, a Koran, the Bhagavad-Gita, and African prayer beads," Booker explained.
"And at the very top," he continued, "the United States Constitution, which I think is very appropriate."
"What explains their proximity to where you sit all day?" I asked.
"I'm a person that's grounded in faith and believe that my core values, motivation, inspiration, draw from a conception of the world in that way," Booker said. "I believe in the oneness of humanity, and while I'm a Christian, no finite set—as they say in physics—can capture the infinite. Every religion has within it expressions of the divine, and to me, it's very motivating."
Kind of an unusual thing for a politician to say. So I asked Booker to talk about his faith life. He responded with a short dissertation on the ongoing relevance of world religions, complete with biblical allusion and quotes in Hebrew. Check it out:
I was raised in a very religious home, with two parents who were deeply involved in the black church. When I was young I went to a small black AME church in New Jersey. The theology that was evident there helped frame this idea of social justice for me and this idea of a struggle. A lot of black church theology is about struggle—the fight for justice, for redemption, for contribution. The teachings of the home and the teachings of the church are the bedrock on which I stand. I belong to a Baptist church now. If you asked me to write down the differences between AME and Baptist, I probably couldn't get that many.
But as I've grown older, my conception of God has expanded. As I've studies more faiths, not only has it deepened my faith, but it has also expanded my capacity just to love God and to love other people. Now I see such powerful messages in Islam, in Hinduism, in Judaism. This past weekend, I gave a speech to Jewish leaders in Aspen, Colo., and challenged them to be more Jewish. It's important to know who you are, and it's the same thing I say about my black culture—you can argue Judaism is about culture or food. But if you are a person of faith, you realize those Abrahamic values that have spawned three religions.
Abraham was a model, according to the Torah, for a few reasons. First, he had the chutzpah to fight with God, and argue with God, demand justice from God, standing before Sodom and Gomorrah shaking his fist at the Lord and saying, "Won't the God of justice show justice?" [Speaks a line in Hebrew.] This is what Moses says when he comes down from the mountain and everybody's sinning and God says, "I'm just going to destroy all these people who are worshipping the golden calf and give you some new people." And Moses says, "No. If you destroy all these people, then erase me from your book." All these Jewish heroes are fighting with God. It's not about pie in the sky when you die, it's about fighting for justice right now.
And the exaltation of Abraham, when was it? Was it with the sacrifice of Isaac that he became the father of the Jewish people? No. Was it when he was circumcised and entered the covenant? No. Here he is, sitting in pain, hunched over after the circumcision and four strangers—non-Jews—come up to him and he gets up in his own pain and leaves that behind and offers them kindness: water. And then they reveal themselves as angels and gave him the blessing.
These are the themes in life which are consistent in Judaism, Islam, Hinduism—of being grounded in who you are and being engaged in an unjust world. Judaism specifically believes that the messiah is just not going to come and save people. Every generation has the opportunity to bring about the messiah by engaging in the world. And black theology is always about the struggle for justice. So seeing that concurrent theme has enriched my love of God and others and has inspired me to live as consistently as possible. So from Gandhi, who is Hindu, to Martin Luther King, who is Christian, to everybody who marched in the civil rights movement—everybody from Jews to blacks to whites to Catholics—they were engaged in a fight, demanding from God. And I may end this world defeated in my goals, I may lose, but that's the righteous path.
My frustration with religion is people who think it's about four walls: You go in and are righteous and leave church and it doesn't go with you. I love the great theologian who said, "Everywhere I go I preach the gospel, but only sometimes do I use words." Or, "Before you tell me about your religion, show me how you treat other people."
My simple point is that I judge a person's faith by how they live their life, not by the tenets of their religion. I've watched the holiest of people walk past somebody in need or treat their staff mean. To me, the beauty of faith is only seen when people live it consistently or struggle to do so.