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Escaping this toxic political season to reread the words of my heroes

(RNS) To escape the flood of poisonous rhetoric, I turned off my TV and shut down my computer, and sought relief by rereading my favorite thinkers: Mark Twain, Mother Teresa, Mohandas Gandhi and Elie Wiesel.

Left to right, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Elie Wiesel and Mark Twain. Photos courtesy of Wikimedia and Reuters

(RNS) Candidates for office, the media and, in recent years, the ubiquitous social media are all severely addicted to the trifecta of religion, politics and God.

We are constantly bombarded with highly partisan prayers aimed at “evil” electoral opponents and obscene references to Lucifer hurled at “criminal” political opponents. There are sinister charges that some candidates are — dare I even say the word? — atheists!!! Phew, I’m glad I got over that linguistic hurdle.

To escape the flood of such poisonous rhetoric, I turned off my TV and shut down my computer, and instead sought relief by rereading the wit and wisdom of four of my favorite thinkers: Mark Twain, Mother Teresa, Mohandas Gandhi and Elie Wiesel.

During their lifetimes, this extraordinary quartet had a lot to say about religion, politics, God and the human condition. Perhaps studying their words and themes might protect me from the shrill excesses of our long and bitter political campaign for the White House.

The Missouri-born Twain reassures us that today’s irrational and extremist politicians are nothing new on the American scene.

“I am quite sure,” he wrote, “in matters concerning religion and politics a man’s reasoning powers are not above the monkey’s.”

Gandhi, in his successful quest for Indian independence, harnessed those two powerful forces: “Those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is.”

There is much talk today about the emergence of the “white nationalist” movement from the fringes of our society. Followers of this movement arrogantly speak about the alleged superiority of “white culture.”

During his lifetime Twain surely heard similar claims from the political and religious leaders of his day. His unambiguous response resonates today: “There are many humorous things in the world; among them, the white man’s notion that he is less savage than the other savages.”

However, Wiesel spread blame equally: “No human race is superior; no religious faith is inferior. All collective judgments are wrong. Only racists make them.”

Many of today’s candidates and their supporters firmly believe God is on their political side and is against their “sinful” political opposition. Some politicians cynically work to expropriate the traditional values of God and religion and make them a political monopoly.

But Wiesel was never taken in by such deceitful talk. As a young boy,  Wiesel survived the radical evil of Auschwitz and spent the rest of his life in a tumultuous dialogue with God. He offered personal and painfully earned advice to those who so easily employ God to prove the righteousness of their political positions: “Leave God alone. He has enough problems.”

Poverty in America is always a problem for politicians in the most prosperous nation in history. Mother Teresa echoed Wiesel and warned against exploiting God for narrow political gain. She clearly knew where the blame resided: “Poverty was not created by God. It is we who have caused it, you and I through our egotism.”

Nor did she waste her life expecting our leaders to respond to the abomination of poverty: “Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person. … If you can’t feed a hundred people, feed just one.”

Both Twain and Gandhi shared a profound distaste for a popular target on the political stage:

“A banker is a fellow who lends you his umbrella when the sun is shining, but wants it back the minute it begins to rain,” Twain said.

Gandhi added: “A trader who earns his wealth by deception only succeeds in deceiving himself when he thinks that his sins can be washed away by spending some amount of his ill-gotten gains on the so-called religious purposes.”

Twain aimed his rhetorical fire on another specific political target too, the patriot, whom he described as “the person who can holler the loudest without knowing what he is hollering about.”

Thanks to Twain, Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Wiesel, I hope I am immunized against the ugly toxicity of the current political season.

(Rabbi A. James Rudin is the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser. His latest book is “Pillar of Fire: The Biography of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise,” published by Texas Tech University Press. He can be reached at

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