I grew up in a political home. My family moved from New York to the Washington, DC area when I was two. My father first worked for a Congresswoman from Ohio, then a Senator from Pennsylvania, then President Nixon and finally became a vice president with ABC, head of government relations. Along the way, he participated in numerous campaigns to which I also joined. During the summers when many teenagers were cutting lawns for pay, I was working in the US Senate and government offices as an intern. As a child I was at the Kennedy inauguration, as a teenager at the Republican National Convention and as a young adult was the chief counsel to a US Senate Subcommittee.
I became a follower of Yeshua when I was a senior in high school. Prior to that time, I had planned for a future in politics. Afterwards, my values changed. While I still followed and enjoyed politics, it was no longer my center. During the years I served in the US Congress, I began a popular Bible study for Congressional staff. Staff from both parties came. One of the rules was that upon entering the room, politics was left at the door. Now was the time to study God’s Word and to pray.
It was during those years that the Moral Majority got its start. Evangelical Christians became a political force for the first time and aligned themselves with the conservative and largely Republican political agenda. I became increasingly concerned, because now the power of the gospel was being associated with a particular political agenda, thus potentially excluding one-half of the population from ever seriously considering the life changing words of the Messiah. It was then that I heard God’s call to enter the ministry full time. I went to seminary and eventually became the rabbi of Tikvat Israel Congregation in Richmond, Virginia.
Early on in the ministry I noticed the phenomenon that while I and most of the congregation were politically conservative, the Jewish community was liberal and Democrat. I recognized that views and positions that we held were actually a barrier to the Jewish community seriously considering the claims of Yeshua. The issue came to a head during the 2008 US Presidential campaign. Barak Obama became the lightning rod for outrageous claims, many of them instigated and perpetuated by so-called believers. I was appalled by the blatantly ungodly speech and behavior of so many Yeshua followers, including a number in our own congregation. It was then that I gave a message entitled, “Religion and Politics,” where I laid out the principles that I understood from Scripture regarding the role of the believer in politics. You can listen to it at http://www.jamiecowenministries.com/new-album/.
The gist of my views is the following: I believe that followers of Yeshua should be involved in politics, like every other vocation, in order to bring the light of Yeshua into every realm of life. We are called to be ambassadors of Yeshua in speech and behavior. We are to model godliness, integrity, kindness, generosity and care for the less fortunate. We scrupulously should follow the Apostle Peter’s instructions: “But in your hearts set apart Messiah as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”
I also strongly believe that religious leaders should avoid associating themselves and/or their ministries with any political party. Religious leaders should represent God and His righteousness. They should act as prophetic agents of God, calling political leaders to account for wrong doing, mistreatment of others and to promote justice in society. In many respects, the prophets of old acted as the social conscience of ancient Israel. This becomes impossible when religious groups are seen as branches of a particular political party. This especially is seen now in the current US Presidential campaign where many Evangelical Christian leaders, who loyally have aligned themselves with the Republican party for decades, find themselves supporting the most ungodly candidate ever nominated by any major party. It’s also true in Israel, where religion and politics are inextricably linked, leading to religious parties that discredit the Jewish faith and pollute the nation’s values.
When my wife and I moved to Israel just under five years ago, I had decided to leave full time ministry and instead to practice law and get involved again politically. As a Messianic Jew in Israel, there are tremendous challenges to break the unease of society towards Messianic Jews. Once again, I’m reminded of Peter’s words above, to be prepared to share the hope within us when asked. In the meantime, I try to model the life of Yeshua to those with whom I work and volunteer. To the younger generation, consider getting involved politically. You can make a difference, but the biggest difference to be made is when you allow the light of Yeshua to flow out of you, so that others see a life that is attractive and compelling.