Jewish Standard Op-Ed: A Bully in the Pulpit

In politics a "bully pulpit" is considered to be a good thing. In the synagogue, mosque or church a "bully in the pulpit" is not a good thing.

The term "bully pulpit" was coined by President Teddy Roosevelt to describe the White House as a superb platform from which to propound a political agenda. Roosevelt used the word bully to mean "wonderful" a common adjectival usage in his day.

Now we use bully mainly as a pejorative noun meaning a ruffian who harasses the weak. Bullying among children in schools is recognized today as a serious problem.

Based on what we have seen and read lately, bullying by clergy from the pulpit is a serious problem too. It is fairly likely that you or one of your neighbors goes to a synagogue, mosque or church where the spiritual leader is a bully.

The signs that your clergyman (or woman) is a bully are straightforward. He engages in name-calling, often subtle, via sarcastic or cynical stereotyping of those groups or individuals who oppose his view of the world. He makes you feel uncomfortable and insecure by characterizing classes, congregations or parties of people as dumb or incompetent, if not outright evil, by dint of their political or religious affiliation or preference. And hence you may feel that you could be next in line for his bullying if you say or do something that he decides is wrong.

Bullies gang with their cronies to insult and denigrate others. By staying silent or by cheering him on, you may be one of those who encourage the bully.

And to justify your support for the bully you may think, we need a "strong voice" in our community, a person who will stand up and protect us from outsiders who want to harm us. We need an "outspoken representative," a person who will impress the world with the justice of our faith or cause. We need an "inspirational leader," a person who will make us feel powerful, not defensive. After all, we are at risk of being bullied by the world. We need a bully of our own to fend that off.

But a bully in the pulpit is not a proper voice, not a valid representative and not a credible leader. His blustery transparent rhetoric lacks substance. He comes across as weak and insecure and he is easily ignored by the rest of world.

To combat a bully in the pulpit you can do some of the same things that people recommend for dealing with bullies in schools or at work. You can try to avoid the bully. Walk out of the chapel when he speaks. Change to another place of worship. In our town, we've seen people quietly withdraw from one synagogue whose rabbi is a bully and join another one, whose rabbi has a proper substantive demeanor that is not intimidating or threatening.

Or if you detect pulpit bullying, you can take action. You can speak up and try to end the bullying. You can raise consciousness in your town that bullying in the pulpit exists, that it is counterproductive to the strength and health of the community, and that it needs to be stopped.

Published in the Jewish Standard.

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