Former LA Times Journalist Gives 'Fisher Family Lecture' on Founders' Day at Jack H. Skirball Campus - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Former LA Times Journalist Gives 'Fisher Family Lecture' on Founders' Day at Jack H. Skirball Campus

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Monday, June 25, 2012

From left: Joshua Holo, Dean, Jack H. Skirball Campus; Tim Rutten; Georgianne Cutter; and Rabbi William Cutter


Tim Rutten, a well-known, veteran editor and columnist for the Los Angeles Times, offered a different take on “founders” when he addressed members of the Jack H. Skirball Campus in Los Angeles on Founders’ Day as its inaugural Fisher Family Lecturer.

In a presentation titled, “America’s Religion and Its Politics: The Long Strange Road from Houston to Tampa,” Rutten traced developments between John F. Kennedy’s 1960 landmark speech on his religion, delivered to the Houston Ministerial Association, and this year’s upcoming Republican National Convention in Tampa. The journalist began his chronology much earlier, though, explaining that contrary to what Tea Party enthusiasts might say, “most of the Founders and the Framers were Deists of the Enlightenment sort. Our greatest presidents have been — if not irreligious — religiously indifferent.”

Whereas Kennedy in 1960 professed a belief in an absolute barrier between Church and State, a stranglehold of religion over politics has emerged in the meantime, Rutten said.

“In fact, it’s probably true that the only sort of person who would have no chance whatsoever of being elected president today is an atheist,” he said.

At the climax of his talk, Rutten argued that, “We have a new language of public piety and candidates for national office now are subjected routinely to questions about their faith, their prayer life and their intimate consciences. It’s a situation worse than distasteful. It’s destructive and it’s pushing us toward social confrontations out of which they are no safe paths,” he warned.

The California native worked for the Times for 40 years and was part of two teams that won Pulitzer Prizes for breaking news. Rutten served as Opinion editor, chief editorial writer and media columnist, and is perhaps best known as coauthor with the late Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr. of the New York Times best seller Journey to Justice.

Rutten appeared on campus as scholar-in-residence for a new program in memory of Sylvia and Irving Fisher, parents of Georgianne Cutter and Barry Fisher and grandparents of Benjamin Joseph Cutter and Rabbi Sari Laufer. The program was sponsored by the Cutter and Fisher families.

The Fishers joined the burgeoning Jewish community of Orange County, California, in 1957 and were among the early members of Temple Beth Sholom of Santa Ana, where Sylvia served as a staff member and lay treasurer. Their children and son-in-law, Rabbi William Cutter, Founding Director of the Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health, Steinberg Professor Emeritus of Human Relations, and Professor Emeritus of Modern Hebrew Literature and Education at HUC-JIR, established the lecture to remember them by bringing issues from the public square into community life at the College-Institute.

The Founders’ Day program also included a panel discussion with Rutten and two campus figures. Sarah Benor, Associate Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies, talked about how politicians use language to express their faith and how non-Jewish politicians use it to relate to Jewish audiences. Miriam Farber, a second-year rabbinical student, stressed the importance of adding to the political discourse based on the principles of the Torah while at the same time being open to other viewpoints and compromising for the greater good of society.

Rutten’s formal remarks can be found here. The responses from Benor and Farber also are available.

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates leaders to serve North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding.