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‘Believe in Service’? Better Religion & Politics in Tennessee

A Lawyer & A Rabbi (His Wife) Might Show Us How

By David Brasher

June 7, 2018

Politics and religion have long been the rivals of the LGBT community. The two have even been known to team up against the community, but thanks to people like James and Shana Mackler, some political and religious realms are working alongside those fighting for LGBT rights.

The Macklers have both been fighting for equality for quite some time now. Both grew up being taught important principles such as service, justice, and compassion, which bled over into their professional lives.

A graduate of Duke University, James earned a law degree from the University of Washington. But he closed his successful law practice after September 11 to enlist in the Army, spending three years as a Blackhawk helicopter pilot with the 101st Airborne Division, including a deployment in Iraq.

Upon his return from Iraq, James transferred to the Judge Advocate General Corps, where he prosecuted murderers and rapists. In civilian practice, he continues to work finding ways to apply the law to improve the lives of others, serving as a member of the Federal Public Defender panel.

In 2017, James resigned from his job and ran for U.S. Senate because he saw politics in Washington hurting Tennesseans, with no one willing to challenge a longtime incumbent, Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who was not representing the values James believed in. But, in December of 2017, Mackler stepped aside to support Governor Phil Bredesen for senator because he sees Bredesen as being someone who has “an incredible history of successful problem solving in this state.”

James’ wife, Rabbi Shana Goldstein Mackler, has been serving as a Rabbi at The Temple, Congregation Ohabai Sholom, in Nashville, since her ordination at the Hebrew Union College (HUC) in Cincinnati in June 2004. In 2016, Rabbi Mackler was named one of America’s 32 Most Inspiring Rabbis by Forward Magazine.

Together the Macklers are a power couple, if you will, at the convergence of religion and politics, working to help Tennessee, and the LGBT community, reach a better state.

Since withdrawing from the race, James has returned to practicing law, but he has also founded a political action committee (PAC) known as Believe in Service, an appropriate name for someone who believes in raising the issue of national service.

James describes the PAC simply as a way to support political candidates — U.S. Senate candidates in particular— who will protect and defend national service. One such candidate is Governor Bredesen.

According to James, “Governor Bredesen has an incredible history of successful problem solving in this state, and he has a track record showing that he can work and get things done. He is a very successful two-term mayor. He balanced the budget. He helped create infrastructure. When he was governor, he worked with the people that he needed to tackle hard problems in Tennessee.”

Supporting the right political candidate is important now more than ever. James recalled, “Just a few days ago, Jeff Sessions said anyone who comes across the border (illegally) is going to be arrested, and if they have children, we are going to separate them from their children. That’s not what this country is about and those aren’t the values I joined the army to fight for. It can get discouraging, but for me it’s motivation. If not now, then when?”

And while James is working to get “the right people” in office, Shana is busy spreading a message of God’s love and showing Nashville what it means to accept all people.

Shana has been marrying same-sex couples for years, long before it was legal in Tennessee.

“The first couple to get married at the Temple was before The Supreme Court ruling, so it was an illegal wedding. I sent them to a friend up north to get married legally, and then they came back and had a ceremony here, so we could celebrate them,” she explained.

The issue of gay marriage is something that really hits home for Shana. When she was in college, her father came out to her.

“I gave him permission to tell me, and I had to encourage him to tell me. I was in college, I think the summer after my freshman year, and I think he was probably a little reticent to tell me,” she recalled. “I was doing everything I could to give him signals that it was okay. I tried to subliminally tell him. He knew that we were not going to judge him, but I don’t know how ready he was. I think he knew it would make it real when he told us.”

Years later, when gay marriage was legalized, the Macklers would get to see Shana’s father marry the man he had been with for 25 years. And Shana would be the one to perform the ceremony.

“Yeah an interesting story about that,” James said, laughing at the memory. “Shana performed the ceremony for her dad, and his long-time partner. We have two girls—Hannah, 8, and Sylvie, 7—and at that time they were five and six. They were the flower girls in the wedding. When we came back and the girls went back to school, I got a letter from the teacher, and it said one of the boys had challenged Hannah and said two boys can’t get married. And Hannah said, ‘Yes they can; the Supreme Court changed that law.’ Hannah was already arguing legal cases.”

Rabbi Mackler understands that not everyone has such a personal experience to inform their religious view, but that is part of the importance of teaching love and acceptance.

“There are several principles that can contend against each other. You have the biblical prohibition about being gay that is one element, but you also have the obligation to recognize the divine image in every human being,” she explained. “You have to be able to find where you are going to come down on that balance, but you must recognize someone’s humanity. You may not understand it, and you may not accept it as a personal pathway, but it doesn’t give you the right to legislate hate against another human being.”

“Fundamentally I believe in the separation of church and state,” she continued. While others may have different religious foundations, “My religious values say that I should love my neighbor, and that I should see the divine image in every human being. I know what it feels like to be oppressed, so why would I turn around and do that to someone else.”

“As Jews our views are not always in line with the Christian interpretation. Sometimes when the majority takes ownership of religious voices, or being the public voice of religion, the rest of us have to speak up too,” she explained. “I know many churches are friendly to the LGBT community, as is the Temple, and I want to make sure that people know that there are houses of worships and pathways to God that are open to them, if that’s important to somebody.”

And with those beliefs comes pushback. Shana has seen hostility, but reminds people that religious freedom means religious freedom for everyone.

“Your beliefs should not impose upon mine… That was something that we had talked about with the Religious Freedom Act which is something I lobbied for when I was a high school student going to D.C… not to have the religion of the majority infringe upon the practices of the minority.”

In regard to same-sex marriage, this was at issue, she explained. “For me, something I feel like was challenging was that I couldn’t practice religious freedom. My ability to do gay marriage [which Reform Judaism had long allowed] or any marriage was being threatened by … state legislators so when the Supreme Court ruling came down, it granted me the right to practice my religious freedom, to do a religious ceremony that was legally recognized. Some of that has been turned on its head recently and that still infringes upon the rights of all.”

James reminds everyone that, while same-sex marriage is, for now, a settled legal issue, there remain many other issues we as a community share with our neighbors. “Most people in Tennessee want someone who wants to tackle the fundamental issues for them, environmental issues, healthcare, etc. I want to be able to practice my religion the way I see fit, and you to do the same with yours,” he added, reminding us again of why it’s important to support candidates who share that value.

“Voting was a right people died for so how dare I even think about not voting,” Shana added. “That’s how I was raised and that’s how we are raising our children. This is really important. You have a voice and not everyone has those freedoms… So when you see something wrong and you don’t try to fix it that’s when you take on that error yourself.”

And for the Macklers, fixing those issues is not just something they preach, but something they practice daily, not only personally but through the organizations they work with. For more information about, or to support, James’ PAC, visit BelieveInService.com.