Monday, June 18, 2001

Our Substitute Religion

The Wall Street Journal provides by far the most delightful editorial page anywhere, with its steady diet of loony right-wing conspiracy musings written in a perhaps unintended tongue-in-cheek fashion that is a welcome diversion from the more stressful world of business news that is the newspaper’s primary fare. The fellows who produce the stuff can write, even if they are caught in an ideological quagmire that warps their thinking.

In contrast, there is the New York Times, always super-serious, as if statesmen and opinion-makers everywhere are waiting breathlessly for its divine pronouncements and the weight of the world rests on its editorial shoulders. Nearly always liberal and often left of center, the Times is rarely off the wall as the WSJ frequently is, but it is trying to get there and, at times, it is succeeding.

When the Supreme Court ruled the other day that public schools must be rented out on an equal basis to religious groups, the Times went over the top with an editorial suggesting that the Republic itself is endangered by the decision. The overheated tone was apparent in the opening sentence: “Barely a year after its proud decision refusing to allow organized student-led prayers before public high school games, the Supreme Court lurched dangerously in the opposite direction yesterday.”

So there is apparently no difference between a diverse crowd in an open-air stadium or arena being pumped-up to join in a religious prayer and a quiet religious exercise in a public school classroom that has been leased by a faith group for the voluntary use of its members! I wonder whether it is really so difficult to differentiate between what is obviously a coercive environment and a neutral act by a public facility.

The editorial conveyed hostility toward religion and a blind eye toward reality, qualities that are abundantly shared by most of the organized American Jewish community. We American Jews have managed to jettison almost all of our religious tradition, the beliefs and practices that made us distinctive and ensured our survival. We have had no qualms about discarding that which we adhered to for centuries. We have forged in its place a surrogate religion whose first commandment mandates total separation of religion and state. For all of our fundamentalist cleaving to this doctrine and the secular commandments that flow from it, this bogus religion does not provide for our continuity or, for that matter, our well-being in the contemporary period.

Nor does it provide a realistic formula for the place of religion in society. There are thousands of religious groups in the U.S. and this in turn means that there is constant contact and interaction between religion and state. Each day there are transactions involving public officials and religion, many of which might raise questions that are more serious than the dubious issue posed by the Milford School District in upstate New York that was the focus of the Supreme Court’s latest church-state ruling.

The point is that whatever principles we can derive from the abstract, in life and society the notion of total separation is an impossibility, a mirage. Yet, we maintain a nearly fanatic devotion to a doctrine that is unworkable because this is our religion, really the only one that most American Jews now have, and fanatics are people of blind faith. It is also true that organized American Jewry apparently prefers that church-state interaction be conducted stealthily rather than under the cover of law.

There are hot-house areas of public policy – welfare, crime control, education – where experience and reflection have resulted in people of strong commitment altering their positions. When it comes to separation of religion and state, there is no room for reflection and modification of views. Experience is an unwelcome and irrelevant intruder.

For sixty years we have maintained a unitary position on religion and state, hardly changing a nuance in our public declarations. In this extended period, we have failed to come to grips with job and other discrimination against religious Jews, nor have we given attention to the serious escalating issue of how local authorities employ zoning rules to stifle religious institutions. This should be a ready-made issue for the strict separationists who might be expected to oppose governmental actions that often arbitrarily restrict the right of houses of worship and religious schools to build or renovate facilities.

This is an issue that today affects dozens of Jewish day schools and a great number of other communal institutions. I suspect that our community’s silence is a manifestation of hostility to religion, a hostility fed by the circumstance that in zoning battles quite often the neighbors that oppose Jewish institutions are themselves Jewish. I suppose that many are proud card-carrying members in good standing in our liberal organizations that carry the banner of strict separation between religion and state.

We delude ourselves in believing that we are an open community. We are not open to new ideas, nor to a reconsideration of long-held positions that need to be modified. We aren’t even able or willing to consider how the cherished principle of governmental neutrality toward religion is being violated willfully through arbitrary zoning decisions.