Thursday, November 11, 2004

Are We on a Collision Course with America?

To put what follows into context, along with 55 million Americans and three out of every four Jews, I was on the losing side on Election Day. The traducing of basic constitutional rights, despoilment of the environment, reckless fiscal and budgetary policies, coddling of the rich and a cynical attitude toward the poor, as well as doubts about the impact on Israel of President Bush's actions in the Middle East, all contributed to my decision to vote differently from nearly all of the people I am close to. I take it that all agree that this is what democracy is for and about.

I hope that I am wrong, that Mr. Bush will attempt to unite the country. His strong performance has been attributed in part to the unexpectedly large turn-out of Christian fundamentalists and social conservatives for whom gay marriage and the deprecation of tradition are loathsome. I suppose that we will now get additional sermons on moral rectitude from the likes of Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh on such pressing subjects as proper sexual behavior and drug abuse. As mothers tell their children, "Do as I say, not as I do."

However we view values as an election factor, it has now taken centerstage in our public discourse. Overwhelmingly, we Jews are out of sync with much of the country in our strong advocacy of a social agenda that is at once hostile to our religion and also hostile to the beliefs of a great number of Americans, including those who have provided substantial political and other support for Israel. In the process, Jews have been bad news for the Democratic Party because we have helped to push it away from the political center. We have gotten too many voters angry at Democrats. In recompense, we have given the party relatively few votes because we have few votes to give.

There are danger signals in our ideological extremism and rigidity. Presently, we benefit enormously from Evangelical enthusiasm for Israel (whatever its problematic theological sources) and from the embrace by popular culture of artifacts that somehow are identified as Jewish. Being Jewish in some sense is an in-thing these days.

I doubt that these lines of credit will be permanently available. We cannot stretch to the limit our deviation from what most Americans are willing to accept without running the serious risk of a backlash against Israel and Jews. There are danger signals and we are ignoring them.

I do not advocate that we abandon positions that we deeply believe in simply to avoid run-ins with the extreme right. As we preach moderation for others, we need moderation in our own ranks. At the top of the list is gay marriage which American Jews support in substantial numbers with substantial zeal. Gay marriage is not a civil right. It is a civil wrong, a practice that runs counter to the understanding of marriage in all civil societies for thousands of years.

There is more fundamentally the transformation of American Jews from a religious community into an association of persons somehow identified as Jews whose members are increasingly hostile to religion. We reject our tradition, the practices and beliefs that made us distinctive and ensured our survival. This rejection of religion especially informs our positions on public policy. The tenacious opposition to faith-based programs is an extension of our obsessive and absolutist embrace of church-state separation as a cardinal principle of secular Jewish faith.

We refuse to accept that there is a beneficial, creative and, in any case, inevitable role for religious groups in the public square. In every area of social concern that generates government interest and funding, it is not possible to avoid the active involvement of religious groups in efforts to help those in need. Yet steadfast in our opposition to faith-based programs we plow on, never reflecting on whether our absolutism makes sense and never caring about whom we may alienate.

There is a touch of hypocrisy in this. Those bastions of Jewish secularism known as Federations avidly seek public funds. When there is talk of cutbacks, these agencies bemoan how the needy will be hurt, how the safety net is being destroyed. Federations tell us that nowadays most of their activities are targeted toward Jews, which is to say that what Federations do bears a close resemblance to what the Jewish community is objecting to when we oppose faith-based initiatives. The primary difference between Federation activities and those conducted by more overtly religious groups such as churches and Orthodox Jews is that the latter rely heavily on volunteers, do not pay bloated salaries, indulge far less in self-promotion and avoid the steady diet of conferences and other sterile activity that is choking American Jewish life.

We Jews like to preach tolerance. Why can't we be tolerant toward publicly funded initiatives that rely on religious groups to accomplish what government and society need to get accomplished? We are beset by demons that impel us to believe that the roof will fall in if faith-based groups receive public funds. Since the coming of the Great Society forty years ago, such groups have received tens of billions in public funds and so far as anyone can tell, the Republic still stands. All that our intolerance toward religious groups will do is to breed opposition to Jews and Israel.

Religion is a vital force in American life and it belongs there. So does the separation doctrine. To believe in separation, as I do, does not require that we accept the notion of absolute separation. When government is neutral and the purposes are secular, we should welcome the role of religion in the furtherance of the public good. Unfortunately, we Jews who have removed religion from our lives are now bent on removing religion from public life. There is in this much peril for us and for Israel.