Sunday, September 14, 2008

Our War Against Religion

In the days before the Democratic convention, Jewish notables issued, in the words of the headline in this newspaper’s lead article, “stern warnings” to party leaders. They weren’t concerned about Israel, despite questions that have been raised about Barack Obama’s views, nor about strengthening the safety net for tens of millions of Americans. Their target was faith-based initiatives, the social service programs sponsored by religious groups that assist the needy and receive public funding. In the pages of Forward, we were treated to the pseudo-wisdom of Abraham Foxman whose shallowness as a thinker is matched by the skimpiness of his achievements. The ADL boss groused that “religious institutions have been eligible to receive billions in government social service grants.”

Because these non-conscientious objectors are secularists and overwhelmingly Democratic in their political orientation, I wonder whether down deep they prefer another Republican victory in November, as this would allow them to continue to complain. They should read Peter J. Boyer’s important article in last week’s The New Yorker called “Party Faithful” and subtitled, “Can the Democrats Get a Foothold on the Religious Vote?” Boyer describes how Democrats alienated faith-based voters and the toll that this has taken on election day and the new efforts to draw some of these voters back to the party.

The critical issue for Jews is not political expediency, whether we do or should favor this or that candidate or party. What is most at stake is intellectual honesty, the truth about how best to meet the enormous challenge to tend to the vast number of Americans who are poor or needy in any of a great number of ways. If we would follow the “stern warnings” of our leaders who wage a constant war against religion, poor and needy people of all ages and groups would be hurt.

Boyer cites “a remarkable speech” given two years ago by Barack Obama before a liberal Christian group “in which he offered a frank critique of liberal queasiness regarding faith,” saying that “there are some liberals who dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant, insisting on a caricature of religious Americans that paints them as fanatical.” He then challenged secularists who “are wrong when they ask believers to leave religion at the door before entering into the public square,” insisting that “a sense of proportion should also guide those who police the boundaries between church and state.”

We Jews are in the first rank of these police, as we have been for at least sixty years. This is our surrogate religion, the idol that we worship as we remain steadfastly faithful to faithlessness. We reflect not on this orthodoxy, nor do we pay heed to realities or liberal voices that suggest that our fanaticism is misplaced. Nor do we reflect on the potential harm that our anti-religious stance may cause to American Jewry.

There is in this a remarkable disconnect. This newspaper has reported the anguish in the Federation world arising from cutbacks in governmental funding to some Jewish social service agencies. We are told that the Jewish needy will suffer. There is not a peep from our anti-faith vigilantes regarding First Amendment issues, not even regarding programs that have an overt and distinct Jewish character, as when a Federation facility or agency has a synagogue on its premises.

Nor have we been concerned – and for good reasons – about public funding for Black churches that provide vital social services to their members. Surely, such activity strengthens the identity of individual recipients with the church. For even better reasons, we have enthusiastically applauded the civil rights activism of churches, although clearly this advocacy inherently eradicates the boundaries between church and state.

Our opposition to faith-based programs is selective, based largely on our ideological preferences. We save our fire primarily for those who do not share our liberal agenda. We issue stern warnings because we are fearful that Democrats may reach out to Catholics and fundamentalist Protestants who have become alienated from a party that they once supported and have come to believe is hostile to their interests and faith.

When Catholic hospitals tend to the sick, they serve a necessary public function which is not diminished by the presence of crucifixes and religious attire. The same is true of faith-based sponsored activities that fulfill governmental obligations to assist the poor, the mentally ill, the handicapped, the elderly and frail, children in broken families and many others. Without faith-based initiatives our society would be far worse off and this is not an abstraction but a reality in millions of homes. Without faith-based initiatives, many who need help would have nowhere to turn.

Faith-based initiatives generally do a better job than governmental-based social service initiatives because they provide a caring environment that is often absent when bureaucratic barriers impede what government is trying to accomplish.

It is time for American Jewry to grow up, time to acknowledge that Barack Obama was right when he said that “Not every mention of God in public is a breach to the wall of separation – context matters.” It is time that we not be the only “religion” in America whose agenda promotes a war against religion.

Sadly, there is little prospect that we will change course. Our hostility to our own religion has become hostility to other religions and now, hostility as well, to the critical needs of millions of Americans. We can only hope that our intolerance will not one day result in the defamation of Jews by other Americans.