By: Rabbi Walter Wurzberger  | 

Religion and Politics (Vol. 50, Issue 2)

No matter what the outcome of this election, the injection of the religious issue into the campaign has forced us to re-examine the entire range of church state relationships in the light of newly emerging conditions.

Until recently it was commonly assumed that our pluralistic society calls for an unbreachable wall of separation between religion and politics. It was taken for granted that all matters relating to religious belief belonged exclusively in the private domain and should not be permitted to intrude into the formulation of public policy.

The insistence upon the total exclusion of religious concerns from the public sphere was possible during historic periods when society possessed a shared consensus concerning moral values, which were perceived to be universally valid and objectively binding. Since moral values were regarded as totally independent of creedal affirmations, it was relatively easy to maintain that the public domain should be totally insulated from the realm of religion. The situation, however, has completely changed. Belief in universal moral values has been eroded. We need but recall the controversies raging around abortion and sexual permissiveness to realize that we no longer speak of commonly accepted moral standards. Whether or not we agree with President Reagan’s position that morality is inseparable from religion, there can be no doubt that religious beliefs affect the nature of our moral perceptions. It would be the height of absurdity to reject moral opinions simply because they were formed within the matrix of theological belief. Why should the moral opinion of secular humanists carry greater weight than that of religiously committed individuals? For that matter should spokespersons for religion be assigned second-class status in our democracy? While we should encourage the advocacy of moral opinions by denominational organizations we should oppose the introduction of religious observances under the auspices of the state. As a religious minority, we Jews are in trouble whenever the state goes beyond benevolent neutrality towards religion. We ought to be apprehensive of the prospects of a constitutional amendment permitting prayers in the public school. There is no such thing as a completely non-denominational prayer. What may be acceptable to a theist may offend the sensitivity of a deist. We have good cause for apprehension, because it is highly likely that many Jewish children will succumb to the pressure of reciting Christian denominational prayers. Some of us are rather unconcerned because we tend to think that this won’t be a problem for committed Jewish families. After all, our children will be enrolled in Yeshivot which are likely to receive tuition credit and other subsidies in a more Christian America. But are we really prepared to develop such a sectarian approach that we are ready to abdicate responsibility for the vast number of Jewish children who will be exposed to Christian influences in the public schools in the wake of the triumph of the Moral Majority? It was never easy for Jews to live as a minority in avowedly Christian or Moslem states. But it was one thing to face up to the problems at a time when the bulk of Jews were religiously committed, another to do so at a time when we are confronted with the erosion of the sense of Jewish identity on the part of so many marginal Jews. With all our sympathies for those who wish to halt the inroads of secular humanism into the ‘body politic’ and to prevent the continued growth of a hedonistic ethos, we must be wary of the attempt to convert America into a Christian country. Even the prospects of tuition credits for Yeshivot should not blind us to the acute dangers posed to us as a religious minority by a constitutional amendment designed to demolish the wall of separation between church and state.