What War on Religion?

Editorial

Published March 02, 2012, issue of March 09, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The “war on religion” is back, making its quadrennial appearance on the American political stage. The actors are different this time — or, in the case of Mitt Romney, same man, new script. Rick Santorum’s rhetoric may be more strident than is customary, and Newt Gingrich has lifted the level of disconnect between word and past deeds to dazzling heights. Still, this “war” is a revival of sorts, a recurring theme brought to life by Republicans in national elections for the past 50 years or so, a convenient tool to separate the party faithful from the Godless secularists who have so heedlessly damaged religiosity in America.

Ironically, the trends toward tolerance and inclusion that are reviled by these candidates are the very reason two Catholics and a Mormon can run for the highest office in the land without their respective faiths presenting much of a political impediment. Either the candidates are all willfully ignorant of American history (even the historian!) or they believe the rest of us are.

So let’s review.

In his 2005 book, “It Takes a Family,” then Senator Santorum nicely spelled out the conservative rendition of what went wrong with America. It starts with the 1947 U.S. Supreme Court decision that first introduced into law Thomas Jefferson’s idea of a “wall of separation between Church & State,” and turned government neutrality on religion into a constitutional principle. Ever since, Santorum wrote, “The overarching impulse of the Court’s position has been to drive religion from the public square, to secularize our society from the roots up, all in the name of the constitutional principle of ‘neutrality’ — both among religions and between religion and irreligion. Of course, the term ‘neutrality’ does not appear in the U.S. Constitution.”

Of course, “God” does not appear in the Constitution, either. But we digress.

The 1947 decision Santorum referred to, Everson v. Board of Education of the Township of Ewing, was confusing and contradictory, written by Justice Hugo Black, who was known to hate Catholics (and Jews and blacks, for that matter). So it’s understandable that Santorum and others hold it in such disregard. But it was hardly the last word on the tender subject of the relationship between religion and state in a modern, representative democracy.

In fact, the narrative of the “war on religion” conveniently omits other court cases that have sought to map out an appropriate way of welcoming religion into the public sphere. The famous Lemon case created a three-prong test to decide under what circumstances a particular relationship between government and religious activities or institutions is permissible. It must have a secular purpose, neither inhibit nor advance religion, or foster excessive government entanglement.

Rather than the hostility to religion that the current crop of Republican candidates sees in the courts and, by extension, the federal government, there has been a remarkable give-and-take on this issue over the years. But don’t take our word for it. Listen to what John J. DiIulio, a brilliant political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, a devout Catholic and a Democrat who served in George W. Bush’s administration, had to say in his 2007 book, “The Godly Republic.”

“The contemporary court’s neutrality doctrine has resulted neither in religious establishment nor in strict separation. Rather, it has resulted mainly in faith-friendly equal protection for the godly republic’s multiplicity of sects,” DiIulio wrote.

And that last phrase, multiplicity of sects, is key to our next point. The good ol’ days that preceded this “war on religion” were not always good ones for Catholics, Mormons, Jews, Muslims, atheists or anyone who didn’t ascribe to the prevailing Protestantism that dominated American culture. When Santorum writes that “things changed” for the worse with the Everson decision, when Gingrich assails the 50-year assault on religion, they manage to overlook real assaults on certain faith communities that occurred well before the past half-century. Such as the anti-Catholic nativist movement in the 1840s. And the notorious Blaine amendments — which prohibited states from spending public funds on sectarian schools, but were fueled by anti-Catholic bigotry — dating back to 1875.

The country sure wasn’t neutral about religion then. It was far more biased and inhospitable than it is today.

By acknowledging the greater diversity of religious belief and practice today — the multiplicity of sects — and guarding against the establishment of any religion, even the dominant one, the courts and the federal government have actually opened up more room for faith to flourish. Put another way: Those political candidates who moan about the absence of religion in the public square have to answer, “Whose religion?” Catholics may be ascendant now, with a decisive majority on the Supreme Court and unfettered access to elective office, but that was not always the case in America. One never knows when the new insiders could be pushed back outside again, or when another religious minority may instead feel the heat of social and legal discrimination.

That is why protecting the neutrality doctrine is so essential for American Jews. We should not be lulled into thinking that a break in that wall of separation for something that might legitimately help a good cause — public vouchers to pay for day school education, for instance — is worth the broader consequence. The democratic world is filled with examples of the harm done when religion is privileged even more than it is in this society. The State of Israel confronts this every day.

Imperfect though it may be, the modern intepretation of the First Amendment has enabled Jews and so many others to flourish in this faith-friendly country. To say otherwise is to dishonestly manipulate the historical record and twist America’s core values. Let those on the campaign trail never forget that they, too, are the beneficiaries of the religious tolerance that is the hallmark of this nation.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.