Religion in America’s Public Square: Are We Crossing the Line?

Reference: Anti-Defamation League

November 3, 2005

Excerpts from an address by
Abraham H. Foxman
National Director of the Anti-Defamation League
ADL National Commission Meeting

I want to address what I consider to be the key domestic challenge to the American Jewish community and to our democratic values.

We are privileged to live in a country, in a democracy where the Jewish community stands as a co-equal partner in our civil society. We live not on the sufferance of the majority, or as a protected minority, but as full participants in every aspect of American life. That participation has been the cornerstone of the unique achievements of our community in this country. And the ideas that underlie it are the basis for building an ever more tolerant and successful society for all.

The subject is referred to as state-church balance or the separation of church and state. But at its core, the issue is the role of religion in our society. The issue is not new. Since before the country’s founding, the appropriate role of religion in public life and the protections provided in the constitution have been central to our public discussion.

Nor is it a new issue for ADL. Forty years ago when I joined the League’s Law Department, state-church separation was on the agenda. The issue then was ending daily prayer that was prevalent in the vast majority of public schools.

About 15 years it went beyond a legitimate debate as to whether or not one can provide some funding for religious practices into something else.

It became more fundamental, going beyond those specific issues into a dangerous new area, an attempt to throw out the constitutional balance that protects our public square for something quite different: An effort to Christianize America.

In 1994, we sounded an alarm. In our book, The Religious Right: The Assault on Tolerance and Pluralism in America, we said that “an exclusionist religious movement in this country has attempted to restore what it perceives as the ruins of a Christian nation by more closely seeking to unite its version of Christianity with state power.”

Alas, our call was not well heeded and we are beginning to see some of the consequences of what we identified.

As a result, today we face a better financed, more sophisticated, coordinated, unified, energized, and organized coalition of groups in opposition to our policy positions on church-state separation than ever before. Their goal is to implement their Christian worldview. To Christianize America. To save us!

Who are the major players? They include Focus on the Family, Alliance Defense Fund, The American Family Association and the Family Research Council. They and other groups have established new organizations and church-based networks, and built infrastructures throughout the country designed not just to promote traditional “Christian values,” but to actively pursue that restoration of a Christian nation.

To quote D. James Kennedy, one of the most important and influential of today’s evangelical leaders: “Our job is to reclaim America for Christ, whatever the cost. We are to exercise godly dominion and influence over our neighborhoods, our schools, our government, our literature and arts, our sports arenas, our entertainment media, our news media, our scientific endeavors — in short, over every aspect and institution of human society.” Make no mistake: We are facing an emerging Christian Right leadership that intends to “Christianize” all aspects of American life, from the halls of government to the libraries, to the movies, to recording studios, to the playing fields and locker rooms of professional, collegiate and amateur sports, from the military to SpongeBob SquarePants.

In 2002, leaders from ten conservative Christian organizations formed the “Arlington Group,” an alliance of more than 50 of the most prominent conservative Christian leaders and organizations. Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation described it this way: “For the first time, virtually all of the social issues groups are singing off the same sheet of music… when we are working together, we are a mighty force that can’t be ignored.”

If their agenda was hidden 15 years ago, today it is in full public view. Just take a look at their Web sites, where they document in considerable detail an agenda on a wide range of issues: judicial nominations, same-sex marriage, and faith-based issues – and an agenda that, let us be clear, goes well beyond legitimate engagement in controversial social and political issues to a fundamental usurpation of all that America represents:

  • “Most importantly, the court victories are vital steps to keep doors open for the spread of the gospel and reclaim the legal system for Jesus Christ.” — The Alliance Defense Fund
  • The American Family Association, “believes that God has communicated absolute truth to man through the Bible, and that all men everywhere at all times are subject to the authority of God’s word. Therefore, culture based on biblical truth best serves the well-being of our country.”
  • “Christians can be loyal to liberal democracy as long as rights are carefully controlled by a dominant culture that directs them to the true hierarchy of ends.” — Family Research Council.
  • “The enemies of morality will not stop and will not back off. The Left cannot and will not change… no matter how many God-fearing and God-honoring women and men are elected and appointed to public office, until the hearts of the people change, we will not turn around this culture and restore our Biblical foundations.” — James Dobson’s Focus on the Family.

There is an open arrogance. The arrogance comes when you believe you have the exclusive truth. And it comes if you believe God has commissioned you to change this country.

As offensive as these comments are, we need to understand that the Jewish community is not the prime target of this movement. Indeed, Jews are often singled out for engagement and support based on their interpretation of Biblical revelation and prophecy. Yet, if this “Dominionism,” as its proponents call it, is successful, we may become its major victim.

Let me also be very clear about what we are not talking about.

First, I do not believe that this is a malignant assault; it is not motivated by animus, and certainly not by anti-Semitism. Our opponents’ beliefs are sincerely held. Yes, some Southern Baptists want to convert us while we are alive, and Mormons want to convert us when we are dead. We may find that strange, even discomforting, but that is their right of belief.

My evangelical friends remind me that what we are dealing with is a principle of faith. And they are right. To bear witness, to share, to proselytize, is not a choice for evangelical Christians. It is a fundamental principle of their belief. So when you challenge it, you do it carefully, delicately, respectfully.

But we cannot tolerate an attempt to subvert that right of belief and practice by those who say that their job is “to reclaim America for Christ.” Today, talk of God and moral values has become talk of Jesus and Christian values.

In Tom Brokaw’s recent TV special, In God They Trust, one can see how deep this runs. Take the Air Force Academy, where ADL has been deeply engaged because of our concerns over inappropriate, even coercive proselytizing. We do not oppose the right of an Air Force cadet or a general to evangelize. They can also do so at home, outside of church, in restaurants, on roads trips, but not in a military academy.

How are we going to get to those cadets that proudly proclaimed to Tom Brokaw that their mission to become great pilots is secondary to their mission to convert their fellow Christians and non-Christians to God? We still have the chief of chaplains of the Air Force defending the right to proselytize. It is so far reaching that for all our efforts I’m not sure if we have made any progress. Sixty members of Congress have asked for legislation to permit cadets, faculty and officers to have the explicit right to evangelize freely at the Academy.

So the stakes for the Jewish community could not be higher, but our community is not united on this issue. Indeed, we are a lot less united than we were 15 years ago.

On one hand, there is an extreme element in the community that believes it is unsafe to confront Christianity. We heard it, read it, saw it in the Mel Gibson debate. Rabbi Marvin Hier and I were the subjects of a “fatwa” because we were supposedly undermining the safety and security of the Jewish people by supposedly criticizing Christians or Christianity, when in fact we were criticizing Gibson’s portrayal of Jews in his film, “The Passion of the Christ.” There are also those who say that because evangelicals are friends of Israel, “don’t fight them;” “don’t make them angry;” “don’t upset them.”

There are those who argue, “What’s wrong with faith-based government funding? It can bring money to our community, to our religious institutions, and it can provide safety and security for synagogues; it can provide funds for Jewish education.” Some Jewish agencies call us and say, “Lower your tone, because there is an opportunity to obtain funds for Jewish family services in ways that weren’t available before.”

These are serious considerations for our constituency and we need to engage them.

There was a time when the African-American and Hispanic communities would stand with us on these issues because they saw their minority rights, their status, their position, their opportunities, and their growth as part of that balance between church and state.

Those alliances are no longer there. And the reasons are understandable. With the erosion of the safety net for social support and benefits, churches and church-based institutions have become front line responders for millions of Americans. We see that, starkly, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. With a critical human need, nobody is talking about regulations or safeguards; nobody is talking about time limitations or money limitations.

After Katrina and its terrible toll, we also asked ourselves, “Should we change our approach?” Are we going to stand up against humanitarian needs because of our principled positions of separation of church and state?

And the political lines have shifted as well. Last spring, at our Glass Leadership Conference in Washington, D.C., we heard from Senator Joseph Lieberman, a Democrat from Connecticut, and Senator Norm Coleman, a Republican from Minnesota. They both support the provision of government funds to faith-based institutions.

As we watched the election of 2004, and we are now getting glimpses into elections of 2006 and 2008, we are beginning to see the candidates – some declared, some not declared – beginning to move on these issues in a direction which is not in our direction.

The challenge before us is to get the American people to understand the issue as we do. To better understand American attitudes, we commissioned a national survey on American Attitudes Toward Religion in the Public Square by the Marttila Communications Group. I want to share with you a few of the findings:

Is Religion Under Attack? YES 64% NO 32%
Goes to church once a week 75% 21%
Goes to church less than once a week 53% 41%
Evangelicals 80% 19%
Is Christianity Under Attack in US? YES 57% NO 40%
Goes to church once a week 70% 28%
Goes to church less than once a week 48% 48%
Evangelicals 76% 23%
Is Religion Increasing or Losing Influence in American Life? Increase 35% Losing
Goes to church once a week 34% 56%
Goes to church less than once a week 36% 51%
Evangelicals 33% 60%
Should There be Organized Prayer in Public Schools? Organized 47% Individual 44%
Goes to church once a week 60% 34%
Goes to church less than once a week 38% 53%
Evangelicals 69% 25%
Should Creationism be Taught Alongside Evolution? YES 56% NO 39%
Goes to church once a week 65% 31%
Goes to church less than once a week 54% 31%
Evangelicals 70% 28%
Should Religious Symbols Like 10 Commandments be in Public Buildings? YES 64% NO 32%
Goes to church once a week 80% 17%
Goes to church less than once a week 51% 45%
Evangelicals 89% 9%
The Courts Have Gone Too Far? 49%
Goes to church once a week 63%
Goes to church less than once a week 38%
Evangelicals 69%
Courts Should Protect Church/State Separation? 46%
Goes to church once a week 31%
Goes to church less than once a week 58%
Evangelicals 26%

It is so delicate – this issue: How can the Jewish people – people that have been established, founded, created in faith – how can we be opposed to God or to the imposition of so-called traditional values? It is uncomfortable for us to be the ones out there fighting faith.

The fact is we welcome and embrace faith. It is the lifeblood of our country.

What we oppose is the imposing of one belief, one truth, above all others. We believe that we are a country that respects and envelopes people who have faith, a belief of a truth. Everyone is entitled to his or her own truth.

At the end of the day, where are we? I do know that this issue is serious enough for us to develop a strategy, and clearly our first task is to win the support of the American public. We also need to come together with other Jewish organizations to see if we can find a consensus, and to find allies beyond our community.

The challenge is before us. We must now take action to ensure that our pluralistic society continues to maintain the ideal of religious tolerance and freedom enshrined in the constitution and tested, successfully, through the generations as a model for all democracies.

Thank you very much.