American Jews are not like any other religious group in America. Nor are they quite like any other Jewish community in the world. Most American Jews, if asked what binds them to one another, will say it’s their common religious heritage. Most, if asked, will say they’re fiercely proud of their religion. And yet, most will say that if there is a God, He doesn’t intervene in human affairs, as Jewish religious tradition has always said He does. They’re less likely than Jews in most other countries to practice Jewish ritual. And because they’re more secure than Jews in almost any other country outside Israel in their status and rights as citizens of their own country, they’re more willing than Jews elsewhere to demand that their country recognize their religious needs and views.
What most American Jews want from their country, religiously speaking, is best summed up by the words of the First Amendment to the Constitution: that there be “no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” They want to be assured the right to practice their religion as they choose, and they don’t want anyone telling them how — or whether — to practice it.
This sort of thinking puts the mainstream of American Jewry squarely at odds with the powerful stream in American society that sees religion as the chief moral pillar upholding the social order. It also puts the Jewish mainstream at odds with the Orthodox stream, which tends to share the Christian right’s view of where religion fits in public life.
Jews, religion and secularism
The wary relationship between the mostly secular Jewish community and the moralist Christian right goes back to the colonial era. It began playing a minor role in presidential politics shortly after the birth of the Republic, when Jews rallied publicly around Thomas Jefferson in the presidential election of 1800 because of his defense of church-state separation. That was the beginning of the love affair between American Jews and Jefferson’s Democratic Republican party, today known simply as the Democrats.
It wasn’t until after World War II, though, that Jews felt secure and numerous enough to begin demanding the sort of strict church-state separation that now seems natural and inevitable under the Constitution—the secular public square in which prayer and Bible reading are banned from public schools and the Ten Commandments may not be displayed in courtrooms. In a series of Supreme Court cases from the 1940s to the 1970s, Jewish organizations and their liberal and civil libertarian allies won an increasingly expansive definition of the secular state. For most Jews, reducing the public presence of Christianity meant increasing the legitimacy of Jews as full citizens.
Along with the expansion of the secular square came court-mandated expansions of liberties in other spheres—birth control, abortion rights, gay rights, more permissive definitions of pornography—that suited the secular, liberal mood of most Jews.
To many Christians, though, the victory of secular society and paring back of government-mandated piety has come as a defeat. And they have fought back. A renewed Christian pietism, allied to the white backlash to the Civil Rights revolution, has helped to revitalize a Republican party that had languished since Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The result has been the 30-year Reagan Revolution, halting and reversing liberal progress in many areas. It didn’t help the left that it had come to rely on the courts for its victories and neglected to build a solid political base. One result is decades of Republican court appointments, remaking the judiciary and allowing a reversal of many liberal victories.
What’s behind the new militancy?
The revival of the Christian right — some call it the Fourth Great Awakening of militant Christian revivalism — has not come in a vacuum. Along with rising Christian fundamentalism in America, the world is seeing a rise in Islamic fundamentalism through much of the Muslim world, of militant Hindu fundamentalism in India and Jewish fundamentalism in Israel and some parts of Europe and America. It’s a global phenomenon.
The reasons aren’t clear, though there’s no lack of theories: A reaction to the fast pace of technological change. A turning inward as faster communication bombards societies with foreign influences. A rebellion against the new scarcity wrought by neoliberal economics and the global elites who profit from it. Perhaps even, as some suggest, an end-time rapture as global warming and nuclear winter threaten a literal end of days.
The rise of the Jewish religious right, as much as it looks like one piece of the larger global trend, also has some root causes of its own. A high birthrate and cloistered communal structure foster an intense inner solidarity, a sense that Orthodox Jewry can stand against the world. Moreover, much of the Orthodox community views liberal Judaism as a failure, doomed to disappear through assimilation and interfaith marriage. Reinforcing this triumphalism is a belief in parts of the Jewish right that the messianic era is imminent, that the rebirth of the Jewish state is a sign of an approaching end of days, so long as Israel stands firm against its enemies and resists the temptation to negotiate a territorial compromise with its neighbors. This firm attachment to the occupied territories makes communication and cooperation between Orthodox Jews and others.
What must be done
Progressives are of two minds in responding to the rise of the religious right. One camp counters the revivalist right with a newly assertive religious liberalism. The other has little regard for any religion, however liberal. Among Jewish progressives, the two camps often cooperate, but religion can get in the way, particularly when religious progressives join with religious conservatives for shared observance and celebration. What’s more, the attachment of Jewish religious progressives to tradition has the effect of tempering their militancy, distancing the two camps from one another even further.