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Religious Freedom   
Religion In America
Posted: December 7, 2005.

Speech by Abraham H. Foxman,
National Director of the Anti-Defamation League

The following speech was presented as The Adolph and Ruth Schnurmacher Lecture at the Carl and Dorothy Bennett Center for Judaic Studies, Fairfield University, Fairfield, Connecticut on December 7, 2005.

Hardly a day goes by that some preacher or politician doesn't make the statement that all he or she wants to do is bring America back to the intent of the Founding Fathers to build a Christian America. History tells a different story.

History tells us that our first two presidents, who certainly qualify as founding fathers, made the intent crystal clear in the Barbary Treaties of Peace and Friendship signed in 1796. Article 11 begins "as the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion…" That treaty was written under George Washington and signed by John Adams, who emphasized that his ratification included every word of the Treaty.

References to God in the documents that gave birth to this remarkable Republic were just that, general references to God, not particularistic references to Jesus. And for many years, even the most zealous evangelicals sensitively used the term "Judeo-Christian" when referring to our religious heritage. Not so now. The "Judeo" has all but disappeared. And everyone who has flourished under our balanced system must be concerned about a movement to unbalance American society and American life.

It seems so ironic. Over the past decade or more, when ADL met with evangelical leaders like Ralph Reed and invited them to our platforms, many took us to task for consorting with those who want to convert us and whose support for Israel was based on that premise. We said their support for Israel, regardless of its underlying purpose, was important in a world where Israel has all too many enemies. At the same time, we said that in order to achieve that support, we would not abandon our principles of keeping America the kind of society in which there is tolerance and in which Jews do not feel excluded. Now we who were among the earliest pioneers in fostering Christian-Jewish relations are being accused of being anti-religious and anti-Christian…and characterizing evangelicals as anti-Semitic. It is not true.

How can the Jewish people -- a people established, founded and created in faith -- be the ones perceived as fighting it? We are not. We embrace faith. We cherish faith. What we oppose is the imposition of one faith, one belief, one truth above all others. Everyone is entitled to his or her own truth. Everyone is not entitled to have or coerce everyone else to share it.

What has made us deeply concerned now is an apparent desire by some individuals, by some groups, by some Christians, by some evangelicals, to coerce Americans to subscribe to a narrow religious perspective that will result in exclusion -- practically and psychologically -- for Jews, for other religious minorities, for non-believers, for even many Christians who choose to worship their creator in their own fashion. At a time when the world is confronting fanatic, violent Islamic ideological triumphalism across the globe, it is tragic that we are obliged to confront another kind of religious triumphalism at home.

When the Alliance Defense Fund says "court victories are vital steps to…reclaim the legal system for Jesus Christ," that points to its intention to threaten the pluralistic society that is at the heart of Jewish security in America.

When D. James Kennedy, head of Coral Ridge Ministries, says "our job is to reclaim America for Christ no matter what the cost…and to exercise godly dominion…over every aspect and institution of human society", that is a frightening echo of the old world, not the new world, not the America that has made those of every persuasion welcome.

When the Texas G.O.P. Platform says the United States is a Christian nation and that the separation of church and state is a myth, that is not merely a matter of free expression, that is an expression of exclusion.

When Congressman Gresham Barrett of South Carolina tries to end-run the federal courts by introducing legislation permitting public officials to pray openly at a public meeting invoking the name of a specific deity…and then says that those who don't like it can leave the room…that's not the tolerant, inclusive mosaic this nation was designed to be.

When the Salvation Army, which receives government funds, fires or refuses to hire people who will not fill out a form professing their belief in Jesus and advising which church they attend and how often, that is creating a hostile environment and…because they receive those government funds…in effect funding outright discrimination...stopping Jews and others from keeping or getting a job for which they are qualified. There is a legal exemption that permits churches, synagogues and some religious-based organizations to spend their own money as they see fit, and hire whoever they please, including only those who conform to their organization's religious beliefs.

But when they receive government funds, the exemption does not apply. When religious zealots are championing intelligent design to be taught as an equally valid explanation of the origin of life in science class along with evolution, it is destructive of provable science. It is religion, it is philosophy, it is not science.

When pharmacists refuse to fill prescriptions, that is an unacceptable twisting of the fabric of American society. When hundreds of millions of federal dollars are appropriated for religious institutions without safeguards or prohibitions against proselytizing…or when the federally funded United States Air Force Academy is a place where Jews and other non-evangelicals feel religious coercion, that is saying you will live with our beliefs.

This is a shift in attitude from respect for everyone's free exercise of their own faith to an imposition of one set of religious rules on everyone.

We Jews cherish living in this country as complete equals, not on the sufferance of the majority, or as a specially protected minority, but as full participants in every aspect of American life. Our history has taught us the dangers of living in countries where church and state were intertwined and indistinguishable. Thus we cherish the First Amendment to our constitution which guarantees the separation of church and state and prohibits government from establishing religion.

The role of religion in our democracy is not a new issue in our society or a new issue for ADL. But now it has gone far beyond the basic question of prayer in schools to an outright crusade to throw out the constitutional balance and make this a nation where government may impose a specific, particularistic religious truth…to make one nation under Jesus with full liberty and justice for only those who adhere to one belief.

Another strange piece of irony is that one of the strongest, most unequivocal statements ever made on church-state separation came from the American political leader viewed as close to a god by those who espouse Christianizing this country. In October 1984, at Temple Hillel in Woodmere, Long Island, New York, Ronald Reagan stated, "we establish no religion in this country, we command no worship, we mandate no belief. Nor will we ever. Church and state are, and must remain, separate. All are free to believe or not believe, all are free to practice a faith or not, and those who believe are free and should be free, to speak of and act on their belief. At the same time as our constitution prohibits state religion, establishment of it protects the free exercise of all religions. And walking this fine line requires government to be strictly neutral."

In 1994 ADL published The Religious Right: An Assault on Tolerance and Pluralism in America. We warned 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." That clarion call went unheeded, and now we are seeing some of the consequences. We face a better financed, more sophisticated, coordinated, unified, energized, determined and organized coalition of groups in opposition to church-state separation than ever before, with the goal of making this an America based on their claim of exclusive religious truth --from the halls of government to the libraries to the movies to recording studios, to playing fields and locker rooms of professional, collegiate and amateur sports, from the military to SpongeBob SquarePants.

I want to be clear that this is not anti-Semitism, it is not a malignant assault, it is not motivated by animus. It comes from sincerely, passionately held beliefs. Yes, some Southern Baptists want to convert us while we're alive, and Mormons want to convert us when we're dead. We're not saying they have no right to believe what they believe. We understand that to bear witness -- to share the good news -- is a fundamental principle of evangelical belief and practice. Mission is a key concept for the Christian faith and a core part of Christian identity. We respect and understand the words of our good friend Walter Cardinal Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and President of the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, who said, "If Jews want to speak to Christians, they cannot demand that Christians no longer be Christians. While it may be painful for Jews to listen to such professions of Christian faith, it is inevitable in honest dialogue…a witness which proposes but by no means imposes one's own faith."

We need to respect and accept that reality, no matter how painful, but we cannot and will not accept the premise of those who say they want to reclaim America for Christ. Tom Brokaw's recent TV special, In God They Trust, vividly illustrates how deep this runs. Take the Air Force Academy, where ADL has been actively engaged over inappropriate, coercive proselytizing. It told the story of two Catholic cadets targeted for evangelical proselytizing.

Cadets, generals, clergy all have a right to evangelize…at home, at church, but not in a military academy supported by government funds -- your tax dollars and mine. Seventy members of Congress have asked for legislation to permit cadets, faculty and officers to have the explicit right to evangelize freely at the academy. This is not a free speech issue as some would have us believe.

The stakes for the Jewish community are very high, but our community is not united on this issue, including some who think it is risky to confront Christianity in any way, shape or form; some who want faith-based government funding to provide money for Jewish religious institutions and schools and family services; some who fear upsetting evangelical friends of Israel. And some have no problems with these issues at all.

I do not suggest these are not serious considerations. There was a time when African-American and Hispanic communities were our partners on these issues because they saw their minority rights, status, position, opportunities and growth as part of that delicate balance between church and state. Those alliances are weakened, and we understand why.

With the erosion of the safety net for social support and benefits, churches and church-based institutions are now front-line responders for millions of Americans who need help. With critical human needs at stake, starkly illustrated in the aftermath of those horrendous hurricanes -- Katrina and Rita -- they trump philosophical concerns about regulations and safeguards.

As we watched the 2004 election and now catch glimpses into 2006 and 2008, we are beginning to see both Republicans and Democrats targeting the faith community. Because we must understand American attitudes, ADL commissioned a survey on American Attitudes Toward Religion in the Public Square. To say the findings are a matter of serious concern is to engage in colossal understatement.

64% of Americans believe religion is under attack. 53% believe religion is losing its influence in American life. Large swaths of the American public support a more direct role for religion in the public square, with organized prayer in public school -- 47%; creationism taught alongside evolution --56%; religious symbols like the 10 commandments displayed in public buildings --64%.

If this thumbnail sketch is not sufficiently troubling, when the responses are broken down by those who go to church once a week…those who go to church less than once a week… and evangelicals…bells resound for those who know Jewish history and those who believe Santayana's words that those who do not learn the lessons of history are destined to repeat it. To the question "is religion under attack?" 75% of those who go to church once a week say yes; 53% of those who go less than once a week; but 80% of evangelicals.

When asked "is Christianity under attack in the united states?" 70% of those who go to church once a week said yes; 48% of those who go less than once a week; 76% of evangelicals. These findings of how our fellow citizens feel about this delicate, disturbing issue are profoundly troubling.

We must protect the wall of separation because that wall protects the structure of American democracy and the continued vitality of religion. Our freedom is the envy of the democratic world and those who aspire to it. The First Amendment guarantees the most precious of those freedoms, especially freedom of religion. It means freedom to worship as we please; to celebrate religious holidays as we please; to mark major life cycle events as we please.

It also means freedom from religious coercion, freedom from state interference in matters of conscience and belief. What we are protesting today are those, however good and decent their intentions, who are not satisfied with pursuing their own freedom of conscience and belief; who want others to say their prayers, celebrate their holidays, teach their beliefs in public schools, fund their religious activities…consistent with their values, inconsistent with true religious liberty.

Let me also be clear that respecting the religious freedom of others does not require public places to be totally free of religion. There is nothing wrong with a child or children saying grace before meals in a public school cafeteria. Nothing wrong with saying a prayer before a math test (didn't we all!). Nothing wrong with a religious display in a public park. Nothing wrong with teaching about religion in a public school class on comparative religion. Nothing wrong with religiously-affiliated charities getting government funding to provide assistance to the needy on a non-discriminatory basis. None of these are coercive.

Permit me to digress to discuss general American attitudes toward Jews. Last April, ADL released a survey showing a slight decline in the number of Americans from 17% to 14% of those who harbor anti-Semitic attitudes. But its findings once again demonstrated that anti-Semitic beliefs endure and resonate in America.

The percentages translate to 35 million people, which says, sadly, that many of the gains we had seen in building a more tolerant and accepting America seem not to have taken hold as firmly as we had hoped. Anti-Semitic incidents reached their highest level in nine years. When it comes to Jews, old stereotypes die hard…especially about loyalty to the United States, the death of Jesus and power. 33% of Americans believe Jews are more loyal to Israel than America. 30% believe Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus. While the overall percentage of Americans who believe Jews have too much power has diminished, those who hold the most anti-Semitic views are preoccupied with those perceptions. 70% of the most anti-Semitic believe Jews have too much power in the United States. 80% of the most anti-Semitic believe Jews have too much power in the business world. 75% of the most anti-Semitic believe Jews have too much control of Wall Street.

I mention this earlier poll due to a concern that there may be some correlation between basic American attitudes toward Jews and a movement which would marginalize Jews and diminish the full equality Jews have enjoyed in American life.

This Christianizing movement is not anti-Semitic and Jews are not its specific target, but inevitably will be its first victims. Why? Think about who is blamed for the alleged moral decline that has led to this effort, this attack on religion, on Christianity. The media, the entertainment industry, the ACLU. All of those alleged villains used as synonymous with "Jew".

All Americans, religious or not, Christian, Jewish, Muslim and others, need to give serious thought to, and strategic planning for, this burgeoning movement in American life. We need to carefully consider what we can live with and what we cannot, what we should fight and what we should tolerate, where the line must be drawn in the sand. Public displays of the Ten Commandments? One nation under God in the Pledge of Allegiance? Lunchtime prayers at the United States Naval Academy led on a rotating basis by Protestant, Catholic and Jewish chaplains? Registering voters in churches? Prayers before school, college and professional sports events?

The wisdom of those who founded this nation has led to enhancement of religion, to enable diverse faiths to flourish, to allow a marvelous diversity of religious values, literature and traditions to enrich our society. James Madison, the primary genius who wrote our constitution, said "the religion of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man." An inheritor of this 18th century leader has been the extraordinary Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who wrote earlier this year, "at a time when we see around the world the violent consequences of the assumption of religious authority by government, Americans may count themselves fortunate: our regard for constitutional boundaries has protected us from similar travails, while allowing private religious exercise to flourish." She then posed the profound question, "why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?" Justice O'Connor well understands that the values we should all share are not Christian values or Jewish values or Moslem values. They are American values.

Thank you.
Related Articles
Crossing the Line? Religion in the Public Square
Poll: Americans Believe Religion Is 'Under Attack' -- Majority Says Religion is 'Losing Influence' In American Life (11/21/05)
ADL Religious Freedom Resources
Abraham Foxman: Religion in America’s Public Square: Are We Crossing the Line?
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