Commentary Magazine


Church, State, and the Jews

“The time has come,” editorialized the Jesuit magazine America in the wake of the Supreme Court decision in the Regents’ Prayer case, “for [Jews] to decide among themselves precisely what they conceive to be the final objective of the Jewish community in the United States—in a word, what bargain they are willing to strike as one of the minorities in a pluralistic society.” Many Jews were offended by the question, and indeed the rhetoric of the editorial was in some ways offensive, but the question is nevertheless a fair one and deserves an honest answer.

The answer, however, must at once be both simple and complicated. Complicated, because in order to find the true meaning of the Jewish position on church-state issues, it must be understood at the outset that words like “religion,” “secularism,” “society,” have resonances in Christian tradition and post-Christian secularism that they do not have for Jews. Before the challenge from America can be taken up, then, it is necessary to recognize that Jews—even Jews alienated from their own religious and historic traditions—differ from Christians not only in the conclusions they draw from society but in the premises they hold about it. We can, though, begin by stating simply that while there are of course deep differences of outlook within the Jewish community, the overwhelming weight of both feeling and opinion among contemporary Jews is for the strictest kind of separation between religion and the state—and even between religion and society. Nor is this opinion merely a tactical response to the current situation in America; it is in fact the expression of an attitude to society that has deep roots in Jewish history, especially in the Western experience of the last eighteen centuries.

But for Christians, too, there is the matter of the bargain they have struck to attain the freedom that American society offers them—a matter which has tended to get obscured in the controversy now raging about the meaning and intention of the First Amendment. For the controversy has up to now largely centered on the question of how much, if any, support the government of the United States may extend to religious groups as such, or to religion in general. Yet the equally important question of what American society requires of religion in exchange for the freedom it offers has remained relatively unexamined.

Stated too simply, the notion of freedom of religion can be misleading. For crucial to the particular kind of free society created in this country is the implicit demand it has always made on religion. What the First Amendment grew out of and subsequently determined was less the notion of strict religious “freedom” than the idea of a “compact” to be struck between society as a whole and the religious groups comprehended within it. Society undertook not to coerce any of the various religious sects through the power of the state, guaranteeing the “free exercise” of all spiritual faiths—and on the other side, the sects were to pay for this freedom by giving up their right to coerce society.

On this point the lesson of American history is as clear as a human record can be. It was decided long ago by the Supreme Court, for instance, that a Mormon may not practice polygamy, despite the serious religious conviction that commands him to do so. Nor is a man, merely by proving that he objects to bearing arms on religious grounds, thereby exempted as a matter of undeniable right from the military draft; such exemptions are granted by individual acts of legislative grace.

_____________

 

Not only in this kind of detail, however, nor only in relation to unpopular minority sects, does American society assert its right to effect the modification of religious practice; by extension this right is carried into the domain of doctrine itself. For while each religious group in America may continue to view itself as the absolute vessel of God’s true revelation of Himself—dealing absolutely with those who freely elect to accept its discipline—and while each is scrupulously protected with respect to the requirements necessary to the exercise of persuasion on the broadest scale, they must all renounce their claim on the souls of those who reject their doctrine. It is unthinkable, for example, that in America the Roman Catholic Church should sue to enjoin a baptized Catholic from remarrying after a civil divorce. In sum, American society has always asked, and continues to ask, of religious groups something previously unknown and almost unimaginable: that each of them, remaining for itself and in private the only true and revealed faith, behave “publicly” as if its truth were as tentative as an aesthetic opinion or a scientific theory.

Now, the concept of the limited state on which the American Constitution is based is not a new one in Western history. Medieval political theory declares the state to be subordinate to natural law and to the authority of the church. In the name of this idea a pope once made an emperor kneel in penitence in the snows of Canossa. Of course, the limits set for a medieval monarch by the authority incarnate in the church militant were different from those that were defined by a sovereign people for its new American state; nevertheless the act of limiting the power of the state did have precedents in the political tradition. What was really new—and unique—in the American experiment was the concept of the limited church.

This concept was a construction of history, not of theology. To be sure, it was foreshadowed in the theories of Roger Williams, but it was not through these theories that the idea came to triumph. A recent document produced for the United Presbyterian Church, called Relations Between Church and State, states the case most aptly:

Although colonial and subsequent Presbyterians played active and dramatic roles in the evolution of the concept of church-state separation, it is a mistake to assume that this concept has grown out of any doctrine of Christian theology. Separation of church and state in the United States was not a product of theological reflection alone. In a real sense it was a decisively secular development and obtained most of its meaning from the national experience of the United States of America.

Left to themselves, the major faiths of the Western world have not thought about each other very much, except as potential objects for conversion. The American stance on freedom of religion is based on the implicit announcement to each of the various religious groups that the others are here to stay. What name one may wish to give to this announcement is irrelevant. But that it has shaped the religions in America, and in a more positive way than by simply providing them with empty space in which to expand and collide, seems undeniable. So, for example, in the bitter debate about the Catholic faith which marked the political campaign of 1960, when Catholics in America were charged with everything that had ever happened in the Middle Ages or was happening in places like contemporary Spain, they answered in essence that America is different and the Catholics have themselves become different by assenting to the American experiment and by living loyally within it. And this is true. It is inconceivable today in America that Roman Catholic priests should be involved in the leadership of an anti-Semitic movement—precisely what is happening in Argentina, where the hierarchy has failed to silence priests who are spokesmen for the racist Tacuara organization.

At least to someone looking from the outside, it seems that the 1960 election had certain crucial consequences for Catholics and for America above and beyond the election of a Catholic to the Presidency. In the height of the campaign several important statements were made on behalf of the American hierarchy; they amounted to a formal promise to abide by the self-limiting tradition of the sects in America—i.e., to behave in actual practice as one among many churches. It was thus that the Catholics purchased the inevitable ticket of full admission into American society.

_____________

 

This sundering of private faith from public policy is, for good historical reasons, extremely congenial to Jews, for they have experienced public policy over the centuries as a force inimical both to the practice of their religion and the safety of their lives.

Historians have generally emphasized that the Jewish community prior to its political emancipation (which is nowhere more than two centuries old) was dominated by its own “established” faith. To be sure, the ghetto community was monolithic and highly disciplined, but its authority could only operate on people who chose anew each day to resist apostasy. In the eyes of those who wielded the real political power, for a Jew to leave Judaism and become a Christian was considered a virtue; the only kind of apostasy that was ever a crime against the state in Europe was defection from the dominant Christian faith. The Jew who defected was thereby relieved of the burden of persecution and often treated with special consideration. Consequently, the Jews were not merely under persistent pressure and temptation throughout the Middle Ages to convert from their faith; they were the sole community in the Christian West in such a situation. What greater proof than this very fact did the Jews need in order to believe that religion could be sustained without support from the power of the state?

The predominant Jewish experience of the state in medieval Europe was one of cowering before its enmity. A Jew could only hope, in the words of the oft-repeated prayer, that “the hearts of kings and princes be turned with favor toward Thy people Israel.” Furthermore, the state was usually either neutral or faintly well disposed toward Jews in a directly inverse ratio to the influence over its rulers by prelates. There were occasions in European history when the Church protected Jews from rapacious princes, but these occasions were exceptional. The establishment of Christianity in the Roman Empire by Constantine, immediately accompanied by persecution of the Jews in the name of the true faith, seemed to fix the norm for the rest of Christian history.

The experience of all those centuries does, however, bring up two points that are relevant to the question of present-day America. Jews have come to know, almost by instinct, that their freedom is safest—indeed that their freedom can only be achieved—in societies where the dominance of the church in public life has been blunted. Research into modern Jewish history provides convincing evidence that an early impetus toward the ultimate emancipation of the Jews came from the 17th- and 18th-century mercantilist powers, who were no longer thinking of the state as Christian and who therefore tended to be hospitable to any people who brought realistic advantage to the country. In the second place, Jewish experience with inimical rulers can be summarized in what the greatest of contemporary Jewish historians, Salo Baron, has called virtually a “law”: the Jews and Judaism are better off, and feel safer, in a pluralist society made up of a number of national groups and/or religious sects than they are in a unitary political or religious structure. Thus another seed of political freedom for Jews can be found in the agreement in the 17th century to end the wars of religion and to accept religious diversity as the norm of Western Christendom. The multi-national and multi-religious Austro-Hungarian Empire was a far happier place for Jews than a monolithic Germany proved to be.

_____________

 

The rise of the modern secular state, then, was the sine qua non for Jewish emancipation. For Christianity, however, this same historical development has meant a position of lesser power in men’s affairs. The power of Protestantism has been affected as well as the power of Catholicism, but for various reasons, the Catholic Church has responded with more direct animus against the forces it has held to be responsible for the declining influence of religion. The Syllabus of Errors, promulgated by Pius IX in 1864, in which the “liberal revolution” and all its implications were condemned, was such a response. Pius IX’s censures of the separation of church and state, religious liberty, and public education no longer constitute Catholic doctrine, certainly not in America. It is one thing, however, to make a necessary accommodation to the secular state; and it is quite another to hail it—as Jews have done—as your liberator from age-old oppressions.

In this—which points to nothing less than the different meanings of anti-Semitism for Jewish and for Western history—we have arrived at the heart of the matter. The mainstream of Western thought, both Christian and post-Christian, affirms that the history of the West has been on the whole a good human record marred by many imperfections, among them hatred of the Jew. Therefore, except for the initiators of radical revolutionary movements, few people doubt that Western tradition need only be carried along further in the direction in which it has always been going, with some necessary reforms to broaden and purify its culture. And the eradication of anti-Semitism is generally included among the reforms to be achieved in an ever progressive West.

Many Jews share with the gentiles this view of their civilization—at least intellectually they do—and they also share in the common belief that reform will suffice to put the Jews at last out of danger. But in that place where the heart stores its forebodings, most Jews do not believe it at all. European history has boasted too many pogroms, auto-da-fes, and death camps for Jews to believe, with Olympian calm, that these phenomena are an unfortunate but accidental feature of European civilization. The Jews must diagnose the Western tradition as not merely prone to the virus of anti-Semitism but chronically, or endemically, ill with it. For their own safety and for the future lives of their children, Jews must look to a radical change in the very foundations of Western civilization.

This special Jewish need has been little understood; in the light of it, we find that the two main streams of Jewish modernism—Zionism, which has generally been considered a radical solution to the Jewish problem, and assimilationism, which has appeared to offer the solution of gradualist accommodation to Western culture—exactly reverse their positions. Zionism is in fact the conservative position, basing itself on two propositions: one, that all basic identities are, or ought to be, national; and two, that anti-Semitism is a hideously aggravated but essentially rational response to a national imbalance that can quite simply be rectified. Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, asserted that it was the “abnormality” of the Jews’ being everywhere a national minority that had brought what were otherwise normal tensions between national groups to the pitch of traditional European anti-Semitism; if the Jew therefore reorganized his identity into the recognized form, all abnormal hatreds would automatically disappear. Zionists, moreover, in their profound understanding of the fact that culture is more than political identity, have been willing to admit that in some fundamental sense Western culture will remain pervasively Christian. There can and ought to be, then—for the sake of everybody’s peace and dignity—a comparable Jewish national culture. Such a culture could even be (indeed in Israel it largely is) post-Jewish, but it would at least be as related to its own religious history as contemporary post-Christianity is related to the historic values and experiences of the church.

The Zionist conception of the relation of religion to culture was recently given an important expression in the decision of the Israel Supreme Court in the case of Brother Daniel. A Catholic monk of Jewish birth, Brother Daniel had been admitted to Israel and was, under its law, free to ask for naturalization as a citizen of the state. He sued instead for automatic admission under the Law of Return, the state’s provision that any Jew, of any provenance, can automatically demand citizenship in Israel. Brother Daniel demanded to be described as a Jew by nationality and a Catholic by faith. One minority view in the Supreme Court of Israel supported this demand, in the name of the absolute separation of religion and national identity. The majority opinion was delivered by Chief Justice Silberg:

I have not come to preach religiosity and I do not represent any particular view as to a proper future development of the Jewish people . . . but one thing is held in common by all parts of the people which dwells in Zion (except for a minuscule minority), and it is this: We are not cutting ourselves off from the historic past, and we are not denying our ancestral heritage. . . . Only a fool would believe or think that we are here creating a new culture, for—it is much too late! A people which is almost as old as mankind itself does not start ab ovo. . . .

The Brother Daniel decision has implications beyond the borders of Israel. Brother Daniel’s rights to every consideration for his faith will be guarded zealously, but within a society which is overwhelmingly and publicly Jewish. Just so, one could say that Jews must be politically indistinguishable from all other citizens in America, but that the religio-cultural issues must work themselves out separately. Here, as in Israel, the state is neutral, but here the majority culture is Christian. Jews must accept the fact that they are a cultural minority and that properly temperate expressions of the majority outlook in our public institutions (e.g., Christmas celebrations in the public schools that are not offensively Christological) are as acceptable as are Purim carnivals in the schools of Tel Aviv. What, in the contemporary translation of the Zionist outlook, the Jews have a right to ask is that they be treated with every consideration a majority can offer the sensibilities and sensitivities of a minority.

_____________

 

However, the real thrust of Jewish modernity, beginning with the political emancipation of the Jews in Europe, has been in another direction—has, in fact, been tied to the dream of a basic transformation. Its most extreme form, that of belief in total assimilation, is not, as so many Jewish ideologists have claimed, the one most accommodating to gentile culture, but the most radical in its demands on that culture. The source of this dream in Jewish tradition and consciousness is, of course, the vision of the Messianic age, of “a new heaven and a new earth,” when all the old order of the world would be overturned completely and Jewish suffering would be brought to an end. The expansive spirits at the dawn of Jewish modernity immediately saw in the beginnings of political emancipation a wholly new possibility for achieving the Messianic age—in this world and by human agency. Had not the advanced minds of the Enlightment envisaged a world in which all “medievalism”—i.e., all artificially imposed differences among men—would disappear in the name of the oneness of humanity? Was not Progress the new deity for their age?

It was inevitable that, more than any other single community, the Jews should have greeted the radical change promised by the Enlightenment: they longed to be not merely fully protected citizens but brothers to their fellow Europeans. Hence the now-famous passion of so many Jews for all the new 18th- and 19th-century ideologies, from the Rights of Man to Marxism to the Freudian unconscious. The generous promise of modern movements, liberal and socialist, was a world in which there would be neither Jew nor Christian. The movements were embraced not only by Jews who wished to give up Judaism and worship at the new altars of man; many fervently religious Jews also became partisans of various secularist political movements because they held out the hope of an end to anti-Semitism.

That hope was not to be realized in Europe, cradle of Western civilization. One need not even go so far as to mention Nazism and Communism. The liberal anti-clerical Third French Republic, for instance, after the Church was totally disestablished, could not produce a situation of real cultural equality. Public school classes to this day are held on Saturday in France and could never be held on Sunday; so it is possible to raise one’s children to be Christian, but impossible to raise them as Jews, without coming into collision with the practices of state institutions. By now, then, the first flush of Jewish fervor for modern secular ideologies has been tempered or rendered timid: anti-Semitism in Europe has certainly not been obliterated, and in some cases secularism has lent it an even greater virulence.

_____________

 

All this makes the encounter of the Jew with America uniquely important. The enormous attraction that this country has always held for European Jews—both those who came to it and those who could not do so—did not merely lie in its open frontiers and economic opportunities. In America was located the one society in the Western world which had had no medieval past: no ghetto, no pogroms, no anti-Jewish state. Here the Jew might share as an equal in the creation of that modern dream, the “new man.” Here was the last, best hope of the Jew to become a normal part of a national culture. It is interesting to note that the Jews were the only ethnic group in America which in the years of the great depression still showed a surplus of immigrants over emigrants. After their untold wanderings, America for its Jews has become not another way station but the end of the line.

Most American Jews thus have an investment in this country that commits them to something far beyond being a benevolently treated minority in a Christain culture presided over by a neutral state. A generation ago this commitment was expressed in the idea of “cultural pluralism,” according to which every American was to live in two cultures, the public culture common to all and the subculture of his own particular ethnic tradition. Of course, cultural pluralism proved to be a chimera because all the other ethnic groups chose to become totally acculturated. The grandchildren of the non-Jewish immigrants—as Will Herberg famously pointed out in his book Catholic-Protestant-Jew—have maintained only one distinctive characteristic: the religion (but not the ethnic consciousness) of their ancestors. Though Herberg himself was careful to say that religion has, and must have, cultural and social implications, his analysis has been assimilated into the public mind as a blueprint for a secular public culture shared by all Americans, who will differ from one another only in being members of three distinct enclaves of private religious faith. The image is best projected nowadays at Presidential Inaugurations, where clergymen of all three major divisions of faith offer prayer. For Jews the participation of rabbis in the Inaugural ceremonies is undoubtedly far more impressive than is the participation of bishops to Christians. The matter-of-course appearance of a rabbi at the most sacral moment of American civic life is visible proof indeed that they are full co-owners of American culture.

The instance of prayers at the Inauguration serves to illustrate a further point: namely, it is simply not true that Jews are completely and consistently fixed in their strict interpretation of the First Amendment. Such things as chaplains in the armed services, prayers at state occasions, tax exemptions for religious institutions—while the most doctrinaire member of the Supreme Court, Justice Douglas, would now like to strike them down in the name of intellectual and legal consistency—are no more troublesome to Jewish than to Christian opinion. For these practices extend to the Jews in every respect exactly as to all other denominations in America; no pressure of the majority or of its faith is being exercised upon them. Jews speak of the separation of church and state in absolute terms only on those occasions when they are asked to submit to practices which force them to admit to themselves that their status in America is no more than that of a generously tolerated minority. The First Amendment is not the real dogma of the American Jew. His deepest and most messianic need is not a completely secular state; it is a truly equal status in American culture.

_____________

 

The true meaning of the battle currently raging over the First Amendment, then, is not that it is a confrontation between Christian defenders of the religio-cultural status quo and Jews in a somewhat uncomfortable league with the secularists to alter it. In fact, Jewish pressure on the status quo has far less significance than Catholic pressure to create a change in the balance between religion and the public culture. For one brief moment in history, on the day that John F. Kennedy was barely elected to the White House, Jewish and Catholic feeling and interests coincided. And Jews gave a politician for whom, in his own person, they were certainly far less enthusiastic than they had been for Roosevelt, the largest majority of their votes in history. So, naturally, did Catholics. Since that day, however, Catholics have not merely redoubled their efforts to get tax aid for parochial schools, they have largely replaced Protestants in the van of defending religion in the public schools. These are the very public schools that Catholics once abandoned as being too “godless” at a time when Christianity (i.e., Protestantism) was being much more overtly practiced in them than it is today. Indeed, Catholics have largely replaced Protestants as the guardians of that whole complex of practices once created to serve a sub-Protestant public piety. However one may characterize Jewish policy, it is now clearly in conflict with the new Catholic drive for a more Christian America.

And what of the Protestants in all this? Of course, there is no such thing as one Protestantism in America; that which we call Protestantism is a composite of several often conflicting traditions. In the South, for instance, fundamentalism is virtually a state church. For fundamentalists, devotion to the First Amendment expresses itself, as during the 1960 election, in the form of a simple anti-Catholic nativism. Fundamentalists are against any kind of aid to parochial schools on grounds of separation of church and state, but they are equally violent about any attempt to remove Christian practices from the schools.

At the other extreme of theological sophistication are many Protestant leaders who support the absolute separation of church and state for very positive religious reasons. Men like Franklin Littell are eager to keep Protestantism entirely free of any hampering relationship to American culture, and especially to American patriotism, so that the church may unambiguously become what it ought to be, the critic and the conscience of society. The document of the United Presbyterian Church cited above suggests to Presbyterians the following position: “Theologically, the church must be aware that the sole constant in its mandate is the fact of Jesus Christ. It is to the Christ that the church bears witness, not to a theological articulation of the place of the political order in the structure of reality.” Therefore, in such a practical matter as tax exemption for religious agencies, “the church must regard special status or favored position as a hindrance to the fulfilling of its mission.”

_____________

 

But the main impulse of American Protestantism lies somewhere in between. The “stated clerk” of the very denomination for whom the above study document was prepared, Eugene Carson Blake, spoke rather differently in the summer of 1960, when he was afraid that a Roman Catholic might wind up in the White House. The grounds for his fear, he said, were that “a Protestant President is free to participate in the many inter-faith activities that have been built up so carefully over the years. But a Roman Catholic is not.” Obviously, even in the heat of that turbulent summer, Dr. Blake knew very well that attending interfaith activities is not a constitutional duty of the President. What he really feared was an impairment of the image of our culture in which the various sects are treated as equals, and religion as a whole is in some deep sense the American Establishment. And it was in the same spirit that Bishop James Pike deplored the decision in the Regents’ Prayer case.

But perhaps the most significant reactions to the Regents’ Prayer decision came from Reinhold Niebuhr and John C. Bennett, who, as leaders of liberal opinion among Protestants on interreligious and social issues, took many people by surprise with their opposition to the Supreme Court’s strict separationist stand. Niebuhr held that “the prayer seemed to be a model of accommodation to the pluralistic nature of our society” and deplored the possibility of a “consistently secular education that the Founding Fathers certainly did not intend.”

There are two things implied in a position like Niebuhr’s: one, that religion in America is quasi-established, and two, that the terms of that establishment include only such rituals and restrictions as keep the three main historic faiths equal. From such a point of view one can imagine a public policy that would include teaching about religion in the schools as a fact of culture; experimenting with “shared time”; inclusion of Bible reading in the school programs, but elimination of sectarian practices like Christmas celebrations and the Lord’s Prayer; observance of some blue laws, with legal exemptions for Jewish Sabbath observers; agitation to remove such laws as those on the books of Massachusetts and Connecticut pertaining to birth control; but a growing concern, in the name of fairness, for the special Catholic burden of supporting an expanding parochial school system.

As for the Jews, the policy outlined above—though unsatisfying to their particular interests in many details—is nevertheless in essence a fair representation of their own wishes for American society. It grants their cherished desire for a tri-faith image of America. And further, it assumes the existence of a genuine religious consensus based, not on some lowest common denominator Christianity, but on the biblical values common to both Judaism and Christianity. Thus Jews and Protestants are actually approaching one another more closely on the questions of church-state relations—in proportion to the growing Protestant acceptance of the mutually self-denying bargain that religious denominations have struck with American society in exchange for their freedom.

_____________

 

Catholic commitment to such a self-limiting pledge is of course far more problematic in the very nature of Catholicism. But even in Catholic thought there is some stirring in a new direction. John Courtney Murray—theologically far too much of a Catholic classicist to entertain for a moment the notion that any other religion than his own is ultimately true—has spoken in a way indicating movement toward the other faiths:

There may indeed be some three hundred religious bodies in America. But there are not that many “styles” of religious belief. In fact, there are genetically only three—the Protestant, the Catholic, and the Jewish. They are radically different “styles” and no one of them is reducible, or perhaps even comparable, to any of the others.

Official Catholic policy, however, appears to be determined by other, special, considerations. The violence of the Catholic response to the decision in Engel v. Vitale could clearly not have been occasioned by the excision of a short prayer of little, if any, religious significance. Behind this response lurked the grave problem for Catholics of the future financing of the parochial schools. Cardinal Spellman’s statement on the decision, although his most important concern was for maintaining the Christian flavor of American culture, forthrightly linked the two issues. Such decisions as that prohibiting the Regents’ Prayer, he said, tend to “the establishment of a new religion of secularism.” The same attitude had been expressed a few months earlier in the Boston Pilot, the official paper of the diocese of Cardinal Cushing, which was even more vehement about a suggested breach in the blue laws. The Senate of Massachusetts had already passed a bill exempting all Jewish Sabbath observers, whatever their business, from the prohibition to keep open on Sunday. The editorial in the Pilot was willing to concede this right to establishments purveying kosher food and the like, primarily to Jews, but it called any further liberalization a “shocking assault,” “unjust and offensive,” and evidence that a “carefully organized minority has done its work to destroy the Sunday.” The editorial then named the senators who had voted for the bill, clearly asking that pressure be brought upon them. (It was, and the bill was rescinded.) In the heat of that moment it was forgotten that in 1960, in the crucial last week of the Presidential election campaign, Cardinal Cushing had assured the country that the hierarchy would never dictate to voters on any issue. And examples of this kind multiply. No one even attempts to deny, for instance, that the bill for major federal aid to education has thus far been defeated by pressure brought to bear on the members of Congress from the Catholic hierarchy, who want a bill that includes parochial schools or no bill at all.

Yet it would neither be true to say that “liberal” Catholic views were merely campaign oratory nor that there is a continuing Catholic drive to “dominate” America (whatever that word may mean in this context). What then is the character of Catholic policy? It seems to me that Catholic demands can only be explained in the light of Catholic conceptions of the future of American society and of America’s role in the world. Within America, Catholics are (and from their point of view, it must be said, rightly) fearful of “indifferentism,” the sin of believing that one religion is as good as another. To be sure, such a belief does not really operate today among theologians—except possibly for Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, who approach it—but it does in a very untheoretical way pervade American consciousness. From the middle of the 19th century, when Catholics fought hard for the First Amendment, to the present, Catholic policy has really moved in a straight line; for it has always been one of keeping Catholics out of an “indifferentist” consensus. What makes the difference today is that the Roman Catholic Church is paradoxically both strong enough—in numbers and in generations of rootedness in America—and weak enough—in the overextension of its economic resources—to join in open battle for a different kind of America, an America in which it might win tax support for creating “a truly pluralist educational order.”

An even larger concern of Catholic policy is Communism. Christianity as a whole has lost heavily in recent decades, and the Catholic Church more heavily than Protestantism. Naturally, the danger from Communism is most immediate to the heaviest losers. To the Catholic mind, schooled as it is to think in terms of faith and dogma, the confrontation with Communism is a war of ideas between religion and anti-religion. America, as the leader of the West, is cast for the role of the knightly defender of the faith. But for America to be true to this sacred mission, the Christian character of her public life must be buttressed. Parochial schools will teach the Catholics; and the children of others must get at least enough indoctrination in the public schools to give them an appreciation of the trust which as Americans they bear.

All the various positions in America, religious and secular, have in common their rootedness in a basic cast of the Western mind. The precision of Aristotelian logic and the beauty of Platonic ideas have made of that mind a thing enchanted with tidiness and the abstractions it brings. Life, however, is concrete and diffuse; it is very untidy and its stuff does not fit easily into definitions. The faith-counterfaith definition of the West’s struggle with Communism in fact contains the seed of America’s certain defeat in the world at large. For what America can uniquely offer to the peoples of Asia and Africa is not the vision of a Christian or a Judeo-Christian society but precisely of a pluralistic world order in which all men are permitted, nay encouraged, to pursue their own faiths, hopes, and aspirations.

_____________

 

The taking over of the Western ideological bent of mind by so many Jews on their being emancipated into the modern world seems now to have been inevitable: not only, as we have said, because the new ideologies bespoke a new society that would transcend at once all those centuries of hatred and exclusion of the Jews. The Jew’s acceptance of dogmatic Western secular “religions” was also his first instinctive gesture of acculturation to a characteristic Western mode of thought and belief. At its deepest, this is what the abandonment of the talmudic academy for the European university meant. Essentially, however, the Jew is the product of a tradition which is intellectually unideological. Only for Aristotle is A not non-A; classically the Jew can be at one and the same time a bearer of a universal religion and a particular national tradition, a member of the “chosen people” and the possessor of no special rights or qualities. His history is correspondingly unlogical. The ideological ages and societies have always attempted to do away with the Jew, in the name of order. He has flourished where the “theology” of rulers has been tempered by pragmatic common sense.

Thus today the American Jew cannot share in the prevailing Catholic concepts of America and the West. He must, however, equally resist the blandishments of “First Amendmentism.” Any dogma taken to the extreme is ultimately the enemy of freedom, and, as the Jew should by now have re-learned from his experience with modern ideologies, it is his enemy. Constitutional logic by itself could not prevent, say, some future generation’s opening the public schools on Saturday, for the purpose of intensifying education; in the end, only the untidiness of intergroup arrangement, compromise, and, sometimes, counterpressure will make such a thing impossible.

At the moment some Jews, along with some Protestants, are committed to their own parochial schools and therefore in agreement with Catholics on the question of federal aid. An alliance of this kind must no more be taken as a permanent one than the alliance of most of organized Jewry with secularists to support a strict interpretation of the First Amendment. For religious alliances, like political ones, are ad hoc. What is permanent is the continuing network of intentions and special needs of each of the faiths. So, the most parochial and Orthodox of Jews may agree with others that there is need for more religion in public life, but he will recoil when this need is fulfilled in such fashion as to add an iota to the coercive power of the Christian majority over him. Most Jewish leaders would probably have preferred not to have the Regents’ Prayer question litigated before the Supreme Court when it was. If the time had really been ripe for the removal of some sectarian practices from the schools, specifically Christian ones like Christmas observances would have been of far greater concern to Jews than a non-denominational prayer. Similarly with the continuing dispute about Bible readings and the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in the classrooms. Jews can accept, and may even strongly favor Bible readings: so central to our civilization is the Bible that not to know it is to be almost uneducated.

However, the protection of the First Amendment extends not only to religious minorities all of whom have the Bible in common; it must also shelter the non-Judeo-Christians, including atheists and agnostics. In any case, the task of teaching the Bible were better left to religious institutions, since the current practice of reading a few verses without comment in the morning does exercise pressure on the children of agnostics without even beginning to teach the Bible adequately to the children of believers. Jews who are opposed to Bible reading are therefore no more strongly so, nor for any different reasons, than many other people. The Lord’s Prayer, however, is another matter entirely; it is a specifically Christian prayer and its recitation in the schools is clearly a sectarian practice, to which all Jews without exception are adamantly opposed.

_____________

 

So much of the present church-state controversy revolves around the schools for the obvious reason that, more than any other institution, it is the schools that shape our culture. For the vast majority of Jews the public school is the object of a primary, tacit commitment; it is the first and foremost institution for their integration into America. Jews are thus perhaps the strongest defenders of public education. Arguments about whether the public school is secular or secularist (it is in truth neither) are irrelevant. American intellectual and civic tradition exerts its influence as much through the general atmosphere of the school as through specific teachings. Everyone is today committed to pluralism, but do we want a completely fragmented America? That which pulls our diversities together into a viable common society—call it Americanism or Americanness—is largely the creation of the one place where most Americans do spend a crucial part of their lives together. If parochial, or class-determined private schools were to become the norm for America, we would be going a long step toward erecting a society of co-existing ghettos. This is not to say that some parochial education will not, and should not, continue to exist, but it must not, in most Jewish views, become the dominant or even the equal educational form.

Discussions of religion and culture these days tend to dwell largely on the questions which separate the various religious denominations in America, and we tend to overlook how very much they have in common in the realm of social policy. No major religious group in America is racist; all are devoted to a democratic order in politics; and all their pronouncements on social justice are indistinguishable from one another. It is, then, far easier to achieve consensus in action than in thought or even in prayer. This fact goes with the very nature of the American tradition, with its tentativeness and its emphasis on the needs of the day. Perhaps the only phrase that adequately describes the complicated pattern into which American tradition, law, and religion have become interwoven is “not quite.” Religion is neither established nor completely disestablished in America. There is separation of church and state, but it is not absolute. Nothing seems clearer than that there is a body of specifically American attitudes that have to some extent reshaped religious denominational life, but this body of attitudes is neither doctrinaire nor is there complete agreement about its precise nature. Jewish life in America can also be characterized as “not quite.” Certainly Jews here are no longer in Exile, by any traditional definition of that term; but neither are they co-founders of American culture. In most things they are “just like everybody else”; in some, they are uniquely different.

The Founding Fathers have, in the First Amendment, given Americans not a dogma but a clue, a clue to how to live with such complications as we all now face in an undogmatic way: standing separately for various truths, standing together for the peace of society, and delicately avoiding that which is hateful to any of us. These are the terms of the “bargain” that the Jews are willing to strike as one of the “minorities in a pluralistic culture.”

_____________

 

About the Author




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.