Is the Jewish church-state focus fading?
12/30/2010 - 12:20
James Besser

In thinking about the top Jewish stories of 2010, it occurred to me there wasn't a single major church-state battle on the list. That's a big change from, say, a decade ago.

Almost two years into the administration of President Barack Obama the faith based initiatives created by his predecessor are mostly still in place, and groups like Americans United for Separation of Church and State are howling mad.

But the reaction from Jewish groups has been muted, which leads to an intriguing question: is the decades-old church-state focus of Jewish “defense” organizations getting blurrier?

The unequivocal answer is, maybe.

Several Jewish activists told me recently that there has been a shift – but that it has nothing to do with the issues.

“Let's face it; Jewish groups that have been very involved in this issue are reluctant to criticize a Democratic president,” an Orthodox activist told me. “Their views haven't really changed, but the politics of the issue have.”

Abe Foxman, chief of the Anti-Defamation League whose opinions often form a kind of Jewish baseline on church-state issues, said nothing's changed for him.

“These issues are current and vital for us as they've ever been,” he said.

But he conceded that the issue gets murkier when faith based programs are supported by Democratic presidents.

“It's almost easier when it comes from the Republican side because that's where you expect it to come from,” he said. “It's almost a sleeper issue when it comes from Democrats, and people don't pay as much attention.”

But the ADL isn't giving the Obama administration a free ride, he said.

“This administration has been on the same page as the conservative side on faith based issues from day one,” he said. “We see that as as concern.”

But several other prominent Jewish activists told me there HAS been a shift – mostly because American Jews no longer feel the direct threat from things like mandatory school prayer that they once did.

“When you are afraid your religious rights will be taken away, you militate against any blurring of the church-state line,” said Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn. “As you become more a part of the establishment, you're more part of the 'state,' and less inclined not to see this as a threat.”

“The great battles in church-state separation were fought and won in the 1950s and 1960s,” said Marc Stern, Associate General Counsel for Legal Advocacy of the American Jewish Committee and a longtime leader on church-state issues. “As long as the Supreme Court shows no signs of retreat on issues like school prayer and 'Christian nation' efforts, it will remain less of a priority for many.”

University of Akron political scientist John Green, who studies the intersection of religion and government, said some of the shift has to do with the national focus on other, more urgent issues.

“I don't think the underlying dynamics have changed very much, but the current focus on the economy and to some extent foreign policy have created a different set of priorities – for the moment,” he said.

But for the Jewish community, that could change if Congressional Republicans, now in control of the House, decide to focus more on the Christian right social agenda in the next two years, he said.

Several activists brought up a different issue.

“These days, it's all about Israel,” said an official with one Jewish group. “That's where you raise money, not on church-state, which is an issue Jews no longer see as threatening.”

Mark Silk, director of the Leonard Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and proprietor of the Spiritual Politics blog, said the “greater presence of the Orthodox, who are much less separationist than the rest of the Jewish community, has watered down the single voice the Jewish community used to speak with on these issues. So a more complicated message is coming out of the Jewish community.”

What do I think? That it's all of the above. Right now, the church-state focus of the Jewish community has receded, in part because of the preeminence of other issues and the diminished feeling of immediate threat; the widely reported loss of influence of the Christian right has contributed to that.

There's also something misleading in this discussion. Jewish organizations may be somewhat less involved, less likely to react reflexively to every last assult on a rigid church-state line.

But look at the leadership of major non-Jewish church-state groups, and you'll find a disproportionate number of Jewish names.

To some extent, the fight has shifted from multi-issue Jewish groups to non-Jewish groups that focus only on that issue.

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