Jewish World Review June 27, 2005/ 20 Sivan,
When intolerance stalks faith
I didn't grow up with religious rituals, but my parents, who
were proud of being Jewish, taught me to respect those who did. When a
mischievous redheaded neighborhood boy went into the priesthood, my mother
told him that he was "too good-looking" to be a priest. She felt sorry for
the pretty young girls he would never court. But she taught us by example to
respect his choice of a "higher calling," even though it wasn't our calling.
We were particularly taught not to express anti-religious
sentiments about others. (Jewish humor, after all, mostly makes fun of
Jews.) Christianity was the dominant religion in America, and it got a pass
from public criticism. Protestants and Catholics occasionally feuded with
one another in public. Not until John F. Kennedy convinced voters that he
would govern as an American without consulting the Vatican did that begin to
In the 1960s, American identity was conspicuously tied up with
religious faith, but as an impulse to do good rather than propagate dogma.
The civil rights movement, midwifed by the black church, was borne on the
wings of the religious rhetoric of Martin Luther King Jr., a Baptist
preacher. Rabbis and priests united behind his message. The idea prevailed
that politics was separated from religion, but religion and politics
nevertheless shaped American social values together, challenging
licentiousness dangerous to the state and appealing to a higher ideal to
make the country a better place for everyone.
That's why it's particularly alarming that slurs and innuendo
are used against religious people today. No matter how Howard Dean, chairman
of the Democratic National Committee, tries to wiggle out of the
implications of his remark that the Republican Party is made up of "white
Christians," he expected his remarks to inspire Democrats to contribute
money to a party willing to shun white Christians, though it's odd that any
politician would knock whites and Christians, who comprise the majority of
voters. Ken Mehlman, the Republican national chairman, hit him where he hurt
with his remark that if the Republicans are all white Christians, "a lot of
folks who attended my bar mitzvah would be surprised."
Hillary Clinton, the star attraction of a fundraiser in Los
Angeles, jeered that Republican leaders are "messianic" in their belief that
they enjoy "a direct line to the heavens." She tried to turn it into a joke
about her own channeling of Eleanor Roosevelt, but realistic Democrats were
not pleased. They understand that she will have to win votes in red states
as a Methodist moderate if she expects to get back to the White House in
Most of us see the absurdity of the principal's decision, but
the debate about vouchers in schools is subtler in its anti-religious
fervor. The Florida Supreme Court heard arguments the other day over whether
vouchers are constitutional if cashed at religious schools. It's an
important case because Florida kids liberated from failing public schools
can now take their tuition voucher to any school of their choice. This puts
religious schools in the mix. Two years ago, 25 percent of the parents of
children with vouchers chose a religious school. Such vouchers especially
help minority children. In the most recent school year, 700 vouchers were
awarded to minority children, 61 percent of them black and 33 percent
Hispanic. Vouchers thus become the civil rights issue of our own time.
How vouchers are used depends on a family's choice, not a bureaucrat's whim, and it's silly to argue that vouchers break down the wall between church and state. Does a state-subsidized senior who chooses a church-affiliated nursing home breach that wall? Vouchers are not about establishing a state-based religion, but empowering parents of moderate means to educate their children as they choose just like parents who can afford private schools.
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