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Jewish World Review June 27, 2005/ 20 Sivan, 5765

Suzanne Fields

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When intolerance stalks faith | The debate over freedom of religion has turned into a debate over freedom from religion. Religious men and women founded America, and for centuries, religious faith was considered by nearly everyone to be a key to good citizenship. The Founding Fathers would not allow religion to govern the state, but they appreciated the way religion governed the private lives of good citizens.

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 diminish.

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 '08.

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Anti-religious innuendo from politicians descends in deleterious ways to the larger society, shaping public attitudes and encouraging religious bigotry. In Knoxville, Tenn., deep in the Bible Belt, a 10-year-old boy took his Bible to school to read together with like-minded classmates at recess. The principal disbanded the group and told the boys never to bring their Bibles to school again, thus relegating what most of us call "the Good Book" to the category of weapons and drugs.

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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© 2005, Suzanne Fields, Creators Syndicate