Thursday, December 24, 2015

Church and State

I’ve never fully understood how exactly it can be constitutional for Christmas to be a federal holiday in a nation that endlessly prides itself on how carefully it guards the boundary between church and state. I come to the issue, therefore, from precisely the opposite direction from all those outraged types who write letters to the editor at this time of year to express their indignation at having received a “Happy Holidays” card from their newspaper deliverer or local school board instead of a bona fide Christmas card, or their irritation over their end-of-the-year office party being thrown to celebrate not Christmas but something fully non-specific and only vaguely festive like “the holidays” or, even more bizarrely, winter itself. I didn’t get a “holiday card” this year from the Obamas—perhaps (but even I myself don’t really think this) a subtle response to all those e-mails about the Iran deal—but I did get one from the Bidens and the Andrew Cuomos…and, true to P.C. form, neither mentions any actual holiday. (The Cuomos’ card wishes us well during the “holiday season.” The Bidens’ wishes us “many blessings in 2016.”)  It’s an unsubtle ruse. I know what they mean. They know that I know what they mean. And I know that they know it too. (The holly wreaths with red ribbons adorning the windows of what I suppose must be the Biden home—their “real” home, I think, not Number One Observatory Circle—on the cover of their card are the giveaway.) Still, I’ve calmed down over the years. I no longer find it annoying to be wished a merry Christmas by salespeople trying to be friendly and pleasant, or not too annoying. I cleverly but probably over-subtly register my pique with the whole thing by avoiding malls and post offices, even banks, in December as best I can. I suppose I can live with the White House having a Christmas tree. But I still don’t fully understand how it can be legal for the government formally and purposefully to foster the public celebration of a religion-specific festival in a nation of self-proclaimed disestablishmentarians.

Nor is the point that I simply disagree. It’s also that I’ve never been able quite to understand why Christians who take their faith seriously would even want people outside the church to glom onto their best holiday, one possessed of the kind of deep spiritual significance that can only be diluted by bringing into the mix people for whom the holiday has no religious meaning at all. Isn’t it just a bit insulting to people who take their Christian faith seriously to suggest that even non-belief in the most basic articles of that faith does not constitute sufficient reason not to celebrate its festivals? I can’t see how it could not be! And so, when I see those bumper stickers encouraging Christians to put the Christ back into Christmas, I’m in complete agreement because I too would like nothing more than for Christmas to turn back into a Christian holiday possessed of deep meaning for the faithful, something that it would be absurd, even mildly offensive, for non-Christians to embrace at all, let alone enthusiastically. Is it really all about selling toys? I suppose that is probably is!

Nor do I feel this way only about other people’s religions: I am an equal-opportunity Grinch. When I hear that the White House is having yet another Pesach seder and that the President and First Lady are both planning to attend, I feel a sense of dismay tinged with guilt: the latter because I realize I’m supposed to be thrilled that the leader of the free world is willing to make such a public display of the warmth he feels towards his Jewish co-citizens, but the former because I don’t really want non-Jews to co-opt Jewish rituals to make some sort of dramatic statement about their own liberality without actually embracing any of the ideas or concepts that undergird the rituals in question. When I read a few weeks ago about the President hosting a festive menorah-lighting ceremony at the White House, I felt the same mix of pride and ill ease. I get it—I’m supposed to be thrilled that Jewish Americans are welcome to perform Jewish rituals in the White House. But shouldn’t the most public of our nation’s buildings specifically not be the backdrop for religion-specific rituals that all Americans neither can nor should embrace? Nor do I fix my gaze in this regard only on the government: I find the endless efforts of Chabad to set up those giant, weirdly-angular menorahs in the public square equally unsettling. Surely, they’re acting out of conviction. But I can’t help thinking that every step we take towards weakening the separation of church and state—an expression, by the way, that most seem to suppose comes from the Constitution, but which was actually coined by Thomas Jefferson years later—is a step towards weakening our right to pursue our spiritual path without interference from outside parties, most definitely including the federal government. Or any government.

This year, though, my feelings about the separation of church and state are different than the past because it seems to impossible to consider these issues any longer without bringing Muslim America into the mix. Our 2.7 million Muslim co-citizens are clearly having a rough time. Article after article in the newspapers I read and at the on-line news sites I frequent are detailing almost daily how complicated a time this is for Muslims who must grapple with the fact that there are lots of people out there who are selling a version of Islam radically (to use precisely the right word) different from their own. And it seems slowly to be dawning on American Muslims that, particularly after San Bernardino, it will no longer be enough merely to insist that the jihadist version of their faith is just a perversion of Islam and thus not something “regular” Muslims need to think or worry about. (That, of course, is precisely what the Islamicist radicals behind all these terrorist strikes say about non-radical Islam! For the most recent of these articles, this one by Laurie Goodman and published in the New York Times earlier this week, click here.) But precisely when it feels like the right thing to do would be to encourage American Muslims to break formally and absolutely with the extremists in their midst by getting the President to welcome American Muslims to the White House for another Eid al-Fitr banquet like the one he hosted last June (in other words, by creating the sense that American Muslims can be part of our national fabric in the same way that Christians and Jews can be and are), that is precisely when I think we should redouble our efforts to re-erect the once unscalable wall between church and state that has slowly been eroded over the last decades.

American Muslims have a huge problem on their hand. They themselves are not such a unified group. They are slowly awakening to the fact that there are among them jihadists like the San Bernardino killers…and that the responsibility for tolerating the kind of extremism that leads to violence cannot solely be set on the shoulders of overseas clerics. My sense is that we would do well to make it clear that our secular government does not instruct its citizens what to believe or what spiritual path to follow, that the whole concept of religious freedom only works if the sole role the government plays in the internal workings of American faith communities is to play no role at all. If Muslims wish to renounce jihadism and terror, then they are going to have to stand up and be counted…on their own and in their own communities and mosques. 

Just recently, I read about something called the Muslim Reform Movement, a tiny organization headed by just fifteen Muslim leaders from the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Denmark that has begun to take matters into their own hands to foster a version of Islam that is liberal, tolerant, and broad-minded. (To see more about the organization, click here.  To read a very interesting editorial that appeared two weeks ago in the Boston Globe about the group, click here.) I know that many of us view efforts like this with extreme skepticism. I feel that way myself. And, given the fact that there are something like 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, the influence of these thirteen brave souls will be, at least at first, severely limited. Still, the solution cannot be imposed from without: what Islam will be like in 2070, or thereabouts, when the number of Muslims in the world surpasses the number of Christians, is in the hands of today’s Muslims. Merely paying lip service to pluralism and tolerance will not be anywhere near enough. And, yes, to raise the issue that (at least for most) dare not say its name, leaving Israel out of the mix would also constitute a grave error: if Muslims are going to foster an American version of Islam that is truly pluralistic and progressive, then they are going to have to find a way to embrace the reality of Israel and the presence of the Jewish state among the nations of the world. Absent that, the whole undertaking will be, at least as far as I myself am concerned, doomed to irrelevance. If I can live with an Islamic Iran, then America’s Muslims can live with a Jewish Israel.

American Muslims do not need to be patronized by the government with special White House photo ops; they need to be left alone to chart a course forward that will affect the history of the world in a positive way by renouncing violence and terror…and embracing the core values that rest at the center of American culture, and the separation of church and state foremost among them. Many of you—both congregants and readers—have responded negatively when I’ve written or preached about this possibility in the past, expressing the notion that I am living in a fool’s paradise if I think that Islam could possibly embrace the liberal values that are the beating heart of the Western democratic enterprise. I suppose I could be. (I’m a rabbi, not a prophet!) But the Pew Research institute projects that there will be 2.8 billion Muslims in the world by mid-century…and that number makes it crucial for us in this country to support the moderates and liberals who would reform Islam. Could these people succeed? It is hard to say. Certainly, the odds are against them. But it is precisely in our country, where the wall between religion and government was meant by our founders to be iron-clad, that the kind of protestant Islam that the world so desperately needs could possibly take root and flourish. The chances of success are not good at all. But not good is better than non-existent…and so, as a new year dawns on our troubled land, I suggest we take “not good” as the best option available and see how far we can get. 

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