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Belief in the Wall

Belief in the Wall

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The National Menorah sponsored by American Friends of Lubavitch stands ready in front of the White House before the start of Chanukah. (Photos: Israel Bardugo)
The National Menorah sponsored by American Friends of Lubavitch stands ready in front of the White House before the start of Chanukah. (Photos: Israel Bardugo)

The festival of Chanukah focuses our attention on the gift of religious freedom that we enjoy in the United States. This freedom is complemented by the "wall of separation" between Church and State, as Thomas Jefferson described the non-establishment clause of the Constitution.

Many Americans Jews have a fervent, even religious, belief in this "wall of separation" and are convinced that it is their ultimate guarantor and protector. While I also subscribe to the importance of this constitutional doctrine, I do not raise it to the level of a religious belief. After all, a number of fine democracies do have official religions, England, to name one. I am further convinced that as it is applied today, the "wall of separation" creates a danger to the very sustainability of the Republic.

I come to this conclusion both from a public policy and religious point of view.

Knowledge and information by themselves are of little use in helping us to make choices unless they are framed by an underlying value systemFreedom of religion is one aspect of a larger democratic system by which we are governed. Democracy itself is the citizens' ability to choose their governing system and representatives to execute that governance. In order to function properly, democracy requires that citizens make choices both for government and personal matters. As the founding fathers duly noted, this system can only work where there is an educated and aware citizenry.

It should be recognized, however, that knowledge and information by themselves are of little use in helping us to make choices unless they are framed by an underlying value system. For example, the knowledge that one therapy for an illness might prolong life for two years with higher function while another therapy might prolong life for three years with lesser function is meaningless unless we can ascribe a value to longer life and higher function.

A democracy is similarly dependent not only on an educated citizenry, but more importantly, a citizenry with common core values. (Values are also the foundation which makes personal freedom meaningful and productive.)

Personal religion is a value system which expresses peoples' most deeply held convictions. Likewise, the repository of a nation's common values is in its religious traditions. In the United States, this religious value system is vested in one of the three monotheistic religions practiced by over ninety percent of the population. This kind of broad homogeneity of values is what underlies the relative stability of most successful democracies.

In effect, democracy is far more dependent on the commonly held belief/value system of the population than it is on the non-establishment of a particular religion. Diminishing or weakening of this elementary aspect of commonality is ultimately destructive to the very democracy we seek to protect. For this reason a democracy needs to encourage, enhance and promote a general religious orientation among the population in order to ensure a common value system. There are democracies, particularly in Europe, where the population is not particularly religious in comparison to the United States. However, this is only in practice since their belief/value system remains strong.

The imperative of commonly held beliefs and values is applicable to all democracies, but for the United States it is even more acute. This is because the United States is a polyglot nation of immigrants from various parts of the world, each group with its own culture, habits, (English is not the official) language and even values. This condition forms a natural centrifugal force that is constantly tugging at the fabric of society and often pulling different parts of the country in different directions.

For a time it was thought that the answer to this problem was the melting pot approach of homogenizing immigrant groups into a unified cultural identity. It did not work. Today we recognize that multiculturalism is an inescapable and growing fact of modern American life and it is indeed celebrated as the way of the future. The question then is what will enable us to overcome the power of the above mentioned centrifugal forces and hold the country together? The only answer to this problem is maintaining the fundamental common beliefs and values of the general population as they are vouchsafed in religion. This underlying foundation of society, if strong enough, can compensate for the spectrum of multiculturalism flourishing in the Country.

It is our common religious values that are the ultimate glue that hold the Country togetherNo other democracy faces this challenge to the degree that the United States does, and therefore, it is critical that the U.S. government do everything possible, short of violating the establishment clause, to foster greater religious belief among the people. Raising the doctrine of the establishment clause to the level of a complete "wall of separation" will lead to undermining the very bonds that hold the Country together. Jefferson could not have foreseen this situation and I believe that even he would negate the notion of the "wall of separation" in today's conditions.

It is our common religious values that are the ultimate glue that hold the Country together.

This message is also central to the festival of Chanukah. On Chanukah, we as Jews celebrate the victory over the Assyrians and the restoration of our ability to practice our religion. But this celebration is not done exclusively in our homes and synagogues; rather, it is done in a way that publicizes the miracle to the outside world. The point is to expose others in our community to the miracle of Chanukah and thereby to also encourage a stronger religious atmosphere among all the people of the country in which we live.

Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan is the Director of Lubavitch of Maryland. He is a board member of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch.
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Corey Mondello Boston, MA, USA May 1, 2012

Theocracy? Reading over your article, I couldn't help but compare it to what Hitler stated about Christianity and how killing all the Jews would help keep the country un-threatened by the minority voice. You seem to have forget one simple thing about the USA. As a Republic, we are expected not to undercut or treat minorities as less than or with no voice. Though "democracy" actually mean 'majority rule' a "republic' does not. So, until the religious extremists in America realize that they like majority rule when it is in their favor but get all hell-bent when it is not, (like freeing slaves, allowing woman to vote, allowing Quakers to live and not be ex-communicated, allowing Jews positions of government or even allowed into the country, etc) all people are supposed to be treat equal in America. However often this is not respects shows how uneducated Americans are. Again: A Republic, like the USA, was not created to be a majority ruled country. That I am sure was understood by ALL founders. Reply