JUNE 20, 2008

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

At the recent funeral of a veteran, I was reminded of the great respect and ritual that is connected with the flag. Hearing the playing of taps as the Marine Honor Guard respectfully and precisely folded the flag reminded me of my summer camp days, when each morning and evening we would gather around the flag pole to raise and lower the flag. In Jewish terms, there is a lot of halacha, law (though it may be more custom) as to how the flag is to be treated, including: where it is to be placed in a room, when and how it is to be displayed daytime and night, how it is to be stored and ultimately disposed of. You might argue, it is just a piece of cloth, but its meaning transcends its essence.

There is something powerful and majestic to see a flag flapping in the wind, such as the huge version at Veterans and Causeway. Flags are an ancient symbol. Our Torah mentions how each tribe marched behind its own flag.

In addition to flag ceremonies at camp, one of my earliest memories of the flag, and perhaps yours as well, is reciting the pledge of allegiance to the flag. The origins of the pledge can be traced to Rev. Frances Bellamy, a Baptist minister and socialist, who wrote it in 1892. It originally did not mention either the United States of America, simply the Republic for which it stands, nor did it include the phrase “under God.” It was intended as a salute to the flag, the Republic, the concept of One nation, which had been fought over just 30 years earlier, and that it should be indivisible. Its foundation was to be liberty and justice. Interestingly, it did not include “equality” as was part of the French Revolution mantra, since neither women nor blacks were to be equal for quite some time.

The addition of the phrase “under God” was not inserted until 1954. At the urging of the Knights of Columbus and in the shadow of those godless Communists, Dwight Eisenhower lobbied for the inclusion of the phrase for what was the official national version of the Pledge of Allegiance.

America has danced around the subject of mixing religion and government from the beginning of this nation. One of the foundation myths of this country is that it was established to create religious freedom for those who had been oppressed in Europe. This was partially true. People came to America with their religious group, which had been persecuted in the Old Country with the desire that they no longer should be oppressed, not necessarily that those who differed with them should be free, just that their group should not be oppressed. Each group wanted their faith to be the religion of the land.

But with Quakers in Pennsylvania, Congregationalists in Massachusetts, Catholics in Maryland and different Protestant groups, not to mention a smattering of Jews throughout the colonies, a compromise was needed, which led to the idea of freedom of religion for all.

With that as the historical reality we are truly blessed with the First Amendment of the Constitution. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof?” Its basic idea is that government cannot favor any one religion, act in a way that establishes any one religion or religion in general, nor interfere with the practice of religion. This constitutional guarantee has enabled the flourishing of religion in America. As a result the United States is one of the most religious countries in the world. From the perspective of the Jewish community, there has never been a country where Jews as a minority have been as safe and as prosperous as they have in this land. Still, we continue to struggle over the role of religion in America.

The great tug of war is between those who want religion to have a strong voice in the public arena and those who feel it has a voice, but not absolute authority. Recently Senator Ted Kennedy was diagnosed with brain cancer. Among the many praying for his healing was Cal Thomas, conservative columnist and former spokesman for Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, clearly not political allies. Thomas admiringly wrote of how Kennedy essentially invited himself to speak at Liberty University and proceeded to address issues of faith, truth and tolerance, saying:

“I am an American and a Catholic; I love my country and treasure my faith. But I do not assume that my conception of patriotism or policy is invariably correct, or that my convictions about religion should command any greater respect than any other faith in this pluralistic society.”

“When people agree on public policy, they ought to be able to work together, even while they worship in diverse ways. For truly we are all yoked together as Americans and the yoke is the happy one of individual freedom and mutual respect.”

“Separation of church and state cannot mean an absolute separation between moral principles and political power: The challenge today is to recall the origin of the principle, to define its purpose, and refine its application to the politics of the present.” That is the position I personally embrace as well.

This brings us to two kinds of issues. The first involve those which are subtle or not so subtle attempts to circumvent the first amendment. Included in this group are subjects such as school prayer, the placement of the ten commandments in the public domain and a current concern- school vouchers/scholarships for private school education.

School vouchers or as is being touted in Louisiana right now “scholarships,” are still under legal scrutiny. Most will agree that public education is not what it needs to be, prompting many families to select private schools, many of which are parochial. Voucher legislation is an attempt to funnel governmental funds from failing public schools to assist families to pay for private school education, whether parochial or secular private. While being expressed as a scholarship for families, it is a boon for the private schools. I will not go into the question of private or public schools as the answer to educational quality. That is a whole different subject. My main qualm is that government has no business funding religious education. As most of you know this is coming from a founding member and Past President of our New Orleans Jewish Day School.

Do I want to see our Jewish community parochial school have more students and receive more funding? Certainly! Do I want that money to come from public coffers? From your hard earned taxes? Absolutely not!

I recently learned of another overzealous attempt to intermingle government and religion. It seems that in South Carolina, like many states, you can purchase license plates that promote certain causes- education, save the manatee, brown bears or support organizations- your favorite university, veterans and more. Usually the plates cost a little more and some of the money goes to the cause. The South Carolina legislature unanimously voted to create religion license plates with a big cross against a stained glass window. Now they were wise enough to realize that they could not be collecting money for these plates and then donating it to the church, but have no problem essentially saying the State of South Carolina supports Christianity. The Governor refuses to sign the law, but it will go into effect anyway, undoubtedly leading to costly litigation. Please understand that I am not opposed to an individual wishing to promote faith, but the state should not be the vehicle for that program. Print as many bumper stickers as you like on your own.

The second category of issues includes those where some voices are attempting to impose their religious views on all others, insinuating that anything different is sinful, immoral and abhorrent. One of the great challenges of America is how to differ over policy and still be respectful of differences.

A prime example which is happening right now is an oldie, but goody: Creationism vs. evolution. Perhaps you thought it went away with the Scopes trial decades ago, but it’s back. Instead of being called creationism, its first new name is “Intelligent Design.” Intelligent design (ID) suggests that life on earth is too complex to have evolved through natural selection alone, and therefore must have been “guided” by a “supernatural” or “intelligent” force, which is to say, God. Opponents of teaching intelligent design in public school science courses, argue that ID is little more than an attempt by certain religious groups to continue to promote the concept of creationism in public schools, despite the fact that it has repeatedly been found unconstitutional. Rather, they advocate the teaching of the theory of evolution, which most mainstream scientists agree has been well-tested and supported. One is science; the other is religion. It has been ruled illegal in some states.

Not to worry, our Louisiana legislators have simply given it another new name: “science education.” Who can oppose that? A current bill that is now on the Governor’s desk to be signed calls upon school boards and state authorities to allow the use of “supplemental materials when teaching subjects such as evolution, global warming, cloning and the origin of life.” Proponents argue that this is simply a way to broaden honest discourse of science. Who do they think are they kidding? Teachers have always been free to bring in legitimate supplementary material. This is another way that the religious right is attempting to bring their religious views on creationism and when life begins into the classroom. Again, this is not science or education, but religion. It belongs in the church and synagogue, but not the public school. Once again our legislators with religious agenda have passed unnecessary and inappropriate legislation, which I can hope will only lead to the waste of tax dollars as it is defeated in court. We need to urge Governor Jindal, with his biology degree from Brown University, to veto the law.

My friends, let us celebrate all the freedoms we enjoy in this country. And let us continue the struggle when governmental bodies attempt to teach religion, endorse religion or impose one religion’s views upon us all. We need to speak out and let our legislators know that we differ with these attempts to break down the protective wall that has served this country well. Even if we know our protests seem futile, we cannot be silent. We are One nation and we are blessed by God, but the great strength of this country is the unity we enjoy, because of our respect for diversity. May God continue to bless America as we fully respect each others’ freedoms!

AMEN