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FAITH AND REASON

The wall that unites us

December 18, 2005|Stephen Julius Stein | Stephen Julius Stein is a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple and vice president of the Wilshire Center Interfaith Council.

AS 2005 DRAWS to a close and Americans ponder "the good and the bad" and what resolutions to make in the new year, I wonder: Did any of us insult our parents? If so, according to the Torah, death by stoning is the decree. Women, did you wear pants last year? If so, according to the Torah, death by stoning is your decree too.

You don't need to be a Reform Jew to realize that these ancient laws are beyond the pale. Among them is the infamous ayin tachat ayin -- an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. To modern Western culture, this is simply barbarism.

Yet last spring, jurors in Colorado consulted this section of the Bible in deciding whether to put a man to death. When the state Supreme Court reviewed the case, it overturned the execution, ruling that one may not consult a religious text in administering American justice.

What happened there symbolizes the brewing storm that threatens to change the nature of our Constitution -- a full-force attempt to bring down the wall separating church from state. As Americans, we cannot afford to be guilty of the sin of silence, guilty of the sin of indifference, guilty of the sin of secret complicity of the neutral -- because our country's democratic soul is at stake.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 25, 2005 Home Edition Current Part M Page 2 Editorial Pages Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
Religion and government: A Dec. 18 article defending the separation of church and state stated that the Rev. Jerry Falwell claimed that Ellen DeGeneres played a role in the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina because she was the host of the Emmy Awards before both events. He made no such claim.

This is not about Republicans or Democrats. Instead, this crisis is about how one religious tradition is flexing its enormous financial strength, people power and political influence to turn our country into a "Christian nation," where one and only one interpretation of the Christian Bible will be the fundamental basis for American law.

We've all heard about the rise of the evangelical movement and about some of the excesses of its leaders. For instance, the Rev. Jerry Falwell claimed that Ellen DeGeneres played a role in the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina because she was the host of the Emmy Awards ceremony preceding both events. I only wish the situation was just comical. But when we realize how this movement has saturated the fabric of American culture, we cannot -- we must not -- remain indifferent to its effect on us, to our neighbors of other faiths and to the essence of what still makes this country a beacon of democracy to the world.

In America's "torah" -- the Constitution -- the 1st Amendment states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...."

Although our earliest citizens were, in general, faithful, the framers understood that Americans must be free to be religious -- and the law must be free of religion.

Listen to the words in the Constitution: "Before he enters on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation: 'I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.' " No swearing to God, no swearing to Jesus -- but to the Constitution, the civil law of our land.

That was 1787. Where are we more than 200 years later? In Congress, the former House majority leader called for mass impeachment of federal judges who did not meet the standards of the Christian coalition. In the Senate, the majority leader supports the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian organization. He appeared with its president, Tony Perkins, on a "Justice Sunday" simulcast on Christian TV networks and said; "There is a vast conspiracy by the courts to rob us of our Christian heritage and our religious freedoms."

Pardon the question, but do Jews feel robbed of "our Christian heritage"? While we wonder how America's Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Quakers, Sikhs, Taoists, agnostics and atheists would answer, we must state: Church and state can coexist but must not mix.

What is the logical outcome of the fundamentalist fever? Consider Iran, where religion rules. Is its form of government one the U.S. should emulate? Even Israel's "religious democracy" is riddled with problems. Reform rabbis like me cannot perform marriage ceremonies because we are not considered "authentic." Two former chief rabbis encouraged soldiers to openly disobey orders to evacuate settlers from Gaza. And it took the Israeli Supreme Court to force the state to accept Reform conversions to Judaism as valid.

To derive morals from religious teachings is natural, but to claim one tradition as the basis for civil law is wrong. Wherever it occurs. Stem cell research that may benefit someone you love. Civil rights that guarantee equality to gays and lesbians. The right of a woman to control her body. These issues and more would hang in the balance if fundamentalist fever strikes American culture.

Walls can be beautiful -- just look inside many of our glorious sanctuaries. They can be frightening -- like the ones inside us. This year, let us stand up for the wall that separates church from state: one that does not divide us -- but unites us as one nation.

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