Religion-Politics Mix Gives Rise to Fear

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the Kennebec Journal (Maine)

Religion-Politics Mix Gives Rise to Fear

by
Naomi Schalit

I grew up in a household where among our many guests were older people with tattooed numbers on their arms. They spoke with accents -- Polish, German, French.

These were friends of my parents who had survived Nazi concentration camps -- the Holocaust -- and lived to tell their stories. And what they spoke of, over and over again, was the danger that comes when government dictates which religion is good and which religion is not (and thus which religion's adherents are good or bad).

They had lived in countries where the very fact that you were a Jew meant you couldn't hold certain jobs, live in certain areas, attend certain schools -- where, ultimately, in its most horrific manifestation, being a Jew meant you were targeted for death.

I lived in a household where the memory and evidence of that Holocaust was directly and powerfully linked to the belief that America was a safe place because this country clearly separated religion and the state.

But these days, I see that changing.

I'm a Jew and I'm scared.

It's not just that Mike Huckabee, an Evangelical and self-described "Christian Leader," won the GOP Iowa presidential caucus last week.

It's the photos of his supporters praying and holding American flags.

Jews don't feel good or safe when flags and religion get all mixed up. Put government and the Church or the Koran or Bible together, and Jews usually lose. (You'll probably say the state of Israel -- whose flag bears the Jewish Star of David -- puts the lie to that theory, but I'd disagree. The very theocratic nature of the state of Israel has led to the current profound threats to its legitimacy, both as a nation and a democracy. I know, I'm half Israeli, daughter of two families that fought for Israel's establishment.).

But back to Huckabee.

My fear didn't really start with him, but it's flowered in the last few days of a presidential campaign that's been marked by candidates shamelessly pandering to the Christian electorate, falling all over themselves in the God stakes to demonstrate who's a better Christian.

It's been growing, though, over the last decade, when the principles that had kept me feeling safe and secure as a Jew in America have been under attack.

In elementary school, I remember how awful it felt to sing carols in our annual Christmas assembly -- because singing the words in praise of Jesus felt like I was doing something terrible, for which I would be punished.

And how much of an outsider I felt when Christmas trees went up in all our classrooms. And how really bad it felt when some boys locked my brother in a classroom and forced him to push a penny around on the floor with his "Jewish nose." Or when I got such anti-Semitic hate notes in my bookbag that I finally left the school I'd been in for only five months.

But in the years since I was a child, through court battles and the evolution of our consciousness as a democratic and pluralistic society, our country seemed to be well on the way to carrying out the promise of our founding fathers and the First Amendment, that America would be a society where no religion would be favored by government:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Christmas trees and churches in front of city halls were banned, Hanukkah and other religious minorities' holidays found their way into holiday celebrations at school, a Jew was selected to run for vice president.

Yet along with this evolution came counter-revolution.

Just as societies being forcefully modernized in Africa, Asia and the Mideast developed their own homegrown extremists, along came America's versions: the Moral Majority, the more violent fighters of the abortion battles, the growing electoral power of the Christian right, without whom, it seemed, Republicans felt they could not win the White House.

And then came the presidential primary race of 2007.

My jaw dropped when Mitt Romney said that "freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom." No, freedom doesn't require religion, Mr. Romney, and whoever has been giving you history lessons needs to re-read the Constitution and the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.

What is it about "no" (as in "no law respecting an establishment of religion") that you don't understand?

The otherwise rational and well-informed John McCain said he thought the Constitution established a "Christian nation."

Where does that leave folks like me and my children?

Hillary Clinton has a "Faith, Family and Values" team on her campaign staff.

Can we please stop hiding behind euphemisms and call "faith" what it really is: "religion"?

Democratic primary candidate Bill Richardson told a crowd of Iowa voters that their state needed to maintain its first-in-the-nation status "for constitutional reasons, for reasons related to the Lord." Oh, please. And the Lord wants New Hampshire to vote second, right?

And while Americans rail against the Taliban's atavistic treatment of women, Republican caucus voters in Iowa just chose a man, Huckabee, who has said that he agrees with the statement that "a wife is to submit graciously to the servant leadership of her husband."

America is not on its way to forming concentration camps.

An African-American has just been chosen as winner of the Iowa Democratic caucuses.

My children, both Jews, can largely join any club they want, go to any school they like, choose any profession to which they're suited.

This is not pre-Nazi Germany.

But we are on a dangerous path -- one that is fundamentally anti-democratic and un-American.

The growing population of Bible-thumpers on the campaign trail has distinct roots in American history, to be sure, but they are not proud roots.

They are the roots of prejudice and discrimination, of exclusivity and narrow-mindedness.

I have great respect for all this country's religions -- so much so that I chose to study religion in college and raised a child who has a master's degree in divinity. Religion is is a deep and profound part of our political culture in America and I have no argument with that fact.

Yet it is the emphasis on one, favored form of religion, one kind of belief that is so frightening to me.

Hand in hand with the growing public acceptance of professions of Christian faith on the campaign trail is the implicit idea that this is the one faith that is true and correct, and which qualifies its holder for the presidency.

Like me, I do not think that the majority of Americans believe this to be so.

Naomi Schalit is Opinion Page editor for the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel.

Copyright © 2008, Blethen Maine Newspapers, Inc.

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