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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region


Filed under: World Jewry
Publication: Jerusalem Viewpoints

No. 434      July 2000

[ Editor’s Note: This Jerusalem Letter is the first in a two-part special report on an extensive survey commissioned for the “Jews and the American Public Square” project being conducted by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs’ American affiliate, the Center for Jewish Community Studies. The project was initiated by The Pew Charitable Trusts. The published version of the complete study will soon be available.]

The Historical Context

Since its beginnings, American society has struggled with defining the boundary, and setting the proper distance, between church and state. Several concerns and impulses underlie this struggle. One concern has been to provide for freedom of religion for the individual and for official neutrality toward alternate churches and denominations. The objective has been to avoid a situation in which the state or its instruments lend more support or legitimacy to some churches than to others, or for that matter to prefer religion to non-religion. Another concern, at least until recently, has been to promote a generalized religious sentiment and involvement in the American population.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution embodied these clearly competing impulses. Its language prohibited Congress from legislating the establishment of religion. At the same time, it also prohibited interference with the free exercise of religion. Balancing these two principles has been an ongoing subject of contention in the society, the political arena, the legislative process, and the courts.

Although contention over these issues is long-standing, it was only in the 1940s that a string of court decisions moved the United States more decisively in the direction of separation of church and state. During this period, the Supreme Court extended First Amendment provisions to state and local governments. It then went on to assure that schools, and other government-sponsored arenas, would not appear to favor one religion over another. Its decisions even have precluded favoring the religiously minded over those with no religious interests whatsoever, a position apparently dating back at least half a century. Citing numerous previous court decisions, a friend of the court brief by Jewish communal agencies in 1961 asserted (approvingly) that the court has held that the government is obligated to exercise “neutrality not merely between competing sects and faiths, but also as between religion and non-religion.” The wall of separation between church and state in the United States is arguably about as high as that found in any Western democracy, except possibly Mexico and France which are influenced by unusual anti-clerical traditions.

“Separationism” vs. “Religious Accommodation”

Not surprisingly, American Jews, in their struggle to win and assure their full acceptance in the larger society, have long placed church-state issues near the top of their political and community relations agenda. How America defines the place of religion and how it understands the status of Christianity and other faiths has obvious direct bearing on how Jews and Judaism fare in the larger society.

Jews’ long-standing passion for strict separationism, as the position is sometimes known, is well documented. (The terms “separationism” and “religious accommodation” are used here as antonyms to signify one or the other pole in the church-state dimension. Those favoring separationism prefer a higher barrier between church and state; those favoring religious accommodation prefer a lower barrier.) Certainly since the late 1940s, Jewish organizations and lobbyists have fought vigorously, with minor exceptions, to erect and preserve a large degree of church-state separation. The guiding premise for organized Jewry’s thinking on the matter has revolved around concerns about the influence wielded by religiously committed Protestants and, to a lesser extent, by the Catholic Church as well. Absent the protections afforded by church-state separation, many Jews feared that Christian church leaders, in the context of a large Christian majority in the American population, would promote an explicitly Christian character to the American state and its institutions.

However, the classic Jewish support for separationism did not always characterize the stance of American Jewry. Indeed, before the last third of the nineteenth century, Jews were distinguished both by their political impotence and by their desire to be treated “on equal footing” with other legitimate religious groups. As a numerically very small group of relatively recent arrivals, they could hardly aspire to influence significantly the political process, although they did manage to advance the removal of some barriers to Jewish participation in the larger society. Opposed to the views and objectives of atheists and “free-thinkers,” nineteenth century American Jews sought merely to assure that Jews and Judaism were accorded the same standing and privileges as Christians and Christianity.

According to Jonathan Sarna, in the latter part of the nineteenth century, leading Christian influentials sought to declare America a Christian nation (the view was even included in an 1892 Supreme Court decision). These efforts drove Jews into an alliance with more secular, non-religious elements in American society who were long seeking a more thorough and clear disentanglement of church and state. The public schools were the principal arena for the political, legislative, and judicial struggles in this area. Jews, in particular, were concerned that the schools not be used to indoctrinate their children in the culture and tenets of Christianity, or that their children be made to feel unwelcome or unequal in a predominantly Christian environment.

Protecting the religious neutrality of the schools and other public spaces emerged as a central doctrine of the Jewish defense establishment. It enjoyed broad public support by mid-century among second- and third-generation Jews. Recently arrived both in the upper middle class and in the suburbs, these Jews were still socially segregated (in terms of family, friends, neighbors, and even workplace). As such, they were still understandably unsure of their social acceptability to other Americans. Hence, the fight to maintain a high wall of church-state separation stemmed directly from deeply felt identities and insecurities.

Of course, not all Jews – even Jews in recent times – have been enthusiastic about strict separationism. The initial hesitations of Orthodoxy, in particular, grew and emerged into institutionalized opposition to the conventional communal stance. Orthodox attorneys, rabbis, and other spokespeople have regularly taken issue with the rest of organized Jewry. In contrast with the positions of most Jewish communal agencies, they have supported efforts to extend government aid to parochial schools, and to permit the display of religious symbols on public property. They have sought to move public policy on abortion and related matters in directions more in keeping with traditional Christian and Jewish religious beliefs. Indeed, the division among Jews (and others) around these issues has been so sharp that one analyst sees a realignment of American society along cultural rather than religious divisions.

In James Hunter’s view (in Culture Wars), the historic divisions of Protestant-Catholic-Jew have given way to a new axis of social differentiation dividing society into culturally conservative and liberal camps. These new divisions cross once-important religious boundaries, with Orthodox Jews generally lining up with Christian fundamentalists and the Catholic hierarchy, and all the other Jews joined with liberal Protestants, Catholics, and militantly secular Americans. With this said, the Orthodox aside, organized American Jewry, until quite recently, has supported maintaining a high wall of separation between church and state.

The long-standing support for separationism on the part of non-Orthodox American Jews may be linked to three related larger sentiments or identities: minority status insecurity, liberalism, and secularity. Of course, in the minds of most Jewish supporters of separationism, church-state separationism promotes a more tolerant America and, possibly, a more religious America as well. However, since many others with a less strictly separationist stance also, presumably, value tolerance and religiosity, the question becomes, why are Jews more predisposed to perceive the benefits of separationism.

First, as a religious minority group with a historical consciousness of having been subject to centuries of persecution, American Jews have been eager to secure their integration into American society. Separation of church and state is but a part of a strategy on the part of modernizing Jews to establish a religious “neutral zone” where religious and ethnic tolerance is a supreme value.

Second, Jews’ support for separationism is also connected with their liberal worldview and identification with the liberal camp, a segment of the American political spectrum highly supportive of separationism. Jews in the United States have been liberal in part because of their minority status concerns and because of the friendliness of Democrats and liberals to Jews and Jewish inclusion. The historic Jewish position comported well with their more generalized passion for liberalism and their identification with the Democratic party and other liberal institutions and movements. For many Jews, being a good Jew meant being a good liberal; and being a good Jew and a good liberal also meant being a vigilant separationist. One of the major tenets of the liberal camp is support for separationism and an adversarial relationship with conservatives who are seen as supported by many church leaders. Hence, in this circular world, Jews are separationist in part because they identify so strongly as liberals, and they are liberals in part because they are separationists.

Last, also fueling Jews’ separationism is their relative secularity, at least when measured in terms of the frequency of religious service attendance, with probably the lowest attendance rate of any major religious group in the United States. (They are also less likely than other Americans to say they are religious.) In simple terms, the less religious (Americans) are more separationist; the more religious are more accommodationist. On average, recognizing the problematics of applying such measures to Jews, Jews score lower than other Americans on conventional measures of pure religiosity. Hence, they have one less impetus to support religious accommodationism.

Is Jewish Separationism Waning?

Some Jewish Federation leaders have argued for a relaxation of Jews’ opposition to government support for parochial school students, perhaps reflecting their immediate concerns with their increasing obligations to fund Jewish day schools. Their position is but a specific instance of a much broader critique of the historic Jewish support for separationism. This critique sees Jews faring better in a somewhat more religious society, or at least one characterized by a more moderate degree of separationism. In fact, changes along the three dimensions noted above (minority status, liberalism, and secularity) may well incline today’s Jews to move toward a less vigorously separationist position, at least in theory.

By almost any measure, Jews are more socially accepted, more successful, and less subject to the insecurities of minority status than they were in mid-century. In theory, at least, they ought to be less anxious about acceptance and commensurately more relaxed about expressions of religious sentiment in the schools and in public life in general.

With respect to their identification as liberals, several signs point to a weakening Jewish attachment. First and foremost, the liberal coalition is certainly more fragmented, less energetic, and less influential than it was at mid-century. Second, Jews may be behaving like many other Americans who have undergone a political de-alignment, moving away from partisan and ideological attachment toward disengagement, neutrality, indifference, independence, and new constellations of public opinions. A third consideration flows from the work of Robert Putnam (of Bowling Alone fame) and others who portray a decline in “social capital,” civic activity, and community bonds. Jews, for their part, seem less concerned not only with politics, but also with all aspects of public life. They are less engaged in politics, philanthropy, volunteering, social justice, and communal organizations, be they of a Jewish or non-sectarian variety.

More pointedly, according to a relatively recent review of years of survey evidence covering 1972-1994 conducted by Charles Liebman and this author, the liberalism of Jews’ political views is specific to certain domains. It certainly embraces identification as a liberal (or Democrat for electoral purposes), support for taxing and social spending, liberal views on sexually related matters, and church-state separation (at least as represented by a few available survey questions). However, when compared with Americans of similar education and residential distribution, Jews emerged as no more liberal with respect to sympathy for African-Americans, capital punishment, foreign affairs, civil liberties, and a variety of economic issues.

The third plane concerns the Jewish identity spectrum. As hypothesized, the more religious should seek more accommodationist policies, so as to bring about a society more influenced by religious values. Recent trends in Jewish demography and identity suggest a growth in more religiously oriented Jews (and, therefore, concomitant declines in Jewish support for separationism). In particular, the Orthodox are probably growing as a share of the young adult population, as are committed Conservative Jews. Moreover, the rise in day school enrollment among the non-Orthodox is also noteworthy. It signifies that growing numbers of American Jews are less anxious about their place in American society and more willing to engage in behavior that might have appeared too segregationist, parochial, or overtly religious to their parents’ generation. The readiness to send their children to day schools necessarily means that parents are willing to eschew the public schools. In so doing, they are rejecting an institution that has long held great symbolic value for American Jews as a channel of integration and a force for democracy. Theoretically, these larger trends may promote not only greater openness toward government support for day schools, but also greater interest in more religious expression in the public square.

At the same time, at the other end of the Jewish identity spectrum, the substantial rates of intermarriage are linked with growth in the number of marginally identifying Jews among the spouses and their children. More broadly, several measures of Jewish ethnic connectedness seem to be in decline. Insofar as support for separationism is a distinctively Jewish ethnic trait, the weakening of Jewish ethnic ties should reduce separationist attitudes among increasingly integrated and less ethnically distinctive American Jews. A similar phenomenon has been noted with respect to the relationship between liberal political identity and Jewish group involvement. The most religious were the least liberal. As religiosity or ethnic involvement declined, liberalism grew. But for Jews whose religious and ethnic involvement were so insignificant that they maintained very few in-group ties, their political views came to more closely resemble the societal center; that is, they were less liberal than many who were at least somewhat Jewishly engaged. Assimilation, or near-assimilation, reduces the chances of exhibiting distinctive ethnic characteristics, be it liberalism in the earlier study or, perhaps, separationism in this study.

Oddly, the opposing tendencies of a growing religious minority and a less ethnically distinctive majority may both be contributing to a decline in separationism.

Questions for Research

The trends outlined above certainly raise questions about American Jews’ current orientations toward church-state issues:

  1. In light of the putative changes in Jews’ minority insecurity, liberal identification, religiosity and ethnicity, are American Jews still widely supportive of separationism?
  2. To what extent, and in what ways, do they depart from separationism? Surely their views must vary by issue – what do the variations tell us about their fundamental concerns?
  3. In what manner are Jews’ attitudes in this realm linked to the factors of minority status, liberal identity, and Jewish identity?

Attitudes toward church-state separation, though, are only one dimension of the larger issue of religion in the public square. Just as the First Amendment contains two principal clauses, one regarding the establishment of a church and the other regarding the free exercise of religion, so too may we conceive of attitudes in this realm consisting of two dimensions. One relates to the separationist-accommodationist debate. The other relates to the profile and influence of religious values, discourse, leaders, and institutions in American public life. To what extent should these elements inform public debate? To what extent should religious symbols and references adorn America’s public life, be it in courtrooms, in Congress, at presidential inaugurations, or on legal tender?

To discover the answers to these questions, parallel surveys were conducted of three sample populations – a national sample of American Jews, taken from a mail-back questionnaire completed by 1,002 U.S. Jewish respondents in January-February 2000; a national sample of 684 American non-Jews, constructed to approximate the Jewish sample in terms of education and region; and a sample of 111 participants in the annual national conference of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA; formerly the National Jewish Community Relations Council – NJCRAC), a highly respected and prominent Jewish communal defense agency that has been very active for decades in promoting a separationist agenda, among other issues of concern to American Jewry.

Measures of Jewish Involvement

One important distinction between the Jewish public and JCPA leaders concerns several measures of Jewish involvement (Tables 1, 2, and 3). [Note: “JCPA” in this article refers to the Jewish Council for Public Affairs in the U.S. and not the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.] These include self-evaluations of the importance of being Jewish or being religious, synagogue attendance and ritual observance, and association with other Jews, whether as friends or in organized contexts. In all available measures, JCPA leaders outscore the Jewish public. For example, more than twice as many leaders than members of the public claimed that religion was very important to them (50 percent versus 20 percent), replicating similar results with respect to the importance of being Jewish (89 percent versus 38 percent). More than three times as many leaders as rank-and-file American Jews had visited Israel in their youth (47 percent versus 13 percent) or taken a university course in Jewish studies (46 percent versus 15 percent). Just 24 percent of the public claimed to have Sabbath candles lit in their home (an important bellwether ritual) as contrasted with nearly three times as many leaders (68 percent). In short, not only are the leaders much more involved in organized Jewish life, the JCPA leaders are also more Jewishly educated, more ritually active, and more committed to being Jewish (by their own testimony) than are members of the American Jewish public.


  Jewish Public JCPA Leaders Jews 1988 Jews 1997 1990 NJPS*

Religion is very important in life 20 50 26    
Being Jewish is very important in life 38 89 48   50
Attend synagogue monthly or more 24 61   26 27
Closest friends are Jewish 46 91 71 46 49
Spouse is Jewish 73 96   80 81
Spouse of youngest married child is Jewish 48 77   54  

* National Jewish Population Study: Sub-sample of adult Jews who identify as Jewish by religion.


  Jewish Public JCPA Leaders Jews 1988 Jews 1997 1990 NJPS

Attended a full-time Jewish school (day school or yeshiva) 8 13 6 7 8
Attended a part-time Jewish school that met 2 or more times a week 38 41 51 48 39
Attended a Sunday school or other one-day-a-week Jewish school (but not day school or part-time) 28 31 21 22 21
Participated in a Jewish youth group as a teenager 49 66      
Visited Israel by the age of 26 13 47      
Took a course in Jewish Studies while at college 15 46      
Have a Christmas tree (sometimes or more often) 24 4 16 21 23
Usually attend a Seder 85 98 79 87 73
Fast on Yom Kippur 61 88 59 64 63
Have been to Israel 35 93 36 36 33
Usually light candles on Friday night 24 68   28 22
Member of a synagogue 44 89   48 44
Member of a Jewish Community Center (JCC) 12 44   14  
Participated in a program at a JCC within the past year 29 74   27 30
Belong to a Jewish organization 27 93   32 34
In the past 2 years served on a board or committee of a Jewish organization or synagogue 17 31   18  
Contributed to the UJA/Federation 46     42  
Subscribe to a Jewish newspaper or magazine 49        


  Jewish Public JCPA Leaders Jews 1988 Jews 1997 1990 NJPS

Orthodox* 3 7 10 7 7
Conservative* 34 45 31 34 39
Reform* 35 35 25 38 41
Reconstructionist* 7 6   2 1
Other 25 7 33 22 13

*Includes both synagogue and non-synagogue members. Within any denomination, members and non-members differ considerably.

Note: The sample of the Jewish public, taken from a national consumer research panel, may under-represent the Orthodox.


Religion in the Schools

The major findings of this study emerge clearly in the questions on policies toward religious accommodation (Table 4). Notwithstanding all the appearance of change and ferment in Jewish attitudes with the growth in Jewish religious day school enrollment and the seeming decline in attachment to historic American liberalism, Jews remain far more separationist (or less accommodationist) than other Americans, even those with similar regional and educational distributions. Moreover, their leaders (specifically, activists at the JCPA conference) are even more strictly separationist than American Jews generally.

(percent who favor selected policies)

  Non-Jewish Public Jewish Public JCPA Leaders Jews 1988

Allowing public schools to display the Ten Commandments 65 38 5  
Allowing public school students to say non-sectarian prayers at sporting events 69 28 5  
Allowing non-denominational prayers to be read in the classroom 59 20 2  
Allowing public schools to set aside a moment of silence each day for students to pray if they want to 84 48 19  
Allowing public schools to teach Christmas carols, as long as they also teach Hanukkah songs 77 56 13  
Teaching creationism in public schools along with evolution when teaching about the origin of man 63 39 7  
Making public school classrooms available to student religious groups to hold voluntary meetings, when classes are not in session 77 53 42 51
Allowing public schools to share their computers with local religious schools 59 39 33  
Providing government aid (vouchers) to families for tuition in private, non-religious schools 40 24 14  
Providing government aid (vouchers) to families for tuition in private schools, including religious schools 43 22 11 19
Index of Religious Accommodation 81 53 26  

To elaborate on all school-related items in the survey, non-Jews outscored the Jewish public in support for accommodation, and the Jewish public, in turn, outscored Jewish leaders. This generalization applies to items as diverse as prayer in schools, posting the Ten Commandments, providing vouchers for private or religious school tuition, and sharing facilities with religious schools or student religious groups. A few telling examples illustrate this observation: the display of the Ten Commandments in public schools found favor among 65 percent of the non-Jews (others were unsure or opposed), 38 percent of the Jewish public, and just 5 percent of the leaders. With respect to setting aside a moment of silence for school pupils to pray if they want to, 84 percent of the non-Jews were in favor, as contrasted with 48 percent of the Jews, and only 19 percent of the leaders. The results for the other items were similar.

The issue of school vouchers is probably the most hotly contested contemporary issue in the survey. Support for vouchers is almost twice as high among non-Jews as among Jews, and about twice as high among the Jewish public as among the leaders. For non-Jews, providing vouchers for religious schools elicits more support than for private, non-religious schools (43 percent versus 40 percent), while for the Jewish public the situation is reversed (22 percent versus 24 percent), as it is for the leaders (11 percent versus 14 percent). Many of those Jews who oppose school vouchers see their introduction as a grave danger to the public school system.

In the two instances where we have available direct comparisons with the survey conducted twelve years ago, Jewish support for accommodation then was almost, but not quite, the same as it is now. For making classrooms available to student religious groups, 51 percent of the 1988 respondents were in favor as compared with 53 percent now. For providing vouchers for families with children in religious schools, 19 percent were in favor then, and 22 percent today. The movement toward accommodation is too small to be seen as a sign of real change, but it takes on greater meaning when combined with small changes in the same direction reported below for all other available items.

While American Jews are uniformly more separationist than non-Jews on all issues, the varying extent to which Jews accept (or reject) alternative accommodationist proposals provides some insight into their concerns and into the logic that underlies their specific views. In particular, the Jewish public is especially reticent to endorse prayers in the school or school vouchers. The fear of Christian religious indoctrination in the schools has long been a major concern of Jewish parents. The voucher issue touches directly upon a concern for the public schools, long seen as an arena for social integration and education for democracy and tolerance.

In contrast, almost half (48 percent) of the Jewish public favors a moment of silence for voluntary prayer. Most (53 percent), in fact, favor allowing the use of classrooms by student religious groups (even 42 percent of the JCPA leaders favor this idea). Even more (56 percent) endorse the teaching of Christmas carols as long as schools also teach Hanukkah songs.

Why do these proposals win more support than others? One consideration is that Jews adapt to current policy and practice. They more readily accept those breaches of the wall of separation that the courts already have sanctioned. They also more readily resist proposed changes such as prayer (that has been judicially rejected), or vouchers (which at the moment is being hotly debated but not widely instituted).

The moment of silence proposal contains less of a threat of forcible indoctrination than do calls for prayer in schools. Every child would be free to pray, or not, and can utter a silent prayer from his or her own tradition. (Perhaps Jews find some sense of familiarity here in that many Jewish prayers are uttered silently.) The use of classrooms also seems to presuppose a voluntary basis. The use would occur after hours by groups that would want them, consisting of youngsters who would voluntarily choose to participate in the groups – or not. The Jewish public is not as sensitive as are elite figures to the implications of such a policy for abstract judicial concepts such as “entanglement.”

Against this background, the widespread acceptance of teaching Christmas carols seems paradoxical. After all, participation is not at all voluntary, and some carols explicitly celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. However, several ameliorating factors may be at play to make the proposal, as worded, more palatable. First, teaching Christmas carols is a long-standing tradition in American schools, one which many of the respondents themselves experienced and for which they may have developed some tolerance. Second, the schools, among others, have argued that Christmas carols (if not the holiday itself) can be seen as a seasonal, civic activity and not a religious celebration. (One wonders whether public schools avoid teaching the most overtly religious carols.) Third, the survey question included a phrase about also teaching Hanukkah songs. In so doing, it may have evoked in some respondents’ minds a notion of putting Judaism and Christianity on equal footing. The equal footing objective has, as noted, served as an alternative to the religiously neutral society as a way of assuring Jewish social acceptance in the United States. Fourth, carols are carols, not prayers. Jews may be more sensitive to outright Christian religious indoctrination and prayers than they are to singing popular, seasonally oriented songs.

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To Part Two

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Steven M. Cohen is a Fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and teaches at the Melton Center for Jewish Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of “Post-Zionist” Philanthropists: Emerging Attitudes of American Jewish Leaders Toward Communal Allocations (with Gerald B. Bubis; JCPA, 1998); Religious Stability and Ethnic Decline (Jewish Community Centers Association, 1998); and The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America (with Arnold M. Eisen, Indiana University Press, forthcoming).

This study was prepared with the assistance of Judith Schor, CUNY Graduate Center, and the Florence G. Heller/JCCA Research Center. The author gratefully acknowledges the extensive comments of Charles Liebman on earlier versions of this report, and also thanks Leonard Fein, Alan Mittleman, and Jonathan Sarna for their helpful comments.