For a long time, precisely as long as Judaism was marginal to my life, the strict separation of religion and state made perfect sense to me. The separation principle provided just enough camouflage for a community of Jews to oppose any further Christianization of American public life without at the same time having to assert their own Jewishness. Jews could privatize Judaism, or even trivialize it, while persuading themselves that they were staunch patriots defending the Bill of Rights.
Nevertheless, we Jews were trapped in an American double bind. We claimed allegiance to an American “tradition” of religious tolerance, pluralism, freedom, and separation. But we certainly knew, long before each December 25, that in all but name the United States still was—as Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story had once declared—“a Christian country.” We worshipped at Jefferson’s “wall of separation” without acknowledging that the author of that famous phrase had drafted Virginia’s “Bill for Punishing Disturbers of Religious Worship and Sabbath Breakers,” or that the First Amendment was more a monument to federalism and to Protestant definitions of denominational autonomy than to religious freedom.
For Jews, strict separation became a convenient constitutional rationale for strict secularism. Who ever thought to inquire whether the very principle of separation itself might not be fundamentally Christian? (It was Jesus, not Moses, who distinguished between what must be rendered unto God and what unto Caesar.) In the Jewish historical tradition, religion and nationality were closely intertwined (as, for many Israelis, they still are). Nevertheless, we were Americans, and if that required a pledge of allegiance to a principle that undermined our own history and identity as Jews, we would gladly pay the price. We were not fools, nor were we fooled: Separation promised protection, in education and politics, against further Christian encroachments. That was sufficient reason for our tenacious defense of it. In the naked public square, we could still pretend that the emperor—or, perhaps, the rabbi—was fully clothed.
None of this was clear to me at the time. Christmas was only a “national” holiday. Sunday was merely “a day of rest.” Christians deserved to monopolize and control access to positions of public and private power. As Jews, accepting the Christian terms of emancipation, we would behave ourselves by tucking Judaism into our private closets. A double standard, surely; but so much a part of the natural American order that it could hardly be questioned.
It took a year in Israel before I had a glimmer of comprehension that there was nothing neutral about any of this. In the Jewish state, I actually was astonished to discover, Jews not only were observant at home, but observant Jews were on the street—and rabbis were in the Knesset as members, not chaplains. The Jewish calendar mercifully obliterated American holidays that were also Christian holy days. Menorahs and mezzuzahs adorned public buildings. In Jerusalem especially, the silence of Shabbat and the solemnity of Yom Kippur were strengthened and deepened by the ample support they commanded from government authority. The separation of religion and state might make sense where a tiny Jewish minority needed the benevolence of an overwhelming Christian majority but, wrenched from American context, the terms of accommodation to Christian norms were starkly exposed.
Years later, provoked by various experiences to examine some cherished assumptions, I prepared a course on religion and the state and, for a book I was writing, read widely in American religious history. The Christian imagery that pervaded American history, from the Puritans to the present, was inescapable. Yet from constitutional centennial to bicentennial, successive generations of American Jews had been taught to believe that the fondness for “Old Testament” metaphors in American public discourse displayed the fundamental continuity between ancient Jewish and modern American values—when, in fact, these metaphors expressed a flourishing Christian triumphalism.
Similarly, the First Amendment, that constitutional beacon of religious tolerance, had merely deprived the new federal government of power in the realm of religion, while carefully reserving to the states ample freedom to preserve a Christian commonwealth within their borders, if they were so inclined. Ironically, the “original intent” of the Framers, the hallmark of recent conservative jurisprudence, still has no more passionate advocates than secular liberals who (like Justices Black and Douglas before them) look to Jefferson and Madison to support their own separationist preferences.
The role of religion in American public life is likely to remain what it has always been: pervasively Christian, yet prudently concealed. In a country where nearly 95 percent of the population is Christian, this continues to pose obvious problems for Jews—the more so now that the traditionally united front of Jewish support for strict separation has sharply fragmented. The enthusiastic advocacy by the Lubavitch Hassidim of menorahs on public property and public funds for yeshivas has shattered the once monolithic “Jewish” position on church-state issues. With their “establishment” battles securely won, Jews must now decide whether they can tolerate their own religious symbols in the public square, precisely where Christmas trees and crèches are already located.
The more comfortable I became with Judaism, and with Jewish observance, the less I could defend the separationist position. By now, it seems a curiously American form of Jewish self-denial, whose primary function is to separate religion from life, precisely contrary to Jewish teaching. I can no longer pretend that separation effectively neutralizes Christianity. The United States, after all, is a country whose history, calendar, language, and, more than occasionally, law reflect the Christian piety and purpose that framed so much of the American colonial and national experience.
Jews may find it uncomfortable to acknowledge this reality, for it undeniably separates them from the American mainstream. But if Jews do not intend to become even more assimilated than intermarriage, secular liberalism, and assorted other American temptations have already made them, their only alternative may be the vigorous assertion of their own distinctiveness as Jews. If the United States truly is as tolerant of diversity as it claims, then Jews should have nothing to fear by being themselves, in public as in private. If it is not, then Jews should learn the limits and stop pretending otherwise. In the end, the role of religion in public life is a prism through which to observe the survival—or atrophy—of American Judaism.
Jerold S. Auerbach, author of Rabbis and Lawyers: The Journey from Torah to Constitution, is Professor of History at Wellesley College.