Religion in America, Past and Present
(This was first published as an op-ed in the Jewish Press of January 3, 2014, and then featured at the Jewish World Review)
To understand the profound changes in American religious life in the last few generations requires little more than perusing the speech – really, the prayer – offered by Franklin Delano Roosevelt on D-Day, June 6, 1944. We will see how dramatically the American culture has shifted in exactly 70 years.
“My fellow Americans: Last night, when I spoke with you about the fall of Rome, I knew at that moment that troops of the United States and our allies were crossing the Channel in another and greater operation. It has come to pass with success thus far.
And so, in this poignant hour, I ask you to join with me in prayer:
Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our Nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity. Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith.
They will need Thy blessings. Their road will be long and hard. For the enemy is strong. He may hurl back our forces. Success may not come with rushing speed, but we shall return again and again; and we know that by Thy grace, and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph.
They will be sore tried, by night and by day, without rest-until the victory is won. The darkness will be rent by noise and flame. Men’s souls will be shaken with the violences of war.
For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace. They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and good will among all Thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home.
Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, Thy heroic servants, into Thy kingdom.
And for us at home – fathers, mothers, children, wives, sisters, and brothers of brave men overseas – whose thoughts and prayers are ever with them – help us, Almighty God, to rededicate ourselves in renewed faith in Thee in this hour of great sacrifice.
Many people have urged that I call the Nation into a single day of special prayer. But because the road is long and the desire is great, I ask that our people devote themselves in a continuance of prayer. As we rise to each new day, and again when each day is spent, let words of prayer be on our lips, invoking Thy help to our efforts.
Give us strength, too – strength in our daily tasks, to redouble the contributions we make in the physical and the material support of our armed forces.
And let our hearts be stout, to wait out the long travail, to bear sorrows that may come, to impart our courage unto our sons wheresoever they may be.
And, O Lord, give us Faith. Give us Faith in Thee; Faith in our sons; Faith in each other; Faith in our united crusade. Let not the keenness of our spirit ever be dulled. Let not the impacts of temporary events, of temporal matters of but fleeting moment let not these deter us in our unconquerable purpose.
With Thy blessing, we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy. Help us to conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogancies. Lead us to the saving of our country, and with our sister Nations into a world unity that will spell a sure peace a peace invulnerable to the schemings of unworthy men. And a peace that will let all of men live in freedom, reaping the just rewards of their honest toil.
Thy will be done, Almighty God. Amen.”
It is simply unthinkable that a modern American president – or a politician who is not also a clergyman – would speak in that language and those cadences. He would be lambasted by legalists who would argue that such expressions tear down the wall separating church and state; besmirched by trendy moralists decrying the absence of any references to those of “no faith;” assailed by the gender Gotcha Gang for his deference only to fighting men but not fighting women; and ridiculed by the cultural imperialists for his simple belief that the country needed then was not a military overview or analysis of diplomatic options to solve the crisis in Europe but just a moment of prayer and reflection before the Creator of the universe.
Another illustration strengthens the argument. A new book entitled “JFK, Conservative” (by Ira Stoll, HMH, 2013) released in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination, reveals aspects of his life that further shed light on the changed moral climate of this era. Politics aside, Kennedy was a religious man whose speeches and writings were rife with religious references. From a 1946 speech, alluding to his World War II service: “Wherever freedom has been in danger, Americans with a deep sense of patriotism have been ever willing to stand at Armageddon and strike a blow for liberty and the Lord…The right of the individual against the State has ever been one of our most cherished principles…Today these basic religious ideas are challenged by atheism and materialism: at home in the cynical philosophy of many of our intellectuals, abroad in the doctrine of collectivism, which sets up the twin pillars of atheism and materialism as the official philosophical establishment of the State.”
And from a 1960 speech about the dangers of Communism: “This is not a struggle for supremacy of arms alone – it is also a struggle for supremacy between two conflicting ideologies; freedom under G-d versus ruthless, G-dless tyranny.”
It is unimaginable that today’s president would use such language, especially employing the term “atheism” as a malediction or insult. By contrast, both President George H. W. Bush and President George W. Bush, when each spoke to the nation about the outbreak of their respective wars with Iraq, mentioned G-d only in the final peroration.
Certainly, neither FDR nor JFK’s private conduct ever fully adhered to their public expressions of faith (whose does?) but there is something wistful about the America that was and is no longer – an America in which faith was a natural and expected part of public discourse. More often today, expressions of faith are mocked, avoided entirely by public figures except as clichés or platitudes, or watered down to meaninglessness (equating “people of faith and people of no faith”). Usually, it is forced and sounds artificial, like ending every presidential speech with the intonation “G-d bless America,” less a prayer than, well, just a familiar exit line bound to draw applause from an audience mostly appreciative that the speech has ended.
Not long after President Kennedy denounced the Soviet Union as the home of the godless, the United States Supreme Court banned formal prayer in the nation’s public schools. The next year, the Court officially sanctioned atheism by proscribing Bible-reading in the public schools. Within a relatively short time and devoid of any source of objective morality outside formal religious training, American youth rebelled against any type of moral authority or religious structure and renounced any limitations on their behavior.
There was a time when schools endeavored to produce good citizens, teaching civics and values, and reinforced proper cultural norms. That era ended a half-century ago, and fifty years of values-free education has produced fifty years of values-free students.
To be sure, that is not entirely accurate; students are taught to explore “values.” But the values and morality they discuss originate from their inner worlds and not from the religious history of mankind. Rather than learn about reality and their place in it, they are taught that their personal realities are all that matter, that their moral conclusions are all legitimate and valid, and that no choice is better than any other choice. Personal happiness matters more than goodness.
The removal of “G-d” from the classroom has trickled up to the rest of society, including society’s leaders. For more than thirty years, American courts have mostly railed against the presence of the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms, and prohibited its posting in schools and in many public buildings. What was previously perceived as objective evils – murder, theft, adultery, false testimony, etc. – soon became a matter of personal choice. The rest of society was then admonished not to “judge” those personal choices, except insofar as other people were harmed, but even that was circumscribed. It is inarguable that, even without formal religious instruction in the public schools, there is a huge difference between the child who daily sees a sign on his classroom wall beginning “I am the Lord thy G-d,” and the child who is taught that the child himself is the center of his moral universe.
Much has been made of a study that purported to show the difference in disciplinary problems in public schools in 1940 and in 1990. In 1940, the school authorities had to deal primarily with such outrages as talking out of turn, chewing gum in class, making noise, running in the halls, cutting in line and violations of the dress code. What miscreants! Compare that to the problems of 1990 that have only been exacerbated in the interim: drug abuse, alcohol abuse, pregnancy, suicide, rape, robbery, and assault. The teacher who admonishes a child for chewing gum in class is more likely to be assaulted – and then disciplined by administrators – than lauded for her efforts.
While some have questioned the accuracy of the findings – typically, those who are enamored with today’s amorality – anyone who went to school then can certainly testify to the greater innocence, wholesomeness and propriety that existed in a society in which G-d’s word and morality permeated its formal institutions. Boys and girls had more respect for each other, and both had more respect for teachers and adults. The removal of “G-d” from the nation’s schools weakened their ability to inculcate any sort of decency. G-d as authority was replaced by each person as his or her own authority. It is not a great leap from that sorry state of affairs to the quaint game of knocking out old women on the street for sport.
The longer that “G-d” has been forcibly removed from the public domain, the more presidents and other officials have shied away from invoking the name of G-d in public except in platitudes (and some, indeed, were wholly unworthy of being taken seriously if they had spoken of G-d in a substantive context). And the more G-d has receded from being perceived as the Source of all morality, the less our young people have been raised with any semblance of ethics or values that derive from anything beyond their desire for self-gratification.
That, then, is the other dimension present in the decline of religion as a meaningful factor in American life. Religion itself has been perverted to become an instrument designed to make people feel good about themselves and their choices in life. It is a tool – distorted, to be sure – that is fashioned and re-fashioned to pander to the latest moral fads. Eternal law is subverted to conform to fleeting whims. A recent poll showed that the new Pope Francis is almost twice as popular as the Catholic Church that he heads. How can that be? Because the Pope seems like a nice guy, while his church still has rules, makes demands on people’s lives, and inhibits their choices.
The same dynamic exists in our world as well. The Torah, to many people, should also subject to public opinion polls. Prohibitions that are frowned on by modern sensibilities should be re-evaluated, even re-read and re-interpreted, so as to conform to the “higher morality” that stems from man’s instinctual drives. Threats are made that people will abandon Judaism if the appropriate concessions are not implemented. Traditional norms are under siege, and the Jewish home –heretofore a rock of stability and one of the sources of our eternity – is faltering under the pressure. There is a relentless juggernaut that now seems unstoppable to cajole the Torah world into acquiescing in the erosion of the moral norms that reflect the Divine word and have always defined the uniqueness of Jewish life. And all in the name of “morality.” It is a complete inversion of our traditional position of defending against the encroachment of secular society’s values into Jewish life.
A president who today used the language of FDR or JFK would be derided. If he were a candidate, the media elites would bury his chances of winning the election. He would be a laughing stock to the aimless youth whose uninformed opinions on public affairs seem to matter more than they should. But they can hardly be blamed, for this is how they were educated.
It was a better country when FDR and JFK felt comfortable invoking G-d’s name, as it was, indeed, a better society when they, despite their infidelities, nonetheless felt it distasteful to divorce their wives. Marriage, however imperfect the institution of the bond of one man and one woman, meant something. Those days are gone, washed away by the specter of same-sex marriage, polygamous marriages, and other permutations of the same that have denuded the institution of its meaning, sanctity and long-term viability.
In such a climate, Torah Jewry is indeed called upon to “a light onto the nations,” not to ape their values but guide them towards embracing ours. We can hold firm against the decadent tide that now inundates us, recall the halcyon days to understand how this decline came about, behold the systematic collapse of the most pleasant exile with which G-d has blessed us, and ready ourselves for our return to G-d’s holy and chosen land.