In two recent rulings—one involving a college football coach who wished to pray on the field, the other involving the directing of state funding to religious schools—the Supreme Court decided in favor of an expansive definition of freedom of religion and against the argument that any sign of government favor toward religious practices or institutions should be seen as a violation of the First Amendment’s prohibition on establishing an official state religion. Two prominent mainstream Jewish groups, the Antidefamation League (ADL) and the American Jewish Committee (AJC), condemned these decisions. To Jonathan Tobin, their position reflects the understandable but misguided attitude of many American Jews:
As a religious minority in a country that was overwhelmingly Christian and because of their experiences elsewhere, Jews have always tended to view the public expression of faith as inherently dangerous. Jews had thrived in America in a way that was unmatched in the long history of the Diaspora, and at the core of the safety and acceptance that they found here was the fact that no faith was “established” as the official state religion. Judaism has always been on an equal basis with Christian denominations, whose adherents made up the overwhelming majority of the population. But to many Jews, fear of faith in the public square has led them to see the Constitution’s sensible balance between non-establishment and defense of free exercise as worrisome.
In the 20th century, politically liberal Jews who saw the issue solely through the prism of past fears were part of a movement that sought to rid the public domain of religion. Yet that hasn’t made them any safer or freer. While liberal Jewish groups remain obsessed with a non-existent threat to Jewish rights from religious Christians, who are now more likely to be philo-Semitic than hostile to Jews, they are blind to other more pertinent dangers.