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Religion and America

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

Separation of church and state was a revolutionary concept but it was predicated on moral training in the home.

One of the great acts of the founding fathers was to separate church and state. The new United States was to have no formal state church as was common in European countries. Each man and woman, each family would lead its own religious life without the coercion of the state. This was an extraordinary change in relations between rulers and the ruled.


The lack of a formal religious institution of the government did not mean that the United States was meant to be an irreligious country. Quite to the contrary. The founding documents invoke G-d and also make it clear that a citizen’s rights come from G-d and that the government has no power to abrogate them. Freedom of religious expression, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly guaranteed the free practice of all religions without state interference. Religion was everywhere in the United States. All US currency includes a reference to G-d, as does the pledge of allegiance, and virtually every important meeting or event begins with an invocation of His name.

The separation of church and state I believe included an unwritten understanding between the government and the governed. The state would provide schools that would train students in relevant subjects (“reading, writing, arithmetic”) and moral training would come from the home and private religious institutions. Since the government could not endorse a formal state religion, public schools would not be “religious schools” but religious training would come from the home and whatever religion with which a family was associated. Even my alma mater, Harvard, started nearly 400 years ago as an institution for the training of clergy. Religion was for the first two hundred years of the Republic the unwritten guardrail of American democracy. No law or act would be put forward or enacted that would be an insult to G-d or a usurpation of religious law. Would the Congress of 30 years ago have considered gay marriage or any bill that stood in opposition to accepted religious teaching?


For decades, religious practice in the US and the West has been in decline, as surveys consistently show fewer people going to religious services and/or identifying themselves by their religious faith. In the past, children would go to religious schools or receive religious training outside of their public school activities. With the decline of religion in America, students get strictly secular training in school and continue in that vein outside of school. A student may come home and not go to Hebrew School as I did in my youth but rather to soccer practice or band rehearsal. Religion today is unfortunately considered like dessert—if you want, have some, but certainly one does not need to have it. Though religious attendance and observance weakened over the previous decades, basic religious concepts such as marriage, having children (“Be fruitful and multiply”), differences between the sexes, and respect for religious and holy institutions still were accepted. So in the 1970s and 1980s people married, though marriage is generally considered a religious institution and is often performed by a religious official. They had children (births per woman first went under the 2.1 replacement level in the 1970s) and generally observed some level of religious practice that might involve going to religious services a couple of times a year. I remember our Conservative synagogue overflowing on the High Holidays but not anywhere near so full during the rest of the year. 


But as the generations moved forward and we have less and less moral and religious training, the wheels started to come off of some of the most basic concepts that in a religious society would be obvious: marriage between a man and a woman; having children, believing in all of the “Thou shalt not” statements in the holy books such as those related to murder, adultery, stealing, and immoral business practices. As parents had little to nothing to offer their children by way of religious or moral leadership beyond New Age bromides of feeling good and doing what you think is right, generations of highly technically trained and morally-clueless citizens were raised. Students today are well-versed in engineering and/or the sciences or medicine but have no idea how to approach moral questions that they may face daily. And with the withering of religious moral training, today even the most basic concepts that have their root in religious tenets and literature are lost. Recently, a highly-accomplished judge claimed that she could not define what a woman was as she spoke before a Senate committee. We no longer know what men and women are and are treated as interchangeable, what marriage means, why one should have children, how to raise and train those children as they grow up, and what is right, honest, and fair. 

The brain trust of FTX was highly accredited and smart. Sam Bankman-Fried was the prodigy of two accomplished Stanford professors. Give him and his colleagues an SAT or GMAT exam, and they would be in the top 1%. But they took from the get-go client money from FTX and moved it into their Alameda Research investment company—they outright took their clients’ money and used it for their purposes. Highly trained doctors babble about “birthing people” (not “women”) and cut off breasts and other parts from perfectly healthy children for ideological fantasies of people changing their sex. Young adults put off marriage and building families, and many do not want children either due to fear of climate change, the large expense of bringing up children, or the desire to have a free lifestyle that does not include waking up at 2 in the morning to give a baby a bottle. A Democratic senator recently justified mass uncontrolled immigration into the US due to Americans not reproducing as much as in the past. Many see no moral reason to bring children into the world, and when “experts” claim that children are a direct threat to climate, safe play is simply not to have any, something that was understood to be a natural part of the flow of life for the vast majority of the population in previous generations. Random stabbings and pushes onto subway tracks in New York show a loss of any moral compass by the perpetrators and the DAs who keep them on the street. So while religious concepts of good and evil, right and wrong outlasted wide-spread religious adherence and practice, apparently we have reached the point where even such concepts as men and women, boys and girls, marriage, bringing up children, punishing criminals and working honestly no longer make any sense to brilliant men and women who have no religious-based moral compass. 


Are all religious people good? Of course not. There is no shortage of scandals involving religious individuals and/or institutions. Are all non-religious people bad? Obviously no. Many of the best and bravest America has produced were not particularly religious. But as a society, if we cannot define right and wrong, good and evil, then we will mutilate our children and let killers back on the street—things that routinely happen today. We will deny children the ability to reproduce through surgery and drugs. In past times, the US could defeat Nazi Germany and Japan in part because all agreed that they were evil; if faced with similar threats, today’s generation would say who are we to judge? Good and evil are all relative today in general society. Why would anyone want to fight them if one could not see them as the pure evil they were?

So what is the future? I don’t know. Some might take comfort in religious families having more children than their non-religious peers, but Dennis Prager has keenly pointed out that many children of religious families go to high school and college and come back as full-fledged left-thinking young men and women. De Tocqueville wrote that America is great because she is (morally) good. We need to return to a moral society, one based on G-d. Trading religious morals for human morals leads us to Dr. Ezekiel Emmanuel suggesting that no one should live longer than 75 years so as not to take up an excess of medical resources. Religious people treasure life and will do their best to extend it as long as possible. In Canada, euthanasia has begun. In Nazi Germany, it also started with the old, then moved to the ill (“the worthless mouths”), and finally to the extermination of the Jews and other enemies of the state. The US will be great again, but such greatness will necessarily include a moral renaissance to give a basis for national success.


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