Parsing the gap between Jewish public and ‘leaders

WASHINGTON, June 27 (JTA) — If you were to assume that most American Jews agree with last week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that student-led prayer at school football games is unconstitutional, you would be right.

According to a new study released last Friday, coincidentally just days after the Supreme Court ruling, only 28 percent of American Jews favor allowing public school students to say prayers at sporting events.

The study, “Religion and the Public Square: Attitudes of American Jews in Comparative Perspective,” finds that most American Jews continue to believe that the wall separating church and state ought to be high.

The poll contrasts the attitudes of the general Jewish population with the leadership of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella organization of community relations councils, and with the non-Jewish public.

The survey finds a large gap in attitudes between the general Jewish population and the leadership of the JCPA, long seen as a staunchly liberal group.

On prayer at sporting events, for example, only 5 percent of JCPA leaders support it, compared with 28 percent of the Jewish public.

While some see nothing unusual about the gap — leaders often advocate a more extreme position than followers — others see the chasm as an indication that JCPA is out of sync with the American Jews they seek to represent.

The differences among Jews, however, are minor when compared with the sample of non-Jews. In almost every instance, both the Jewish public and JCPA leaders are significantly more “separationist” than non-Jews.

The study used a sample of 1,002 Jews, 684 non-Jews and 111 JCPA leaders. The margin of error was 3 to 4 percent for the Jews and non-Jews, but no statistic is available for the JCPA group.

The study is part of a larger project, “Jews and the American Public Square,” being conducted the Philadelphia-based Center for Jewish Community Studies.

The Pew Charitable Trusts is funding the project.

It comes at a time when religion is playing an unprecedented role in mainstream political campaigns and is informing much of the debate on such public policy issues as school vouchers and abortion.

“American attitudes toward religion and public life are changing, and old ways of thinking may not be up to the challenge of understanding and responding to new situations,” according to a pamphlet describing the project.

While the “high wall of separation” that Jews have staunchly advocated has served them well, the pamphlet says, “it has also framed the way they understand — and misunderstand — the role of religion in America.”

The purpose of the project, its organizers say, is to “open up a wide- ranging conversation” since the need for new perspectives is “urgent.”

So where do Jews and the JCPA leadership stand when it comes to church-state separation issues such as posting the Ten Commandments in schools and placing manger scenes on government property? Among the key findings:

• Thirty-eight percent of Jews think it’s OK to allow public schools to display the Ten Commandments, in contrast to 5 percent of JCPA leaders and 65 percent of non-Jews.

• Forty-three percent of Jews think a city government should be allowed to put up a manger scene on government property at Christmas. Five percent of JCPA leaders agree, as do 80 percent of non-Jews.

• Twenty-eight percent of Jews think there should be more laws governing moral behavior. Three percent of JCPA leadership agree, as do 45 percent of non-Jews.

• Thirty percent of the Jewish public say it is pleasing when political leaders publicly affirm their belief in God. Twenty-two percent of JCPA leaders and 70 percent of non-Jews agree with this statement.

• Thirty-five percent of Jews think members of the clergy can discuss political candidates or issues from the pulpit, in contrast to 73 percent of JCPA leaders and 30 percent of non-Jews.

The gap between the JCPA leadership and the Jewish public may mean a number of things.

Leaders often tend to be more extreme than the public they are said to represent, according to Steven Cohen, a professor of sociology at Hebrew University professor and the author of the study.

Marc Stern, counsel for the American Jewish Congress and an expert on the separation of church and state, said the Jewish public is willing to accept the “symbolic notation” of religious accommodation — such as teaching Christmas carols in public schools along with Chanukah songs (56 percent in favor) or putting up a manger scene on government property (43 percent), especially if they don’t feel threatened by it.

In contrast, the JCPA leadership — 13 percent on the Christmas carols and 5 percent on the manger scene — is more committed to applying the separation principal in all public arenas, Stern said.

But when it comes to legislative initiatives, fewer Jews among both the public and JCPA believe there should be more laws governing moral behavior, more religion in government or government aid to schools.

The study also found that JCPA leaders are more religious on a personal level than the general Jewish public and also are more supportive of religious involvement in public policy dialogue.

Cohen sees this as a paradox that can be explained by the leadership’s strong ideological facility to reconcile separationism with strong Jewish commitments and the understanding of the agency’s historically liberal position on separation of church and state.

This ability to separate public policy from private behavior allows the JCPA leaders to “adopt the logic that connects support for religious involvement in public life with separationism in church-state policy,” the study says.

For JCPA’s associate executive vice-chair, Martin Raffel, there is no paradox.

In fact, he said, the finding “explodes the myth” that separationists are opposed to religion.

“Support for church-state separation does not equal opposition to religion,” Raffel said.

The staunch support of separation of church and state, he said, stems from the assessment of JCPA leaders who have gone into public schools, for example, and witnessed the negative consequences of religion in the schools.

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