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Jews wary of religion in public life

WASHINGTON, Jan. 9 (JTA) – American Jews are wary of religion’s role in politics and reluctant to accept any increased influence of religion in public life, a new study shows.

Following a presidential campaign that often threw religion into the spotlight, the study seems to buttress long-held views that Jews are still concerned about the negative consequences of heightened religiosity in American public life.

The findings counter the beliefs of the general public and even the title of the study, “For Goodness’ Sake: Why So Many Want Religion to Play a Greater Role in American Life.”

The study, conducted by Public Agenda, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization, and funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, examined what 1,507 respondents think about religion in politics, schools and social settings.

The study included a special focus on American Jews. A breakdown of results was not available for Muslims or most Christian denominations.

Most Americans believe religion can help cure many societal ills. But the survey’s respondents also acknowledged that society is diverse and people should be careful about how they bring religion into the public sphere.

“If you’re a religious minority, that’s good news,” said Steve Farkas, director of research for Public Agenda.

Farkas said there were not “a whole lot of surprises” in the responses from American Jews. Among the findings:

* Only 14 percent of Jews – but nearly half the general public – believe elected officials would make better laws and policy decisions if more of them were deeply religious.

* Sixty percent of Jews disagree with the idea that the Supreme Court, which has sought to remove religion from public institutions, has become hostile toward religion. Nearly the same percentage of the general public consider the court hostile toward religion. Among one group – evangelical Christians – 84 percent of respondents said Satan is behind the fight against religion in public life.

* Public schools should avoid prayer or a moment of silence, 60 percent of Jews said. More than half the general public views a moment of silence as a good compromise.

The vast majority of Jewish respondents said the separation of church and state is one of the most important reasons for the success of the American political system.

That finding agrees with a study released in June that found that most American Jews continue to believe the wall separating church and state should be high, and that Jews are significantly more “separationist” than non-Jews.

The earlier study was part of a larger project, “Jews and the American Public Square,” being conducted by the Philadelphia-based Center for Jewish Community Studies. The Pew Charitable Trusts also funded that project.

Another church-state separation issue that is problematic for Jews is government funding of faith-based organizations, known as charitable choice. Jews are wary of charitable choice, a favorite project of President-elect Bush.

Only 19 percent of Jews think it is a good idea for government to fund religious groups that provide social services; 44 percent think it is a good idea if the programs don’t promote religious messages; and 36 percent say it is a bad idea altogether.

At a panel discussion on the survey on Wednesday, experts said people have just started to think about issues like charitable choice and are not yet fully engaged.

Rev. Eugene Rivers, who participated in a faith leaders’ meeting on charitable choice with Bush last month, said that even those driving the issue are not entirely clear how to implement it.

Bush has said he plans to create a federal office on faith-based programs, but Rivers said Bush will probably have to slow down the implementation of such programs.

Surprising Farkas was the finding that 80 percent of Jewish respondents believe Jews must be on guard because anti-Semitism could become a powerful force in America. A little over half of the general public agreed.

The total sample of Jewish respondents for the survey was 200. That included respondents who identified themselves as “Jewish,” and those who said they had “no religion” but had one or two Jewish parents.

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