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September 30, 2014 / 6 Tishri, 5775
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Religion In America, Past And Present

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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 reference only to fighting men but not fighting women; and ridiculed by the cultural imperialists for his simple belief that what 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 by journalist Ira Stoll titled JFK, Conservative reveals aspects of John Kennedy’s 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 God versus ruthless, Godless tyranny.”

It is unimaginable that the current president would use such language, especially employing the term “atheism” as a malediction or insult. And both President George H. W. Bush and President George W. Bush, when they spoke to the nation about the outbreak of their respective wars with Iraq, mentioned God only in the final peroration.

Certainly, FDR and JFK’s private conduct never fully conformed with 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 “God 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.

What changed?

* * * * *

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 reinforcing 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.

About the Author: Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is the spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun of Teaneck, New Jersey, and the author most recently of “Judges for Our Time: Contemporary Lessons from the Book of Shoftim” (Gefen Publishing House, Jerusalem, 2009). His writings and lectures can be found at www.Rabbipruzansky.com.


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One Response to “Religion In America, Past And Present”

  1. rabbi pruzansky and jewish press;:kol hakovod – that was the country in which i grew up- as a torah day school talmid- and whose memory i still admire reuven savitz brooklyn new york

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