Religion is vital to the strength of a democracy and a rise in crime is directly related to a lessening of religion in America, Boston Globe journalist Jeff Jacoby told an audience of 85 at Temple B'nai Jeshurun in Short Hills on Wednesday, March 20.
As part of the program, The Role of Religion in American Society, co-sponsored by the synagogue and the American Jewish Committee Metropolitan New Jersey chapter, Jacoby took part in a panel discussion and debate with Rev. James M. Dunn, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs. The event was moderated by Rabbi A. James Rudin, national director of the AJCommittee's department of interreligious affairs.
While Dunn agreed with some of Jacoby's insights, he vehemently disagreed that government should be involved in religion.
"If it's required religion, it ain't religion," Dunn said, adding that he does not see America or the public square as "naked from religion."
Dunn raised the issue of the Christian right and groups such as the Christian Coalition, which he said tend to warp facts about government and religion.
He said he doesn't "like the Christian Coalition taking the word 'Christian' and using it" to promote its political agenda. He also blamed journalists for misleading the public by distorting facts to "get a headline" regarding religion and government.
Dunn also refuted Jacoby's claims that society's values and morals plummeted when the Supreme Court ruled in the 1960s to keep religion out of public schools.
"The two aren't connected. Saying the Supreme Court decision led to society's problems" is not a valid correlation.
"The vitality of religion," Dunn said, "ultimately depends on it being voluntary."
Jacoby disagrees. The son of Holocaust survivors, he advocated the daily use of prayer in public schools and at commencement exercises.
"It doesn't do children any harm to begin the morning with a small prayer... It's good for kids to be reminded that there is a God they will be held accountable to."
Jacoby also said Jews should want freedom for religious life and spirituality because "we are far less endangered by the presence of religion than we are when we have religious secularism."
Quoting the United States Constitution, the journalist said the founding fathers were correct in their belief that freedom could not survive without the presence of religion.
"The values you have to have in a free society all men are created equal; life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are ultimately derived from religion... If you can't sustain those virtues, you can't sustain democracy."
But an audience member, Rick Mayer of Nutley, told Jacoby he'd obviously "led a sheltered life" if he believed religion in schools could help the Jewish people.
Following the event, Mayer said he was brought up to be very aware of political and religious extremism, and thinks Jacoby is advocating a theoretical viewpoint rather than a practical one.
"Generation X seems to feel we're safe here. It's incorrect and it's dangerous," Mayer said.
And Herb Zuckerman of South Orange, another attendee, said he was "more disturbed by the remarks of my coreligionist than by Rev. Dunn."
Other audience members agreed wholeheartedly with Jacoby that religion is vital and should be expressed.
"I've been to a graduation without prayer and it was so flat," said Ann Leiwant of Verona. "Jacoby had so much depth to offer. It had a tremendous impression on me."
Helene Tobias, also of Verona, said it's very encouraging to witness a healthy debate on the issue.
"Even if you agree or disagree, it's getting the words out that is important. When you get the sense that people are trying to solve issues intellectually, it's comforting," she explained.