With the Pope''s visit still echoing, it''s appropriate to reflect on religion, and its role in politics.

 
Alongside the Pope in Bethlehem, Mahmoud Abbas proclaimed that all the problems are Israel''s fault, and that Palestinians are the true protectors of Christians hereabouts.
 
He may have been hard pressed to assemble more than a few Christians for the welcoming ceremony, in what not so long ago had been a city dominated by Christians.
 
During the mass celebrated by the Pope alongside the Church of the Nativity, the nearby mosque blared out its call to prayer at full volume.   
 
Leaders of the Jewish state have praised the Pope''s efforts in behalf of Jewish-Christian comity, with news of Brussels doing its bit to spoil a good time.
 
There are also Jews still obsessed with the Inquisition, who have done what they could to arouse the rest of us.
 
Insofar as the helicopter landing pad is alongside French Hill, our contributions to the visit were closed roads and lots of noise.
 
Religion is part of us, whether we go to synagogue, church, mosque, or something else. Or assertively avoid them all.
 
Both Israel and the US are prominent among western democracies where religion is important. 
 
Americans'' claim to have separated Church and State is nonsense. 
 
The Constitution says no such thing.
It does say that Congress shall not favor one religion over others, and not stand in the way of religion: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof"
 
The Declaration of Independence begins with a reference to God and the Creator, who provided the "unalienable Rights . . .  Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
 
You may know that it was an owner of slaves who wrote those words.
 
The US stands above all western democracies, including Israel, in the percentage of people saying that they believe in God, attend religious services regularly, and have experienced indications of God''s existence.
 
Religious institutions benefit from tax exemptions. Religious schools get government funding one way or another. Prohibition was an expression of Protestants'' fear of alcohol as well as Catholic immigrants who liked to drink. Thanks to Catholic and Jewish gangsters, it ranked as one of the country''s greatest embarrassments, but is still apparent in the statutes of various places where Protestants (or Mormons) hold sway. Efforts against abortion, old laws against sodomy and bestiality, as well as the current flap about same sex marriages reflect religious beliefs as much as anything.
 
Israel''s politics shows a different constellation of issues linked to religion.
 
Abortion, homosexuality and alcohol have not been problems for the Jewish state. The IDF hasn''t worried about soldiers who are homosexual in their free time. Demands of the ultra-Orthodox and the Orthodox are always on the government''s agenda, but the substantial incidence of  secular, nonreligious, or anti-religious Jews works to keep things in balance. 
 
Both ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox do what they can to preserve the "Jewish" nature of Israel with respect to regulations about the Sabbath and religious holidays. However, the completeness that once prevailed about closing businesses on those days has declined markedly.
 
The ultra-Orthodox specialize in the independence of their schools, which extends to opposing conscription, and the freedom of their neighborhoods and towns from interference. 
 
The Supreme Court has issued another ruling against the discrimination in favor of yeshiva students, and ultra-Orthodox politicians have responded with their usual comments about anti-Semitic Jews. An early study of Yair Lapid''s reforms meant to increase the recruitment of Haredi youth to the IDF and/or to work shows declines in indicators of both.
 
The (non-ultra-) Orthodox are now most noted for their support of settlements throughout the Land of Israel. 
 
The churches of European countries usually have more tourists looking at the art or resting their tired bodies than people at prayer, but that may differ at times of major services on Sundays and holidays. The cleanliness and upkeep of cathedrals and lesser churches reflects government support. Britain and the Scandinavian countries have the cross on their national flags. 
 
Endless debate about the essence of Judaism began at least as far ago as the Greeks.
 
More than Christianity and Islam, Judaism is muddled by a mixture of ethnicity and belief. Jewish atheists are part of the community, as are individuals from the full range of ethnicities who have decided to join the tribe. And like Christianity and Islam, Judaism has its variety of sects, ranging from competing clusters of ultra-Orthodox across the spectrum to Reform, with each local congregation having as much independence as any Baptist or Evangelical church. A near or absolute majority of Israeli Jews consider themselves secular, identify as Jews, participate in some observances, and express a variety of positions about the government''s policies on matters touching religion. There are many who resemble Jews on many traits, without being recognized as Jews by the Orthodox Rabbinate. 
 
Some religions struggle for recognition as such. Scientology hasn''t made it in some jurisdictions. Native Americans who practice their ceremonies with the help of hallucinatory plants have sought status in state prisons. In an age of permissive sex, polygamous groups--some claiming to be the true Mormons--have had little trouble being ignored, but have run afoul of laws against abuse of minors.
 
Individuals change. Nations and social groups also change, although more slowly than individuals. Religions change. Most apparent in recent years has been a departure of many religious bodies from older rules on homosexuality and marriage. Both Muslims and Orthodox Jews are experiencing pressures about the roles of women, with some in both communities moving in more conservative directions and others more liberal. Non-Orthodox Jewish congregations may be moving in traditional directions on some issues. There are also studies showing more people questioning the basic tenets of the faith they call theirs, or claiming to abandon faith entirely. However, religion is not about to disappear. If it may have declined in political importance here and there, those places do not include the US and Israel. 
 
 

 


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