Thank you, Reverend Falwell, for your gracious invitation. I am honored to address the students of this great university.
I stand before you as the leader of the largest Jewish religious movement in America, consisting of 920 congregations and 1.5 million Jews. While we have our differences to be sure, as religious Americans there is much that we share at this critical moment in our country’s history.
First and foremost, we share a profound commitment to the security and well-being of the State of Israel. In recent months, Israelis have elected a moderate government, committed to peace and a two-state solution, while the Palestinians have elected a radical government, committed to terror and death. Together, we hold the high ground against the apostles of hate who say that murder is pleasing to God. And our love for Israel is based not on the shifting sands of geopolitical strategy, but on the hard rock of moral obligation. While our theologies surely differ, we know that Israel is not just another state but speaks to deep issues of faith and belief.
We share too an abiding love for America, this vibrant and contentious democracy in which we live. We particularly treasure the freedom of this land. As religious people, we have a special commitment to freedom, seen and unseen, rooted in our faith that every man and woman is created equal in the sight of God.
And, we share an intense pride in the religious vitality of our country. In much of Europe, it is assumed that to be religious is to be naïve or stupid, while here a house of worship is found on every corner. We surpass every democracy in our religious fervor. And remember this: More Americans attend church or synagogue each week than attend professional sports in an entire year.
And this too: we share a common concern about the moral crisis of America. Even with religion thriving, we have witnessed all around us a disturbing collapse of public morality. We live in an era of rampant materialism and no-strings-attached sexual encounters. Every night television assails our children with mindless reality shows that present self-gratification as the only goal worth pursuing. Pornography, which debases the sexual act and detaches it from love and commitment, has become a staple of our culture: what teenage boys learn from video games and the Internet is that girls are interchangeable sexual objects. Women will never be emancipated if they are viewed solely through the lens of their sexuality.
And who is at fault? The left, for confusing liberty with license and for ignoring public morality in the name of personal choice. And the right, for being far too accepting of corporations that reach into our homes with their trash and relentlessly market sex and violence. I for one am sick and tired of media giants that tout family values in their news programs and press lewdness in their entertainment shows. Shame on all those who poison our public life in this way.
It is understandable, perhaps, that we may feel victimized and under attack and look for quick fixes. And so we hear calls, sometimes from evangelicals and sometimes from others, for prayer in the schools and lowering the wall of church-state separation.
But let us beware of simple answers. As a Jew, I don’t like it when other Jews find an anti-Semite under every bed; I don’t believe that Judaism is seriously imperiled, and I don’t think that Christianity is under siege either. Neither do I want to ask the government to solve our problems by imposing its will. Government coercion generates resentment, not godliness, and it is never a good idea to put the government in charge of our thinking.
I prefer to rely on the wisdom of the founding fathers. They were religious people who wanted God in public life, but they thought that religion must be a unifying force in America. They did not want government to be an agent of religion, and they refused to use sectarian language or images. It was they who authored the First Amendment, the noble sanctuary of our most precious freedoms. And this too: the bloody rise of theological politics in the Islamic world, and especially in Iraq, reminds us how rare and fragile an achievement the separation of church and state really is. Let us do everything in our power to preserve it; it is a large part of what makes America worth living in.
And so how can we move forward? Let’s begin by taking on the harmful effects of screen sex and violence. It is possible to set voluntary boundaries for protecting children without sacrificing the ability of adults to watch what they choose. So let’s work with industry leaders to develop consensus on a uniform, content-based rating system.
And let’s do a better job in what we do as religious Americans. We need to remind our members to switch off the television once in a while and talk to their children about God and our religious journey. We need to make our churches and synagogues into safe places where kids know that they matter and where they are shielded from the pressures of premature adulthood. We need to say that moral relativism is not the only answer to a complex, changing world; in fact, when the winds blow hardest, it is then that you need the strongest roots. Only in this way can we engrave our values on our children’s hearts.
And we can do all this without papering over our very real differences.
Your religious tradition prohibits abortion; my religious tradition permits it in some cases and forbids it in others, but believes that every woman must prayerfully make the final decision for herself. You oppose gay marriage while we believe in legal protection for gay couples. We understand your reading of the Biblical texts, even if we read those texts in a different way. But gay Americans pose no threat to their friends, neighbors, or co-workers, and when two people make a lifelong commitment to each other, we believe it is wrong to deny them the legal guarantees that protect them and their children and benefit the broader society.
But as significant as these differences are, my hope is that they will not overwhelm us. We need less anger and more thoughtful reflection, less shouting and more listening. Even when we disagree, let’s do so without demonizing each other. I can discuss these issues and believe what I believe without calling you a homophobic bigot, and you can do the same without calling me an uncaring baby killer. Let’s promote respect for each other’s religious tradition, and let’s work for civility in public debate.
And where we can, let’s build bridges, find shared values, and join together in common cause. Indeed, this has already begun. American evangelicals are a major force for human rights, here and abroad. You support Christian minorities in China, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia. And in fighting for Christians, you fight for everyone. You also do battle against the slaughter in Darfur, against the trafficking of women into sexual bondage, and against the horrors of malaria and HIV. And you are turning your attention to issues of world poverty, debt relief, and global warming. In these battles, we are your allies. I hope that we can strengthen that alliance and expand it, extending our hand wherever we can to the widow and the orphan, the stranger and the needy—all of whom, the Bible tells us, are blessed of the Lord.
And I am optimistic that we can do this. Because in these matters, ours is not an alliance of politics but of faith. Faith that America, the most religiously diverse country in the world, is a place that gives a fair shake to all. Faith that God has summoned us to build a world that is less random and capricious, more equitable and humane. Faith that despite the temptations of the marketplace, we will not forget the moral vision that came forth from Zion. Faith that, even as we find Him in different ways, God is by our side, lifting us when we fall. Faith that the possibilities of happiness and fulfillment are always with us, if only we would open our eyes and give God our thanks.
God bless you. And God bless America.
Eric Yoffie is the first Rabbi to be invited by the Reverend Jerry Falwell to address students and faculty at Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA, on March 26, 2007.