Church and State: Getting the Balance Right

Being a dual citizen is usually quite easy – I love having both Guy Fawkes Day and Thanksgiving in my November diary. (Of course, July 4 is a bit tricky when I have to decide whether to celebrate American Independence Day or mourn the breaking away of the Colonies.) Yesterday, however, was one of those days when my dual identity forced me to think hard about which country’s policy is the one that best furthers the Jewish contribution to larger society. We had the pleasure last week of welcoming Andrew Stunell OBE MP to JHub for a visit with his staff. In the course of showing him around JHub and watching him interact with our residents, I began to question whether America’s insistence on a separation of Church and State is such a wise policy after all.

Two hundred years ago, I fully appreciate why the American Founding Fathers thought it necessary to draw a line in the sand and create a system of government where neither the monarchy nor the church could interfere with matters of state. This was a reasonable reaction to their experiences in Britain and their desire to create a system of government where “all men are created equal” and freedom of religion would be guaranteed.

The result two hundred years later, however, is that American politicians constantly express their religious sentiments publicly – always ending their speeches with “God bless America” but technically, there continues to be a firewall between religion and government. As the lone Jew growing up in a small rural community, I had always believed that this firewall served the Jewish community (and other minorities) well, as it protected us from interference from institutional and governmental discrimination.

What I saw last week at JHub, however, made me question whether there could be a more integrated approach to government and religion partnering together. The Jewish

community has so much to contribute to the concept of Big Society. The various charities based at JHub are terrific examples of engaging volunteers and professionals in issues that impact all sectors of British society. To have the most effect, we need to partner with government in order for us to have an impact beyond the boundaries of our own community.

As I observed Andrew Stunell speaking to JHub residents, it became clear that the government is trying to solve the same problems that we are:

  • He chatted to Rene Cassin about education for the gypsy traveller community
  • He shared the UK Task Force’s interest in advocating for Arab citizens inIsrael(as an issue on the ground inIsraelas well as relating to Arab/Jewish relationships within theUK)
  • He supported Mitzvah Day’s efforts to expand its reach beyond the Jewish community by promoting volunteering in different faith communities
  • He offered to help Solar Action find a way to take advantage of the government’s Solar Panel feed-in-tariff to support faith-based social enterprise

 

All of these are areas where government and faith-based charities overlap. While each sector approaches these issues with different programmes and tactics, our overall goal of addressing specific social problems is shared. My American upbringing convinced me that the government should not interfere with the theological aspects of faith; but where it comes to community-building and social activism, my experience in Britain has shown me that government and faith can be two sides of the same coin. Thanks to the support of the Pears Foundation, JHub was able to serve yesterday as the meeting point for those two sides. It was a wonderful reminder for this new British citizen of how the partnership between government, faith-based charities, and philanthropy can gracefully blur the boundaries between church and state for the good of all citizens.

It’s a welcome challenge to my American values which I will reflect on further during this month of November, as I enjoy both the Fireworks and my Thanksgiving Meal.

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