For the past half century, the American Jewish community has supported the view that America benefits and religion benefits when the separation between church and state in this country is virtually absolute. Over the past decade, commitment to this strict view of separation has begun to erode. What do I and other liberal religious Jews have to say to our fellow Americans on the Religious Right who are challenging traditional principles of separation?

First, let's be clear on what we are not saying. We are not saying that religion should be hidden from view. We have only respect for those elected officials who profess a deep religious belief, and we are appalled when media voices pour scorn on religious people.

But we are saying that no matter how profoundly religion influences you, when you make a public argument, you must ground your statements in reason and a language of morality that is accessible to everyone-to people of different religions or no religion at all. In our diverse democracy, Americans need a common political discourse not dominated by exclusivist theology. They do not want to hear that unless you attend my church, accept my God, and study my sacred text, you cannot be a moral person.

We are particularly offended by the suggestion that the opposite of the Religious Right is the voice of atheism. We are appalled when "people of faith" is used in such a way that it excludes us, as well as most Jews, Catholics, and Muslims. What could be more bigoted than to claim that you have a monopoly on God and that anyone who disagrees with you is not a person of faith?

So we ask our neighbors on the Religious Right to take note: We are religious Jews committed to God and God's covenant with the Jewish people. And yes, we are generally liberal in our politics. But our liberalism flows directly from our religious commitments.

You often feel misunderstood. Well, we worry that you do not understand us, or for that matter, what it means for anyone to be a liberal religious believer.

And what it means is this: that we bring a measure of humility to our religious belief. We study religious texts day and night, but we have no direct lines to heaven and we aren't always sure that we know God's will.

It means believing that religion involves concern for the poor and the needy, and giving a fair shake to all. When people talk about God and yet ignore justice, it just feels downright wrong to us. When they cloak themselves in religion and forget mercy, it strikes us as blasphemy.

What you and I see in the Bible
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  • It means that "family values" require providing health care to every child and that God cares about the 12 million children without health insurance.

    It means valuing a child with diabetes over a frozen embryo in a fertility clinic, and seeing the teaching of science as a primary social good.

    And it means reserving the right for each person to prayerfully make decisions for herself about when she dies.

    It also means believing in legal protection for gay couples. We can understand those who believe that the Bible opposes gay marriage, even though we read that text in a very different way. But we cannot understand why any two people who make a lifelong commitment to each other should be denied legal guarantees that protect them and their children and benefit the broader society. And we cannot feel anything but rage when we hear about gay men and women, some on the front lines, being hounded out of our armed services. Yes, we can disagree about gay marriage. But there is no excuse for unprincipled gay-bashing and for hateful rhetoric that fuels the hell-fires of anti-gay bigotry.

    All of these views are deeply rooted in our religious beliefs and texts. We are surprised that when it comes to the Hebrew Bible, a text we hold in common, your reading of its message is so different from ours. As for the New Testament, our liberal Christian friends point out that there is much there as well that supports our approach. Jesus healed the sick, so he might have some concern for those 45 million Americans without insurance who are unable to see a doctor; he was not a hater, so would surely not join in demonizing gays; and he spoke constantly of the poor and the marginalized. In general, the Bible, both Hebrew and Christian, has far more to say about caring for the poor than about eradicating sexual sin.

    In short, there are alternative ways for deeply religious people to understand the important issues of the day; we need to talk to one another from a religious perspective about these matters; and we suggest, humbly, that there may be things that you can learn from religious liberals in these discussions.

    At the same time, there are things that we can learn from you. You have spoken eloquently about the fact that the public interest does depend, at least in part, on private virtue. You have talked compellingly about the coarsening of popular culture that makes it difficult to raise honorable, decent children. Reasonable people don't want television constantly pushing junk food on their children, and they don't want wardrobe malfunctions when they are watching the Superbowl with their 10-year-olds. While as liberals we oppose censorship in all forms, it should be possible to arrive at voluntary standards to which networks and sponsors would adhere.

    We can also agree on other matters, such as battling religious persecution and fighting sex trafficking abroad. So let's focus on working together in these areas, and on discussing everything else with civility.

    And while we bring no preconditions to the table, our starting point will be that tolerance is an American value and a religious necessity and that we all need to put our trust in America, the most religiously diverse country in the world.

    Let the dialogue begin.

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