Parents, circumcision and the law

At first, it seems strange for Christians to jump into the firestorm surrounding the Nov. 8 ballot initiative in San Francisco to ban circumcisions. After all, the issue of whether gentiles had to be circumcised when converting to Christianity was -- literally -- settled in the age of the apostles. Nevertheless, the Catholic archbishop of San Francisco quickly went public with his views on this hot-button issue.

"As a religious leader I can only view with alarm the prospect that this misguided initiative would make it illegal for Jews and Muslims who practice their religion to live in San Francisco -- for that is what the passage of such a law would mean," stated Archbishop George Niederauer, in an letter to the San Francisco Chronicle.

"Apart from the religious aspect, the citizens of San Francisco should be outraged at the prospect of city government dictating to parents in such a sensitive matter regarding the health and hygiene of their children."

However, the letter the editors published directly beneath the archbishop's openly stated -- in bitter, satirical terms -- the anger behind this effort to limit the religious freedom of parents on this highly personal question.

A reader in San Francisco suggested that readers be polled on this question: "Should government allow parents the right to remove functional tissue from their children when there is no immediate medical need?"

Citizens could then choose one of the following answers.

"A. No, it violates the rights of the individual child.

"B. Yes, the parents' religion might demand human sacrifice.

"C. Yes, children have no rights, not even to their own body parts."

No doubt about it, a growing number of modern Americans are convinced that it's time for government officials to do some cutting and snipping in the pages of the holy books that define some of the world's major religions.

"What you have here is an assault, by a popular referendum, on a central ritual in a recognized ancient religion," noted Marc Stern, associate general counsel for legal advocacy at the American Jewish Committee. While the current initiative may seem brazen, "it's really nothing new. It's easy for historians to find sources showing how the Greeks and Romans mocked the Jews for practicing circumcision."

So far, the most shocking twist in this ballot-box drama has been provided by "Foreskin Man," a comic book produced by strategists in this campaign against "Male Genital Mutilation," a phrase crafted to echo global efforts to ban female genital mutilation. The star of these books is a stereotypically Aryan superhero who protects children from the "Monster Mohel," a bearded villain wearing all of the distinctive garb of an Orthodox Jew.

The introduction notes: "Nothing excites Monster Mohel more than cutting into the penile flesh of an eight-day-old infant boy."

It is easy, noted Stern, to focus on the stark implications of this initiative for Jews and Muslims, for whom circumcision is a defining rite of faith and identity. If passed, the San Francisco measure would make circumcision on male minors a misdemeanor crime punishable by a $1,000 fine or a year in jail. A similar ballot measure was recently withdrawn in Santa Monica, Calif.

In the end, he said, the upcoming vote should be seen as part of a trend in which increasing numbers of activists are focusing attention on limiting parental rights, even when parents are making decisions that involve religious liberty.

"We live in an age in which it is common for mainstream scholars in mainstream schools to produce entire books arguing that the state should prevent parents from sending their children to parochial schools," he noted.

"The theme that runs through all this is the conviction that parents must yield to what society thinks is best for their children, even in matters of faith. ... These cases keep coming up and all kinds of religious believers are starting to realize that."

Thus, it was not surprising that the National Association of Evangelicals released a statement joining those released by Jews, Muslims and Catholics in opposition to the ballot initiative and in defense of the broader First Amendment issues linked to it.

"Jews, Muslims and Christians all trace our spiritual heritage back to Abraham. Biblical circumcision begins with Abraham," noted the Rev. Leith Anderson, the group's president. "No American government should restrict this historic tradition. Essential religious liberties are at stake."

Dershowitz visits Oslo (sort of)

Ask Orthodox Jews in Norway where one can find a fresh shoulder of kosher beef and they will give the same answer -- nowhere. There is more to this obscure fact than a clash between Jewish tradition and the concerns of animal-rights activists in today's Europe, Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz told a Jewish forum in Oslo. This is a symbolic fact about tensions that surround Jews in Norway.

"You live in the only country in the world today that does not permit kosher shechita," he said, at the city's Chabad House. "Shechita" is a rite in which a skilled Jew uses an extremely sharp blade to swiftly sever an animal's trachea, esophagus and the arteries and veins of the neck, allowing blood to drain out.

"They wonder why there are only 800 Jews or 900 Jews living in Norway. This is a country that permits the butchering of seals, the butchering of whales, but not this ritual slaughter -- which has been proved by every scientific means to be one of the most humane means of slaughter."

The audience grasped the big idea behind his words, since this March 25 event -- which was recorded -- was held in an outreach center for observant Jews. How can Jews honor the details of their ancient faith without keeping kosher?

However, Dershowitz noted that when he asked other Jewish community leaders about any anti-Semitic trends in Norway, all they would say is that "things are wonderful," before falling silent.

"How can things be wonderful," he added, "if you can't have your own meat? How do you deal with the meat here, do you have to bring it in from England?"

Someone in the audience quietly replied: "We don't talk about certain things."

Among First Amendment and criminal law attorneys, few are as famous and infamous as Dershowitz. He joined the Harvard faculty in 1964 and, three years later, was promoted to full professor at age 28. Even a brief summary of his courtroom career would include a gallery of clients such as porn star Harry "Deep Throat" Reems, British socialite Claus von Bulow and O.J. Simpson. In the 1970s his attempts to defend Russian dissident Anatoly Scharansky made global headlines.

Dershowitz didn't travel to Norway just to talk about dietary laws.

The goal was to lecture about legal affairs and, especially, the role of international law in Israeli-Palestinian conflicts through the years. However, the Zionist group that organized the tour -- the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem -- found that Norwegian academic leaders were not anxious to have Dershowitz lecture on their campuses, at no expense to the hosts.

The dean of the Bergen University law faculty, according to Dershowitz, said the school would "be honored to have Prof. Dershowitz give a lecture on the O.J. Simpson case, as long as he promises not to say a word about Israel." The Harvard professor has written six books about the Middle East, advocating a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian standoff.

Israel was the key, in part because of 2009 debates at Norwegian universities about a proposed boycott at Jewish Israeli scholars and others who support Israel. However, rather than focusing on recent conflicts about occupied territories, Dershowitz noted that the text defining the boycott began by saying: "Since 1948 the state of Israel has occupied Palestinian land and denied the Palestinians basic human rights."

In addition to challenging the founding of the state of Israel, the first academic leader to sign the boycott petition also offered a harsh critique of the "egocentric ... tribe-mentality" among Jews in Israel, Norway and "all over the world."

While Norwegian leaders keep talking about dialogue on these issues, said Dershowitz, it will be hard for Jewish leaders to take part in bridge-building efforts if their voices are not allowed to be heard. The only previous time in his career in which he was turned away from major universities was in "apartheid South Africa, when I was Nelson Mandela's lawyer."

The bottom line: Boycotts do not promote dialogue.

Based on recent events, Dershowitz said it appears Norwegian intellectuals want "dialogue with Hamas, but not with Dershowitz. Dialogue with Hamas, but not with Israel. … Dialogue with people that we agree with, but not with people we disagree with. This is not dialogue. This is a one-way monologue."

Congregating with Jon Stewart Leibowitz

In the beginning, there was the multimedia superstar Glenn Beck summoning his Tea Party congregation to a faith-friendly "Restoring Honor" rally on the National Mall. And behold, two postmodern prophets witnessed this media storm and decided that it was good. In response, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central organized their pre-election "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear."

Colbert, a progressive Catholic Sunday school teacher who pretends to be a right-wing blowhard, provided the fake "fear" factor. In his upside-down catechism, preaching "fear" became the same thing as advocating that nonpartisan virtue -- "hope."

The prophet of sanity was Jon Stewart. With his snarky call for rationality and civility, the Daily Show anchor implied that his critics were preaching insanity, irrationality and incivility. And, for once, he didn't season his satire with ironic shots at his own Jewish roots.

Truth is, Stewart has become a hero for many Jews and a controversial figure for others, noted Jane Eisner, editor of The Jewish Daily Forward. Nevertheless, Stewart -- originally Jon Stewart Leibowitz -- has once again been named to the "Forward 50," the newspaper's list of those who made a "significant impact on the Jewish story in the past year."

"This is very impressionistic," she said. "We try to identify people who are acting in ways that impact the Jewish community. ... We are looking for people who are acting in ways that really show the impact of their Jewish values, whether we're talking about Judaism as a faith or a culture."

However, many Jews have "real questions about how Jewishly Stewart acts." Nevertheless, said Eisner, "if we can translate this into Jewish terms, he keeps showing us that he knows his stuff, even as he makes fun of the fine details of Jewish life."

As his Forward 50 mini-biography notes: "A Democrat in the White House has hardly tempered the irreverent and distinctly Jewish voice of the liberal-leaning fake news anchor. ... Stewart is quick to play the Jewish card, drop a Zabar’s reference or cozy up to bubbes and zaydes at the 92nd Street Y."

That's one side of this identity question. However, the Hollywood Jew weblog noted: "For some Jews it's perplexing that Jon Stewart, an American Jewish icon, isn't religious. How could the Jew who makes Jewish 'cool' be so indifferent to Judaism? ... Buried beneath the laughter from his jokes ... is a deep and hidden disappointment that he isn't really doing what we're doing." This is, after all, a man who flaunts his bacon-cheeseburgers on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.

Nevertheless, with his edgy sermons about skepticism and reason, Stewart dwells comfortably with other Jewish progressives who see themselves as heirs of the Enlightenment -- standing against blind faith and ancient traditions. The assumption for many on the Jewish left, said Eisner, is that there is always "something worrisome about people who take their faith really seriously."

These religious tensions were visible on the National Mall during the Stewart-Colbert rally. While organizers insisted their event was non-partisan, and pled with participants to temper their words and deeds, the crowd included flocks of people who clearly were there to mock the views of religious and secular conservatives.

Consider, for example, the inevitable Hitler signs.

When announcing his rally, Stewart said he planned to distribute signs that were both civil and witty. One sign, for example, would say: "I Disagree With You, But I'm Pretty Sure You're Not Hitler."

Many got the message, but some didn't. Someone produced signs containing images of prominent conservatives -- with Hitler mustaches -- and the headline, "Afraid yet?" Beck, Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh made the sign, along with Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, almost certainly the next Speaker of the House, and Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the likely House majority leader.

Cantor is Jewish and, like Stewart, made the Forward 50 list for 2010.

Stewart remained silent. Still, as his rally ended, the funny man soberly admitted that he could not control "what people think this was."

"I can only tell you my intentions," he said. "This was not a rally to ridicule people of faith, or people of activism, or to look down our noses at the heartland, or passionate argument, or to suggest that times are not difficult, and that we have nothing to fear. They are, and we do.

"But we live now in hard times -- not the end times."

Synagogue for Jewish seekers

For centuries, Jews have watched their rabbis show reverence to God during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur rites by doing a prostration at the front of the synagogue. This symbolic act takes place during the "Aleinu" prayer that reminds worshipers of their duty to "bend our knees, and bow down, and give thanks, before the Ruler, the Ruler of Rulers, the Holy One, Blessed is God."

Rabbi Shira Stutman isn't sure how many people will accept her invitation to exit the pews and perform this prostration for themselves during her seeker-friendly High Holy Days service at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in Washington, D.C. But many of those who do, she said, will find themselves assuming a familiar meditative pose.

It helps to know that this unusual synagogue offers occasional services that blend yoga with traditional Shabbat prayers.

"There are different ways to do a full prostration, but one of them looks exactly like the yoga position called 'Child's Pose,' " said Stutman, referring to a move in which individuals sink to their knees, bow their foreheads to the floor and extend their arms forward. "I'm guessing that for most of the people who will attend the service I'm leading -- young professionals in their 20s and 30s -- the Child's Pose will be more familiar than the tradition of the rabbi prostrating during the Aleinu prayer.

"This will let me use this simple yoga pose to talk about what the act of prostrating can mean for us in worship."

This is the kind of multi-layered experience that is common at Sixth and I, which offers four radically different services -- Orthodox, conservative, family friendly and progressive -- during the holy season that begins at sundown today (Sept. 8) with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and ends 10 days later with Yom Kippur, the solemn Day of Atonement.

This multi-domed sanctuary on the edge of the Chinatown neighborhood has a complex and poignant history. Built in 1908 for the Adas Israel Congregation, it was sold in 1951 to the Turner Memorial AME Church and, by 2002, was hours away from being converted into a nightclub.

However, a trio of Jewish developers rushed in and purchased it for $5 million. Before long, they had created a coalition that focused on creating an urban facility that was part synagogue, part education complex, part community center and part concert hall -- yet independent from the branches of Judaism that have defined the faith for the past century or so.

"Jews in this generation, or generations, don't want to define themselves by the terms of the past," said Esther Foer, the synagogue's executive director. "Those denominational labels -- like 'Conservative' and 'Orthodox' and 'Conservadox' -- don't matter much anymore, especially when you are talking about how people want to worship.

"What matters, at the end of the day, is that we are all Jews -- who are praying."

While Stutman was trained in a liberal Reconstructionist school, she stressed that the synagogue does not have one defining congregation or rabbi. Instead, it uses six prayer books and is served by six rabbis and scores of other worship leaders. Her "Sixth in the City" services are attempts to create "primal worship" experiences, mixing English and Hebrew with themes from many sources, including Judaism, mass media and different world religions.

All of this is fitting in an age in which the vast majority of young Jews have no affiliation whatsoever with traditional Jewish institutions. Jewish leaders are struggling with this reality, as demonstrated by a 2001 survey that defined a Jew as someone whose "religion is Jewish, OR, whose religion is Jewish and something else, OR, who has no religion and has at least one Jewish parent or a Jewish upbringing, OR, who has a non-monotheistic religion, and has at least one Jewish parent or a Jewish upbringing."

What matters, said Stutman, is that people are searching for connections and experiences that help define who they are -- as Jews.

"We are not defined by any one set of doctrines or dogmas ... so every Jewish service is a fusion service," she said. "At any Jewish service there are people in the room with 1000 different views of God and half of them are probably atheists anyway. That's a given. What matters is that people know there is a place where they find community and keep searching."

A rabbi, a preacher and a journalist

Mitch Albom has seen plenty of extremely large men, which isn't surprising after a quarter century as one of America's top sports writers. But he wasn't ready for the giant who met him outside the Pilgrim Church's dilapidated Gothic sanctuary near downtown Detroit. The Rev. Henry Covington was as tall as a basketball player, but weighed 400 pounds or more.

"His body seemed to unroll in layers, a broad slab of a chest cascading into a huge belly that hung like a pillow over the belt of his pants. His arms spread the sleeves of his oversized white T-shirt. His forehead was sweating, and he breathed heavily, as if he had just climbed stairs," wrote Albom, in "Have a Little Faith," a slim book that represents his return to non-fiction 12 years after his inspirational bestseller "Tuesdays With Morrie."

Albom's first impression was crystal clear: "If this is a man of God ... I'm the man in the moon."

Covington certainly stood in stark contrast to the other clergyman whose image was fixed in the writer's mind at the time -- the late Albert Lewis, the articulate leader of the Jewish congregation in which Albom grew up, in Cherry Hill, N.J.

The elderly rabbi had shocked Albom by asking him to deliver his eulogy, when that became necessary. This led to eight years of talks between "the Reb" and the skeptical journalist, who had walked away from his Jewish faith after college. This process resembled those philosophical Tuesday dialogues between Albom and a favorite college professor, Morrie Schwartz, in the years before he died of Lou Gehrig's disease.

But Albom wasn't looking for another book during his weekday visit to Pilgrim's Church. He had -- while working to boost Detroit charities -- dropped by to learn more about the tiny Pentecostal flock's work with the homeless.

Albom expected to meet people there scarred by life on the street or behind bars, but didn't expect to find one in the pulpit.

In "Have a Little Faith," Albom describes a dramatic sermon in which Covington explored the twisted road that led to redemption: "Amazing grace. ... I coulda been dead. ... Shoulda been dead! … Woulda been dead! … His grace … saved a wretch. And I was a wretch. You know what a wretch is? I was a crackhead, an alcoholic, I was a heroin addict, a liar, a thief. I was all those things. But then came Jesus."

At first, "I wasn't sure that I trusted him," said Albom, in a quick telephone interview. "I thought, 'Isn't there supposed to be some minimal 'goodness' quotient in all of this? How can you have done all of that and now call yourself a man of God?' "

As Albom met members of Covington's church and heard their stories, bonds of trust developed, followed by friendship. Then some of the lessons he learned there began to overlap and interact with what he was learning in his pre-eulogy talks with Rabbi Lewis. There was an emphasis on respecting others, doing good works and helping needy and struggling seekers.

The writer rediscovered his own Jewish roots, but he also had to confront the blunt, powerful claims of Covington's preaching. The rabbi's approach was broad, universal and embraced all faiths. The preacher's faith reached out to others, but remained rooted in the claims of Christianity. He didn't force the needy to convert, but he witnessed to them and prayed for their conversion.

This led Albom back to some of the big questions that emerged from the dialogues with his rabbi: "How can different religions coexist? If one faith believes on thing, and another believes something else, how can they both be correct? And does one religion have the right -- or even the obligation -- to try to convert the other?"

At the end of the book, Albom concludes: "God sings, we hum along, and there are many melodies, but it's all one song." At the same time, he chooses to worship in his familiar Jewish congregation, as well as at Pilgrim's Church.

"What can I say? I like Henry's sermons and I like the people and I like the spirit in that church. It is what it is," said Albom.

"I've decided that I'm not wise enough to tell you that one faith is better than another. God will have to sort it all out. That's in God's hands."

Pew gap continues on abortion

If researchers want to uncover the roots of America's bitter divisions on abortion, the first thing they should do is ask millions of citizens this question: How often do you attend worship services? This has been a consistent pattern in recent surveys and it can be seen in most pews, from conservative evangelicals to liberal mainline Protestants, said Greg Smith, senior researcher at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. This pattern is especially clear among American Catholics.

"The people who attend worship services more often are going to be opposed to abortion and those who rarely or never attend are going to support legalized abortion," he said. "You go once a week? It's going to be about two-thirds against. Rarely if ever? It's about two-thirds in favor. ...

"That division is still there. But the big news is that both of these groups have been moving in the same direction for the past year or so. We're seeing support for abortion rights weakening across the board."

A new Pew Forum survey found that the percentage of Americans saying they believe abortion should be "legal in all/most cases" fell from 54 to 47 percent during a single year. Meanwhile, the percentage of people who said they believe abortion should be "illegal in all/most cases" rose from 40 to 44 percent. The "undecided" camp grew from 6 to 9 percent of those polled.

"The nation remains pretty evenly divided," said Smith. "However, what we can see is that support for legalized abortion is weakening in many groups and it's stalled in others. ... How much people practice their faith is a crucial factor in this."

Support for abortion rights remains high among American Jews, but the latest Pew survey showed a drop from 86 percent in favor a year ago to 76 percent now. Support among Americans with no religious affiliation at all fell from 71 percent in favor of legalized abortion to 68 percent.

One of the most dramatic shifts came among members of white mainline Protestants -- liberal churches that have consistently supported abortion rights. The numbers were especially dramatic when church attendance was factored into the equation, noted Smith.

Support for abortion rights among mainliners who attended church once a week fell from 54 to 42 percent, while support among those who said they attended less often than that fell from 68 to 60 percent.

To no one's surprise, opposition to abortion rights among evangelical Protestants remains high, but the numbers have risen even higher in the past year. Church attendance is a major factor, with 79 percent of white evangelicals who worship once a week saying abortion should be "illegal in all/most cases." A year ago, 73 percent took that stance. Among white evangelicals who go to church less often, opposition to abortion rose a dramatic 12 percent -- from 47 to 58 percent.

The contrast between regular and occasional worshippers was also dramatic among white Catholics. Opposition to abortion rights rose from 57 to 67 percent among Catholics who reported going to Mass once a week. Among those who said they attended Mass less often, support for legalized abortion declined slightly during the past year, from 65 to 62 percent.

These numbers are logical because Catholics who are active in the church are exposed more often to sermons, prayers and ministries that incarnate church teachings on the sanctity of human life, said Deirdre McQuade of the pro-life office at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"Those who are less invested in the sacraments -- attending church, receiving the Eucharist and going to confession -- may have less access to the truth about life, and fewer resources to believe and accept it," she said.

In the end, stressed Smith, this survey underlines two realities. First, there is little evidence that America's debates about abortion are fading. Second, it's clear that religious faith and practice remains one of the most crucial dividing lines on this issue.

"It's important to realize that millions of Americans see themselves as caught in the middle" on abortion issues, he said. "Take those mainline Protestants, for example. Even though it seems that their support for legalized abortion is weakening, they probably see themselves as moving from one position in the middle to another position in the middle. They may be changing what they believe, but not very much."

Passover 2009, minus God

Passover is almost here, which means Jewish families are preparing once again to taste familiar tastes, ask familiar questions and hear the familiar answers that have united them through the ages. Why is matzoh the only bread at Passover? Because the Hebrews had no time to bake leavened bread as they fled Egypt. Why dip bitter herbs into chopped apples, dates, nuts and wine? Because this paste resembles the clay they used in slavery to make bricks. Why dip parsley into salt water? The parsley represents new life, mixed with tears.

This year, some liberal Jews will hear a new question during the ritual meals that define this weeklong season, which begins at sundown on Wednesday, April 8.

The question: "Why is there an orange on the Seder plate?"

The answer, in a new rite written by Rabbi Peter H. Schweitzer of New York, will please many unorthodox Jews.

"To remind us that all people have a legitimate place in Jewish life, no less than an orange on the Seder plate, regardless of gender or sexual identity," states "The Liberated Haggadah," a rite for "cultural, secular and humanistic" Jews. "And to teach us, too, how absurd it is to exclude anyone who wants to sit at our table, partake of our meal, and celebrate with us the gift of life and the gift of freedom."

The goal is to provide an enjoyable and educational Passover for Jews who are united by culture, art, music, literature, foods and folkways -- but not faith. Nearly half of American Jews, said Schweitzer, consider themselves "secular" or "cultural" Jews, as opposed to "religious" Jews.

"This is not some small offshoot, it is half of our Jewish world," stressed the rabbi, who leads the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, part of a network of 30 "secular Jewish communities" in North America.

"We have common values and experiences, even if we are not united in the practice of the Jewish religion. ... We still want to find a way to celebrate these rituals that define the major transition points in our lives and in the lives of Jewish people throughout our history."

However, Schweitzer faced a major challenge in writing this particular "Haggadah," which fits into a tradition of new Passover texts that honor specific moments in Jewish history and culture. Many families freely adapt pieces of different Seder texts to create their own unique rituals.

At the heart of Passover, is the biblical story of Moses and the spectacular series of miracles that helped the Jewish people escape from captivity in Egypt. However, the "Liberated Haggadah" argues that scholars have deconstructed most of the Exodus narrative, leaving modern Jews with a mere "myth" that is rich with symbolism and meaning, but not the gravity or authority of historical fact.

Even casual of participants in this new Seder are sure to notice that a big, big player is missing in this postmodern dinner drama.

Moses is still here and so is his sister, Miriam, along with a quiet character named Nahshon who may or may not have jumped into the Red Sea, which may or may not have parted to allow the Hebrews to escape. But the God of the Bible is gone.

"In early versions of the Haggadah," notes this text, "Moses makes only a passing appearance, and all of the credit for the escape goes to Moses' god Yahweh. Here, in this version we prefer to tell, Yahweh is the one who only gets a passing reference."

This is important, because many "secular" or "cultural" Jews are atheists and many are agnostics. Others, noted Schweitzer, believe in some form of divine power, but not in the kind of God who hears prayers and intervenes in human life.

Thus, traditional prayers are free to evolve into poems or meditations on "human empowerment." What was once an ancient story of divine liberation can become a story of human liberation to inspire all who suffer oppression and yearn for freedom.

"We want," the rabbi explained, "to say what we believe and to believe what we say. We think that people who do not believe should not have to use language in these rites that make it sound like they do, in fact, believe. ... Our goal is to live good, just, moral lives and we believe that we have the power to do that on our own."

What, me worry? Whatever II

EDITOR'S NOTE: Second of two columns on teens and ethics. When pollsters ask Americans the Eternal Question they almost always say, "I believe in God."

Ask young Americans about faith and the response is something like, "I believe in God and stuff." Finding the doctrinal meaning of "and stuff" is tricky.

"God made us and if you ask him for something I believe he gives it to you. Yeah, he hasn't let me down yet," said a 14-year-old Catholic from Pennsylvania, when researchers Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton asked him why religion matters. "God is a spirit that grants you anything you want, but not anything bad."

The key is that this God -- part Divine Butler, part Cosmic Therapist -- watches from a safe distance.

"God's all around you, all the time," said conservative Protestant girl, 17, from Florida. "He believes in forgiving people and what-not, and he's there to guide us, for somebody to talk to and help us through our problems. Of course, he doesn't talk back."

If grown-ups roll their eyes at litanies such as these, most teens offer a chilly response that sums up their creeds -- "whatever."

Thus it was significant, in the Josephson Institute's latest Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth, that 48 percent of the students surveyed in 100 random public and private high schools said they had "never" violated their own "religious beliefs" during 2007. Other parts of this survey made headlines, especially its reports that a third of the students said they stole something from a store during the previous year, while 38 percent committed plagiarism, 64 percent cheated on a test and 83 percent lied to a parent about something important.

Few of these young people are "unbelievers" or, heaven forbid, "secularists," noted Smith, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. The overwhelming majority of them -- like their parents -- would insist that they are practicing Christians, Jews, Muslims or whatever.

"Plenty of religious kids do steal and cheat and whatever," he said, responding to the Josephson survey. "They have in their heads some image of what 'religious' really looks like. For many -- not all -- young people, the meaning of that word is so vague it can mean almost anything or nothing whatsoever. The bar is set low and their take on religion certainly doesn't include concepts such as self sacrifice, repentance or self mortification."

These young people are religious, he stressed. They are simply practicing a new religion, one that Smith and Denton called "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism." When crunched to its basics, this faith teaches that:

* A God exists who "created and orders the world" and watches over our lives.

* This God wants people to be good, nice and fair to one another, as taught by most major religions.

* The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good.

* God is rarely involved in daily life, except when needed to solve a problem.

* Good people go to heaven.

This is not a faith that can stand on its own, noted Smith, in a lecture at the Princeton Theological Seminary Institute for Youth Ministry. Instead, it is a "parasitic religion" that creates weakened, less rigid versions of other faiths -- such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism. There may even, he noted, be "Nonreligious Moralistic Therapeutic Deists" in modern America.

When describing their beliefs, most young people say it's important to be kind to one another and to try to live a good life. There are few limitations on behavior, other than loose rules that say it is wrong to hurt other people, especially one's friends. "Don't be a jerk" is a common refrain.

Words such as "sanctification," "Trinity," "sin," "holiness" and "Eucharist" have little or no meaning. Most references to "grace" refer to the television show "Will and Grace." If teens mention being "justified," this almost always means that they think they have a good reason to do something that others consider questionable.

This faith, Smith explained, blends well with popular culture and media.

"It's a religion that works at the level of email and texting and long hours talking on your cellphones," he said. "It's all about relationships. Your religion has to work with your friends and it has to bring you happiness. That's what really matters."

Food and the basic faith groups

It's Yom Kippur. Will your Jewish grandmother serve shrimp-and-bacon hordeurves when the family breaks the fast?

It's Ramadan. Will your devout Muslim parents smile if you serve dinner several hours before sundown?

It's Good Friday. Will the Catholic college cafeteria serve hamburgers?

It's Thanksgiving. Can you predict the foods that will be on your mother's table? Will the German grandmothers bake Christmas cookies at the Lutheran church? Is the tuna casserole served at potluck dinners at rural Minnesota churches truly a sacrament?

When it comes to the rhythms and symbols of faith, it's easy to see the role that food plays, especially in the intense and emotional final months of the religious calendar.

"Food is all about the stories that define our lives," said Daniel Sack of the University of Chicago Divinity School, author of the book "Whitebread Protestants: Food and Religion in American Culture."

"I'm not just talking about religious rituals that involve food. ? For many church people, what happens in the social hall week after week is more important than what happens in the sanctuary. They come for Communion, but also for community."

Sack said food traditions -- with a big "T," as well as with a small "t" -- demonstrate why it's almost impossible to draw a line showing where religion ends and culture begins. Food is one of the basic building blocks of life and, thus, is one of the "passions" that religious believers have always struggled to keep under control.

Change what people eat and you change their lives. However, there are times when the religious significance of food is obvious and there are times when it is not. While studying this subject, Sack said he began sorting the different kinds of food traditions into four groups.

* Sometimes, the food becomes a holy object in and of itself. One example is when a Buddhist takes a food offering to a temple. In other cases, ordinary food becomes sacred as part of an intricate ritual that is defined by prayers and scripture -- such as the bread and wine in a Catholic Mass.

"What is crucial is that this sacramental understanding of food seeps into other parts of life," said Sack. "And we're not just talking about Christianity. If you start talking about bread and wine, it's hard to take that symbolism out of there."

* Most religious traditions, to varying degrees, claim some right to control the role that food plays in daily life. This is most obvious in faiths such as Judaism, with its "kosher" traditions, and in Islamic laws to establish what is and what is not "halal." In other faiths, believers fast from eating certain foods at different times of the week or year.

* In many cases, these sacred laws and traditions then begin to shape the festivals and the cuisine of a particular culture or ethnic group. At this point the line between Greek cooking and Greek Orthodox cooking starts to blur. What role does faith play in the menus of Ethiopian, Italian, Lebanese, Indian or Swedish restaurants?

* Food also reflects what people believe about family and community life. It would be strange to see conservative Evangelical leaders serve the same food at a men's dinner that they serve a luncheon for the women's group. Foods reflect social roles, too.

Sack said that every community, every family, cannot help but develop informal rituals linked to meals, because meals are such symbolic times of fellowship. And when the times change, so do the meals.

Consider the food served at youth-group meetings. Once, parents organized these meetings and prepared the food, helping to maintain a sense of watch-care and protection from the outside world. Today, most churches hire professional youth pastors who plan multi-media programs and -- naturally -- send out for pizza.

"When we assimilate at the level of the table, we have truly assimilated to the world around us," said Sack. "When you take this view of life, those parents are not just sending out for pizza -- they are sending a symbolic signal of acceptance of the surrounding youth culture. ?

"You see the same thing happening when people start lining up those fast-food boxes at church potluck dinners. Some megachurches even have food courts, these days. Who has the time to prepare those special dishes that people used to take to church?"