The Decline of Religion and Its Influence on the Jewish Community

I teach a shabbat morning class in our synagogue, and I wrote this as an addendum to our discussion:

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In light of our Shabbat morning discussion, I though I might reference some of the actual data and discussion on the decline of religion in the U.S., the rise of “nones” (those who do not affiliate with a religious group),  the decreasing number of self-identified Christians, the decreasing number of self-identifitied white Christians, the decreasing number of self-identified evangelical white Christians, and the diminishing numbers of those attending church services. I really enjoyed our session and appreciated the different points (as I always do– all of which got me to go over some materials I had not examined recently. Just take a look at the articles below for an overview.

Christian identification in the U.S. as a whole is in serious decline. Until recently, this decline was primarily taking place in mainline churches: e.g.  Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, American Baptist, UCC (United Churches of Christ), Disciples of Christ, as well as Catholic. Mainline churches are still declining at a faster rate than evangelical churches. But now the decline has started hitting Evangelical churches, particularly white ones: Southern Baptist, Assemblies of God, Church of Christ, and non-denominational. In 1988, white evangelical Christians comprised 22% of the U.S. population. In 2006, that number hit 23%. In 2015, that number was 17% and is probably at 16% by now—amounting to almost a 30% decline. The speed of this decline will accelerate as scores of millennials leave churches.

Megachurches are struggling as well. I can’t speak specifically about Southland, but megachurch attendance as a whole is well down (as you will see in some of the articles below). There’s virtually no way that membership in megachurches is holding steady (which is the best they could claim), because you can’t increase your numbers while the overall pool is in sharp decline. It’s only possible if you fudge the numbers, which, of course, many institutions do. For Christians (unlike for Jews), attendance is the most important factor in determining membership. And that number is clearly in decline in most churches, especially mega-churches. Smaller evangelical churches have much higher levels of commitment/attendance than mega-churches.  In that world, you will find many complaints that mega-churches are shrinking the numbers of those attending small churches, while at the same time megachurches are seeing a substantial drop-off in church attendance. Many evangelicals see mega-churches as places where those who have little commitment go because they can hide there. While mega-churches may offer wonderful amenities, numerous affinity groups, lots of excitement, and good social fellowship, mega-churches are certainly not stemming the overall decline in Christian self-idenitification or in evangelical Christian self-identification.

White Christianity is aging at a rapid rate. At the same time, millennials are leaving churches—both mainline and evangelical. Churches as a whole have not figured out how to attract young people.

Jewish self-identification is doing relatively better, as far as I can tell, but not synagogue attendance which is in decline. In terms of congregational life, Jews many of the same issues as Christians  Jews do not, however, define identity in terms of synagogue attendance, but have other markers. This gives us a distinct advantage over Christians who do not really see themselves as a *people* or as a culture. Other religious groups such as Buddhism and Islam are growing, though they are a tiny percentage of the U.S. population.

I’m not convinced that all this means the end of religion and certainly not of spirituality. Many who identify as “nones” have a spiritual outlook, but do not wish to affiliate with an organized religious movement. In the U.S. religious people follow the tradition of group identification through voluntary associations known as congregations. Congregations are one form of voluntary association that also includes garden clubs, rotary clubs, lions clubs, Masons, political parties, bridge clubs, farming associations, entrepreneur associations, bowling leagues, book clubs, PTAs, and so on. I apologize for having forgotten some key group. Robert Putnam and others have written about the decline of voluntary associations in the U.S., including the U.S., and this in turn has affected congregational life.

But who is to say that *congregations* are the defining element of religious life? Who is to say that voluntary associations will not make a comeback, as book clubs (for example) have done? Perhaps, congregations will themselves change form, or other structures will rise up to replace them. It’s possible that old structures simply can’t change, just as older for-profit corporations have found it impossible to adapt to transformative cultural and socio-economic changes. In other cases, some for-profit corporations do manage to negotiate transitions. We just don’t know, and we’ll have to see how events play out.

In other countries, congregations are not the sole or primary form for the expression of Jewish values, as other secular organizations and non-congregational modalities hold an equal or higher sway (including in Israel). Remember, there are synagogues (churches also) in other countries that do not depend on local contributions to maintain themselves. Not every synagogue has to have a membership list as a defining feature. Also a synagogue (or a church) does not necessarily require a building to exist and thrive. The self-funding membership model in a building has thrived in the U.S., but it’s not the only option out there. Perhaps some eclectic version of what we find globally will emerge, or a new structure altogether will suddenly take hold and assert itself as a vacuum opens.

I do suspect that “religion” will have a more marginal role in U.S. society than in the past, or it will restructure itself and take on a cast that we may regard as unrecognizable. Change is scary for most people, but it’s happening whether we like it or not. The best we can do is not surrender to despair, but to take of our own house, make religion more dynamic, meaningful and appealing, and keep trying to adapt. That’s difficult for us all. But we have no other choice.

B’shalom,

Larry

https://www.prri.org/research/american-religious-landscape-christian-religiously-unaffiliated/
https://www.prri.org/spotlight/additional-evidence-white-evangelical-protestant-decline/
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/08/15/white-christian-america-is-dying/?utm_term=.0eafff83ba64
https://www.vox.com/identities/2017/7/18/15958214/age-of-white-christian-america-over
https://religionnews.com/2017/09/06/embargoed-christian-america-dwindling-including-white-evangelicals-study-shows/
https://www.christianpost.com/news/megachurches-growing-face-declining-weekly-attendance-protestant-church-151570/
https://www.forbes.com/sites/chrisladd/2017/03/30/organized-religion-is-being-replaced-by-disorganized-religion/#2c90fe6a489c
https://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Society/2016/0610/Southern-Baptists-face-a-familiar-trend-emptier-pews
https://urbanedge.blogs.rice.edu/2016/04/25/in-houston-the-land-of-megachurches-fewer-people-attending-religious-services/#.WoiEeRPwYck
http://www.patheos.com/blogs/churchformen/2016/03/why-is-church-attendance-declining-even-among-christians/
https://millennialpastor.net/2015/03/15/5-truths-we-dont-want-to-admit-about-church-decline/
http://thomrainer.com/2016/09/five-reasons-churches-dying-declining-faster-today/
http://www.churchleadership.org/apps/articles/default.asp?articleid=42346
https://churchleaders.com/pastors/pastor-articles/139575-7-startling-facts-an-up-close-look-at-church-attendance-in-america.html
http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/05/12/millennials-increasingly-are-driving-growth-of-nones/
http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/09/14/the-factors-driving-the-growth-of-religious-nones-in-the-u-s/
https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/02/opinion/trump-scaramucci-evangelical-christian.html
http://www.prophecynewswatch.com/article.cfm?recent_news_id=129
https://world.wng.org/2007/12/numbers_racket
https://www.christianpost.com/news/megachurches-less-involved-members-than-small-congregations-duke-study-finds-157080/
https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/11/houston-mark-driscoll-megachurch-meltdown/382487/
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Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his Legacy

DIETRICH BONHOEFFER AND HIS LEGACY

Below (see the dashed line below) is a response to a Facebook post I read on a friend’s page.

Dietrich Boenhoeffer’s birthday was today February 4, 1906. Bonhoeffer is a renowned Christian theologian and ethicist who was executed by the Nazis in 1944 for his role in Operation Valkyrie that attempted to overthrow the Nazi government and assassinate Hitler. Among Protestant Christians, he is viewed as a hero who saved the lives of Jews and gave up his life, helping in Operation Valkyrie. Among scholars of Jewish history and the holocaust, he is viewed more complexly and critically.

One of the comments claimed that Bonhoeffer had always stood in solidarity with Jews. That’s simply not true. Further, Bonhoeffer wrote little about Jews. What he did write more or less reflected the elitist Christian perspective on Judaism that predominated among European Christians prior to WWII in the 20th century.

I admire Boenhoeffer. I really do. But he is someone whose views of Jews were deeply problematic, though they evolved over time. More important and beyond that, it is hard to understand why so much adulation prevails around Bonhoeffer, but not around the many Christians who did a lot more than Bonhoeffer, and with little fanfare, to help save Jewish lives. The reality is that very few non-Jews helped Jews in that time of crisis and horror. Why do some Christians fixate on Bonhoeffer, but ignore the others who gave so much for the Jewish community (and for other victims) in that period? I don’t have all the answers to that question, but I suspect that understanding the Bonhoeffer issue would uncover many issues in Jewish-Christian relations that we have yet to resolve.

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Bonhoeffer was not always in solidarity with Jews; he evolved. Within the Jewish community and among shoah (holocaust) scholars, Bonhoeffer is a controversial figure. Earlier on he believed that Jews should convert to convert to Christianity, essentially subscribing to a supersessionist theology. His focus in his rescue efforts was on on Jews who had converted to Christianity or were offspring of converted families. Later on he changed and supported rescue efforts for other Jews as well.

He showed courage, but he was imprisoned and executed under relatively comfortable circumstances compared to what Jews and other inmates had to endure in lagers and in ditches on the eastern front. He was not starved in a ghetto or in a concentration camp. He did not endure forced labor. He was not mocked, humiliated, and tormented in ways that many Jews in concentration camps and in forsaken fields in eastern Europe (including members of my family) were. He got to write letters and papers in prison which most victims of Hitler’s horrors most certainly did not.

He was a relatively minor figure in the plot to assassinate Hitler. The real hero of the attempted coup (Operation Valkyrie) against the Nazis was General Henning von Treskow whom I admire as one of the truly great resisters of the Nazis (like the White Rose). Here are some quotes from von Tresckow:

1) “The whole world will vilify us now, but I am still totally convinced that we did the right thing. Hitler is the archenemy not only of Germany but of the world. When, in few hours’ time, I go before God to account for what I have done and left undone, I know I will be able to justify what I did in the struggle against Hitler. God promised Abraham that He would not destroy Sodom if only ten righteous men could be found in the city, and so I hope for our sake God will not destroy Germany. No one among us can complain about dying, for whoever joined our ranks put on the shirt of Nessus. A man’s moral worth is established only at the point where he is ready to give his life in defense of his convictions.” (July, 1944 right before he committed suicide at Bialystock)

2) “The assassination must be attempted at all costs. Even if it should not succeed, an attempt to seize power in Berlin must be made. What matters now is no longer the practical purpose of the coup, but to prove to the world and for the records of history that the men of the resistance dared to take the decisive step. Compared to this objective, nothing else is of consequence.” (1944)

3) “I cannot understand how people can still call themselves Christians and not be furious adversaries of Hitler’s regime.” (April 1943)

Why do so many remember Bonhoeffer and Claus von Stauffenberg (one of the Valkyrie leaders) who talked hardly at all about Jews or any other victims, but about Prussian pride and the boorishness of Hitler? Why isn’t Henning von Tresckow a household name like Bonhoeffer?

There are many great Christians who rescued Jews, like the residents of Le Chambon sur Lignon, Corrie ten Boom, Geno Bartali, Lorenzo Perrone, Aristide de Sousa Mendes, and countless others. Bonhoeffer is not memorialized on the Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles in Jerusalem at Yad Vashem for a reason. Many righteous rescuers (most of whom were Christians) were murdered, imprisoned, tortured, their professional lives ruined, forced to flee their homelands into exile, lived with depression and severe anxiety, committed suicide, lived (and still live) in poverty, and/or fell into anonymity, forgotten by the media and prominent spokespeople and those who focus on brand names and coolness.

I respect Bonhoeffer, but I am troubled by the adulation he still receives compared to what so many others who did so much more and risked so much have not received. For me it’s not about Bonhoeffer as a person or what he did, but about the fixation on him at the expense of so many others whose names have fallen into a dustbin (except at Yad Vashem and scattered memorials).

Why Bonhoeffer? I think I know part of the answer. But it hurts profoundly as it makes me realize that we have not made nearly as much progress in Jewish-Christian healing as we like to think we have.

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