The Strange Victory by Liberal Religion

By Terry Mattingly Modified: April 10, 2013 at 9:06 am •  Published: April 10, 2013
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The most recent Jewish Community Study of New York held few surprises for those who have followed the sobering Jewish trends of recent decades.

Yes, the 1.5 million or so Jews living in New York City and surrounding counties included a rising tide of people living in interfaith relationships, and some had even begun calling themselves "partially Jewish." Participation in liberal Jewish congregations declined, again. Jews who said it was "very important" to affiliate with Jewish institutions fell to 44 percent.

But one number was genuinely startling -- that 74 percent of the region's Jewish children were found in the one-third of the Jewish households that identified as Orthodox.

No wonder leaders of the Reform movement and other liberal Jewish institutions have been asking sobering questions about theology, demographics and the future.

"The liberal approach to observance makes it impossible to set and maintain high expectations in terms of communal participation," argued Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan, in a much-debated broadside in The Forward.

"Without an omnipotent God who can compel believers to practice a prescribed pattern of behavior, religious consumerism becomes the movement's dominant ethos. ...

"In the absence of a strong theological basis for making religious demands, the members lose interest and wander off."

There is, however, an ironic cultural reality hiding in all the negative trends that have been nagging liberal Judeo-Christian institutions, noted historian John Turner, who teaches religious studies at George Mason University.

This ironic wrinkle is easiest to see in the influential denominations scholars call the "seven sisters" of Protestantism.

These churches, in descending order by size, are the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Churches USA, the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

Recent research from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that, for the first time, America lacks a Protestant majority, with only 48 percent of the population claiming ties to Protestant denominations.

This trend has affected a variety of churches, but the liberal mainline has been hit especially hard. Episcopal membership, for example, has fallen from 3.4 million in 1967 to 1.9 million in 2011.

The United Church of Christ, President Barack Obama's denomination, has declined from more than 2 million members in 1962 to just over 1 million in 2011.

However, liberal religious groups "may have ultimately lost the battle for membership, but they won the larger cultural struggle," noted Turner in an online First Things essay. "Through their embrace of religious pluralism and more universal mystical religious experiences, liberal Protestants imperiled their own institutional strength but persuaded many Americans of the value of their ideas."

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