Religion and the culture wars

Religion and the culture wars

Let’s talk about the culture wars.

After all, they are supposed to be at the root of all our divisions today.

“United we stand” has been called the unofficial American motto. It echoes the Latin phrase “e pluribus unum” — “out of the many, one” — that appeared on the Great Seal of the United States in 1795, and has been on our coins ever since.

Though first expressed by the Greek writer Aesop in the 6th century BCE, “united we stand” was employed by our founding father John Dickinson and has been a staple of statesmen and lesser politicians throughout American history.

But today, more than ever, it feels like “divided we stand” might be our motto.

The nation feels more divided than at any time since the Civil War. Pundits speak of this age of polarization. And this time the talking heads seem to have it right. You and I might be getting along well enough in our own lives, in our own little spots in the world — but an ill wind seems to be blowing through the land.

The most apparent divides are political, but they are also economic and religious. In fact, they are all tied together; it is impossible to understand the one without the others. However, since my expertise is religious thought, I will confine myself to that area of inquiry. And that is not a bad thing, since my thesis is that deep down it is our religious differences that, well, make all the difference.

In a recent study of the American religious landscape, Daniel Cox notes that “Americans are inarguably more secular than they once were, but large numbers of Americans remain as staunchly committed to their faith and religious communities as ever.”

Cox observes that it is mostly those with loose ties to organized religion who are leaving the fold, and that “religious life becomes increasingly defined by the most ardent and committed believers.” He also points to how geographically uneven the decline is; it’s leaving wide swaths of our country either much more secular or much more religious. He speaks about religious segregation, and how socially siloed by faith or lack of faith we have become.

Today one in three Americans never go to church or worship at all. That is unprecedented in a country that always has been more religiously observant than Europe. Yet at the same time, one in four Americans participate in religious services once a week or more. Cox concludes that “the most [religiously active] and the least religiously active Americans now make up the majority of the public.” He calls this a “gloomy portrait” of a country in which “our religious differences loom larger” than ever before.

The religious are getting more strident. The non-religious are getting more secular. Added to all our other divisions, this cannot bode well for our future.

Where is the middle ground? The common ground?

Where does the secular/religious divide that runs through American society like the San Andreas fault come from?

In May 2022, New York Times columnist David Brooks keenly observes that “In the hurly-burly of everyday life, very few of us think about systemic moral philosophies. But deep down we are formed by moral ecologies we are raised within or choose, systems of thought and feeling that go back centuries. We may think we are making up our own minds about things, but usually our judgments and moral sentiments are shaped by these long moral traditions.”

Brooks is right. We may not realize it, but who we are is greatly influenced by where we came from. While it is true that sometimes we rebel against our background, more often than not it profoundly influences what we believe and what we do.

Allow me then to ask: Where do you come from? And where do you live? I’m not referring to the location of your physical home, but your philosophical and spiritual home. And I’m asking this in a theological sense. Where do you situate yourself between the two great schools of philosophy of Western civilization that have become known as Athens and Jerusalem? (This is something I love talking about!)

If you are traditionally religious, then you come from Jerusalem. That is, you believe that ultimate truth derives from revelation, and you turn to sacred scripture to inform your thinking and guide your life. You believe that the key way that God communicates with us is through the revealed word. Scripture is the word of God; hence, observing the commandments is nonnegotiable.

If you are a humanist, then you come from Athens. That is, you believe that ultimate truth derives from reason, and you turn to human reason to inform your thinking and guide your life. You believe that the key way that humans discern what is ethical is through using their minds. You may look to Scripture for some guidance, but you will seek out other sources of wisdom and inspiration as well — all of it subject to review by your conscience. In this sense you are autonomous; you are not bound to a higher authority. Observing the commandments thus is debatable and negotiable.

The school of Athens, often called Hellenism, seeks the truth of nature. The school of Jerusalem, often called Hebraism, seeks the holiness of God. Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. The prophets of Israel countered that the immoral life is not worth living.

The Greeks sought to know before what we stand; the Hebrews sought to know before whom. As Rabbi Solomon Freehof once explained it, “The Greek is interested in nature’s law; the Hebrew in nature’s lawgiver. The Greek is interested in peace of heart; the Hebrew in progress of character. The Greeks said, ‘Seek harmony and your will find serenity’; the Hebrews said, ‘Seek holiness and you will find nobility.’ ”

Why does this matter?  My thesis is that your world view, whether you are conscious of it or not, really does make a difference. Whether you are from Athens or Jerusalem likely will determine where you affiliate, who you are friendly with, and how you vote.

Brooks distinguishes between two ethical views behind our current culture wars. He calls the first the “moral freedom ethos,” which “puts tremendous emphasis on individual conscience and freedom of choice.” That is clearly Athens.

He terms the second the “you are not your own” ethos, which posits that “ultimate authority is outside the self … with emphasis on obedience, dependence, deference, and supplication.” This can be termed the “moral obedience ethos.” That is clearly Jerusalem.

Brooks urges us to appreciate that both the moral freedom ethos of liberals and the moral obedience ethos of conservatives contribute to the good society. Indeed, he says, each helps correct the weaknesses of the other. The moral freedom ethos can devolve into subjective emotivism: “What is morally right is what feels right to me.” It can fray the shared moral order we as a society need to preserve. On the other hand, the moral obedience ethos “can lead to rigid moral codes that people with power use to justify systems of oppression. This leads to a lot of othering — people not in our moral order are inferior and can be conquered and oppressed.”

Deeming both views “legitimate moral traditions,” Brooks observes: “The essence of good citizenship in a democratic society is to spend time with those who disagree with you so you can understand their best arguments.”

That is precisely what I do in my new book, “Open Judaism: A Guide for Believers, Atheists, and Agnostics.” I suggest spending time with those with whom we disagree, so we can understand their best arguments.

However, I would challenge ourselves to go one key step further. To not only understand those we disagree with, but to attempt to reconcile with them.

How in the world is that possible? How can Democrats reconcile with Republicans these days? How can liberals reconcile with conservatives? How can traditionalists reconcile with humanists?

I call it big-tent pluralism. It’s a pluralism that goes beyond tolerance; beyond live and let live, to let’s live together. Such a pluralism involves a synthesis of our thinking. A synthesis of Athens and Jerusalem, which gets beyond the polarization of today to deeply respect and mesh the secular and the religious.

What if secular skeptics would not overlook the contribution of faith to our people, our country, and even to ourselves? At the same time, what if ardent believers would not overlook the contribution of humanism to our people, our country, and even to ourselves?

I know our differences will not magically or fully disappear. But what if we pledged to find common ground by acknowledging and adopting just some of what the other side feels passionately about?

I sense that there are many people today who want to embrace religion with their heads and their hearts. They want to affirm their Jewish, Christian, or Muslim heritage, but with Enlightenment ideas of equality and inclusion, and with new ideas and language about God and the commandments.

I sense that many people want to borrow freely and unapologetically from both Athens and Jerusalem. They want faith but with room for doubt. They believe in evolution in nature and in religion. They believe in synthesis, taking from the best of our wisdom traditions. They believe in openness.

I sense that we have the yearning to travel the rocky road of reconciliation of the secular with the sacred in order to live up to our ideal as a United States of America.

I love our country and I don’t like what is happening today. We need to bring back the lost art of civilized debate, of principled compromise, of innovative cooperation.

We always have been a big tent. There is room for everyone inside, together.

Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz is rabbi of Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia and director emeritus of the Jewish Publication Society. JPS will publish his newest book, “Open Judaism: A Guide for Believers, Atheists and Agnostics,” on July 1.

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