Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Pesach and the rhetoric of "Judeo-Christianity"

Tonight marks the beginning of Passover, or Pesakh in the Jewish tradition. As some friends and colleagues are engaging their Seder meals and retelling the Haggadah, I thought I would keep this in mind while talking about the the recent American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) conducted through Trinity College. This is just the latest in several surveys, including one conducted the Pew Forum for Religion in Public Life. The ARIS was also conducted in 2001 through CUNY.

The ARIS report's conclusions suggest that mainline Protestant populations have fallen, and that evangelical populations have risen, although not enough the keep pace. The percentage of self-identified Christians has fallen to 76 percent from just about 80 percent in the early 1990's. Catholicism has shifted to its early areas of growth, California and the Southwest, rather than the Northeast, which became Catholic largely through 19th century immigration, rather than 16th and 17th century Spanish colonization. Predictably, some media outlets have moved to talk about a 'post-Christian America' or other such things, in my view quite prematurely.

R. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, appears to be concerned not only that the number of openly secular Americans has doubled, but that the Northeast has overtaken the Northwest as the most secular area of the United States, geographically speaking. Mohler notes that the Northwest has never been particularly religious--rather it has been a stronghold of "freethinkers" since well into the 19th century--which is only partially true. In fact, the West has been a hotbed of new religious development for over a century, and demonstrated its share of powerful movers and shakers, such as the Presbyterian minister Mark A. Matthews.

But its Mohler's language that truly gives his inadequate understanding away. "The so-called Judeo-Christian consensus of the last millennium has given way to a post-modern, post-Christian, post-Western cultural crisis which threatens the very heart of our culture." As Jews and Christians both enter into a particularly sacred time of year this week, its helpful to remember one crucial fact.

There has never been a "Judeo-Christian" consensus.

In fact, the use of that term should always prompt our suspicion. It is almost never used by Jewish people writing in public life, and almost exclusively used by evangelical Protestant Christians as a way of glossing over the very real ruptures and divisions within Christianity and certainly with respect to Judaism. Since the middle and late 11th century, there has never been even a Christian consensus, and the many councils of the Church early on suggest a much wider diversity of practice and belief than is commonly assumed. The sacking of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusaders assured that Orthodox and Catholic Christians would remain apart, while the Protestant Reformation assured there would never be full reconciliation or a cultural consensus even within the Western part of the Christian tradition.

When the first Jews came to the Americas via Spain and Mexico, it was under the ever-present threats of the Inquisition, and the only areas of the English colonies that gave them safe haven were the secular colony of Rhode Island and the liberal Anglican colony of South Carolina, both places of early (18th century) synagogue establishment. As the Library of Congress has shown, the full spectrum of political thought can be found in pre-Civil War American Jewry, from Confederates to Unionists. Union General (and later President Grant) issued the infamous Order#11, banning Jews from several states during the War. Only with the personal intervention of President Lincoln was the order rescinded.

Jewish Americans have never made up more than 3-5% of the population, and the current surveys pinpoint a figure around 1.2% The rhetorical value of "Judeo-Christian" sounds impressive, but where is the discussion of the Talmud? The Mishnah? Or Maimonides? Or Rosh Hashanah? Or any aspect of Rabbinic Jewish culture? Its simply not there.

There are occasional exceptions that prove the rule. The most remarkable of them to this day has been Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter From Birmingham Jail." King drew upon an immense range of sources, from Jewish philosopher Martin Buber to Augustine and the secular ideologies promoted by President Lincoln to make his case to the Southern Christian ministers to whom he was writing. Yet his amazing Letter, studied in American religion courses to this day, stands out for its genuine acknowledgement of the Jewish tradition as Jewish, rather than as a mere prefix to the Christian message. Meanwhile, Jewish Americans of all persuasions have worked diligently to be represented in mainstream discourse, from the Reform founders of the proto-"United Way" movement in Denver to socialists campaigning for FDR.

It was not always this way. Early Christians were Jewish, and the relationship of the Nazarene movement to the post-Second Temple Jewish culture was hotly debated along many lines. Even Paul, the Pharisee turned Christian, was careful to tread that line in ministering to the Gentiles, as Romans and Galatians demonstrate. The canonical Gospels of the New Testament demonstrate both a concern with the Torah (Matthew) and the larger Greek world (Luke), sometimes to the exclusion of one, and sometimes to the innovative fusion of both (John).

While we take a moment to reflect on Pesach ("Passover") and the heritage of Jewish culture in America, (including those who made matzoh well before there were Rabbis in the U.S.), it behooves the careful thinker to parse the ruptures between religions and traditions as well as possible continuities. Moses Maimonides, who wrote about both ancient Greek and medieval Christian thought, famously suggested in the Guide For The Perplexed that humans are guided by God when thinking carefully and deliberately, and those not committed to reason are those not known by God. Lamenting the end of an era because 3 out of 4 people identify with your religious tradition, instead of 8 out of 10, is neither reasonable nor terribly careful thinking.

Of course, the ARIS numbers count Catholics as Christians too, as I imagine Mohler does as well. That certainly would not have been the case in the American 19th century, but that is a topic for another time.

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