Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Interview from the Archive: What's up with that 'Christian nation' argument? The Society for Humanistic Judaism's Paul Golin explains.

Editor's note: This story was originally published on April 30, 2017.

Story by Joseph Ford Cotto

"The Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing, according to an extensive new survey by the Pew Research Center," the organization reported in May 2015, when its most recent report about faith -- or lack thereof -- in our country was published.

Pew continued: "Moreover, these changes are taking place across the religious landscape, affecting all regions of the country and many demographic groups. While the drop in Christian affiliation is particularly pronounced among young adults, it is occurring among Americans of all ages."

Specifically, the Center noted that "(b)etween 2007 and 2014, the Christian share of the population fell from 78.4% to 70.6%, driven mainly by declines among mainline Protestants and Catholics. The unaffiliated experienced the most growth, and the share of Americans who belong to non-Christian faiths also increased."

One can imagine how much farther this number has fallen since 2014. Like it or not, America is in the midst of serious cultural change.

Paul Golin, head of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, has much to say about this.

"For nearly two decades, Paul has helped Jewish organizations and movements better understand the key trends affecting North American Jewry, including intermarriage, engagement, disaffiliation, and inclusion," his biography at the Society explains. "Paul’s writing has appeared in the Forward, the New York Jewish WeekTablet, and elsewhere. He co-authored the books: 20 Things for Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren To Do (And Not Do) To Nurture Jewish Identity In Their Grandchildren (2007) and How To Raise Jewish Children…Even When You’re Not Jewish Yourself (2010). Paul previously served as associate executive director of Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute where he helped pioneer and refine effective engagement techniques. Paul is the white Ashkenazi half of a “Jewpanese” (Jewish/Japanese) Jewish multiracial household."

Golin recently spoke with me about many issues pertaining to the shifting sands of American religious life. Some of our conversation is included below.


Joseph Ford Cotto: Many people claim that America is a "Christian nation". Very often, this idea is supported by the claim that our founding fathers created the Constitution on theological grounds. As time goes by, however, this assertion seems to hold less and less authority. Why might that be?

Paul Golin: Most Americans may be Christian but it’s factually incorrect to claim that America is a “Christian nation.” The United States does not have an official religion. That was one of the radical innovations of our country. The Founding Fathers understood both the power of words and the power of omission of words, and the words “Christianity” and “Jesus” purposely do not appear anywhere in our Constitution.

Over the full sweep of our history it is certainly clear that America has become more tolerant of religious minorities, and of those without any religion. But in recent decades there has also been a powerful reactionary movement that insists we are or should be a “Christian nation.” To me, this is nothing short of an attack on our country’s foundational value of equality. Because certainly if this is a Christian nation, and I’m not Christian, then what am I doing here? I’m automatically “less than.”

Our Founding Fathers had an expert understanding of tyranny, and established a system they hoped would prevent tyranny not just from powerful individuals like a king but also from the democratic majority.

Cotto: While the majority of Americans still identify with Christianity in one form or another, church attendance has decreased rapidly over the last several years. Meanwhile, the amount of those describing themselves as secular has skyrocketed. At the same time, the communal aspect of religious observance relates to a deep human need for social bonding. How is this yearning often satisfied in a secular environment?

Golin: I’m not sure the modern world has found sufficient responses to meet that deep human need for social bonding. The isolation of individuals from community has been increasing since the Industrial Revolution and the sense of alienation may be speeding up. Robert Putnam identified some of these trends in “Bowling Alone” even before the invention of the World Wide Web. Has “social networks” like Facebook helped re-create genuine community since then? I feel mixed. I communicate with many more people than I used to, including family members who I otherwise previously only saw a few times a year, but is it really “bonding”?

I think this only partially relates to the decline in religious affiliation. Church attendance was never the only venue for social bonding, and social bonding is not the only need filled by organized religion. Another central need is finding meaning. There are many secular opportunities for people to find meaning; countless non-profit organizations like Habitat for Humanity organize people to help other people and are not religion-based. CrossFit is clearly far more than just a workout routine; it’s a supportive community of dedicated – some may say fervent – practitioners.

The congregational model sought to provide both meaning and social support. The movement that I’m now helping to lead, Secular Humanistic Judaism, was established fifty years ago along the congregational model. Today, like all liberal religions, we need to do a better job demonstrating how this model helps people. How does ritual make your life better? How do strangers become genuine community? The notion that if you just pay dues you’ll feel a strong communal connection is a sales pitch nobody believes anymore, because we’ve all experienced joining something and not having our expectations met. We need to get better at showing how it actually works for people when it does work.

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