Earlier this year, Gallup released a poll that found that, for the first time, fewer than half of all Americans belong to a church, synagogue, or mosque. And so in Mosaic‘s February feature essay, the British writer Daniel Johnson thinks about this important and alarming development from the perspective of Europe, which is much further along the path to full secularization, and the concerning example that this provides for America.
To respond to Johnson’s ideas, we invited the rabbi and Mosaic contributor David Wolpe and the writer and photographer Chris Arnade to join Johnson for a live discussion about his essay and about religion’s future in the United States. Wolpe, as the spiritual leader of a large Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles, is on the frontlines of America’s slow secularization, while Arnade, in his writing and his photography, has highlighted the gravitational pull that faith can still maintain on even the most destitute of America’s citizens. They discussed their own work, and along with Johnson, thought about where faith in America is now, where it’s headed, and how to change course. Watch the recording below.
Watch the Discussion
Read the Transcript
Welcome everyone to today’s conversation about the future of faith in America. In March 2021, Gallup released a new poll showing that U.S. church membership had fallen below a majority for the first time. Fewer Americans belong to a church, synagogue, or mosque than the majority of Americans who are not members of any institutional religious community. This is new in our national experience, for when Gallup began to measure this statistic in the 1940s, a clear majority, some 70 percent of Americans, belonged to a community of worship. By way of introduction, let me frame two questions.
First, why should we, a Jewish magazine that pays special attention to the dilemmas and inner life of the Jewish people, be concerned with the religious habits of mostly non-Jewish Americans? American Jews make up a very small minority of this country’s population. Does it matter to us whether Christians belong to a church or Muslims belong to a mosque? I think it matters a great deal, and that’s why I wanted us to spend this month at Mosaic focused on American religion. My point of departure is that an ambient culture infused with pluralistic, voluntary disestablished religion, is one that is most likely to welcome minority religions like the Jews. That’s certainly been the Jewish experience by and large and for the most part in the United States. A majority culture that is voluntarily organized around church worship on the Christian Sabbath is more likely to understand the restrictions that are essential to the Jewish Sabbath. Now, of course, that’s not true in all times and places, and you need not comb through the small print of Jewish history to find examples of religious persecution, but that’s not been the American experience, and I believe that it is mostly foreign to American cultural traditions.
Second, if in fact the ambient culture—the soil within which we’re trying to grow Jewish communities—is so important, one would be concerned about the weakening of religious belonging and membership in that general culture. So as an editor, what kind of essay would you want to commission on the subject? Well, here we are blessed beyond measure to have, in Daniel Johnson, a writer and observer who knows exactly what to look for. You see, as he says in the essay, he lives in a more thoroughly secularized Britain, one that America might one day become more like, and so it was to him that we turned for guidance. Daniel is of course the founding editor of the much beloved and much missed Standpoint and the editor of the Article. He’s a great friend of Tikvah and Mosaic, and it’s a pleasure to have him with us.
Joining Daniel is Rabbi David Wolpe, the Max Webb senior rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, author of many books and essays—his fabulously interesting biography of King David has been optioned for a movie by Warner Brothers—and a rare source of uplift and nourishment on social media, perhaps the most defining test of character in our unusual times. And speaking of social media, that’s where I discovered the breathtaking work of Chris Arnade, whose story we’ll hear about shortly. Chris is the author of Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America. As a writer and photographer, he has an absolutely unique angle of vision on the habits and hopes of Americans. I welcome all of you to this conversation.
Here’s what I’d like to do. I’d like you, Daniel, to recapitulate the main themes and contentions of your essay for ten minutes or so, and then I’d like to ask for Rabbi Wolpe’s reactions and then yours, Chris. After hearing from each of them, we’ll open up for questions from our audience. Please either raise your hand or type your questions into the Q&A function on the bottom right corner of your Zoom screen. We’ll come to you in 30 or 40 minutes. Daniel, I hand it over to you.
Well, thank you very much, Jon. It’s a great pleasure to be here and a huge honor actually to be debating with two such distinguished people as Rabbi Wolpe and Chris Arnade. So without further ado, this essay of mine, which we titled “A Dispatch From The Post-Religious Future,” is just one man’s very personal attempt to go on a journey through history and through faith, trying to be as broadminded as possible and not to be narrow in my perspective, about what it means to live in a society where most people have either lost their faith or never had it in the first place. And by faith, of course, I don’t really mean belief; I mean observance. I mean the practice as much as the theory, because this is what has very largely disappeared from the European experience.
I begin as you [Jon] did with the very striking and disturbing decline [of religious communal membership], which has happened really in a very short time in the United States. I mean, you have in a sense telescoped the experience of Europe over centuries into just a couple of decades, this very sharp change in religious affiliation. And I mentioned that this has gone hand in hand with a demographic change, a big fall in the size of families, and a fall in the birthrate. Now, of course, you can’t equate the two, but religious families, Jews as well as Christians, have tended to be larger. And so, as I put it [in the essay], empty churches mean empty cradles, empty shuls mean empty schools, and this is a worrying development. After all, the first commandment was to go forth and multiply, and if we’re ignoring that, then that’s another sign of what I call the Great Disenchantment.
This is a phrase that comes from Max Weber, the German sociologist of religion. By this, Weber meant that in modern academic discourse there was absolutely no place for any kind of mysterious or incalculable forces, as he put it. And it’s true that the academic world is one of the sources of this very fierce and aggressive secularization. In recent years, it’s also incidentally become a place where free speech is becoming endangered. And this is something we might want to touch on because I believe very strongly that it is only in a biblical culture, in a culture that has received and as it were absorbed the Hebrew Bible, that both religious tolerance and freedom of speech can take root. I think historically this is true. It was primarily in my country, in Britain, and in the United States that these things became institutionalized in the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, and other countries of course have followed.
But one of the consequences of the Disenchantment in the universities has been that actually some of the theologians have become almost the standard bearers of secularism. I give the example in the essay of Hans Küng, a Swiss-German Catholic theologian who began as a great supporter of the Vatican Council back in the early 60s, but who ended as a very angry critic of the Church and everything it stood for. In fact, I think he came to embrace a syncretism, a mixture of world religions—and of course, when you dilute a religion too much, you are left with nothing very concrete.
Then I talk a bit about religion and politics, and the way in which perhaps politics and political identity has come to replace religious identity in many people’s lives. Once upon a time, it was very rare for Catholics and Protestants in the United States to marry. Now that’s completely normal, and indeed [it’s normal for] Jews and Christians [to marry] too. Whereas Democrats and Republicans [marrying], that’s much rarer. The polarization of politics I think has in a sense replaced that of religion, and political identities can often be quite intolerant and quite aggressive. Over the centuries, when religious wars were fought, I think most religious people have learned to live alongside those with different faiths or denominations, but in politics, it seems we are becoming more and more uncomfortable with each other.
I then discuss a great debate in 19th-century England between John Henry Newman, a Catholic cardinal eventually, although he started as an Episcopalian and Anglican, and William Gladstone, the four-time prime minister and great standard-bearer of liberalism. And the point about this is that on the one hand you had a man [Gladstone] who said Catholics don’t owe allegiance to England and therefore they cannot really be part of the society, and he did this in the name of liberalism—Catholics were too illiberal, if you like, to be part of a liberal society; and on the other hand Newman’s argument was that authority and tradition are necessary safeguards that we need to learn from the past. We can’t just make up our morality as we go along.
Moving on, I talk a bit about the new culture warriors who use the language neither of reason nor of faith. It’s all about exclusion, dehumanization, and demonization, and this is something which Jews in particular are very familiar with and which is very disturbing, and I think is a very negative development in our society. Now, contrast that with the fact that, as Robert Putnam argued a few years ago, religious people are likelier than their secular counterparts to show altruism, social trust, civic engagement, neighborliness. I think Alexis de Tocqueville was right that democracy in America owed a great deal to this decentralized grassroots nature of religion. That is something which America should never renounce. This is what enables newcomers in a community to belong, to feel they belong, when they join a congregation, when they join a religious group. It’s a very, very important part of community.
I think that the pandemic has taught us just how much we miss that side of our community. Many churches and synagogues were closed for long periods of lockdown. And of course, some people have drifted away perhaps forever. This is very sad, but perhaps not irreversible, though it will take a huge effort by religious leaders to bring them back. I think the pandemic also taught us that there are some important things that only religious communities do, in the form of charity and reaching out to the homeless and the hopeless people who’ve lost meaning in their lives. These are things that religious congregations and communities are very good at and secular ones, particularly of course the government, are much less good at.
I then talk a little bit about my father. Now, Jon, very politely I think, didn’t mention that I’m the son of Paul Johnson. I do like to be seen as a writer and journalist and intellectual in my own right. But I am the son of Paul Johnson and I describe in this piece his experience as a boy growing up during the 1930s in an industrial part of Britain, in order to explain what it means in practice to be rooted in a religious community, something that perhaps today many people find strange. Of course, it was a Catholic community, and I acknowledge, I hope, the defects of the old-fashioned Catholicism of that era. There was a lot of anti-Semitism. There was a lot of intolerance. There was a lot of bad stuff, but it was also a very warm and embracing experience, I think, to grow up in that kind of community. I think that was an experience shared in other denominations of that era too, and this is something that perhaps we are losing. My father describes all this in his memoir, The Vanished Landscape: A 1930s Childhood in the Potteries, which he wrote about twenty years ago.
I hope that this is also interesting for Jewish readers, not least because my father has always been a great friend of the Jewish people. He wrote a history of the Jews back in the 1980s, which became a great bestseller, and which I think many Jewish readers still appreciate. I would also say that very often the evangelical Protestants and the conservative Catholics are the closest to supporting Israel and supporting the cause of Jewish life and flourishing even today. If it is these communities, the more conservative communities, that are being marginalized in our society, that are losing their central place in what you might call the religious economy of the United States, then that is a worrying development. Of course, it means in a sense that to be conservative is also to be radical. You are the countercultural force at a time when a kind of oppressive liberalism and a very secularized liberalism is becoming the new orthodoxy. But I think in a free society, which of course the United States still very much is, there should be space for people to be traditionalist, for people to cling to their religion, as president Obama put it in a rather dismissive way. I don’t think it’s clinging. I think it’s celebrating.
I think that feeling, of being part of a tradition that goes back thousands of years, has proved its value throughout history and is something to be very proud of. And I believe that the United States still has a great future, not least because the religion of the United States is such an integral part of it. I argue towards the end [of the essay] that we will see a shift, and that this is not some inevitable Spenglerian decline of the West. I think that we are hardwired to be religious animals. This is a deeply-rooted part of what it is to be human, and I think that the Bible, particularly the Hebrew Bible, is the most sublime and enduring expression of that aspect of our humanity, and that the United States, like no other society on earth, is a biblical society, and that is I’m sure not going to change.
Daniel, thank you. Rabbi Wolpe, from your congregational post at Sinai Temple, how do you see things?
First of all, I very much appreciated and benefited from the essay. It confirmed, I want to say, my hopes and my fears. It is certainly true that you see a general decline of what we might call non-literalist religion in particular. “Fundamentalist” has so many other connotations in people’s minds, so let’s just call it literalist religion. It’s not only true in Judaism, although it’s true in Judaism, but it’s true in Christianity, it’s true in Islam, it’s true in Hinduism: there is a move towards what we might call the more fervent parts of religion in all of these traditions, and we could spend another session analyzing why that is, but I think what Mr. Johnson said at the end is so important, which is that we have a very powerful present bias and assume that obviously the way things are now is the way they will always be, and the trends that exist now must be the trends that will continue.
I recall, and Jonathan I know you know this, that some 60 years ago [Israel’s first prime minister, David] Ben-Gurion made certain arrangements in the laws of Israel because he was sure that the Orthodox community would just die out, because that’s what all the trendlines showed him. He was radically wrong. We have to be prepared to understand that the way things are now is not the way they will always be.
I want to mention three quick points that were evoked. The first is the ethical underpinnings of society. Will Herberg, who was a Jewish philosopher, talked about cut-flower ethics, meaning that ethical norms stay for a while just like cut flowers stay for a while. But if they’re taken away from the soil that nourished them, eventually they wilt. And I think that there are areas in which we see that in society, you can fill in the blanks as you wish, the religious soil that nourished the Western ethical code is deluded, and I think that is going to have real consequences for the way people live their lives.
I’ve written on this before, but my least favorite phrase is “I’m spiritual, but not religious,” because being spiritual imposes no obligations on you whatsoever. It’s only what you feel. Being religious, however, does impose obligations. As Mr. Johnson said in his essay, we have families that, when they’re sick, they know they’re going to get visits, they’re going to get food, because they’re part of a religious community. It’s not like the government, you don’t have to qualify for anything. The employee today will not be the employee tomorrow. You do it because it’s an organic community, and that’s how religious communities work, and losing that is losing a tremendous reservoir of social capital that I think has real consequences to a society.
In the story about Hans Küng and how he was syncretistic, I just heard an echo of something that Rav [Joseph B.] Soloveitchik, a great 20th-century rabbi and thinker, once said. He made a distinction between nomads and farmers. He said, “People who go from religion to religion, to religion and take what they like are nomads. And people who stay in one religion are like farmers.” The difference is that farmers make things grow, and there is something about staying in one place and cultivating one community and being part of one community that creates something that you can’t get elsewhere.
Look, I am a rabbi in Los Angeles, so I am in some ways as far theoretically from an evangelical community as you could imagine, and yet I have many friends in the evangelical community, because evangelicals take other religious traditions seriously. I also know that about a quarter of America is evangelical, and it’s astonishing how many Americans don’t know and completely dismiss that community as though it’s all one thing, but no community is one thing.
It’s a tremendous decline in knowledge and curiosity and willingness to understand what religious communities are about that I think does not contribute to the health of American society, and that does contribute to the polarization that is political, which I have in my own synagogue. I have a very politically split synagogue. I think that it can be overcome, but it can only be overcome by a belief that transcends it, which is religious belief.
Rabbi Wolpe, let me ask you one other question, which is, if you think there’s something that Jewish-American leaders can do to help seed a religious rebound for the country?
I don’t want to deny the fact that the Jewish community happens to be in the vanguard of secular philosophy and thought, lack of belief in God, lack of belief in religion, on poll after poll. As education rises that happens, that’s part of it, and Jews are very highly educated, but there are other factors too. Part of it is that Judaism permits that. You can be a behavioral Jew, and you can leave the theology aside. Well then when you stop the behaviors you’re left basically with a very wan identity.
I think the best thing that Jewish leaders can do, and one thing that Jews have not had in America with very few exceptions, Joseph Lieberman was an exception, is be public figures who are religiously Jewish, who lead successful lives. Elie Wiesel was also a very notable exception, but there have been so few. I think that the willingness of serious Jews to be publicly serious Jews is an incredibly important development. I’m hopeful that social media is going to contribute to that because it distributes different kinds of people in different markets. But rebuilding the community from the ground up now, especially after COVID, is very tough and very challenging, and will take an enormous amount of work. I’m not a pessimist by nature, I don’t think a religious person can really be a pessimist by nature, but I’m somewhat realistic, and it’s going to take a lot of work.
One figure who I think did achieve exactly what Rabbi Wolpe just mentioned is Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who in Britain and the United States and Israel I think played a magnificent leadership role, both intellectually and also politically, although he was never partisan, he was never divisive. But he was a great inspiration to a huge number of both Jews and non-Jews, and he is so much missed here on this side of the Atlantic and I know in America too.
Let me give a coda to that, because for years I used to go to the TED Conference—I was the only person with a kippah at the TED conference, the only clergy at the TED conference—and then one year, one of the last years I went, Jonathan Sacks came and gave an address. For all these Jews who were there, it was incredibly affirming. Here was someone speaking clearly from the Jewish tradition to the best minds in technology and teaching them something. And it was beautiful, just beautiful.
So listen, when looking at these trajectories there is certainly cause for gloom. And yet, Daniel, you conclude your essay by turning this all on its head and saying that no matter what the sociologists and empirical data may have to share with us, nevertheless, in your analysis of the human person and the human condition, faith seems to be an ineradicable part of it. And so one can’t but have some hope that there is going to be candles that remain aflame, and that they can grow into something more. The most dramatic and thrilling, I have to say, example of this that I have seen in recent years came from a newspaper column in the Guardian written by Chris Arnade. Chris, in that column you showed us the women and men who taught you about religion, and it was fascinating to get into that. I think maybe we should put some of your images up on the screen, and then you should introduce yourself and tell us about how you got to see these people and what you saw.
I’m a very odd person for this conversation, especially to come to large agreement with what Mr. Johnson wrote. I’m an atheist, or I was an atheist, I say. I’m a scientist, I have a PhD in particle physics. My dad was Jewish, my mom was Baptist. I was raised Catholic. I failed at all three. And I worked on Wall Street for twenty years. I was about as secular elite as you can get—I would probably call myself agnostic now.
For a variety of reasons, it’s hard to summarize, I ended up quitting my Wall Street job and spending time documenting addiction in the South Bronx, and the picture you see right here is what I found. I think the title of my piece was something like, “the people who taught me about religion were basically the homeless.” I walked into the South Bronx very cocky, very sure of myself, very sure of my worldview—which was secular, materialistic, positivist, scientific—and I thought everybody there would be atheist too, and I absolutely found the exact opposite. I found an immense amount of focus on faith, on the transcendent, a disregard for the material relative to the transcendent. I go back to what was said earlier, what I really found, and I was the last person who wanted to come to this conclusion, was that faith is both a necessity in my scientific-minded framework and as valid as the science I had grown up studying.
That’s the conclusion I came to because of what I saw in my work. What I saw was basically very similar to what we spoke about here and what I like to focus on. I saw what religion provides: community. Basically, what I learned was people need community. People need community, and religion provides that community. And similarly, people need regulation, and religion provides regulation, provides rules, how do you live. But much deeper than that, it provides a sense of meaning, a sense of place, and a sense of your role in the world. And I think that’s what is lacking in the old world I came from, the secular materialistic scientific world. It just doesn’t understand how humans operate.
Now, that’s very much the attitude that I came to, that religion is central to life and is particularly central to the life of the lower classes, and it’s step one in having almost a condescending attitude towards religion from the scientific community: it’s the thing that the poor people need; it’s very pragmatic; religion pats people on the head. Very good religion, you provide meaning, you provide regulation. But I feel like there’s something I would like to get at more, that’s deeper than that, and I try to get at it my book. It’s not that the poor need religion, which is I think the general view that most of who I’d call academics get to when they embrace religion or think about religion—that religion is a pragmatic thing that the poor need. Actually, being wealthy, being educated, removes you from the evidence for religion as a valid truth. It’s being wealthy, it’s being educated, it’s being successful that in many cases cuts you off from the two things to me that define religion, which is a humility that faith understands and that science doesn’t understand: that we can’t necessarily have all the answers, that there are things bigger than us, and that we need the community that faith provides. In that sense, I come to many of the same conclusions that were written about by Daniel, which is that the lack of faith, of structured religion, that secularism that the elites have embraced that has filtered down to what I call the back row, to the poor, has been very destructive because it’s left an emptiness that, as we just talked about, politics is trying to fill but can’t fill.
I think it’s very much a denial of the transcendent. It’s as simple as that. The transcendent is central to who we are as a species. I liken it to the bump in the rug. You can push it out and try to get rid of it through science or through materialism, but it’s going to pop up in another form somewhere else. You just can’t deny that it’s who we are as people. And I think in many cases, that’s what the old me, the people who work on Wall Street, the people in academia, are in denial about: [they’re] in denial about both the truth of faith and the power of it.
You can see on the screen the pictures of these things. One of the things I saw was people reaching—what I believe David mentioned earlier—the idea that faith needs to be in many ways exercised in a structured way. I don’t know if I necessarily agree with that in a sense. The way I see faith being used amongst the poor is in a very ad-hoc way, which I think may not necessarily serve the full purposes, but it shows you the evidence of how desperate people are for faith, how desperate people are for something more meaningful than just the material world.
The guy reading the Bible, and then the McDonald’s. This young woman here: this is an evangelical church in Kentucky that is literally one room. It doesn’t have a regular minister. Everybody takes a turn at the pulpit, including me, which was an interesting situation. To me, the lack of structure in some senses shows you how powerful faith is and how much of a demand there is for it, that people will continue to pursue it. Again, I would just go back to the word transcendent. People pursue the transcendent, even if they don’t have the structure.
I think that ultimately shows me just how, again—I’ll go back to the word truth—faith and religion are as valid, if not more valid, than the secular world that we, the elites, have built. It’s very odd for me to be here, as somebody with my background, to be making very similar arguments to those in the essay. But again, this sign summarizes it to me. This is in a rural part of Alabama. “God filled my emptiness.” That’s basically the bumper sticker of my ten years of working and spending time in communities that a lot of people are in, but that members of the elite don’t necessarily spend time in.
Chris, if we go back to the first image of the Bible study in a drug house, there you see a person at his lowest whose own suffering and desolation leads him to look for some sort of consolation from Scripture. But there are also two images that we see at McDonald’s. And McDonald’s, as you’ve discovered across the country, has come to serve as a venue for gathering in all kinds of different ways. I think our community here, our Mosaic readers, would also be surprised at the extent to which McDonald’s has become a place of Bible study and also worship, and why that is.
I mean, for me, I write a lot about McDonald’s and the community that forms at McDonald’s, and the faith that you find in McDonald’s. But one of the things I always like to point out is, think about McDonald’s. McDonald’s is built to be about as materialistic as you can get. It’s designed entirely for the non-human. It’s designed entirely for a transaction, a quick transaction, fast food, but yet there’s community there and there’s faith there. The very fact that people form communities in a place that’s probably about as intentionally non-communal as possible shows you how important community is. Similarly, it shows you how important faith is, and that community and faith are intertwined. I mean, I’ve probably been to 1,500 McDonald’s franchises at this point, more than most, and there’s always one person reading the Bible in McDonald’s.
This gentleman here—this is East LA, just south of downtown—I forget what avenue it’s on. But this gentleman gets to the McDonald’s every morning at 5:30am; he reads the Bible out loud from 5:30 to 6:00 in his booth and then he goes to work. So I would go to the McDonald’s when I was in East LA, and in this particular McDonald’s every morning he was always there, and that’s not uncommon. You can go to any McDonald’s [and see this], especially pre-COVID. It’s a little different with COVID, but go to McDonald’s at 5:30 in the morning, 6:00 in the morning, in a working-class neighborhood, and you’ll find something similar. I could give you 50 pictures of people reading Bibles in McDonald’s.
This in Natchitoches, Louisiana. It’s a Bible group in a McDonald’s. That’s, again, not uncommon. And they get together there every Tuesday and Thursday, I believe, and anybody can join. So to me, the fact that this is happening in McDonald’s is just, again, a commentary on how important both religion and community are. And I don’t think you can untangle the two. Community and religion are the same thing in my mind. I really do believe that.
Again, my prior career, before I was a banker, I was a particle physicist, and so I can talk about the Big Bang, cosmology, all that, but one of the things you do in particle physics, part of what we do as particle physicists, is we slam things together. We push things to the boundaries to try to understand them, to see deeper, and that’s why, in many ways, I spent time with the homeless and addicts. One of the things about being with people in their worst conditions, as it were, is you see things that the luxurious life hides from us; it’s like you see the quirks of life in many ways, and one of those quirks of life is community. People need community. You see that. The other one is an understanding of morality. And the third would be an understanding of humility and understanding that we don’t have this under control. Those are all is very good arguments for faith. Faith understands humility, faith understands community, and faith understands morality. I can argue as a scientist why I came to the conclusions I did, and it’s that you can’t hide the power of faith when you’re desperate. It’s like the saying that there are no atheists in foxholes. When pushed to the boundaries, you start revealing the truth. And to me, that’s the power of faith.
One quick comment on what Chris showed us and what we are showing right now also is that we are just beginning to discover the power of technology to be used for faith. And you asked before, “What can we do?” One thing is to create this presentation now of images to all the people who are watching this, who otherwise would not see it, with [Chris’s] beautiful commentary. That’s one of the ways that I think faith can be disseminated that is new.
I mean, this is a new thing in America. I saw Spotify started to broadcast Christian services. I think that there are all kinds of experiments, some of which will be a little wacky, but some of which will surely endure and touch the women and men who need them most.
We’ve got a million questions. Friends, if you would like to ask a question, please type it into the Q$A function at the bottom right-hand corner of your screen, or else raise your hand. First, I like to recognize Chaim to come on the screen and ask your question.
I was taken by the assertion, or the seemingly clear assertion that you’re making, which is the relationship between religiosity and ethical behavior, and the sense of morality. I just think that in the last period we’ve seen both among Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians a detachment of ethics from religion and an embrace of politics in the very way that you accuse secular society of. So, I think everybody knows this, religion is no guarantee, neither of humility nor of ethics. There’s an ingredient that’s missing, and I think that ingredient is missing both from liberals and from conservatives who see religion as a convenient manipulative tool to impose their own political agenda on others. Please try to clarify this confusion.
Well, could I just start by saying you are absolutely right. Just because a person is religious does not make him good. That is a cardinal principle I would’ve thought of both Judaism and Christianity, that you are not a good Jew or a good Christian if you think that somehow makes you better than other people or in some way morally superior. Absolutely not. But I do think that in a totally secular society it is much harder to police the moral boundaries than it is in a society where religion is part of the atmosphere, where everybody grows up knowing the difference between right and wrong, where the Ten Commandments and the beatitudes and these other very basic principles are ubiquitous.
If you take that away, then you start to see unhinged behavior, even by very large corporations, or by presidents and prime ministers, that we see in the world. Now, I’m not saying that a religious affiliation protects you necessarily from that, but it means that society immediately notes when somebody has crossed a boundary, it seems to me. I’m not going to name specific examples, except perhaps the invasion of Ukraine, which we’re all thinking about right now. I think the way in which the whole world, certainly the West, has come together in an extraordinary show of unity in just a few days is a sign that in extreme situations we remember that biblical faith. We remember those basic rules of morality that ultimately only do come from religion.
Where else are they going to come from? It does seem to me that we’re not wrong to think that a totally secular society is going to have a problem with morality too. On that, I thought Chris was very eloquent when he talked about how the poor, although they are the most vulnerable and the closest to the dangers of things like criminality and drugs, and so on, also have something to teach others about a much simpler and purer form of morality, and it is wrong for elites to assume that they have some monopoly on this.
I think this is a very powerful and important question. Full confession here: Chaim and I are friends, so I’m not answering this, and we also live just a few blocks from each other. But there has been a capture of religious communities by political figures in America. We know this, and by the way, this is not unprecedented. There are captures of the intellectual communities, of religious communities. I think nonetheless, when religion becomes completely subordinated to politics, you get Communist regimes, Nazi regimes, regimes that are effectively religious, but [their religion is] political, not oriented towards true religion. And I think society suffers. And while religion is no certain armor, obviously, against unethical behavior or even unethical leadership, the one thing that religion does give you is a means of criticizing itself. That is, religious leaders can stand up and enunciate religious principles, why religious communities are not following religion. Otherwise, it’s your ethical principle against mine. So it’s a fragile guardrail, but it is one nonetheless.
There is an anonymous attendee who has a very Rabbi-Wolpe sort of question that I want to read, and then, Rabbi Wolpe, ask you to comment on. Here’s what this person writes: “pessimism is a natural perspective for someone who believes in God, for how could God have created a world where His human creatures perpetrate horrors, such as the current events in Ukraine? The Talmud says it would’ve been easier for man not to have been created. So why did God create man to experience and perform ungodly behavior?”
I would say perplexity and anger might be natural, but not pessimism, because if you believe in a good God, then you have to believe that ultimately there is goodness, even though there is a great deal of pain along the way. Although I can’t give the potted answer to evil, when you talk about Ukraine or any other atrocity, the answer is that, at least according to the Jewish tradition, God gave human beings free will. And you can’t say you have free will, but not you, or that you have free will, except you can’t hurt someone. Everybody gets free will except Nazis—the world can’t work that way. And free will has beautiful, wonderful consequences, all the things that human beings have created and built, and so on. And it has devastating and painful consequences as well. But without it we’re puppets and robots, not people.
This is a question from John for Chris. In your experience, as you travel back-row America, the communities of poverty where there is this felt need for religion that you’ve detected and learned from, when you talk to those people, do they think about religion in a political way? Are politics and religion mixed?
I would say less than among elites, just because I think most people are far less political than members of the elites. I always say that politics in the working class, if you will, the back row, is kind of [treated] the way a lot of people treat the NFL. It’s something you watch once every four years, once every year, but you don’t have a stake in it other than rooting for something, because it doesn’t really change your life. You’re just buffeted by the wind. You have your side, but you don’t necessarily feel like you have a stake in it.
I think overall life is less political, and I think that’s probably a good thing in the sense that you can see beyond the politics. The other thing is, I’ve often called places I end up being in, and I say this in a loving way, the UN of losers. One of the things about being in a crack house is everybody’s accepted because you’re united by being a reject. So at the very lowest level, the spaces are very diverse, both racially and politically.
Similarly, one of the things I’ve learned from this project, and when I’ve been parachuted into conversations like this where I’m way in over my head, [is that] there’s a lot of elitism within theology. The wealthy have a certain theology and a certain faith, and the poor have a different faith. And I would say in the spaces I spend a lot of time in, which are not necessarily a theologically sound—evangelical spaces, churches made out of former Kentucky Fried Chickens, places like that—the faith, the religion in those communities is also a lot more diverse and a lot less political. It’s another turtle down in terms of what they’re trying to achieve. And again, I don’t mean this in an offensive way. I mean this in a loving way. It’s less cerebral, more emotional, and consequently, it’s less political.
There’s a temptation I think—I also don’t mean this in a condescending way, I mean it in a loving way—to see in the naïve, pure faith of people who experience despair, to romanticize that sort of religious belief as something that we can learn from. I actually think that what it reveals is something else. It does not reveal a form of religious belief that we would hold up as a model necessarily. What it reveals is the need for religious belief, that is finding an expression, as you’ve documented.
I think that’s exactly right. What it shows you is I think—I don’t know if you said it in the email or the letter—the plants through the cement, the weeds growing in the cement. I think that’s the McDonald’s thing too. The fact that there’s community in McDonald’s shows you how much people want community. The fact that there is faith in a former Kentucky Fried Chicken in Memphis, that’s turned into a church, shows you how much people want faith. So I think it is evidence of the demand, not a statement about the validity of the faith. It’s just a statement about the validity of the demand.
I want to bring our conversation to a close by trying to draw together religion and politics and—if I can, in a limited way—defend their coming together. But as I say, in a limited way. I think it is clear that a partisan politicized religion, where the fundaments of faith are suborned to partisan purposes is a form of idolatry and is bad for religion, bad for politics, bad for everyone. But isn’t it the case, I think, Daniel and Rabbi Wolpe both of you have said, that for women and men of faith to take their religious witness into the public square and try to serve their community and their nation is something that is admirable and that would make the country a little better?
Yes, you’re right. And I mean, to give one very simple example from my country, the present prime minister, Boris Johnson—I know him a little, we used to be colleagues once on the Daily Telegraph—he’s anything but a religious person, and his life has been a very, how shall we say, unorthodox one. And yet when he fell in love and married, for I think the fourth time, somebody much younger, rather to everyone’s surprise he wanted to have a religious wedding in a church. And I’ve noticed that when things are very tough for him, he starts to talk about prayer.
Praying is something that even those who don’t believe in God can do and often do actually. This last weekend, [Johnson] went to show some solidarity with the Ukrainians in the Ukrainian cathedral in London. There’s a very moving video of what happened when he stood up there. They all gave him a standing ovation and started chanting thank you. They weren’t really just thanking one man, they were thanking the British people, actually the Western alliance, the Trans-Atlantic alliance, the whole world that is supporting their struggle at the moment. But what was moving was that this was in a totally religious context. I could see that Boris was very overwhelmed by it too, and so I think even people who don’t pretend to be saintly or particularly moral, they do find that religion is a great inspiration.
One hopes that those who are in authority over us, the elected representatives and the powerful people in our society intellectually or commercially, that these people will increasingly realize that without their religious roots they are nothing. Somebody mentioned the relativism that is characteristic of a totally secularized society. I think that dictatorship of relativism. as Pope Benedict called it, is a real dictatorship and a very dangerous one. And I think that Jon, you are absolutely right. People, whether their religious beliefs or roots are strong or weak, should not be afraid to express those in public. I think that society would benefit if people were more open about their religious beliefs.
Now, I know, in America, it’s traditional for presidents to do that and to pray in public and to talk about God blessing America and so on. We don’t do that so much in Britain or in Europe generally, and I think that’s a pity. I admire American leaders for doing that. I hope it’s always sincere. I’m sure it isn’t, but do it anyway, because I think that we do all need God’s blessing actually. We need that blessing very much at the moment, and we need that example. We live by example, as human beings—it’s a very basic thing about us. We’re much more impressed by a person than by a book. And so, as well as the Bible, I think we need people who live by a biblical faith.
Rabbi Wolpe, I’ll give you the last word.
I’m very reluctant to have religious leaders take political stands. Now, there are exceptions. Famously in the Jewish community Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Martin Luther King. But that was a once in I-don’t-know-how-many-years issue of ethical urgency. But that same Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Don’t give me sermons, religious teachings, from the New York Times, because by and large religious leaders don’t know more about political issues than the people they’re talking to.” I mean, for me to say, “The Torah says this about the minimum wage” is an illegitimate allocation of one power to another power. [With such a statement], I’d be saying that I, as a rabbi, know what the right political stance is. And I don’t for most things. So if it is an absolute ethical issue of life and death, then as a leader of a community, yes, you have a responsibility to speak to it.
But in general, I think it’s so easy. We see this; there are religious leaders on both sides of virtually every issue. It is so easy to use your religion to prop up your political beliefs, that I think you have to be extremely careful about what you say and ask yourself, “Do I believe this because I believe it, and I’m using my religion? Or does my religion actually change my view? Do I actually feel this way, but because I believe in the Torah, I’m going to say that instead?” I’ve almost never heard somebody say, “I’m preaching something that I would not otherwise believe because my religion demands it.”
So it goes back to, and I think this is a good thing to close with, one ethic that really does exist in religion—I’m not saying it’s always observed, but it really exists, and I think that you saw it in Chris’s descriptions and pictures—is humility. And religious people, like everyone else, really need to reinstate humility. There’s so much I don’t know. I mean, yesterday I was an expert on Afghanistan, the day before I was an expert on COVID, and today I’m an expert on Ukraine. When the truth is, I’m not an expert on any of those things. I’m not. So if we restrict ourselves to the things that we actually know something about, I think we’d be better off.