America's Religious Recession

It’s not just Jews—nearly all American faiths are in decline. Could this mean a boom is right around the corner?



Nov. 13 2014
About the author

Jonathan D. Sarna is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University and chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History. His many books include American Judaism: A History and the forthcoming Lincoln and the Jews: A History (with Benjamin Shapell).

Jack Wertheimer and Steven M. Cohen fear that the American Jewish community is going to hell in a handbasket. And the news they bring in “The Pew Survey Reanalyzed” is grim: “relentless growth in rates of intermarriage”; “falling birthrates”; “a striking decline in Jewish activity or commitment among those under the age of fifty.” Their reading of the evidence is commensurately stark: “American Jews, whatever [comforting] stories they continue to tell about themselves, no longer constitute a great community.”

As they announce from the start, Wertheimer and Cohen have focused in this essay on the non-Orthodox (mainly Conservative and Reform) and unaffiliated sectors of the community. That’s understandable enough: after all, these constitute the lion’s share of American Jewry, statistically speaking. Nevertheless, excluding those Jews who define themselves as Orthodox—and who stubbornly resist the doleful trends they describe—results in a distorted picture. According to the Pew survey, only 10 percent of American Jews are now Orthodox—or 12 percent of those who define themselves as Jews by religion—yet these are, by far, the youngest and most vibrant of the nation’s Jews. The median age of Orthodox adults is forty, while the median age of their Conservative peers is fifty-five. Moreover, the average number of children born to Orthodox adults is 4.1, compared to just 1.7 children, far below replacement level, born to Reform adults.

Pew estimates that there are currently some 900,000 children being raised exclusively Jewish by religion, and a just-released Avi Chai survey by Marvin Schick shows that about 255,000 of them—28 percent, most of them Orthodox—are receiving a day-school education. This is an all-time high figure in American Jewish history. While no one knows how many of these children will remain religiously committed as they mature, the fact that more than one in four future American Jewish adults will have received a day-school education is worthy of celebration, and harbors lessons for the community at large.

To be fair, both Wertheimer and Cohen have written about Orthodoxy, its strengths and its limitations, elsewhere. Nevertheless, their portrait here, like any portrait of American Jewry that omits this sector, inevitably distorts the realities of contemporary American Jewish life and misrepresents the community of both today and tomorrow.


But to return to Wertheimer and Cohen’s main theme: the fact that non-Orthodox American Jews are marrying less, intermarrying more, giving birth to fewer children, and disengaging from Jewish communal life should indeed set off alarm bells across every part of the organized Jewish world. In their essay they proceed to offer a number of sensible and well-considered policy suggestions, and these should be acted upon. But, in acting, we should also be aware of the larger picture—not only of American Jewry but also of American religion as a whole.

For the fact is that the problematic trends highlighted by Wertheimer and Cohen are not restricted to Jews alone. Liberal Protestants, evangelical Protestants, and Catholics are grappling with many of the same challenges. As other Pew studies demonstrate, some 85 percent of all Americans under the age of thirty now say they have no problem with intermarriage. Similarly, one-fifth of the U.S. public—and a third of all adults under thirty—do not identify themselves with any religion. Indeed, young people of all kinds are increasingly describing themselves as religiously unaffiliated. As the venerable religious historian Martin Marty recently observed:

Google, or use any search instrument on your computer, and type in “decline” and pair it with the names of churches such as United Church of Christ, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran, Reformed, United Methodist, Disciples of Christ, and on and on, and you will not lack data about decline.

In brief, what students of contemporary Jewry view in narrowly Jewish terms are problems confronting contemporary American religion, period. Recognizing this fact—namely, that America society is mired in a religious recession—points, in turn, to a somewhat different conclusion from the one offered by Wertheimer and Cohen. Theirs is a linear analysis (“if current trends continue . . . ”); but the history of American religion has been decidedly cyclical. Time and again, prophets-of-doom have railed at the disappearance of cherished beliefs and practices, and, time and again, religious revivals have arisen “miraculously” to give the lie to those warnings. Thus, religious decline in the aftermath of the American Revolution was followed by the Second Great Awakening, and the great “religious depression” of the 1920s and 30s was succeeded by the postwar revival of the 1950s.

American Judaism has experienced similar cycles. Young people abandoned Jewish institutions in the 1870s but returned and transformed them a few years later in an “American Jewish Awakening.” In the 1930s, the majority of American Jews received no Jewish education whatsoever, the community was aging, and the birthrate was in free fall. In 1935, the noted sociologist Uriah Zevi Engelman darkly predicted “the total eclipse of the Jewish church in America.” Instead, much to everybody’s surprise, postwar Jews staged a wondrous suburban comeback. By the early 1960s, the American Jewish Year Book was reporting on the “flourishing state of the American Jewish community’s religious bodies,” with “increased congregational memberships,” many “newly established congregations,” “higher enrollments in . . . religious schools,” and a “growing number of adult study groups and student programs.”

There is, of course, no guarantee that history will repeat itself in our day. Wertheimer and Cohen rightly remind us that American Jewry faces urgent challenges, and rightly call for these challenges to be addressed. Still, the rising tide of Orthodoxy, the fact that the malaise of non-Orthodox Judaism is shared by other religions, and generations of experience with the ebbs and flows of religious life should serve to qualify, and to mitigate, their prophecy of gloom. American Jewry remains a great community, and its best years may still lie ahead.

More about: American Jewry, American Religion, Christianity, Decline of religion