A Moonshot for American Judaism: Help Revitalize American Christianity
By Seth Chalmer
You know what the biggest problem is with Jewish engagement efforts? The problem is that we only focus on Jews.
I’m not kidding. In this country, if we want to get more Jews to shul, we need to get more Christians to church. To revitalize American Judaism, we need to revitalize American Christianity.
Wait, put down the fruit! Or, at least, give me a few minutes before you throw it. I want to try to persuade you that a new Christian Great Awakening in America would be: (1) good for American Judaism; (2) good for America in general; (3) a goal we can pursue with Jewish integrity; and (4) difficult, but worth trying.
1. American Judaism needs a stronger American Christianity
American Jews are deeply embedded in broader American culture. An observant minority of American Jews center their lives around Judaism, but for the vast majority of American Jews, at any given moment they’re doing whatever they’re doing not because it’s something Jews do, but because it’s something Americans do.
In the rare cases that The Thing Americans Do happens to be a religious Christian thing, then American Jews will do a religious Jewish thing too – they’ll do Hanukkah instead of Christmas, a Seder instead of Easter. For many secular Jews, it’s often that “instead” that brings them in the door. That’s why in seasons when the American Christian-heritage majority aren’t doing anything religious, most American Jews aren’t doing anything religious either. It’s why more American Jews celebrate Hanukkah than Rosh Hashanah. It’s why vast numbers of Jews go through their lives completely unaware of what or when Shavuot is but passionately committed to an annual ritual of Chinese food on Christmas Eve.
It’s not new for American Jews to take cues about religiosity from the surrounding Christian majority. The synagogue building boom of the middle 20th Century tracked a postwar religious revival that affected America overall. The later collapse of synagogue membership tracked a collapse of Mainline Protestant church membership. This is only natural, and doesn’t reflect anything especially dependent about Judaism or especially dominant about Christianity. It’s about who’s the majority. Raise the tide for the majority religion and the minority religions, including Judaism, will be lifted too.
Unfortunately, at the moment we’re going in the opposite direction. As more and more Americans of Christian heritage cut ties with Christianity and the general culture of America secularizes, American Jewish observance is likely to keep eroding.
As goes American Christian religiosity, so goes American Jewish religiosity. And right now, where they’re both going is down.
2. Religion is good
Now, some people aren’t inclined to worry about this collapse of American religion. Some secular Jews, in particular, may welcome the current secularizing trend because it seems to ratify their own lifestyle.
I think that’s a mistake for many reasons. Since you’re reading eJewish Philanthropy, you’re probably already on board with the notion that Judaism in some form or another is worth preserving. But since many Jewish professionals are more comfortable stressing non-religious elements of Jewish culture, I think it’s also worth dwelling on why religion per se is demonstrably good – whether or not you believe that any particular religion is true. To wit:
- Religious people are healthier. (Mayo Clinic.)
- Children raised religious enjoy more health and well-being as adults. (Ying Chen and Tyler VanderWeele, American Journal of Epidemiology.)
- Actively religious people are happier, less likely to smoke and drink, more likely to join civic organizations (even secular ones), and more likely to vote. (Pew Research Center.)
- Religious people give much more to charity. (David Campbell and Robert Putnam.)
- People with strong religious identities are more likely to build strong social networks in their congregations, which makes them happier. (Chaeyoon Lim and Robert Putnam, American Sociological Review.) As America takes the first steps toward leaving a moment of profound loneliness during the pandemic, this benefit is especially poignant.
Making America more religious would benefit everyone in society.
3. Supporting a Christian revival with Jewish integrity
But even if you’re willing to follow me this far – that more Christian religiosity would be good for both America and American Judaism – some people might feel there are reasons of Jewish principle to shrink from this goal anyway. Below are three objections that I foresee, and my answers to them.
First, many Jews may be queasy about the prospect of promoting a foreign religion (avodah zarah). I share that basic outlook; I believe in Judaism, I don’t believe in many of the core claims of Christianity, and I certainly don’t want to participate in converting anyone from any non-Christian faith (least of all Judaism) to Christianity. I am emphatically not suggesting that Jews start trying to convince anyone at all that Jesus is anyone’s savior.
Luckily, selling people on Jesus is irrelevant to the task at hand. Because Jesus and (lehavdil!) God aren’t what’s fallen out of fashion. The main decline is in organized religion. According to Pew Research Center, out of all Americans who don’t regularly attend religious services, less than a third (28%) are non-believers. Of the rest, fully seven in ten non-churchgoers are religious; six in ten are Christian. The single most common reason cited for not going to services is: “I practice my faith in other ways”.
So there are plenty of believing but unchurched Christians out there. We don’t need to endorse their beliefs, but we can and should try to lessen people’s aversion to organized religion. We should want an American cultural reality that makes it more likely that these now-disconnected Christians will play out the spiritual beliefs and feelings they already have in the socially vital, fruitful, and demanding context of a church community – instead of exclusively in the easy, comfortable, socially infertile echo chamber of their own private thoughts.
To pursue that cultural goal, we don’t need to accept, let alone preach, Christianity. We should, however, give up trying to sell Judaism by actively insulting Christianity. “Their religion is all those bad things – small-minded, dogmatic, irrational, etc. – but ours isn’t.” That facile argument has always been unfair, oversimplifying both religions. But I think it’s also possible that when we tell that story about the majority religion, we succeed far more in hurting the reputation of organized religion in general than we do in benefiting from a Jewish/Christian contrast.
Second objection: Many politically liberal Jews may feel queasy about a Great Awakening because they fear that would be a boon to right-wing Evangelical politics.
But who says a Great Awakening needs to be exclusively conservative? The first three Great Awakenings certainly had some socially conservative elements, but the first in the mid-18th Century also promoted democratic beliefs in the run-up to the American Revolution; the second in the 19th Century was a key driver of abolitionism and the movement for women’s rights; the third in the late 19th and early 20th centuries drove considerable activism in the form of the “Social Gospel”; and some even argue that the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s constituted a fourth Great Awakening. Admittedly, others say the fourth Great Awakening was the rise of Evangelical religion and politics in the late 20th Century. But looking at the whole of American history, there’s no reason to assume that a fifth (or sixth, depending how you count) would necessarily be a force for conservatism.
Even if you don’t buy that analysis, liberals concerned about this possibility should work all the harder to promote liberal religion across the board, rather than yielding the religious field to the political right. And, more generally, anyone seeking politically like-minded partners across the Jewish-Christian divide can easily find them. Orthodox Jews can continue and deepen their engagement with the First Things-style coalition of traditionalist Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and Evangelicals, while liberal Jewish denominations can continue and deepen their partnerships with liberal Protestant denominations.
Third: Some Jews might think bolstering Christianity would be a distraction, unrelated to the core of being Jewish. “We want to help Judaism thrive,” they might say, “Not shill for Christianity in some kind of too-clever-by-half bank shot to get to more Jewish engagement.”
Obviously I sympathize with this objection enough to anticipate people making it. And I wouldn’t want the goal of rejuvenating Christianity to take priority over the needs and opportunities of Jewish communities. But we can do many things at once, just as the U.S. government didn’t stop doing other things while NASA worked on reaching the moon.
What’s more, interfaith cooperation isn’t an extracurricular, it’s part of Judaism. Working to strengthen non-Jews’ commitment to God can be part of our mandate to be an or lagoyim, a light unto the nations. This vision of global influence is not some all-encompassing “purpose” of Judaism (because there’s no such thing), but it’s definitely a part of Judaism. The late, great Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks ztz”l constantly engaged with non-Jews to strengthen all religions for the common good. And while nobody can replace the unique brilliance of Rabbi Lord Sacks, there are many Jews bringing their own talents to the task of strengthening religion generally, not just Judaism particularly. This idea is just an extension of that existing approach; the only new part would be explicitly owning a goal of specifically Christian renewal, since Christianity is the majority American religion.
4. We can do this – or, at least, help
So we should do this! But can we? In the Jewish communal sector, we’re well aware that American culture is secularized and only growing more so. But we often treat that trend as a given, a background condition we have no power to change. The unspoken idea seems to be that there’s nothing we, a tiny minority group, could possibly do about the overall secularization of American culture. If you start from that assumption, then Jewish engagement has to work with that trend and not against it.
But we shouldn’t accept the idea that we’re so powerless! Jewish institutions, Jewish culture, Jewish philanthropy, and Jewish ideas have been incredibly influential in broader American culture. And we know this; we don’t plead powerlessness when it comes to the community’s favorite universal issues du jour. We (rightly!) work to end racism for everyone, a monumental task, even though Jews of all races are less than 2% of the population. We (rightly!) marched against the Muslim travel ban even though it wasn’t directly “our” issue, and our small but overrepresented voice of conscience was heard and probably made a difference.
So, as with those other issues, we can’t do this alone. But, as with those other issues, we can partner with others and make a dent. We Jews have indelibly shaped American arts, sciences, literature, cuisine, humor, politics, philanthropy, and more. We were major players in the socio-political coalition that urged more secularization in the 20th Century. We can influence things in the other direction the same way, if we’re willing to try.
I have to admit: I really don’t know how. I’m not an expert in the research about what works in leading social and cultural change. And trying to dictate to a culture that “Christianity is cool again” seems like a pretty tall order.
Luckily, there are academics and practitioners, inside and outside in our community, who are experts in how cultures change and how people and institutions can influence them. We can ask them. We can ask our communities, and Christian communities. We can generate ideas and argue about different approaches. And then we can roll up our sleeves, try things, and see what works.
Lots of worthy things are hard, but the point is that we try for them anyway – when we care about them. And we should care about this and start by embracing it as a goal. We should partner with other communities to strive for a more religious America. And, since Christianity is the dominant majority heritage, it makes sense to put a lot of effort there.
In the best of human endeavors, self-interest and service to others are united. That’s certainly the case for American Judaism and Christianity. For reasons of civics, philanthropy, public health, and public virtue, a Christian revival would help the whole of American society, while fostering a new vitality for American Judaism in the bargain.
Seth Chalmer works in the Jewish nonprofit sector, but in this article he speaks only for himself. He writes on religion and culture and lives in New Jersey with his wife and children.