SEATTLE (BP)–Many –- if not most -– American Jews harbor the stubbornly irrational conviction that a Christian revival in this country would threaten their security and survival. To them, religious faith amounts to a zero-sum game so that any strengthening or intensification of Christianity leads inexorably to a diminution of Judaism.
This argument pointedly ignores the evidence of the recent past: In the 1950s, the Jewish community experienced an unprecedented wave of suburban synagogue construction, along with vastly increased rates of congregational affiliation, all at precisely the same time that the Christian community went through its own surge of church attendance (“The Family That Prays Together Stays Together”) and public activism (the insertion of the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance).
Two decades later, the dynamic, much-discussed Baal T’shuvah (“Return”) movement in Judaism coincided with the explosive growth of evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity -– in both cases led by young people from disaffiliated or casually engaged homes who passionately embraced more fervent and traditional forms of religiosity than their parents ever practiced.
There’s no logical or empirical basis to assume that a trend which sees Christians taking their own faith more seriously will somehow force Jews to move in the opposite direction and to discard our traditions more thoughtlessly. In fact, it’s easy to argue that more respectful attention for Christianity (in its various manifestations) will likely spill over to encourage Jews to look more carefully at the substance of our own ancient creed.
A more Christian America need not menace Judaism (or any other minority religion), but it does threaten secularism -– and despite confusion on the part of left-leaning agencies in the Jewish community, the interests of secularism and Judaism do not count as identical. It may weaken Christianity, for instance, if large numbers of our fellow citizens claim no religious affiliation, but that disaffiliation in no way can be said to strengthen Judaism.
An individual who rejects the Messianic claims of Jesus of Nazareth may exclude himself from the Christian community, but that simple act of rejection hardly qualifies him as a Jew. Our faith centers on the affirmation of its own time-honored teachings and demands, not merely denial of the beliefs of the nation’s Christian majority.
For years, demographers and Jewish leaders have warned that assimilation and intermarriage harm our community’s long-term prospects far more seriously than anti-Semitism, and secularism facilities both those delimitating forces. If, for instance, my Catholic girlfriend during our senior year at college had felt a deeper personal commitment to her own faith tradition, our relationship never would have gone as far as it did and precipitated a withering family crisis. It’s an irreligious, secularist approach that erases the distinctions between Christians and Jews and strips our people of any basis for a continued independent existence.
My personal encounters with Christian believers over the years introduced me to a group of people who came across as kind, upbeat, productive, sincere, down-to-earth, and consistently respectful -– if not outright supportive –- of my own Jewish religiosity. I strongly suspect that nearly all my fellow Americans have had similar interactions with serious Christians.
This doesn’t mean that you won’t run across more than a few oddballs, hypocrites, crooks or fanatics among the tens of millions of people who identify themselves as people of faith, but the overall level of decency, of unalloyed niceness, remains high enough within the Christian community that it’s hard to understand why so many skeptics look on these fervent believers with fear and resentment.
In most cases, I’m convinced that such negativity –- especially on the part of my fellow Jews -– stems more from negative media imagery than from any real-world experience. Typical Americans spend far more hours in the week watching TV, DVDs or movies than they do interacting with their actual friends and neighbors, which means that abrasive broadcast presentations by controversial evangelists, or Hollywood’s frequent, fictional portrayals of crazed, corrupt Christian clergymen, easily overwhelm the pleasant impressions left by flesh-and-blood casual acquaintances.
Adapted from Michael Medved’s new book, “Right Turns: Unconventional Lessons from a Controversial Life,” from Crown Forum.