I always thought my Jews cornered the market on excessive worrying, but maybe I’m mistaken. There’s evidence that the gentiles are catching up. Mazel tov to us both.
It’s undeniable the Jews major in angst — it’s part of our history and DNA. But I’m talking here about the long-term worry, located somewhere just beyond the horizon, of a kind of Jewish cultural suicide in America.
We worry about intermarriage, falling synagogue attendance and Hebrew school enrollments, and declining Jewish birthrates. Half a century ago, America had three times the Jewish population of Israel. Today, owing to flatline Jewish-American population figures, the numbers are about equal.
Among American Jews, even those who don’t feel particularly reverent but take pride in our tribal accomplishments, sometimes it feels like a kind of slow demographic extinction has taken hold.
One of the most interesting books of the past year offers some unanticipated perspective. It’s “The End of White Christian America,” by Robert P. Jones. He’s a religious scholar and CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute.
The book’s title alone seems a phrase that once might have seemed inconceivable. But Jones indicates Christians have some of the same anxieties as Jews over the future of their various religious sects. (A big difference, of course, is the huge disparity in raw numbers between Christians and Jews — but the percentages are dropping in similarly stunning ways.)
“The American religious landscape is being remade,” Jones writes, “most notably by the decline of the white Protestant majority and the rise of the religiously unaffiliated. These religious transformations have been swift and dramatic, occurring largely within the last four decades.”
Forty years ago, 63 percent of white Americans identified as Protestant. By 1993, that figure dropped to 51 percent. Today, it’s 32 percent.
Four decades ago, 26 percent of whites identified as Catholic. That figure has dropped to 22 percent. Here’s the kicker: 40 years ago, 7 percent of whites said they had “no religious affiliation.” Today, that figure has mushroomed to 22 percent — the same as white Catholics.
“Many white Americans have sensed these changes taking place all around them,” Jones writes, setting off “strong, sometimes apocalyptic reactions. Falling numbers and the marginalization of a once dominant racial and religious identity — one that has been central not just to white Christians themselves but to the national mythos — threatens white Christians’ understanding of America itself.”
Most dramatic are the differences between Christians young and old. Nearly 70 percent of white seniors (65 and older) identify as Christians, while less than 30 percent of young (18 to 29) whites do.
Some of this, Jones writes, comes from demographic shifts — declining birthrates, immigration patterns — but there’s also the “major force of change in the religious landscape: young gentile adults’ rejection of organized religion. Young adults are three times as likely as seniors to claim no religious affiliation.”
Jones says much of this comes from a growing cynicism among young people about religious leaders. They’ve witnessed the terrible sexual offenses by priests, and church hierarchy’s shameful response. They’ve watched the money grab of television evangelicals. And in a time of changing sexual mores, young people who have a live-and-let-live attitude about homosexuality are turned off by religious leaders still fighting gay relationships.
Jones points out a survey listing the three primary attributes young evangelicals associate with Christianity: that it’s anti-gay (91 percent), too judgmental (87 percent) and hypocritical (85 percent).
Who knows where this takes religion in years to come? Modern Jews wrestle with Scripture and laws written thousands of years ago by men living in caves. Modern Christians wrestle with Scripture written by men who lived decades after Jesus vanished from the earth and yet claim to know his true history.
Maybe the miracle of it all is that religious belief of all manner has managed its profound hold on the minds, and the imagination, of so many millions of human beings for so many generations.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, most recently “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).
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