The Bright Future of Liberal Religion
I am filled with optimism about the future of liberal religion in America.
It is not fashionable to hold this view. In both the Jewish and the Christian world, conventional wisdom affirms that the liberal religious groupings are in crisis: Their numbers are falling, their institutions are in decline, their birthrates are low, etc.
Don’t believe it. Heaven knows that there are multiple problems that afflict liberal denominations of all faiths–although one should not think for a moment that all is well on the more traditional side of the religious spectrum. But at a time when religion is flourishing in America–for proof, read “God is Alive and Well,” by Gallup Editor-in-Chief Frank Newport (2012)–and religious institutions of all kinds are buffeted by turmoil and change, the liberal religious world is generally responding to the difficulties it faces with typical American inventiveness. What we are seeing in liberal religious circles is not collapse but creative rethinking and a good deal of dynamism, along with openness to new ways of affirming liberal religious values.
I suggest that there are 5 very specific reasons to believe that prospects are good for liberal religion in America.
First, young Americans are more likely to be “religious progressives” than “religious conservatives.”
According to a survey conducted by Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with the Brookings Institute, while there are more religious conservatives than religious progressives in America, younger generations of religious progressives outnumber their conservative counterparts. The younger Americans are, the more liberal they are in their religious beliefs. In the 18-33 age group, 23% are religious progressives while 17% are religious conservatives. America as a country is young, ethnically diverse, and tolerant, and growing more so; as the survey suggests, these changes will impact all aspects of American politics and culture, including her religious beliefs.
Second, there is reason to think that in the decade ahead, older Americans will be more liberal in their religious outlook than they are now.
The Newport book mentioned above demonstrates–and this is hardly a surprise–that Americans in their 60s, 70s, and 80s are much more religious than younger Americans. While older Americans are now a pretty conservative group, religiously as well as politically, I suspect that we are about to see a shift. As the baby boomers join the ranks of the retired and turn to religion, they are likely to prefer the more liberal forms of religion to the more conservative ones. The reason is, simply, that the baby boomers–culturally liberal, politically non-conformist, often self-absorbed–were never very traditional about anything, and they are unlikely to be traditional about religion now. Even if they turn to religion in more modest percentages than older people have in the past, the impact they make, given their numbers, will be enormous.
Third, social justice is certain to become much more central to religious life, and religiously-based social justice is the domain of liberal religion.
America, sadly, is becoming a far more unequal place than it has been for almost a century. In his book “Average is Over,” conservative economist Tyler Cowen demonstrates that while 10-15% of Americans are thriving, income for the great majority of middle class Americans will stagnate or fall. Since lower positioning on the socio-economic ladder means greater religious involvement (again, see the Newport volume mentioned above), more Americans are likely to embrace religion. And while some will do so to find comfort in the face of economic distress, many will expect their religious leaders and places of worship to offer a message of social justice and a role for religion in making society more fair and just.
In theory, there is no reason why traditional religion should not be concerned with the disadvantaged. The Biblical texts at the heart of both Judaism and Christianity focus on the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. They affirm that justice measures the worth of the state and that rulers are held accountable for the suffering of their citizens. And the prophets speak powerfully to the gap between rich and poor as a reason for God’s judgment. Nonetheless, while poverty and justice in America should be religious issues for everyone, they are to be found primarily on the agenda of liberal religion.
Fourth, liberal religious groups have finally learned that ethics are essential but insufficient for a meaningful and authentic religious life.
Liberal congregations know now that it is fine to preach principles of justice, but those appeals only succeed when they are embedded in a network of ritual and caring. Real religious liberals do not want sound-bite politics in their churches and synagogues; they can find that anywhere. What they want are communities that engage in heartfelt worship, connect social responsibility to personal responsibility, and are tied to text and to God–and see the struggle for justice as a natural extension of their religious commitments.
Fifth, there are liberal congregations throughout America that are demonstrating that liberal religion really works.
The assumption that liberal religion has run out of gas and that liberal synagogues and churches are dying is simply absurd. As noted, the problems are real enough and there are plenty of trouble spots, but everywhere in America one can find liberal places of worship that are serving as an example to others–congregations that are spiritually serious, religiously vibrant, communally aware, and committed to love of justice and love of God.
I draw my inspiration from Torah, while liberal Christians turn to Christian sources. But what we share is the sense that in a deeply divided America, where the middle class struggles and many have lost hope, liberal religion provides what America needs: Not self-congratulation or symbolic displays, but religious renewal along with an awareness that the quest for justice cannot be left to others. Liberal religion is on the rise, and its future is bright.