America’s Crisis of Religion
In the past, the religiosity of the American people always remained striking. But no longer. According to a new Gallup poll, the percentage of Americans belonging to a religious institution — which has declined by more than 20 percentage points since 1999 — has hit an all-time modern low of 50 percent. Americans claiming no religious affiliation now stand at 20 percent.
Harold Bloom argued that the overwhelmingly popular “American Jesus” was, paradoxically, a “post-Christian” experiential phenomenon. In the 1920s, when Madison Avenue’s Bruce Barton repackaged Jesus as the all-time “greatest advertising man” — New York rabbi Hyman G. Enelow, who previously warned Jews against “excessive admiration for Jesus,” glamorized him as “the most fascinating figure in history.” And The New York Times quoted a lecture by Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, where he stated that “Jesus is not alien to us.”
During the Hitler era, American Jewry’s Jesus craze, increasingly identified with “the Judeo-Christian tradition,” crested. A 1934 study concluded that “the Modern Jew sees … [Jesus] as a noble and magnetic personality.” Russian-Jewish immigrant John Cournos, in The Saturday Evening Post, rallied “the Judeo-Christian tradition” against “the anti-Christ trinity of Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini.”
When Yiddish novelist Sholem Asch’s The Nazarene (1939) pictured Jesus as a wonder-working Hasid betrayed by Roman imperialists and an illegitimate Sanhedrin, The Forward led a movement against Asch. But Schalom Ben-Chorin, a disciple of Martin Buber, attributed this backlash to the know-nothing tendencies of America’s transplanted Orthodox shtetl Jews.
The notion of “the Judeo-Christian tradition” helped define America’s “civic religion” during the World War II and Cold War eras. Will Herberg’s book, Protestant-Catholic-Jew (1955), introduced the phrase “the triple melting pot.” “Under God” was also added to the Pledge of Allegiance.
But the Holocaust reinforced doubts. The popularity of the stage and screen versions of The Diary of Anne Frank — with her Jewishness expurgated — caused concern. Tikkun, the leftist magazine, loved the ecumenical Jesus, but lost interest in the authentic Jesus. Most members of the Jesus class tended to place Jesus in a Hellenistic context either as “a primitive rebel” or as a messiah vaguely akin to 1960s hippie gurus.
As Kenneth M. Schultz argues in The New Republic, the term “the Judeo-Christian tradition” is now employed by Christian conservatives to make tendentious arguments. Schultz doesn’t mention that the use of the term “Abrahamic religions” — a new Christian-Jewish-Muslim trinity — by progressives is often also dubious. There is no evidence that either religious spin has slowed America’s slide towards what might be called ecumenical indifference.
Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).