One difference between the two addresses is the fact that the whole Republican convention heard [Orthodox Rabbi Meir] Soloveichik, while no-one but the cleaning crew was there for [Conservative Rabbi David] Wolpe. There was a also a world of difference in the content. Rabbi Wild and Wonderful preached social work and psychobabble, while Rabbi Soloveichik linked God’s revelation to Moses and the American founding, much closer in spirit to Cardinal Dolan than to the progressive Rabbi Wolpe.
. . . The cultural divide in the United States is now almost absolute; Democratic Party liberalism, which once embraced devout Catholics and observant Jews, cannot conceal its contempt for religion. Even the clergy who cling to the Democratic Party have trouble concealing their lack of interest in religion. On the other hand, Americans of faith have rallied together as never before: Catholic and Jew, Evangelical and Mormon. For this observant Jew, hearing an Orthodox rabbi quote Torah to open the Republican convention was a milestone for America as well for the Jewish people (not to mention the fact that Rabbi Soloveichik is associate rabbi of my synagogue). And to hear an overwhelmingly Christian audience listen to this rabbi was a great event. The good news is that Americans who seek the love and guidance of the God of the Bible have put their differences aside where the good of the country is concerned.
It’s great, as Goldman points out, that denominational differences no longer divide American believers the way they once did: It’s possible for “Catholic and Jew, Evangelical and Mormon” to join hands and cooperate. Yet this development doesn’t prove that religious unity in the United States has increased, and its political ramifications are not purely good ones. Believers may be more polarized than we used to be—only now we have two poles, instead of many.
The trend began decades ago and became evident in the culture wars of the 1980s. Sociologist James Davison Hunter told religion reporter Terry Mattingly that he recognized what was happening during a church-state court case in 1986:
“We were witnessing a fundamental realignment in American religious pluralism,” said James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia. “Divisions [between denominations] that were deeply rooted in our civilization were disappearing, divisions that had for generations caused religious animosity, prejudice and even warfare. It was mind- blowing. The ground was moving.”
. . . The old dividing lines centered on issues such as the person of Jesus Christ, church tradition and the Protestant Reformation. But these new interfaith coalitions were fighting about something even more basic — the nature of truth and moral authority.
Two years later, Hunter began writing Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, in which he declared that America now contains two basic world views, which he called “orthodox” and “progressive.” The orthodox believe it’s possible to follow transcendent, revealed truths. Progressives disagree and put their trust in personal experience, even if that requires them to “resymbolize historic faiths according to the prevailing assumptions of contemporary life.”
Most Orthodox Jews, most Evangelical Christians, most Mormons, and some Catholics would fit this description of orthodox, while most Conservative and Reform Jews, most mainline Protestants, and some Catholics would fit the description of progressive. (I’m not familiar enough with Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and other believers to categorize them in this scheme.) So rather than having bitter divisions between Catholics as a bloc and Protestants as a bloc, or between Methodists and Lutherans, or Christians and Jews, we have one major division between orthodox and progressives.
These divisions are painful enough in the religious sphere, as orthodox and progressive factions vie for dominance in religious hierarchies, seminaries, and congregations. But translate them into our red vs. blue political sphere—as orthodox believers usually prioritize abortion over other issues, while progressives prioritize social justice—and the result is an absolute wreck.
Religious divisions exacerbate political ones and encourage voters to associate their party with their whole identity, not merely with their political outlook. Orthodox believers are driven away from the Democratic party by the contempt that some secular liberals show for religion, while nonbelievers are driven away from the Republican party by GOP politicians’ frequent mentions of God.
The political alliance between religious progressives and nonbelievers makes orthodox believers suspect that progressives are not “really” religious, while the political alliance between orthodox believers and Republicans on economic issues makes progressives suspect the same of the orthodox. Every prayer, every rally, every event hosted by one religious faction becomes fodder for the other to question the sincerity of their faith.
Thus trust has simultaneously broken down both between religious orthodox and progressives and between political conservatives and liberals, which makes religious unity and bipartisan cooperation all but impossible.
Now, please note what I’m not saying: I’m not calling for anyone to abandon their religious convictions or political affiliations, and I’m not calling for religious believers of any stripe to extricate their religious beliefs from their political views (as though that were possible).
I’m just issuing one more call for cooperation between different religious and political groups, and perhaps for a little more respect for the convictions of those who disagree with us.