This is a guest post by Michael Towns, long-time commenter and friend of M*.
I was recently struck when I read a blog post by the versatile Rod Dreher. For those who don’t know Mr. Dreher, he is an American author and columnist. He was a longtime Catholic who converted to Eastern Orthodoxy in the wake of the Catholic Church’s child sex abuse scandal. I have found his blog posts and musings to be trenchant, important, and often amusing. He covers a lot of cultural ground, delving into politics occasionally but usually hewing to topics of societal issues and influences.
The recent posting was entitled “Can There Be Jews Without The Jewish God?” It was a response to Jonathan Tobin’s analysis of a Pew survey of American Jews. It deals with Jewish assimilation in secular society and the resultant loss of distinctive Jewish identity.
Essentially, “irreligion” has taken center stage in American Jewish life. As Dreher summarizes:
The main lessons, it seems to me, are as follows:
1. Without belief in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and in the absence of anti-Semitism, there’s no binding reason to be Jewish.
2. Unless the Jewish community is willing to police its boundaries, to draw sharp lines between who is and who isn’t in the tribe, it will dissipate.
He goes on to note:
Fifty years ago, there was a lot more cultural pressure to affiliate with a church. You felt that you should, that it was the right thing to do. That’s long gone. In a free society in which there is no serious penalty, social or otherwise, for not being Christian, you have to give people a reason to want to be a Christian. As we’ve observed in this space, no church has found the solution to waning Christianity (see Pew’s study on the “Rise Of The Nones”), though the Jewish experience seems to confirm the idea that a religion that does not offer something meaningfully distinctive from the mainstream will not endure. If you fling open the windows of the Church to the world as it is today, you run the real risk of the winds blowing your house down.
I was arrested by Dreher’s comment that unless the Jewish community “is willing to police its boundaries, to draw sharp lines between who is and who isn’t in the tribe, it will dissipate”.
In relating this piece to American Mormonism, I was curious if we Mormons are currently in a phase where we are not as willing to “police our boundaries”. We seem unwilling to draw distinctions between orthodoxy and heterodoxy; we seem to flinch from suggesting that if you really do believe in a Hipster Jesus, perhaps you’re not really in tune with the authentic or traditional Mormon Spirit. All well and good, but the danger exists that we dilute what Mormonism represents. We lose what makes us distinctive. Cohesion is perhaps a higher value than cultural dissipation and vapidity.
The lesson seems to be that in the rush to be progressive (read: secular with respect to abortion, gay rights, etc.), you lose the distinctiveness that makes religion attractive to the people who are earnestly seeking the answers to life’s greatest mysteries. It’s the same lesson that the mainline Christian churches have learned to their sorrow over the past several decades: if being a secular humanist is what it’s all about, then why show up at church on Sunday (or synagogue on Saturday?). You can just go to Starbucks instead. And not have to wear a suit and tie.