Jews, Protestants, and Secularization in Modern America

Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County, Bethesda, MD

Dates: Sunday, May 03, 2015
Time: 7:30 pm - 9:00 pm
Speaker: Dr. David Hollinger

The role of two groups of Americans in making the public culture of the United States more fully secular during the past century (especially the last 60 or 70 years) than it had been earlier. Americans of Jewish descent who do not practice Judaism at all, or do so with limited intensity constitute the first of these groups. It includes many scientists and writers and professionals of many callings. The second group is made up of Americans from Protestant families who have drifted away from religious affirmation and practice, and are “post-Protestant” or whose participation in religious affairs is largely limited to social action projects. This group is comparable in educational level and professional role to the Jewish group. Americans of both types are defined in part against other constituencies within their own natal community: a) the evangelical Protestants of the Religious Right and of Billy-Graham-style belief-systems, and b) the ultra-orthodox Jews as represented by the Brooklyn Chasidim written about in the November 10 New Yorker (“The Outcast”). There has been an important, but little recognized alliance going back many decades between the two groups of cultural liberals. Each has struggled to emancipate the nation from the Protestant hegemony of an older tradition. Each is uncomfortable with the extreme sectarianism of the most conservative of the Christian and Jewish groups. This discomfort increases as the evangelicals control more and more of the symbolic capital of Christianity and as the ultra-orthodox multiply their numbers and occupy a larger and larger percentage of the population designated as Jewish. How did the Americans coming out of Protestantism and Judaism come together to create a formidable alliance for a secular, cosmopolitan culture in the United States, and what challenges have they faced in their efforts to work together? 

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