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Fault Line in American Religion Is Not Between Denominations But Through Them, Say Some Religious Leaders

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
January - February 2005

“The real religious divide in the United States isn’t between the churched and the unchurched,” writes Hanna Rosin in The Atlantic Monthly (January/February 2005). “It’s between different kinds of believers.”  

Rosin, a Washington Post reporter, notes that, ‘For most of American history, of course, the important religious divides were between denominations — not just between Protestants and Catholics and Jews but between Lutherans and Episcopalians and Southern Baptists and the other endlessly fine-tuned sects. But since the l970s fundamental disagreements have emerged within virtually all these denominations — over abortion, over gay rights, over modernity and religion’s role in it. ‘There’s a fault line running through American religions,’ says Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptists’ Ethics and Liberty Commission. ‘And that fault line is running not between denominations but through them.”  

Rosin points out that, “On a wide range of issues, traditionalists agree with one another across denominations while strongly disagreeing with modernists in their own religion ... Robert Wuthnow, the head of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University, found that ideological splits were much more pronounced than they had been in a similar study he conducted in the mid-1970s. In particular he found that political and religious views were tracking more closely, with the most religious more avidly pro-life, and the spiritual but less traditionally religious more avidly pro-choice ... A ... surprising ... alliance seems to have arisen in the past few years between the Bush administration and the normally insular Orthodox Jewish community. ... the administration’s outreach has been aggressive. Bush has held Hanukkah parties at the White House with invitation lists heavy on actual rabbis — Orthodox rabbis in particular — rather than on leaders of Jewish interest groups. In 2002 the Seattle Hebrew Academy, destroyed in an earthquake, was denied federal relief funds because it was a religious institution. Soon after Bush signed an order allowing such institutions to compete for federal funds. That year the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, the largest umbrella group for Orthodox Jews, began signing on with the Southern Baptist Convention and the Christian Legal Society to support some of the administration’s faith-based initiatives.”  

According to Rosin, “Bush closed the deal during the Republican convention last summer, with an event at the Waldorf-Astoria tailored especially to Orthodox Jews — the first such event ever held by a presidential campaign. Rabbis came in from all over the country. Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas and Tim Goeglein, from the White House, spoke about their commitment to Israel and values. Tevi Troy, a campaign official and an Orthodox Jew, also spoke. ‘That event generated a lot of buzz in the Orthodox community,’ recalls Nathan Diament, a spokesman for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. ‘In the more insular segments of the community they don’t watch t.v., or get a newspaper outside the Orthodox papers. Suddenly there were headlines in the Jewish press saying the Bush campaign did this unprecedented thing, that for the first time they weren’t lumping us in with the rest of the Jewish community.”  

This approach seemed to work. Hasidic enclaves — Kiryas Joel, north of Westchester; Lakewood, New Jersey; the Wickliffe suburb of Cleveland — voted as much as 95 percent for Bush, according to Diament, even though they had supported Al Gore by overwhelming percentages in 2000. “We’re starting to get an echo in our community of the divide Christians have, between traditionalists and progressives” Diament says.  

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, argues in Haaretz (Dec. 24, 2004) that these religious divisions pose a challenge to the Middle East peace process: “... it is precisely the Christian right and the Orthodox Jewish community that will be the most resistant to such steps and are likely to pressure the administration to pull back from an assertive role. Should the administration decide to repay its debt to its supporters from the religious right and Orthodox Jewry on this issue, it would be a major setback for the peace process. Ironically, it is the mainstream Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and liberal evangelical communities who will be most supportive of the administration’s plan for active engagement in the Mideast peace process. The mainstream Jewish community, representing the overwhelming majority of American Jews, needs to make clear to the Bush administration that it will enthusiastically support its effort to work with the new coalition under Ariel Sharon to promote the peace process.”  

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