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Dear Evangelicals: Some Encouragement and Advice From Your Orthodox Jewish Friends

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Director of Interfaith Relations, speaking on religious intolerance abroad at a press conference in Washington, DC on May 3, 2012.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Director of Interfaith Relations, speaking on religious intolerance abroad at a press conference in Washington, DC on May 3, 2012. | (Photo: The Christian Post)

We understand that you are feeling a bit overwhelmed by recent events that threaten to marginalize you. We'd like to offer a bit of empathy, and if it is not too presumptuous, some valuable experience and tools as well. You see, we've been there before.

First came the recent Pew study entitled "America's Changing Religious Landscape." Pew demonstrates that more Christians continue to live in the US than any other country in the world. About seven out of ten Americans call themselves Christian. But it also found that the percentage of adults (ages 18 and older) who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years, while the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated — describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or "nothing in particular" — has jumped more than six points. Losses are severe among mainline Protestants and Catholics. Lots of Christians are understandably worried about this trend.

Evangelicals, however, did much better. Your hard numbers actually improved. But those of us who have evangelical friends know that you, too, are wondering whether the trends towards unbelief (or at least no church affiliation) will catch up with you as well. Your retention rate of young people — one number bandied about is 69%, which means losing one person in three — is already keeping you up nights.

Then came the Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage. What worried many people even more than the decision was how the Court got there. As Justice Roberts explained, since the Constitution does not speak directly about marriage, there was only one way that the Court's majority could come to its conclusion. It had to conclude that any argument against recognition of gay marriage was morally reprehensible and obviously repugnant to all thinking people. In a moment, religious traditions of millennia had been brushed aside as baseless and irrelevant to decent Americans. Where did that leave Evangelicals — and Catholics, Muslims, and traditional Jews?

In a word, many of you came to the realization that all of us are now part of a minority population. Since Plymouth Rock, Protestant thinking had written much of this country's history and contributed its default values. No more. Those of us holding on to traditional views about the Bible and who connect with a G-d who instructs, commands, and doesn't change his mind — or his script — are no longer as American as motherhood and apple pie. We're an outgroup, albeit still a large one. And the majority population sees us as a bunch of ill-informed primitives.

Relax, friends. It is not the end of the world for any of us, and not even the end of America as we knew it. The Jewish experience of almost two millennia demonstrates that a religious group cannot only survive as a minority, but even thrive.

Here's how.

Those in the cultural majority often take too much for granted. You don't have to explain much to others; often, you don't have to explain much to yourselves. That changes when you are conscious of holding unpopular positions. You think them through more carefully, and compare and contrast with what others are thinking. You sharpen your rhetorical skills. As a dividend, this improves your ability to reach people outside your immediate group.

As a minority, you pay more attention to the influence of the surrounding culture. You learn that a certain amount of isolation is healthy. Not too much, but not too little. You gradually understand that, much as we don't like to hear it, you can't have it all. To be dedicated to G-d means giving up on some options and replacing them with ones that ultimately are much more meaningful. You learn that the best way to inoculate your children against some of the unhealthy influences of the surrounding culture is to turn the home into something between a fortress and a temple.

We Jews will understand if you are reticent to reach out to the other side of a theological divide, but if you are open to it, we're more than happy to help you benefit from our successes and our failures.

If we do talk, we would throw in a few more observations.

Some of your young people have been clamoring to move closer to the issues popular with other young people. Some of your churches have responded affirmatively, especially in light of the centrality in Christian thought of helping others. There is a great danger, however, in reducing religious life to a social justice agenda — and nothing more.

It won't work. It has not saved the mainline churches from bleeding out to the point of losing consciousness. On the Jewish side, both Reform and Conservative tried keeping young people by downplaying tradition and focusing on tikkun olam, repairing the world. Both of those movements are in serious trouble — to put it mildly — trying to assure themselves some continuity. People quickly learn that they don't need their church or synagogue to volunteer on a soup line. Why would the social action projects in a local Evangelical church keep a young person within the fold when she realizes that there is no difference between what she is doing and what they are doing in the Lutheran church down the road, or for that matter, in the Buddhist shrine or Hindu temple?

On the other hand, Orthodox Jews asked for more — and got it. They kept people connected with G-d through a thousand points of contact a day, as well as demonstrated continuity with a rich past. They survived and are growing where all other Jewish groups have succumbed. Evangelicals are the exception to the Pew rule for similar reasons. Unlike other Christian groups, they refused to water down core beliefs. If you want to keep your advantage, you will have to have the courage to insist on transmitting values and practices that provide people with a personal relationship with G-d. Tradition has more staying power than helter-skelter innovation; small, meaningful communities offer more personal happiness than the global village.

It may come as a surprise to you that many of us stand ready to work together. We are, after all, separated by some huge, irreconcilable theological differences. Yet think of what we share, not least of which is the conviction that our great country will only be great through keeping G-d at the center of our lives, rather than sidelined.

Consider the message we received from a friend, a New Testament professor at a Christian school:

I write with tears over the irony that I have more kinship with an Orthodox Jewish rabbi I have met once and corresponded with occasionally than I do with other people I have known my entire life. We American Christians have much to learn from you; you are much better at handling persecution than we, our forefathers having afforded you so much practice. Now we who thought we'd never face this day must hang our heads in shame as we not only beg your forgiveness, but for pointers in the dark days to come.

Working together, perhaps we can radiate more light into those days than we could working alone.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein directs interfaith affairs at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and holds the Irmas Adjunct Chair in Jewish Law and Ethics at Loyola Law School.

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