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Roger Rosenblatt Considers the Rise of Religion in American Life

June 13, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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ROGER ROSENBLATT: As a secular Jew, a distinction in Judaism as unspectacular as that of a lapsed Catholic it fascinates me how religious the world seems to be growing, or if not growing, at least showing a religious face more boldly.

That face was most recently observed in the TV coverage of the death of Pope John Paul II and then the ascension of Pope Benedict XVI. You can tell me otherwise, but I do not recall such worldwide attention paid the Vatican, even when the ecumenical Pope John XXIII came and departed. But the assertion of other religions seems equally strong. Americans and Europeans are more aware of militant Islam since Sept. 11.

But in contradictory response, Islam has been eager to show its benign and spiritual identity as its true nature. Judaism too has become more committed to itself. Not long ago, American Jewish leaders were concerned that the faith was disappearing by assimilation at the hands of secularists like me. Now young Jews assemble in greater numbers than ever to pray not in reformed synagogues, but in the much stricter and more ritually austere conservative and orthodox temples.

AD SPOKESMAN: A number of United States senators are preventing the confirmation of appellate court nominees not because of their professional qualifications but because of their faith.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Elsewhere in America the political power of the evangelical churches is so much in evidence that it is spoken of as one used to speak of the political power of labor unions. But evangelism’s apolitical purely emotional identity shows a separate power of its own. Religion is everywhere. The president avers his faith frequently.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Yet I have found my faith helps me in the service to people.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Members of Congress, once leery of the subject, are almost defensively eager to announce their faith. Separation of church and state, be, you should pardon the expression, damned. Were I an atheist or agnostic, I might feel isolated or even imperiled by such a turn of events. My faith being real but inquiring, I’m more curious than anything else. History often displays periods of overheated religious activity as heading towards wars and mass murder. Leaving those dire possibilities in abeyance, I simply don’t know what to make of the phenomenon. It’s not that one can’t come up with reasons. All these manifestations are arising at a time of insistent individualism shown in everything from the iPod and bloggers to efforts towards the perfectibility of one’s appearance, one’s health, one’s sex life. So religion may offer the countervailing force of community and of dependence on a higher perfection.

REVEREND: The body of Christ.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Or it may arise out of the power of ceremony in reaction to decades when ceremony was abandoned, or in reaction to a time of threat. Terrorism can make believers of us all because it’s so random and sudden. God may be random and sudden as well, but one feels that God has our welfare at heart. Finally there’s another possibility. Religion may be on the rise because of secularists like myself, who, it may be thought, have been in charge of public life too long. We certainly don’t feel in charge these days.

I’m Roger Rosenblatt.