Orthodox Jews walk along Whitehall in central London.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Viewers of the Republican presidential debate last Thursday might have been surprised by the question put to the candidates about whether God has spoken to them. This would be especially true of Europeans, who must have been asking themselves whether all Americans are nuts.
I lived in Europe for 11 years. I know how curious the American obsession with religion appears to a continent where God is largely dead.
Yet, American religion is central to American exceptionalism and presents an interesting contrast to Europe.
Days before the Millennium I became the first rabbi to win the London Times Preacher of the Year competition. (The Jerusalem Post reported at the time that I had received more points that anyone in the competition’s history.) While I was grateful to win in some sense it was a hollow victory. The competition, mostly from Church of England pastors, was not vigorous. Their academic, methodical and largely passionless delivery was not one to win over judges or the assembled audience.
Passion is the ultimate human magnet.
While people are reconciled to a life lived largely in the valleys, they thrill to those who can take them to the mountaintop, which explains why religion, with its lofty vision of a world of infinite possibility, has always excited the deepest artistic impulses of man.
This has been especially true in America, a country that believes in a “manifest destiny” and a nation which continues to invoke God’s blessing at every turn.
But this is not necessarily true of Britain and Europe, which have become increasingly godless. As rabbi in residence at Oxford for 11 years, I decided, in the early 1990s, to revive the celebrated Wilberforce-Huxley science- religion debate of 1860. Richard Dawkins was a star, as was Peter Atkins. Neither of these men had yet to become the militant atheists they would later be famous as. The engaging debates, which became an annual event drawing hundreds of Oxford students, even saw the religious side prevail at times, something largely unthinkable in today’s Britain where faith has become an empty ceremony of dead ritual.
Religion in Europe has only itself to blame for its decline, with a highly centralized religious structure crushing the creativity of individual pastors and the high formality of official European churches coming across as bland and humorless.
Europeans are in the habit of making fun of American evangelicals as backward religious knuckle-draggers who believe that Adam and Eve literally hung out with a talking snake.
But for all the condescension, evangelical Christianity in the US still represents the single largest voting bloc in the world’s sole superpower and one out of five Americans describes themselves as a born-again Christian, something inconceivable in Britain where weekly Church of England attendance hovers somewhere about two percent. Evangelicals build mega-churches that draw thousands of worshipers weekly and top evangelical pastors like Rick Warren and Joel Osteen enjoy vast cultural influence.
There is good reason. In the United States there is no official state church. There is no Archbishop of Canterbury. There is no Chief Rabbi. There is no queen as the official Defender of the Faith. Religion lives and dies like a commercial enterprise and is highly entrepreneurial. It pastors either excite their congregants with a message that is inspiring and relevant that will fill the pews or they will be passed over in favor of a different church. And if they send their congregants into a coma with stultifying boredom, their congregation will be lost because they will never awake.
Some might argue that the demise of religion in Europe is a good thing. It proves British sophistication, in sharp contrast to the religious hobos of American who talk in tongues. I beg to differ. In his magisterial work, A History of the American People, British historian Paul Johnson makes the case that the remarkable growth of the American people from pioneering backwoodsmen to the most powerful and innovative nation on earth was largely fueled by America’s religious fervor. From the piety of the pilgrims to the faith-based values of the Founding Fathers to the American belief in a divine destiny to even the marketing of Coca-Cola as “the real thing,” Americans tamed the wilderness in the belief that their nation comprised a new promised land, destined to illuminate the earth with the torch of freedom and the light of human dignity.
Europeans can claim that these are hollow statements of an arrogant superpower which thinks it can impose its will in Afghanistan and Iraq. But none can argue that this faith-fueled belief in itself has propelled America to its place as the most influential nation on earth.
European influence, in sharp contrast, has seriously declined. And while there are many factors involved, I would argue that the loss of national purpose bespeaks a dispiriting cynicism. It is a philosophy of nihilism in which nothing is sacred and all is an accident. While it has some brief, flashy moments, life does not necessarily have a grand design or purpose. There is no soul to illuminate, enrich and enliven. Existence slowly succumbs to the laws of entropy, decrepitude and death the only reality. This is especially true of the militant atheism stemming these days from Britain. Human love is a trick played on us by our genes ensuring the propagation of the species, and poetry and faith are shallow distractions masking the inevitability of our demise.
Men are insemination machines incapable of ever being truly faithful or loyal, and women are genetically programmed to seek out men with fancy cars and money, so much the better to support their offspring.
This inescapable pessimism of the decline of faith may account for why Britain, once the most intellectually advanced nation on earth, that gave the world parliamentary democracy and its most celebrated centers of learning, is today declining as a world leader of ideas.
Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 and outlawed it completely three decades before the United States, doing so without half a million of its citizens dying in a civil war, and it was largely Christian abolitionists like William Wilberforce who were responsible for ending the abomination. But what is it that Britain exports today? America has many of social ills and serious partisan challenges. America also suffers from a religious obsession with issues like abortion and gay marriage even as the divorce rate hits 50% percent and out-of-control materialism suffocates the souls of its citizenry. But for all that, the spiritual underpinnings of the American republic ensure that values are constantly debated in the public arena and soul-searching is a never-ending element of the American public discourse.
It was in Britain that six of my nine children were born and, having arrived at the tender age of 22 it was in Britain where I learned to be a man. I owe the country much and serving as rabbi to the inquisitive minds of Oxford students was one of the greatest honors of my life, capped off just as I returned to the United States with the Preacher of the Year title. And it is for this reason that I hunger for a return to the robust British spiritual life that once served as the very foundation of British idealism and influence.
The author, “America’s rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America,” is founder of The World Values Network and is the international best-selling author of 30 books, including Kosher Sex and Kosher Lust. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.