As just about everyone by now knows, Joe Lieberman's candidacy for vice president is renewing debate over the proper place of religion in the political process. But his candidacy has aroused something else as well, a question discussed far less but very important in everyday religious life in America--namely, what are the visible signs of a person's faith, and just how visible should they be? Put differently, how distinctive can or should a person's religious belief and practice be, and still fit into society?

The question resonates with Jewish experience and is the focus of Daphne Merkin's recent New Yorker essay (September 11, 2000), "Trouble in the Tribe: How Jewish Do American Jews Want to Be?"

The pressing question for Merkin is, "How Jewish is too Jewish?" As a result of Lieberman's candidacy and his outspoken views on his faith, she says, the "minute gradations between one subset of observant Judaism and another are suddenly the object of intense national scrutiny, even if they are frequently misunderstood." Misunderstood or not, people are talking about the visible signs of religion, whether one is or is not a "good" Jew as judged by a person's conduct and practice. Merkin admits to being irritated by "the know-it-all remarks of my sedulously lapsed acquaintances to the effect that Lieberman doesn't wear a yarmulke in the workplace, and that his wife doesn't cover her hair, as though these practices would in any way disqualify him from being a member in good standing of his synagogue."

All the talk centers around Modern Orthodoxy: whether, in what ways, and to what extent Jews should relate to this heritage. For Daphne Merkin, there is ambivalence that comes through on just about every page she writes. Having strayed from her own Orthodox upbringing, she now finds her Jewish life up for grabs, unsure how to resolve her feelings about who she is religiously--with respect to inherited tradition--and in some deep spiritual way as well. She writes, "....there now looms the temptation to reclaim it and avail myself of ready-made cultural cachet. I can already picture those `revolving-door' Jews, staunch secularists who disdain visible signs of affiliation, suddenly lining up to take a closer look at the quaint religious customs long ago left in the care of tottering relatives in Miami Beach."

This is a worry for many Jews at this moment, and for reasons fully understandable.

Yet at a most fundamental level, it is a worry that many Americans across faith traditions share. No matter what their religious background, people of all religious stripes try to work out a balance, one way or another, between their "Americanness" and their "religiousness." If they stray too far toward one, minimizing the other, they risk arousing some psychological ambivalence, be it dealing with a secularity or a privatized piety that frowns upon visible religious signs, or with a religiousness that makes them all too visibly different to others. Consciously or unconsciously, most of us (the Amish and other small groups in high tension with the society obviously excluded) do not feel very comfortable at either extreme, and thus we strive for some sort of balance of loyalties.

Back in the 1950s, it is said, our national faith overtook whatever distinctive religious differences we had as Americans. We were Americans first, then Jews, Catholics, Protestants, or whatever. Two decades later, Martin E. Marty wrote that the mood had changed. People were looking for visible and outward signs of the religious. Social behavior and group identity took on a new importance. Boundaries marking one cluster of belongers were sought--be it Evangelicals as opposed to Mainliners, or as religious ethnics over against a homogenized mass.

Then, in the late 1980s and 1990s, the religious mood shifted again, this time in a more personal direction. Meaning took precedence over belonging. People were turning inward, and individual experience was judged to be more important than either firm doctrinal conviction or visible religious behavior. Talk was increasingly about "invisible religion," moving "beyond belief," and "spiritual journeys." A generation of seekers born after World War II wrestled with their spiritual quests in a deeply personal way.

Today, the religious culture is in flux: People are torn between attending to their own spiritual selves in some private way and wanting visible, more distinctive signs of a healthy faith or spirituality. Attention is turning once again to religious practice. People would like to bring belonging and meaning into a coherent whole. And they want to find the right balance between their commonness as Americans and their more distinctive religiousness.

But how? In what ways is it acceptable in the year 2000 to be religiously distinctive? By whose standard of judgment? And how does one avoid giving in to social pressures to keep religion private when it is so easy to do so, and thereby keep oneself out of public controversy? Also, can one who struggles with faith to begin with easily rise up and affirm religion's visible signs with great conviction? Daphne Merkin's confession speak again for many of us: "I suppose some part of me has always thought of my twenty-odd years of religious uncertainty as a passing phase, something I had to wade through in order to get to the other side--which would prove to be, like the most elegant of Zen constructs, my beginning in another guise. But how long can a phase last before it calcifies into a permanent condition?"

Many of us, it seems, find ourselves in a similar phase, wondering about our religious heritages and roots and yet unsure how best to express our sense of group identity. It may be that the Lieberman candidacy is sparking not just a religious infusion into the political process but also a much deeper spiritual ferment concerned with bringing together our inner-selves and group belonging. If so, the consequences of his candidacy should reverberate long after Election Day this November.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad