Prayer Books and Liberalism/Secularism

From this blog's intermittent religion and the press beat, a couple of NY Times pieces on completely separate subjects which are strangely related.

First, "In New Prayer Book, Signs of Broad Change," NY Times religion writer Laurie Goodstein covers the new prayer book of Reform Judaism. An interesting excerpt:

“It reflects a recognition of diversity within our community,” said Rabbi Elyse D. Frishman, the editor of the prayer book. “We have interfaith families. We have so many visitors at b’nai mitzvah ceremonies that I could have a service on Shabbat morning where a majority of people there aren’t Jewish,” she said, referring to bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies on Saturday mornings.

“There are even those in my community who come to Shabbat worship each week who don’t believe in God,” said Rabbi Frishman, who leads the Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, N.J. “How do we help them resonate with the language of prayer, which is very God-centric and evokes a personal God, a God that talks to you in a sense? There are many, many Jews who do not believe in God that way.”

The article gives a nice religious history of changes in the Prayer book over the last century.

Second, at Crooked Timber, John Holbo takes on Stanley Fish's op-ed piece (irritatingly hidden behind the "Times Select" wall) arguing that liberalism and secularism are one and the same. I was going to blog on that piece myself, but Holbo has made my point for me:

Also, it might not be a half-bad idea to notice that liberalism is not incompatible with religion, merely with illiberal forms of religion. Just as liberalism is incompatible with illiberal forms of secularism. Which suggests that there may be a need to revisit Fish’s title: “Liberalism and Secularism: One and the Same”.

One of the 81 (and counting) commentors on Holbo's post reiterates an argument (and a pretty good one) that I often hear in my classroom, usually from religiously oriented students confronting some nasty side of religious social expression in the past (in my class, that' s usually the religious proslavery argument):

Almost all liberal ideas originiated as religious ideals. For example, the anti-slavery movement, the movement for political rights for racial minorities and the movement for women’s rights were first advanced in this country on religious grounds by Puritans, Quakers, and other religius movements and organizations.

Another student of mine last semester, referring to the religious impulse of the anti-slavery movement versus the racist implications of a considerable body of Enlightenment/proto-scientific-racism thinking, put it this way: "who were the missionaries of the Enlightenment"?

Yes, the above point is overstated, and it doesn't take long to come up with a good list of missionaries for a liberating form of the Enlightenment. But I liked the question, for the same reason that I liked the article on the prayer book: it challenges the kind of assumptions that pervade the Fishian equation of liberalism and secularism.


Anonymous said…
The question, I think, is whether or not religious liberalism is ever stable enough to perpetuate itself. John Murray Cuddihy made the point better than Fish in his book, No Offense: Protestant Taste and Civil Religion. His argument was that the plural religious culture of the United States had made religion civil. If a person wanted to get along, then a person's religious beliefs necessarily became private, and when that belief emerged into the public, the person would say "I happen to be [fill in the blank]," with a gesture of embarrassment. That embarrassment to talk about private belief in public, and a corresponding deference to other forms of religious expression, is so insidious to exclusive religious belief that in an important sense liberalism and secularism are very closely yoked, because they both tend to relegate religion to the private realm in order to maintain civil public discourse. Cuddihy's problem is that he could not really account for modern fundamentalism, which disobeys all the rules of civility that he laid out, but as an account of religious liberalism, I think his exposition is unmatched.

David Sehat
Paul Harvey said…
David: Thanks for the reference -- I'm not familiar with the book but will look it up and perhaps link it up as a follow to this post. I am familiar generally with this argument. I'm not convinced that liberalism always and necessarily relegates religion to the private realm, nor that religious expression that have pushed "liberal" causes has been exercised in that way when connected with social movements. Nonetheless, I'll check out the work to see the argument played out in full.
Anonymous said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said…
You might also check out his other book, which in some ways is more interesting and is certainly more provocative than No Offense. It is called The Ordeal of Civility: Freud, Marx, Levi-Strauss, and the Jewish Struggle with Modernity (New York: Basic Books, 1974).

David Sehat
Anonymous said…
Times Select is available for free to most people with email addresses ending in .edu. See
Anonymous said…
Ok, try this for the Times Select University email sign-up:

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