A 2014 Aspen Ideas Festival Panel: “Faith in 2024”

In 2014, a panel titled “Faith in 2024” was held at the Aspen Ideas Festival. The audio for that panel can be found on Soundcloud here.

Ray Suarez was the moderator for that panel (Suarez’s publications and broadcast list can be found on his Wikipedia page; with regard to his many credentials that earned him a role on this panel, Suarez is the author of The Holy Vote: The Politics of Faith in America among other books). The panel was originally slated to include four people, but ended up only including three:  

1) Molly Worthen, who is currently Associate Professor at UNC Chapel Hill (Molly has published two books as of this posting, the most recent is the topically relevant and well-received Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism),

2) Leon Wieseltier, the now-fallen former literary editor of The New Republic for almost thirty years and contributor to The Atlantic until he fell under the axe of the #MeToo movement in 2017, three years after this panel was held — for Leon’s fall, see first here at Vanity Fair, then (in any order) here at The Atlantic, here at the Weekly Standard, and here at The New York Times for stories (with regard to this panel, Wieseltier is the author of the book Kaddish, which is also an audiobook; he also wrote an obscenely expensive book titled Against Identity that seems to be an expanded version of an article he wrote in 1994 for The New Republic), and

3) Arsalan Iftikhar, a Virginia-based human rights lawyer and media commentator whose website can be found here (prior to the 2014 Aspen Ideas Festival he’d only written one book, so far as I can see: Islamic Pacifism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era; he has written only one other book, so far as I can see, the 2016 publication Scapegoat: How Islamophobia Helps Our Enemies and Threatens Our Freedoms, which received an endorsement from former US President Jimmy Carter; his most recent article is about how Islamophobia is predicted by politics, not religion).

4) The original panel list included Peter Beinart, whom we’ll get to in the next post, but it seems that Beinart could not attend because of a death in the family. Only a few years later, Beinart would take what I imagine must have been some of his working notes from this session –and perhaps even inspired by an ethnic twist on a line of exchange from this session (Iftikhar: “[…] the religious intolerance in America is becoming more entrenched… Suarez: “…even as people are becoming less religious.”)– and turn them into an article for The Atlantic titled: “Breaking Faith“, or, alternatively, “America’s Empty Church Problem”, where he argues that a decrease in religious participation correlates to an increase in more primitive animosities from an ascendant, elemental, and rigid set of in-group out-group formations. 

Back to the Aspen panel. The blurb for the panel is as follows on the Ideas Festival website:

After a rapid increase in their ranks over the last decade, the “nones,” or those who claim no particular religious affiliation, now represent one-in-five US adults. What portrait does this leave us of the future of faith in this country? And how are communities of faith changing internally as they witness the same demographic and generational shifts as the population at large? Will church groups see the same hollowing out of the middle as the political and economic landscapes, with a trend toward both ends of the conservative vs. reform spectrum? 

Below are a set of abbreviations and transcriptions from that panel, with timestamps for the Soundcloud recording of the panel. I have not been exhaustive, but I’ve caught everything that I thought was interesting. If a section is in quotes, it’s nearly exact. If it’s not, fidelity ranges from abbreviation to almost-exact-but-I’m-not-rewinding-that-one-more-time.

Suarez, as the moderator of the panel, opens by noting that the U.S. often self-identifies as a very, if not the most, religious nation among the developed nations; he then asks whether this will continue to be the case or whether, as the generations move on, we will move to the mean with regards to how often people attend services and practice their faith, and will, like the other developed nations, have a religious identity as part of our national and cultural identity, but will have largely disaffiliated from these institutions in our daily lives, and become a “post-faith” society.

It was either Suarez or one of the panelists who noted that in England and elsewhere among developed nations, religion is “[…] more a signpost, a touchstone, of national identity, than it is a real sense of “this is how we live, these are the values that we live out because we’re [for example] Anglicans”; I would defy a lot of them to actually say that”. It was interesting to see public religion acknowledged as having a background shaping effect on the culture at large.

Washington National Cathedral was held out as an example to highlight the complicated role of religion in secular societies — a private place where public purposes are carried out. How confusing it can be to say that we live in either a secular or a Christian society! Roman Catholics & Southern Baptists have shed numbers in the millions. The fastest growing religious group is the “nones”, those who have no active affiliation.

Molly Worthen

Noted that we are, as Americans, less devout, less observant than previous generations — “we are on the same trajectory as western Europe, albeit a little more slowly”.

Arsalan Iftikhar

Religiously active Jews set the tone for a place when I was growing up [Chicago]; now, however, all over the place new forms of identification growing up, that do not dance to the same signposts as earlier generations.

Leon Wieseltier

An organized unified American Jewry was always a non-existent thing. Spiritual life is an elusive thing. Organized religious life has had to respond to new social developments; it is an entropic thing. American Jewish contribution to the US is beyond doubt; the American Jewish contribution to worldwide Jewry “keeps me awake at night”.

Iftikhar? Suarez?

Does “you can be whatever kind of Jew you want” add to that project, or detract from that project?

Wieseltier (8:11)

Jewry takes on the characteristics of the host culture. Americans live in “a culture of customization”; “people do not like to encounter anything that they do not wish to encounter, and everything that happens to them must affirm them, or else they get very upset. American Jews are no exception to this rule. None whatsoever. And so yes: people are behaving, acting, first on their subjectivities before they engage what is outside the bridge of their noses, what their tradition actually is, and there is a certain amount of — they treat their tradition more-or-less as consumers…let’s say as ‘consumers with loyalty to one store’ — but as consumers. There’s no question that this is a problem. But this is a problem not only for American Jewry, this is a problem for modern religion generally, that too much American religion (it goes without saying) –but modern religion has become convinced that religion is essentially the expression of subjective states, felt intensely, that take one outside of oneself. And this obsession with inner states and subjectivities characterizes American Jews as it characterizes all Americans, and the great challenge for the American Jewish community is to find a way to reconnect American Jews to the tradition in ways that do not insult their established moral understandings. That’s really the challenge.”

[…]

Iftikhar (12:12)

Islam in America is as dysfunctional and non-monolithic as every other religion. A Fox news interview I gave ended with an off-camera exchange with my interviewer where she asked me “where are you from? your accent didn’t come through at all!” and I responded “Chicago”; she asked me two more times, and I gave her the same answer before leaving the studio.

[…]

Islam is going through the same growing pains that every other [new] religion is going through, but there is this additional racial civil-rights element to it because many of us are brown.

Worthen (16:08)

There is a parallel to what Muslims are going through in what Catholic immigrants went through over a century ago: Irish immigrants were not considered white, and were considered loyal to a threatening foreign power, and unable to participate in democracy. Race is a fluid thing; whom we think is in our group or not in our group has changed, and will continue to change.

Suarez (17:26)

–and whether a group contributes to the common culture; the great project of the organized American Catholic in the 20th century was to be as American as the next guy. George Cohan dancing on a stage with Uncle Sam stars and stripes was Americanizing a Catholic and an Irishman.

The morphing of an identity from a Christian identity to a Judeo-Christian identity, is similarly as important. It was a way of bringing Jews into the “us-vs.-them”.

Wieseltier

All of the monotheisms have the same cosmology […]

Wieseltier (19:30)

The problem of Judeo-Christianity is that there is a Jew who stands between Judaism and Christianity named Jesus. Anyone who takes Jewish beliefs seriously cannot take Judeo-Christianity […]

“[…] What I wanted to introduce into the discussion is the following. We’ve been talking about religion in American largely in sociological and institutional and communal ways. Institutions change –some fall into destitution, some die, and some are even born; I mean, things develop– what worries me more is what Americans actually believe. That is to say: if the “nones” are in the ascendant, it’s because we’re not becoming just an un-religious society, we’re becoming the most un-philosophically-inclined society that ever existed. In other words, I think that most Americans do not have a worldview anymore; they do not believe in first principles about the universe anymore, unless they robotically parrot the principles that they are taught as children, or because they have a certain authority structure in the Church or the Synagogue that requires them to repeat whatever the leader says, and so on — but what truly bothers me, is that on the question of what is true or false in the universe, the kind of beliefs that people used to have in order to function in some full spiritual way — Americans aren’t interested in that anymore.”

Worthen (20:30)

Don’t you think that’s because the American contribution to philosophy is Pragmatism, and Pragmatism teaches one that ‘truth is whatever works’?

Wieseltier

That’s part of the problem, but it’s worse, because James’ place has been taken by the iPhone. “Basically, the most important question you can ask about anything in the United States right now is not whether it’s true or false or good or evil, but ‘how does it work?’ We are now in a society that cares only about how things work. We have a completely technical mentality, a completely pragmatic mentality — now James, as you know, because James’ pragmatism was actually a form of mysticism, he ended up in parapsychology, and bless him for it: he was just trying to find a more direct path to the soul to some significant experience. But the sort of Pragmatism that we live right now is a kind of secularism that –and I’m not speaking against secularism, but there is a secularism that cares about eternal questions, but provides different answers to [them], there’s a secularism that doesn’t [care about eternal questions], and then there is a secularism that is sheer indifference  and expresses its view of the world by shopping.”

Suarez (21:45)

There are exceptions to this secularism, and are digging in their heels for a long battle. [he gave examples]

Wieseltier (22:31)

“Most American believers have never really thought seriously about what it means to live in an open society with conflicting beliefs. They concentrate on the freedom to believe what they wish to believe, and they go on and on about the freedom of religion –which they have– but they don’t like to dwell on the –I will call it the philosophical pressure that comes from living in a society in which the people around you believe with the same absolute conviction –this is not about relativism– with the same absolute conviction in something entirely different. –and a lot of what you see in the reactionary thought and action of American various religions – all of them, I think, have to do with their panicking. They’re failing to raise their children in their traditions, and they’re blaming America for it. –and they shouldn’t blame America for it, because America is what makes it possible for them to freely practice their faith in the first place. But most of them want it both ways: they want the freedom to practice their religion, and they want the freedom to somehow insulate themselves and their children, and of course it’s not gonna work. It’s not gonna work, because this is genuinely an open society, and with the invention of electronic media, I mean, whoever wants to panic has every reason: this is panic city right now. This is panic city, and the one thing I’ve always been deeply sympathetic to with our Christian brothers and sisters is their panic about popular culture on the raising of their children. You have to be deaf, blind, and dumb not to understand that feeling that walls have to be built. The problem is that walls are built in ways that make the traditions themselves less attractive to future generations.”

Suarez (24:11)

[In 2024], can our politics look the way they look today when the largest group is Catholics, but the second-largest is ex-Catholics?

Worthen (24:53)

“One thing that is certainly changing is the role of the so-called ‘Christian Right’ in this — the great villain or hero in American politics depending on your perspective. When I use the term “Christian Right” I’m talking mainly about this network of organizations, politicians, activists — largely White, largely –but not entirely– evangelical Protestant (there are a good number of Catholics and Mormons in the mix as well); who, really since the 60s, have worked to try to foment grassroots sentiments, and use politics to essentially return America back to the social norms of, say the 1950s. I mean, we could argue about what their goalposts are, but really in regard to sexuality and gender. But they’re having to come to grips with all the changes that you’ve [Wieseltier] just described.”

“And, in some ways, what [Wieseltier] was talking about –this way in which these different faith communities, who even within Protestantism, disagreed about quite a lot– managed to coexist, is part of the genius of America, I mean, nowhere else really had this denominational system, where the Baptists would set up a church here, the Methodists here — basically, let’s coexist and be peaceful. And they could do that in a way that was perhaps not particularly thoughtful, because they had the benefit of controlling the moral establishment of America — I mean, perhaps we have this myth of separation of Church and State, but in reality this was a Protestant country, until the 70s — maybe you could argue it still remains very much a Protestant country.”

“What I see happening, as people who would affiliate themselves with the Christian Right face the Pew polls and the way in which mainstream culture is turning against them on issues like gay marriage, is a couple of interesting things.”

“One is that among younger evangelical believers, there is a kind of awakening to the fact that the Christian Right does not equal evangelicalism; evangelicalism has always been this tremendously diverse community that includes pacifist Mennonites, it includes tongue-speaking Pentecostals, and certainly there has never been a single political platform associated with this tradition. If you go back to the 19th century you’ll find loads of evangelical activists who were quite progressive, who cared far more about caring for the poor than about fighting off Charles Darwin. And certainly among non-White Protestants the idea of seeking spiritual liberation has never been separated from socio-economic liberation — those two are melded. And White evangelicals are beginning to see this, and seek to kind of reclaim these other traditions as ways of being a Christian in politics.”

“Secondly, I think what we see among evangelical leaders –on both the Right and the Left, and [Wieseltier] alluded to this– are beginning to face the fact that they are no longer the moral majority, and so they are adopting the language of the moral minority instead.  And this is a very interesting change in strategy and rhetoric. And you see it in the way they are trumping up their talk about religious liberty –you know, around the Hobby Lobby case, around the cases that have emerged in the wake of the gay marriage rulings– they are not talking anymore about trying in the long-term to hold on to the whole of the culture, but rather they are digging in their heels and recasting their identity as prophets, as first-century Christians, who are now speaking truth to power instead of claiming power, though they are in no way admitting defeat in the culture wars.”

Wieseltier (28:33)

“The American experience is leaving all the religious communities with a very baffling conclusion, which is: in all the cases –I think it’s in all the cases– that more of the tradition may be lost in circumstances of security and prosperity than ever were lost in circumstances of poverty and oppression. In the case of the American Jewish community it is absolutely the case, it is a disgrace of the first order in the Jewish community, but the fact is that it turns out that peace and security –what did James call it? the Gospel of Relaxation?– it was good that people learned to relax in a society in which they were no longer persecuted, and it was good, as a friend of mine once said, that people no longer want to murder Jews, they want to marry them.”

Iftikhar (29:22)

We hope to get there someday!

Suarez

In a society where no group has all the high ground in a way that one group did before — is that an easier place to be a Muslim in 2024?

Iftikhar

What we do in one part of the world immediately gets broadcast around the world, and you will represent a whole group of people. When I go on CNN, I represent the Muslim world; when I go on Al Jazeera, I represent the American world. CNN wants to know why I as a Muslim am not condemning terrorism, and Al Jazeera wants to know why I as an American am not condemning Guantanamo Bay. You have to be aware of these things.

There are 17 States that have outlawed Sharia and Islamic religious courts, even though the exact parallel is found in Jewish communities, and has functioned well in the US for over 100 years among Jews.

I have hope for the culture, but not for the public discourse in this country, because the US needs an enemy.

Islamophobia and anti-semitism — the religious intolerance in America is becoming more entrenched…

Suarez

“…even as people are becoming less religious.”

Worthen (37:14)

“So let me ask you a question: if we accept the fact that this kind of sensationalist, racist propaganda is a bad thing, but we also accept [Wieseltier’s] point, that there’s been this watering-down of conviction, and a refusal to take ideas seriously: what is the right way to think about what seems to me to be a very real clash, between the worldview of the secularizing post-Christian West, and the worldview of what I’ll very grossly call “the Muslim world”; there is an opposition here, and how should we think about it, in a way that takes both sides seriously, and is humane?”

Iftikhar (37:54)

exhales “I don’t know.”

Wieseltier

“I don’t think you should talk about “the Muslim world” in a monolithic way; there’s no such thing except for the purposes of demagoguery. I mean, we’re talking about American Muslims.”

Worthen

“Is there such a thing as the Western world, either? I mean–”

Wieseltier

“I mean, 9/11, obviously — one of the dangers that was foisted upon American Islam was that it forced it to politicize its religious identity beyond the point at which any religious community should have to. […] [The American Jewish community also suffers from hyper-politicization.] The real truth, I think –and I say this respectfully, because I’ve dealt with these questions on the Jewish side– if Islam is going to survive meaningfully as a Muslim identity in this country, it will depend upon whether individual Muslims and Muslim communities take advantage of the freedom that America offers to raise their children successfully in their traditions. And if they find a way to raise them successfully in those traditions, it will flourish. –and if they don’t, if they become a lobby, or if they become also […] — then you’ll have those problems.”

Iftikhar (39:09)

Out of the 7 million Muslims living in the United States today, I assure you that 6.99 million of them would say that they can practice their religion of Islam better in the United States today than in the 57 Muslim-majority nations.

Wieseltier

The measure is whether the parents and the teachers can transmit the tradition in the circumstances where the kids are dating an Italian guy or whatever.

Iftikhar

Islam has no centralized authority. This requires knuckleheaded guys like me to go out and say things that Islamic authorities will not or cannot say. Muslims are a human and civil rights issue today, but tomorrow it will be someone else. This is where having allies — […] when we can speak as allies for one another, that is the only thing that will help us humanize us to one another. We’ve become so politically entrenched, we’re so hyper-partisan now — I was having lunch with Clarence Page at the Chicago Tribune and he said: I’ve been covering Capitol Hill for 40 years, and I’ve never seen it so polarized as I do today. In the 1980s, Ted Kennedy and Arlen Specter would yell at each other on the floor of the senate and go play a round of golf afterwords. You don’t see that today. We’ve lost a culture of humanity — both in the US and worldwide. –and I think that that’s were religion can play a positive role in 2024 and beyond.

Suarez (41:58)

My daughter is going to be ordained as a priest, and her bishop told her that it is good that she’s going to have a Masters in Social Work, because she may not be able to make a living as a priest. That says a lot about a denomination that has given the US 17 of its presidents, and faith in the next decade.

Worthen

[…] Traditionally the Church was a 3rd space for women to exercise authority outside the home […] Are baptisms and membership rates a good way to evaluate a religious institution’s contributions to culture? David Hollinger has argued that the story about the Mainline Protestant decline is the wrong story — the Mainline succeeded, it made the culture more like itself. Thus, the Mainline doesn’t need to be the presence it once was; but that’s not a story of failure — that’s a story of success.

Wieseltier (45:41)

A cautionary note: it is important to note that there is not a religious tradition that does not contain in itself elements of intolerance and exclusivism. The struggle is not just for religion or about religion but within various religions. One of the reasons one needs competence within one’s own tradition so as to make the internecine arguments agains the ugly elements of one’s own traditions.

~~~

SOME OF THE QUESTIONS

Worthen (47:41)

[regarding the value of the framework that religious institutions provide, that the spiritual-but-not-religious folks tap into to give a language to their spiritual strivings, even if they don’t affiliate]

Wieseltier

The internet is value-neutral; it connects us, but that’s not necessarily improving our connections or our relationships or our humanizing of one another.

(51 or 52 minute mark, to 53 minute mark and on) The question of religion and power is not a happy one. Politics and religion also. It has not been good for Christianity, or Islam. There must be an internecine struggle within each tradition to emphasize the universalist rather than the exclusivist elements of each tradition.

(54:00)

No one has brought up the word God. Can I be a good Jew and not believe in God?

(55:15)

The millenials — are they going to change the face of religions? Are they going to be less divisive?

Wieseltier: they will, but my concern is that one will not really wrestle with the tradition, and then will try to redefine it entirely. The continuities cannot be ignored; the richness of these traditions must not be abandoned, and that is my worry.

Worthen (56:50) Call me old-fashioned, but that’s my worry, too. Yes, to be a good Catholic, you need to believe in God. Against millennial individualization, the advantage of belonging to a religious institution is that it forces you into a conversation with people you may not agree with, it forces you to grapple with a tradition that includes hard ideas. It forces you to have, at least for a part of your life, a respect for authority that inculcates a sense that you have something to learn, that you’re not reinventing the wheel, but that you are coming into contact with a tradition that has been going on for at least a millennium before you.

(~59:50)

There are people who want to be part of something, but not a traditional structure. Is there another structure that can absorb these people?

Worthen: I’m not sure there’s an analogous structure.

Wieseltier: without institutions, you’re not going to reach our children. Institutions never satisfy everyone. Are you going to bring your level of customization to your institution, and insist on only praying with people who pray exactly like you, or meditate exactly like you, or are you willing to work with people who are similar to you?

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