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How a Supreme Court bent on protecting religion could harm it

Even if the Supreme Court allows church and synagogue doors to remain open, it cannot fill the pews.

(RNS) — Last week, the Supreme Court ruled that New York state can’t stop religious communities from gathering in large numbers, even where worshippers are likely to spread the deadly COVID-19 virus to the wider community. With its new conservative majority, the court is poised to intervene repeatedly in the coming years, ostensibly buttressing faith against the onslaught of secularism.

But while some might cheer these as victories in a culture war, judicial intervention on behalf of religion may well only widen the gap between people of faith and the very institutions that they seek to protect.  

Once the center of ethics and forward-thinking intellectualism, religion has become widely associated with hypocrisy and medieval phobias of science. For years we’ve heard about religious scandal, abuse and embezzlement; we can now add anti-mask zealotry.  

In 1985, Americans regarded religious organizations as the most revered institutions, with nearly 70% of Americans expressing strong confidence in them. Today, that number hovers around 36%. Many religious institutions and leaders have become recalcitrant. Many of those who come to them seeking meaning, integrity and connection have left for greener pastures.

Little surprise, then, that between 6,000 and 10,000 churches shuttered and closed each year of the past decade — with a dramatic rise during the pandemic. Even if the Supreme Court allows church and synagogue doors to remain open, it cannot fill the pews.

If anything, its overreach will reinforce the association between religion and closed-mindedness. Many evangelicals don’t want their loved ones lambasted for being LGBTQ. Many Catholics don’t want to hear about damnation for those who access reproductive health care. Many mainline Protestants don’t want to hear about a universal God who needs them to be in a particular church’s pews. Many Jews don’t want to hear that Israel is a panacea for their diaspora needs. Many Muslims don’t want to visit a mosque in which women are relegated to side entrances.  

The stark mismatch between spiritual needs and religious supply is not an indicator of secularization. Only 21% of religiously unaffiliated people are atheists, even as the fastest growing demographic of spiritual America is those who identify as “spiritual but not religious,” comprising 27% of Americans

Americans are desperately seeking meaning and authentic connection. The booming global wellness industry shows how we prioritize mental, physical and spiritual health more than ever. The pandemic, spurring us to make sense of suffering, has become an existential “boundary experience.” Younger Americans are religiously disaffiliated but still looking to spiritual care providers for solace.   

Indeed, there is reason to believe we are at the cusp of a 21st-century spiritual revival — if only religious institutions would get out of their own way.

One step they might take is to stop leaning on the judiciary for support. Appealing to the Supreme Court for permission to hold superspreader events only underscores the extent to which some religious institutions overlook the divine in each person. They would do well to serve the deeper needs of humanity. 

In the early 19th century, the Second Great Awakening burst forth, as spiritual and communal yearning ignited a religious revival. Governments everywhere eliminated state subsidies and got out of the way of religion, unleashing a new footrace for hearts, minds and spirits. New modes of worship, new theologies, new leadership models and new understandings of belonging adapted religion to the frontier of nation and life.   

According to Steven Waldman’s 2019 book “Sacred Liberty,” in 1776 there were 65 Methodist churches in the entire country; by 1850, there were 13,302. In 1784 there were 471 Baptist churches; in 1848 there were 7,920. The percentage of Americans who were affiliated with a house of worship doubled during this time period.

Where the Supreme Court sees dwindling traditions that require protection from the state, we see the beginnings of a new spiritual wave based on a free market of spiritual ideas. The powers that be would do well not to undermine it. 

(Rabbi Benjamin Spratt is the senior associate rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York. Rabbi Joshua Stanton is spiritual co-leader of East End Temple there and a senior fellow of CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)