Recently, a relative died. I’ll call him Jon. It really doesn’t matter. I didn’t know him. His wife was related to my father. His wife and I, however, have been writing back and forth for years via e-mail. Her name, for our purposes, is Lisa. I have never met her. That doesn’t matter either.
What’s happening to her does – to all of us.
Close to 15 years ago, Lisa wrote to tell me that her daughter, Kim, had decided to convert to Orthodox Judaism. Kim could have become a member of some other ultra-religious group of any belief system. The results would have been the same. However, Jon and Lisa raised her in a more-liberal version of the Jewish faith.
For those who don’t know, Judaism is divided into several different sects extending from conservative to liberal: Orthodox, Reconstruction, Conservative and Reform. The Orthodox area is divided into more groups, each even more controlling and restrictive than the other, all with rules supposedly commanded by God to ensure believers live a heavenly ordained life.
|Traditional Orthodox Rabbi|
Kim joined the most Orthodox sect, Aish HaTorah, to the shock of her parents. Her reasoning was that
the sect firmly believed in the biblical command to be “fruitful and multiply.” She wanted to get married
and have children. The sect promised her that and delivered.
After a brief sojourn in New York, the happy couple moved to Israel. In time, Kim got pregnant. She was due on a Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath when no work is allowed. The husband refused to take Lisa to the hospital so she could give birth without medical concerns. The parents, visiting their daughter, ignored religious restrictions, bundled Kim into a car and drove her to the hospital. The husband trotted there.
The relationship between Jon and Lisa and their daughter have deteriorated across the succeeding 12 years. Lisa regularly wrote about what craziness her daughter perpetuated when the family – growing at the rate of almost a child a year – came to visit. Food was never kosher enough; the parents were never religious enough.
When Jon died, Kim and her family did not show up. Instead, Kim dictated action from Israel. She didn’t care what her mother wanted. She simply insisted that the funeral be handled according to her sect’s directions. “This burial was her family’s birthright,” she claimed.
Kim sent letters to invited guests that they were not to exhibit any sign of frivolity. She dictated the religious ceremony, alienating her grieving mother and brother. At the same time, Kim never contacted her mother to see how she was doing, only to make demands.
Lisa wrote me that the situation was beyond anything she could have imagined: “arcane and inexplicable.”
Frustrated and finding her daughter’s approach incomprehensible, Lisa even went to an Orthodox rabbi “to hear from him whether some of what Kim was saying to me is in fact correct from his scholarly point of view.” The rabbi said Kim was a bit extreme.
I tell you this story because it needs to be seen as a foreshadowing of the future. As the world gets more complex and more overwhelming, increasing numbers of people are joining rigid religious sects, surrendering their individuality for the structures of belief.
Orthodox sects of all faiths are showing the largest growth in numbers compared to other levels of religious belief. Growth in atheism and agnosticism – people who have surrendered the vestiges of superstition amid the realities revealed by science -- is being balanced by overt orthodoxy. The clash between the two philosophies is inevitable.
To make sure they can demand their views are followed, religious groups are increasingly investing in lobbyists to push their views. According to the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, religious lobbies have jumped 500 percent in number in the last 40 years and are now spending an estimated $390 million a year to influence U.S. domestic and foreign policy.
Representing all major religions and even some smaller ones, although largely Christian – 37 percent of the lobbyists are Catholic or Protestant -- they are mainly interested in filtering a wide arrange of issues through their narrow, pious precepts, including the relationship between church and state; civil rights and liberties for religious and other minorities; bioethics and life issues, including abortion, capital punishment and end-of-life issues; and family/marriage issues, including definition of marriage, domestic violence and fatherhood initiatives.
Mostly, like Kim, they want to be sure their individual beliefs predominate.
They have high hopes, especially with Republicans catering to their whims. Historically, every single religious group that has found itself in a dominate position has imposed its religious beliefs on everyone. That’s true for Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and more. Today, for example, Islam broaches no inroads into its realm and has so entwined religion and state as to make them inseparable.
That’s the goal of all fanatics. It’s a terrifying scenario, being played out now in the Republican Party where presumed presidential candidate Mitt Romney (left) is increasing kowtowing to beliefs of the ultra-religious, ultra-conservative, Christian right. Former candidates Rick Santorum, Rich Perry and Michelle Bachmann embody the religious rights' highest aspirations and everyone else's worst fears.
Lisa has a close up view of what happens when fanaticism succeeds. The rest of us can see it as a model of what could happen.
Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history. He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida. You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.com. He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion. His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers. He can also be followed on Twitter.