Martin E. Marty: The high-rise is a bigger God-Killer than Nietzsche ever was

[Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com .]

Sightings of religious issues in public life this week appeared along the highways and in the Jewish weekly The Forward (August 4). Columnist Jenna Weissman Joselit reminded readers that this is the fiftieth anniversary of the Interstate Highway System, a legacy of the Eisenhower era. As Joselit tells it, that system, and the vehicles that cruise on it, brought vast changes in Judaism.

The column illustrated a main theme favored by historians of religion. Changes that affect understandings of God, attendance at worship, and other aspects of religious life derive less from concordats and changed creeds than from subtle shifts in behavior. The wholesale and often uncritical embrace of popular culture in broad evangelicalism, the disappearance of long-term Catholic behavioral patterns, the political shifts and emergences and retreats of various church bodies would not appear in books on creeds, confessions, and councils. Yet the high-rise and the long weekend are bigger God-killers than Nietzsche ever was.

Joselit does well to sight Conservative Judaism's constituencies taking advantage of the Interstate Highway System. As racial change occurred in cities and post-war prosperity enabled upscaling in residential life, Jews moved from the chosen or imposed urban ghettos to suburbia, then exurbia, and now beyond that. In Conservative Judaism, one was supposed to live within walking distance of synagogues, since driving violated Sabbath strictures. To attract members to worship in suburbs, where no one walks, Conservative Jews relaxed the rules, saw a momentary burst in attendance, and then also witnessed the taillights of Jews who used the Sabbath driving to speed from the synagogue, not to it.

Such change hits others. A half-century ago, most conservative Protestants fought for blue laws and against store-openings on Sunday, while decrying Christians' almost idolatrous indulgence in sports. Today preachers cut their sermons short so they can beat their members to seats at the afternoon pro football game. In some places these changes have led to decline of church attendance, while in others it has changed the character of allegiance.

Joselit writes that moves into split-level houses where pastures used to be, and into autos on noisy Interstates where Sabbath had once meant quiet, were first described as a "new adventure in Jewishness." Conservative rabbis in the 1950s blamed "autoeroticism" for "the Sabbath's fall from grace." Adaptation to changed Sabbath observance law was turning Judaism into "a religion of convenience." Rabbis foresaw that "Sabbath-less Judaism" might be held off by change, for example, in the Responsum of the liturgy. No luck. "The sanctuary and ... the synagogue parking lot remained empty," as "the siren call of the open road, of freedom, proved too hard to resist."
A mix-up in church schedules eight days ago left us church-less as we dashed home from a family mini-reunion on the Interstate, past theme parks, soccer fields, marathons, oases, and more. I thought of T. S. Eliot's obituary to UK church life. These were "decent godless people: Their only monuments the asphalt roads and a thousand lost golf balls." Are Americans joining them?

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