The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Thursday, May 20, 2021

It’s Thursday, May 20, 2021.

I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

What’s Missing in American Religion? The Huge Story Behind the Missing “Middle” in American Religion, Especially in American Judaism

What’s missing in American religion? An interesting question. What’s increasingly missing is the middle. There’s a huge story behind this, and it is one that makes sense from a biblical worldview. But in order to look at the pattern we’re talking about, we’re not going to turn first to Christianity. We’re going to turn first to Judaism and a massive once a decade study of American Judaism undertaken by the Pew Research Center. For Christians, I think the most important issue of looking at this research is the fact that when you look at younger Jewish citizens in the United States, there is a very clear evacuation of the middle.

Increasingly, they are defined as secular or Orthodox. There is a vast decreasing percentage of young Jewish people who are identifying with the mushy middle of American Judaism. But that middle has been the mainstream of American Judaism all throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century. We’re looking at a massive shift in the generational pattern. I think Christians need to pay very close attention to this because the key issue here is theism, the binding authority of theism, the existence of God, and the big issue is that in a secularizing age, there really isn’t much purpose for a mushy middle at all.

To put it another way, positions that try to create a middle ground between the secular and the theistic worldviews fail because they’re not sufficiently theistic and they’re not sufficiently secular, to please either the theist or the secularists. Huge lessons here for evangelical Christians and Christian congregations as well. But let’s look at the data. For example, Religion News Service offers us an analysis with a headline, “Young Jews are moving to polar ends—secularism and Orthodoxy”. The analysis provided by Yonat Shimron begins with these words, “A new survey of US Jews shows they are holding their own numerically, but the group’s youngest adults are increasingly dividing in polar opposite directions, secularism and Orthodoxy.”

She goes on to explain that the study from Pew “is a follow-up to its landmark 2013 portrait,” and many of the trends outlined have remained constant. US Jews are keeping pace with the us population, rising to 7.5 million adults and children from 6.8 million in 2013. Jewish citizens represent 2.4% of the US population, “a slight but not statistically significant rise from 2.2% in 2013.” But even as you’re looking at the number of those who identify as Jewish in the United States, basically staying constant with the population, the theological definition is quite different. For example, from this report, “Nearly three quarters of Jews identify as Jews by religion, a growing number do not consider themselves religiously Jewish, instead of identifying as Jewish ethnically, culturally or by ancestry.”

The next sentence, “This group is particularly large among Jews aged 18 to 29 where fully 40% consider themselves Jews have no religion. That’s true of only 16% of Jewish people aged 65 and older.” So if you’re just looking at this particular fact from the study, it would indicate that you’re looking at the rapid secularization, not only of the larger culture, but of American Judaism, and particularly younger Jews in the United States. They are far more likely, fully 40% to identify as secular and in the Jewish context, not to identify with Judaism as a religion virtually at all, but what Judaism as an ethnicity and a tradition. They have a sociological, a traditional definition of their Jewish identity.

But in order to understand that, you have to recognize that throughout much of the 20th century, particularly in the West, the biggest movements rising in Judaism, let’s just take the United States, for example, were identified as either Conservative Judaism or Reform Judaism, not Reformed, but Reform. Now, what does that really mean? Well, Conservative Judaism is more conservative than Reform Judaism, but Orthodox Jews would not consider either the Conservative or the Reform to be faithful to the Jewish faith, that is as revealed in the Old Testament, in the Torah, in the Jewish scriptures. They would identify both the Conservative and the Reform as out of step with the scripture, for example, in the ordination of women as rabbis.

But that’s just a larger indication of the fact that mainstream Judaism in the United States has been defined decreasingly by its theology and more by its attempt to accommodate to a secular world. The Jewish identity in the United States has become progressively more secularized. Reform Judaism, which isn’t the far left wing, but as the biggest, you might say, leftward branch of American Judaism, it began explicitly as an effort to find some kind of agreement between modernity, the modern age, increasingly secular, hostile to religious truth claims and the Jewish tradition. So it basically jettisoned supernatural beliefs, defining Judaism more as a tradition, and indeed even a liturgy of practice and holidays, family identity and observances, but not so much in terms of the affirmation of any particular theological tenet.

Furthermore, looking at Reform Judaism, a very significant percentage are actually those who identify as atheists or agnostics. By some surveys, a majority of those identifying with Reform Judaism identify as unbelievers theistically in just about any legitimate sense. Conservative Judaism maintains a bit more of the tradition, but these days it doesn’t maintain much more of the supernatural or theistic definitional issues of Orthodox Judaism. Orthodox Judaism comes with a capital O, and that means that it is an intentional continuity with the Jewish tradition and with the supernatural truth claims of Judaism.

Speaking of the larger Jewish identity in the United States, the 248 page report summarizes, “Religion is not central to the lives of most US Jews, even Jews by religion are much less likely than Christian adults to consider religion to be very important in their lives.” The report tells us that Christian adults by 57% say religion is very important or central to their lives, but only 28% of those who identify as Jewish. The article goes on, “For most Jews, that’s not news. Secularism has a long history in US Jewish life. Jews tilt strongly liberal. They have higher levels of education, earn higher incomes and are more geographically concentrated in urban cores, especially in the Northeast, all markers that tend to correlate with less religiosity.”

Indeed on The Briefing, we come back to that in the larger sense over and over again. The closer you get to a coast, the closer you get to a campus, the closer you get to a city, well, the closer you get to culture making, the closer you get to secularism, and with that, the closer you get to the political left. It all comes together as a part of one package. What should be of great interest to Christians here is that that pattern isn’t limited to Christianity. It is indicative of theism.

Now, when I use the word theism, what am I talking about? That is belief in a personal God. Now, as you’re looking at say Catholicism, Protestantism and Judaism, that would be the tripartite identity that was identified as the American way of faith during the 1950s. you had a major figure such as Will Herberg, the great sociologist who defined religion in America as Protestant, Catholic and Jew. Now, there’s more to the picture. He was Jewish himself in background, but he understood that that was what most people thought about in the United States when they thought about belief in theism, belief in God. Furthermore, theism is at the center historically, of course, of Judaism and Catholicism and Protestantism.

Now, as we’re talking about secularism, I try to define it carefully. It is the loss of the binding authority of theism, not just the presence of religion. There’s all kinds of new age nonsense out there in the world. Furthermore, the secular world is not intimidated by non-theological faiths, however they may define themselves. But it’s particularly theological faiths, specifically it is theistic faiths that are most out of step with the secular world. If you are out of step with the secular world, the secular world notices it.

Part II

There’s No Middle Ground Between Belief and Unbelief: How the Pressures of the Secular Age Have Basically Eliminated Casual Religious Belief Among Young Adults

There are really two big issues in this research I think that would be of greatest interest to Christians, urgently so, and to Christian congregations, denominations. The first has to do with the pattern amongst the young. It turns out that what’s being evacuated amongst young adults in American Judaism is that middle, it’s that attempt to find a moderating position, a halfway house between belief and unbelief. What do we learn by this? Well, the same thing is true in American Protestantism. The so-called mainstream or main line Protestant liberal denominations are those that were basically evacuated of membership in the last half of the 20th century, because in an attempt to try to create some kind of middle ground between belief and unbelief, it turns out that the believers didn’t need such churches and the unbelievers didn’t need such churches.

The failure of any halfway house when it comes to theism, when it comes to theology becomes very, very evident, and it’s really, really interesting to see that under the pressures of a secular age, an increasingly hostile secular age, the younger Jewish people who are identified in the survey are going in one of two directions, polarities identified in the study. They are either abandoning religion altogether, identifying a secular, or they are increasingly if they’re theological defined as Orthodox. A little bit of theology won’t do. A little bit of theology won’t get you through the night in a secular age. A little bit of theology isn’t plausible. If you believe in God, then you’re going to believe in a rather comprehensive truth claim.

Now, I’m just going to offer that the young people, the young adults who are at the center of this study actually understand to a considerable degree what the older people might not understand and that is this, the issue is the difference between belief and unbelief. Trying to split that difference doesn’t work. The difference between belief and unbelief as the most fundamental question that human beings will ever confront when belief and unbelief means believing or not believing in God.

Now, there’s another reason why, by the way, younger adults in the United States who identify as religious tend to identify as quite religious. Again, I’m using the word religious here because it really does go across religious definitions in theism. Why is that so? Well, here’s another part of the issue that isn’t really addressed in this study, but is widely addressed in others and is irrefutable in the demographic data. What am I talking about? Who has babies? It turns out that stronger theological belief leads to a significantly higher birth rate, a greater emphasis upon faithfulness and having babies, raising those children in the faith, and thus, there shouldn’t be a surprise that for reasons of the secular divide and the division in birth rate, the fact is that more conservative believers are actually having more babies and those babies are turning out to continue in the faith.

So the big first lesson for Christians in looking at this as just another affirmation of what we already know by the biblical worldview, and that is that belief and unbelief don’t mix. You really are looking at the pressures of the secular age revealing the vacuity, the emptiness, the failure of any kind of middle position. There’s no such thing as believing a little bit in God or a bit in a little God. But I said there was a second big lesson from this data, and that is the fact that religion and politics really do turn out to be inseparable in worldview. Looking at conservative Christianity, those who hold to more conservative doctrine tend to be identified more conservative in politics. It’s not an accident.

The same thing is true in Roman Catholicism. The same thing is true in American Judaism. Many in the mainstream media really lept to this pattern in the data above all others. As the RNS report summarizes, “Orthodox Jewish political leanings are also at odds with those of other Jews. Seven-in-10 Jewish adults identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party. Now, just hear that again, that’s seven-in-10, and half described their political views as liberal. Orthodox Jews are almost the reverse. 60% of Orthodox Jews describe their political views as conservative and 75% identify as Republicans.”

You often hear a lot of attention in the mainstream media to the fact that conservative Christians turn out to vote according to conservative voter patterns, as if there should be any surprise there. But in reality, it turns out that the same thing is true of Catholic voters in the United States. The same thing is true of Jewish voters in the United States. Looking at Reform and Conservative Judaism, the vast majority identify as Democrats, and they also identify themselves as profoundly liberal in the American political spectrum. In many ways, they represent one of the two or three most predictable groups in the United States voting in support of the Democratic Party and that’s been true for a long time.

But what you don’t hear many in the mainstream media give any attention to is the fact that when you look at Judaism, the very same pattern pertains. In Judaism, it is Orthodox Judaism that defines its theology as conservative, and we’re also told that the vast majority of adults in Orthodox Judaism identify themselves as politically conservative, 75% is Republicans. That’s a very high figure. You don’t often hear that conceited in the media. But here again, I want to come back behind the study and understand something. When you’re looking at so many of the issues that actually are confronted in American politics, the family itself, marriage itself, our very purpose for existence on earth itself is at the center of the question.

You can of course see this and issues related to the LGBTQ revolution. But frankly you can see this in all kinds of issues coming right down to tax policy. So here’s another pattern. The closer you get to the natural family, an emphasis upon a man and a woman married to each other, raising children in the home, then the extended family beyond, the more Conservative voting pattern is. You’ll notice, there’s a theological explanation for that too. There is finally, looking at this study, one distinction in Judaism that really doesn’t fit the Christian identity or Christian tradition so well, and that is the continuation of some kind of culture and tradition absent the theology. The fact is that when most people leave a liberal Protestant church and assume a secular identity, they don’t really continue any kind of liturgical practice, any kind of religious observance.

But that’s not really so true in Judaism where there is a continuation of certain observances, holidays and patterns, even amongst those, or at least many of those who identify as secular. The Pew study defines a distinction between Judaism as religious acts and Jewish culture defined as, “The many things Jews do that have Jewish meaning and significance, but don’t include synagogue, liturgy or God.” You might say that putting that into a parallel Christian form, it would be those who say that they identify with some kind of Christian meaning and significance, but it doesn’t include church or gospel or God.

Again, interesting thing here is that over the process of centuries, in the Jewish tradition, there is a place for a continuation of Jewish identity apart from Jewish theology. But you really don’t see that in the Christian tradition. That’s because the truth claims and individual belief are so crucial to the Christian worldview, as a Baptist, as an evangelical Christian, I have to come back and say conversionism is the great distinction here. The belief that one must come to faith in the Lord, Jesus Christ, and one must come to the same faith in the Lord, Jesus Christ regardless of one’s family tradition or background.

But in any event, this study from the Pew Research Center and the reporting on this study in the mainstream media is incredibly important, and for Christians, it’s a reminder of the doctrinal center of the Christian faith, of the fact that truth claims are at the very center of Christianity that we believe in Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today and forever. If we don’t, there really isn’t any point to have any Christian identity whatsoever. The polarization amongst Jewish young adults has a parallel in the polarization among those who would identify as Christian young adults. It’s increasingly all or nothing when it comes to religious belief.

One of the pressures of a secularizing age is to make very clear a little bit of theology doesn’t get you too far. It gets you far enough to get you in trouble with the ardently secular. It doesn’t get you far enough to supply enough theological meaning to maintain any kind of religious identity against what Walter Lippmann called the acids of modernity. Big lessons for Christians to take fully into account.

Part III

Richard Rubenstein, Major Jewish Theologian and Proponent of the “Death of God” Movement, Dies at 97

But next, also another interesting and related story. This one’s an obituary and it appeared almost at the same time as you had the emergence of this massive research on American Judaism. The figure at the center of this obituary is Richard Rubenstein, a major intellectual and theologian in Judaism who taught in several institutions, including Florida State University. He was best known as a Jewish proponent of the Death of God Movement. That was a movement that began in the 1960s and it became very famous because of a cover story in Time Magazine. It was basically Protestant and Catholic liberals who were behind the movement declaring that God, as a doctrine, as a reality was basically dead, dead according to the modern age.

They went on to argue that there could still be some kind of religious significance even if God does not exist. Believers recognized how ridiculous the movement was, but nonetheless, Richard Rubenstein became associated with it and was probably the most famous Jewish thinker that was associated in some way with the movement. He also believed in his own way in the Death of God, but he pointed to the genocide of the Jews, the Holocaust or the Shoah, and in the middle of the 20th century at the hands of the Third Reich, as the main reason why he did not believe in God. Now, here’s what’s important for Christians. Richard Rubenstein became one of the primary definers of what is known as protest atheism. Now, there are various forms of atheism, but one of the mainstreams of atheism in the 20th century became protest atheism. It was a protest against evil, saying that if God exists, then he should not allow the evil to happen. If the evil happens, then God does not exist.

Jeffrey Salkin again writing for Religion News Service says, “For Richard Rubenstein, the logic was simple. First, an all powerful, righteous, protective God could not have allowed the Shoah, that is the Holocaust to happen. And yet it did happen. Therefore he said, God does not exist. Or if God exists, then we don’t need this kind of God, a God who is either mean-spirited, who does not care, or is incompetent.” As Rubenstein said, “The thread unifying God and man, heaven and earth has been broken. We stand in a cold, silent, unfeeling cosmos unaided by any purposeful power beyond our own resources.” A very sad, very sterile worldview, but one that was rather consistent with Richard Rubenstein’s theology.

Why? Because even earlier in this obituary, it tells us that as a young man, Richard Rubenstein had some very serious theological questions. He came to believe that to be Jewish was to be powerless over against antisemitism. The article then tells us, “He flirted with Unitarianism. He turned to Reform Judaism. He entered Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.” Richard Rubenstein actually flirted with liberal Protestantism in the form of Unitarianism, but that wasn’t satisfying. So he went back to Judaism and identified with Reformed Judaism. But remember, Reform Judaism from the beginning has basically said that there is no necessity of any supernatural beliefs at all, no belief in God is necessary.

So I don’t think it’s incidental that Richard Rubenstein, who came to the conclusion he did in the Death of God theology did so because he had identified with a form of Judaism that was non-theologically defined in the first place. Christians affirm that God has spoken to us in his inspired and inerrant and infallible word, in the Bible, and that all that is revealed in the Bible is true. That means all the truth claims, all the doctrines, all the teachings about God and his character. Mature Christian believers believing all the scripture reveals that we can have some huge theological questions, but in the end, they are all resolved in our faith in the one true living God who is both omnipotent and righteous, who is both loving and just, who is both merciful and omniscient.

But as we come to a conclusion on The Briefing today, recognize that these theological essentials really do require divine revelation for us to know them and understand them and for us to base our lives on them. This means that we believe that what is revealed in the Bible is God himself revealing himself in the Bible, and that in the Bible, we not only find that which allows us to know about God, we hear God’s word and we come to know God himself. It’s a distinction between Christians merely believing in Christianity. No, that’s not it. Christians believe in Christ. That’s a very different thing.

When we speak of the Christian faith, we don’t mean merely a tradition that has been associated with the Christian church throughout two millennia. We mean the faith once for all delivered to the saints. We mean the gospel of Jesus Christ who truly saves sinners. We mean all that is revealed in God’s word and all that is promised to us in Christ. We predicate our lives upon it.

There’s no middle ground between belief and unbelief. As the apostle Paul encouraged the Corinthian Christians in 1st Corinthians 15:58, “Therefore my beloved brothers be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord, your labor is not in vain.” Indeed, in the Lord, it is not ever in vain.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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