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Rabbi Shmuley Boteach Headshot

Why American Religion Isn't Refining American Values

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At the heart of the American experience is a profound contradiction: How are we so incredibly religious and yet so seemingly decadent?

While only 35% of Britons believe in God and 43% say they have no religion, 92% of Americans are believers and 80% are church-goers. Those same Americans, though, also make 68 million pornographic search engine requests every day, spending more than $3,000 on pornographic websites every second.

How are we to understand the materialistic impulses that had us spending $52.4 billion on Black Friday weekend shopping alone, and the bizarre accompanying stories like the woman who injured 20 shoppers by firing pepper spray into a crowd to clear her path to an Xbox?

Every four years, our presidential election cycle suggests the answer: Our public figures are obsessed with gay marriage and abortion to the exclusion of all other values.

Watch the Republican debates on television and you would think that America faces not a single social challenge other than stopping gays from marrying and women from aborting fetuses. America is a religious nation whose religious convictions have been hijacked by these twin issues, even though they have little to do with most Americans.

While approximately 7% of the American population is gay, more than 50% of all marriages end in divorce. In fact, gays seem to be the only men in America who are still passionate about marriage. Straight people don't need help from gays to destroy the institution of marriage, having a done a mighty fine job of it ourselves, thank you very much. But rather than pastors pushing real policies that might stem the tide of divorce -- like making marital counseling tax-deductible -- they dwell on a politically divisive distraction.

In 1999 I published a book, Kosher Sex, which was pilloried by Jewish and Christian clerics for offering explicit erotic advice about how to make the marital bedroom passionate again. Yet the No. 1 cause of divorce in America is sexual boredom and lack of erotic interest, with the Washington Post reporting that one of three American couples is entirely platonic. Were pastors more willing to teach, say, the Song of Solomon, with its deep erotic secrets, rather than obsessing over gay marriage, millions of American children might not end up as yo-yos shuffling between parents' homes on weekends.

In 2008, the American economy nearly collapsed. For bankers and consumers, homes were never big enough and cars never new enough. If ever there were a time for American religious and political leaders to examine materialism, gluttony and greed, it was then. But my evangelical brothers and sisters responded instead with Proposition 8, a national campaign to overturn gay marriage in California.

Abortion has also become a major distraction ignoring the values that underlie it. Almost all abortions are sought by single women who have been impregnated by men in an out-of-wedlock relationships. Yet where is the national conversation about a culture that degrades woman and portrays them as the libidinous man's plaything?

Tim Tebow is pilloried for the unseemly act of prayer in the secular cathedral of the stadium. But women jumping up and down in lycra to the accompaniment of pompoms and cleavage creates no offense. From the 4.2 million porn websites in the U.S. to the recording industry peddling soft porn and magazines idealizing dangerously thin models, the dream of women being appreciated as much for the their brains as for their bust is undermined. Yet we see no push for school uniforms, for example, that could inculcate values of modesty and respect for the body among American teenagers.

In the African-American community, nearly 70% of all children are born out of wedlock, resulting in single mothers raising children on their own. Aside from Bill Cosby's courageous speeches on the subject, pastors largely ignore men's obligations to their children in favor of the Supreme Court's obligation to the unborn.

It's a cruel failure of leadership on the part of our religious, political and cultural icons. And this campaign year already looks like it'll only perpetuate the problem.

Rabbi Shmuley's newest book, Kosher Jesus (Gefen), examining the Jewish life of Jesus, will be published on February 1st. In 2010 he published "Renewal" which detailed the 7 universal Jewish values that could bring healing to America. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.