THE BLOG
01/24/2014 07:00 am ET Updated Mar 26, 2014

The Religious Counterculture: An Open Letter to Religious Liberals

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A high school teacher of mine used to entertain his classes by rattling off lists of oxymorons: pretty ugly, jumbo shrimp, constant variable. Sometimes he would take the opportunity to editorialize a little: military intelligence, airplane food, liberal religion. Everybody would smirk and the class would go on. The joke, of course, was that liberal religion couldn't really exist because liberals are not religious and religious people are definitely not liberal. As if everybody knows there's an inverse correlation between religiosity and liberalism: the more liberal you are, the less religious you are... to the vanishing point. I was told recently (not as a joke) about a synagogue here in New York that's so liberal that no one ever goes.

And, of course, as with most jokes and stereotypes, there's some truth to it. If you look at any of the traditional markers of religiosity, we religious liberals are less religious than the conservative or orthodox. Liberal Jews tend to not keep kosher; liberal Muslims tend to not pray five times a day; liberal Christians have been known to have premarital sex. As religions have liberalized and modernized over the years, communal religious practices have fallen away and religious fervor has cooled. This may seem obvious and inevitable, but when you think about it, there is no necessary correlation between the substance of a person's theology and the amplitude of her religiosity. We religious liberals have erroneously forged this correlation and, beyond just making us the butt of jokes, this has really cost us. It has cost us in spiritual integrity, it has cost us in political power, and it has cost us in the number of butts in our pews.

In searching for exemplars of spiritual integrity these days, you might not think to look to the rosters of TV celebrities, but, in fact, at least one stands out as truly glamorous: Mayim Bialik (Amy Farrah Fowler in The Big Bang Theory). She is an observant Jew who keeps Shabbat and keeps kosher. She is a vegan who says that she prepares vegan food for her family to teach her kids to care for the earth. She adheres to Jewish modesty laws in her dress. This is no small feat for a woman who makes a living in Hollywood. The modesty issue came to a head as she prepared to attend the Emmys for the first time a few years ago. She needed to find a dress that covered her elbows and knees and collarbone and was not too tight, and, of course, was gorgeous enough for the red carpet. The quest for this perfect dress became public as she blogged about it, naming it "Operation Hot and Holy."

We may disagree with a tradition that requires this kind of modesty, but you've got to admire someone who takes her religious values so seriously that she is willing to withstand substantial social pressure. If women in our culture normally feel pressure to dress in revealing clothing, the pressure must be a hundredfold at a big Hollywood event like the Emmys. But she did it -- Operation Hot and Holy: mission accomplished -- and afterwards the blogosphere was bursting with women, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, thanking her for her courage in so publicly contesting the cultural rules of how women are supposed to look.

Do we religious liberals similarly experience a tension between our religious values and the values of the secular world? If not, why not? It seems to me there should be enormous tension. We should feel this tension in every decision we make -- when we shop at the grocery store, when we go to work, when we speak to a child, and when (and if) we watch TV. The questions of to what extent and in what ways we should participate in the dominant culture should keep us up at night. Until our theological ideals are realized on this earth, until we live in societies of boundless compassion where no one is excluded from the tables of abundance, until we lovingly care for all the creatures of the earth, until violence and hunger are relics of the past, religious liberals should not feel at ease in this world. If we do, there's a problem. As Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, "There are some things in our social system to which all of us ought to be maladjusted."

I would argue that not only should we be maladjusted, but we should actively engage this maladjustment in forming the foundation of a religious counterculture. In this vision, we are both very liberal and very religious. We are community-oriented and God-centered. We unapologetically argue for political and social transformation on the grounds of our faith. We take our religious commitments seriously and on their own terms, rather than measuring them against a secular understanding of what's "reasonable." Rather than discard the old religious disciplines of our heritages, we redeploy them in the service of liberal theological ideals. We accept and own the obligation described (in some form or other) in all the major Scriptures to work toward heavenly days right here on this earth.

Of course, I didn't invent this idea. Religious communities have almost always started out countercultural, renouncing the false idols of the secular world. The early Christian community described in the Book of Acts is a perfect example. The story goes that people were so inspired by the teachings of Jesus that they completely broke from their social context. It said, "They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness ... No one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common ... There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold."

Being a Christian was not initially seen as compatible with living a normal life, working a normal job, or even owning land. To be a Christian was to have an entirely different vision of what it means to be human. Similar visions inform the kibbutz movement in Israel and ashrams in India and have reappeared repeatedly in different forms, through different religions throughout history.

But sadly, the trajectory of these movements is almost always one of decline -- the commitment fades, the momentum fizzles, the teachings ossify. Over time, people find it too hard to stand so alienated from the lives they once knew. The sacrifices are too great. We want to be able to look fabulous walking down the red carpet at the Emmys. And so religion loses its radical edge as its institutions become ensconced in mainstream society. Liberal religion in this country has slid down that same familiar slide. We've become liberal about our liberalism, to our own detriment and that of the world.

What if we could restore the radical edge and dynamic energy of religious liberalism? What would the world look like if, instead of advertising religion lite, religious liberals became the most observant people around? What if those of us who consider ourselves theologically liberal began joining liberal religious communities in droves? What if we began tithing to those institutions? What if we observed a Sabbath together and radically disengaged from social and economic structures every week? What if we engaged in serious study of our spiritual texts and heritage and applied their lessons to the issues of today? What if we began lobbying on religious grounds for environmental stewardship?

The sky is the limit in reimagining how our faiths call us to practice in the modern world. Maybe those of us who have high-paying jobs will refuse to accept a salary that's more than seven times what the lowest-paid worker makes in our organizations -- and explain, "It's because I'm really religious." Maybe we will only eat food that's sustainably grown, humanely raised, and for which the farm workers were paid a living wage, even if that rules out most of the food we currently eat -- and explain to our outraged children, "It's because in this family, we're really religious." Maybe straight couples refuse to get married until there is marriage equality for everyone -- and explain to their disappointed parents, "It's because we are really religious." Maybe we stop to pray two, three, five times a day to keep ourselves oriented toward God and our highest ideals.

This is not a call for moral or spiritual perfection, but rather for us all to restore religion as central to our lives. We don't need to retreat from modern life as much as live in counterpoint to it. There will be tension as we negotiate our desire to simply participate as normal people in this society. We'll hear ourselves saying, "Can't I just enjoy a friggin' cheeseburger for God's sake?!" We naturally want to succeed in this world -- we want to make money, we want to have fun, we don't want to be freaks, we want to feel accepted. We want to be not only holy, but hot too! Even Mayim Bialik wondered aloud whether God would mind so much if maybe just her left arm were exposed. The struggle is a holy struggle. The important thing is not that we be perfect, but that we engage with the tension.

We're not there yet, but I believe that by building a religious counterculture together, we will find our gravitational center. Our connection to our own God energy and spiritual core will deepen as our lives take on a religious orientation. We'll build internal coherence and integrity. We'll start to take ourselves seriously as religious people and everyone else will start to take us seriously as well. Our numbers will grow. Our influence will grow. And my old high school teacher will just have to find a new oxymoron for his list because "liberal religion" will no longer be a joke.