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American Religion Beyond the Synagogue, Church, and Temple

American Religion Beyond the Synagogue, Church, and Temple October 18, 2021
Eldridge Street Synagogue, May 2011 (LibraryGroover, via Wikimedia Commons)

In her fascinating book, Beyond the Synagogue, Rachel Gross describes a wide range of activities that help American Jews find meaning and connection: visiting historic synagogues, conducting Jewish genealogy research, eating Jewish foods, and sharing Jewish stories and toys with children. According to Gross, these activities are not only expressions of Jewish nostalgia, but important and often overlooked forms of American Jewish religious practice.

She details these aspects of American Jewish life not only to illuminate the significance of Jewish deli cuisine and Rebecca Rubin the American Girl, but to offer an assurance to her readers: despite claims to the contrary, American Judaism is thriving. In so doing, Gross takes issue with the scholars who point to the decline in synagogue attendance and participation in Jewish community centers as evidence that there is a “continuity crisis” in American Judaism. But these scholars, Gross argues, are “looking for Judaism in all the wrong places.” Take a look beyond the synagogue, she argues, and you can see that Jewish religiosity is actually not in decline. In fact, it’s flourishing.

Gross makes an important point that applies not only to the study of American Judaism, but to the study of  religion more generally, and it is that people often practice religion and form religious communities outside congregations, through activities and in spaces that appear to be non-religious. Congregations and the activities that take place within them have long been the starting point for understanding American religious life. But Gross, like many other recent scholars of American religion, urges us to rethink our assumptions about where we might locate religious life and what we might count as religious practices. Religious life is vibrant outside the walls of churches, temples, and synagogues, and if we’re willing to shift our attention away from congregations, we’ll be rewarded with a more nuanced, complex, and realistic view of American religion.

Zingerman’s Deli, Ann Arbor Michigan (Ken Lund, via Wikimedia Commons)

Why has the study of American religion focused so heavily on churches, temples, and synagogues? There are many reasons, not least of which is the fact that both scholars and religious people have largely accepted that, as R. Stephen Warner argues, “the religious component of civil society in the U.S. is organized along broadly congregational lines.” In the U.S., congregations are a well-established form of religious organization. Although the congregational form is rooted in American Protestantism, other groups, from Hindus to Hmong animists, have institutionalized their beliefs, practices, and communities in the form of religious congregations.

Studying churches, temples, and synagogues is also relatively straightforward. You can find them in the phone book or in an online directory. You can see them when you walk down the street. You can count them, categorize them, and map them. The conspicuous presence of congregations and the numerous ways that they facilitate relatively tidy research about the messy topic of religion make them an obvious and practical choice.

In addition, congregation-focused research often benefits from generous financial support. Institutions that are ideologically invested in the health of congregations are often financially invested in research about congregations. Take, for example, the Lilly Endowment, which has an explicit commitment to “the vitality of congregations” and provided 115 grants through its recent Thriving Congregations Initiative. In this funding context, religion scholars are incentivized to study congregations.

Finally, and perhaps most important, the longstanding focus on congregations is the product of Protestant assumptions that continue to shape how people think and write about religion. The beliefs, practices, and communities that are recognized and respected as “religious” in the U.S. tend to have characteristics that are commensurable to the features of Protestantism: a clergy, a scripture, a creed, a church.  Indeed, these are the criteria used by scholars and casual observers alike when they look for religion in the real world. In the same way that beliefs and texts continue to be the focus of the analysis of American religious life, congregations continue to serve as the primary setting.

Congregations are no doubt useful and important to study, but focusing on congregations has important drawbacks. For one, it limits our ability to understand religious groups that have a history of practicing rituals and creating communities outside of formal religious institutions. Many groups–Hindus, for example–have a rich tradition of conducting rituals at home.

Even when studying religious groups that organize themselves around churches, temples, and synagogues, a narrow focus on congregations–and a narrow understanding of religion in general–means that we can miss opportunities to engage in important forms of belief, practice, and community that are located elsewhere. Here, Gross’s work on American Judaism is instructive. As she argues, congregation-focused research does not offer an adequate representation of the vitality of American Judaism. If you consider only the number of people who regularly attend services at synagogues, she says, you might get the impression that American Judaism is stagnating. But if you look elsewhere, you can witness the dynamism of American Judaism, which is practiced in a variety of surprising and innovative ways.

If we don’t focus on synagogues, churches, and temples, where else can we look to find American religious life? Here are some ideas for alternative sites of religious life beyond the synagogue, church, and temple.

Homes

Many religious groups have a long tradition of conducting rituals in their residences. Hindus, for example, maintain home temples, sometimes improvising if they live in small urban apartments. The importance of these home rituals was even highlighted in a short film by Pixar, Sanjay’s Super Team, in which a little boy reimagines Hindu deities as superheroes while his older relative prays. Buddhists, too, have a tradition of home-based rituals. As Duncan Williams discusses in American Sutra, when the U.S. government incarcerated Japanese Americans during the Second World War, one of the most powerful acts of resilience undertaken by Japanese American Buddhists was setting up beautiful home altars in their barracks.

Workplaces

People don’t leave their religion at home when they go to work, and they sometimes pursue creative solutions in order to ensure that they are able to practice their rituals even when they’re on the job.  Muslim taxi drivers find a way to pray in between rides, thus creating what Elta Smith and Courtney Bender describe in one article as an “urban niche religion.”

Schools

From student ministries, Bible study circles, and a cappella groups, religious life flourishes in many forms on college campuses. In God’s New Whiz Kids?, a study of Korean American evangelical college students, Rebecca Kim discusses how organizations such as Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and Campus Crusade for Christ serve as important sites of religious practice and community for young Asian American evangelicals.

Gyms

Settings that cultivate bodily health are often also places for cultivating spiritual health and religious community. Take, for example, the “muscular Christianity” that animated the creation of YMCAs in the 19th century and the ardor of CrossFit devotees in the 21st. The overlap of spiritual and bodily cultivation has received renewed attention with the HBO miniseries The Way Down, about Christian weight loss celebrity Gwen Shamblin, who is also featured in R. Marie Griffith’s book Born Again Bodies.

Activist organizations

The New Sanctuary Movement, the subject of Grace Yukich’s One Family Under God, shows how progressive Christianity merges with social justice activism. For the New Sanctuary Movement, which focuses on immigration justice, the aim is not only to change government policies but to change the hearts and minds of people of faith, and every aspect of the group’s work–from its chosen forms of protest to its rhetoric about immigration–reflects its religious orientation.

Restaurants, groceries, and markets

Gross writes about Jewish delis in order to discuss the importance of culinary traditions in American Jewish life. Similarly, others have shown the religious significance of places where people buy, sell, and consume food, especially food products that are important for ritual activities. The short documentary A Son’s Sacrifice, which tells the story of a Muslim man who takes over his father’s halal slaughterhouse in New York City, illuminates how institutions such as slaughterhouses play a critical role in the life of religious communities.

Online spaces

From email-based prayer networks to Facebook groups dedicated to daily meditation, religious life thrives on the Internet, and that’s not even considering the proliferation of Zoom-based activities that developed during the Covid-19 lockdowns. Considering religion online is especially important for those who want to understand populations that are digital natives. The Young Buddhist Editorial, for example, serves as an online forum where young Asian American Buddhists gather and speak freely about Asian American Buddhism from their Gen Z and Millennial perspectives.

Festivals

Robert Orsi’s richly detailed study of the street feste of Italian American Catholics in The Madonna of 115th Street is perhaps the most famous example of how popular celebrations are sites of religious life. More recently, in White Utopias, Amanda Lucia studies “transformational festivals” such as Burning Man to understand how festival-goers participate in music, meditation, and yoga as exotic activities that facilitate spiritual growth and connection.
Burning Man 2012 (Christopher Michel, via Wikimedia Commons)

The ideas and examples above are only a starting point. Where else can you find religious life? And what else might we be able to see if we make the effort look beyond the synagogue, church, and temple and witness the richness and creativity of religious life that exists beyond congregational walls?


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