Politics needs new ideas. The recent presidential election taught us many lessons about celebrity and scandal, inaction and consequences, the limits of media and polls, and much more.
Perhaps more than anything, the election expressed the public’s widespread dissatisfaction with the political leaders of the past decade who have presided over growing social unrest, economic malaise, and global political crises. The unexpected success of angry outsider candidates Bernie Sanders and President-elect Donald Trump reflect popular rejection of both parties’ core ideologies. The voters said loudly that the old ideas don’t work and that America needs new ideas.
Or maybe it needs timeless ideas.
In mid-December a group of Christian and Jewish thinkers gathered to consider the application of biblical ideas to contemporary politics. Organized by the Herzl Institute under the leadership of Dr. Yoram Hazony in conjunction with the Institute for Religion and Democracy led by Mark Tooley, the distinguished attendees included, among many others, David Brog of Christians United for Israel, Prof. Joshua Mitchell of Georgetown University, R.R. Reno of First Things magazine, Michael Doran of the Hudson Institute, attorney Alyza Lewin, and political adviser Jeff Ballabon.
This Christian-Jewish Alliance sought to find eternal ideas that speak to today’s problems. That this inevitably will raise alarms is due not to any real danger of oppressive theocracy but, rather, to the crass, anti-religious media culture that envelops us. No serious person wants to impose religious rule on America. However, this country – indeed all of Western civilization – was founded on biblical principles that we forget at our own peril.
A number of themes arose during the multiple days of presentations. The room was full of an impressive array of political theorists, theologians, and other experts. The following descriptions are my own recollections and phrasings of various speakers’ ideas, which I may not share completely and for which no single attendee is responsible.
One theme that emerged is the importance of local governance, or federalism. Every tribe or group has its own traditions and culture. You cannot impose a single form of government on everyone because cultural needs differ. Consider one region in which people instinctively follow civil law. They need less regulation and policing than a region in which people routinely violate agreements and steal.
Local allegiances also explain the seeming chaos in the Middle East. Foreigners who look to broad religious groups (Sunnis, Shiites) as homogeneous blocs misunderstand the complex tribal culture, the hyper-local connections that drive what is otherwise contradictory behavior. Political thinkers from centuries ago have shown the importance of local practices for effective governance. The liberal political tradition has abandoned these thinkers in favor of a globalism that ignores people’s most basic identities.
This brings us to another theme – that local identities are not just ignored but actively suppressed. Following World War II, western leaders actively attempted to weaken nationalism in order to prevent a recurrence of the war’s horrors. The vast expansion and legalization of human rights, the growth of multiculturalism, and the various modes of economic and political globalism are examples of this bold response to evil.
However, with the weakening of nationalism comes a weakening of identity, a spiritual homelessness that confuses people. The ordinary citizen wants that patriotism back and needs the sense of belonging that a strong national identity provides. We are seeing this throughout the western world with the success of nationalist movements. To understand recent trends, we must recognize that weakening national identities brings its own danger of societal collapse, against which we are now experiencing a backlash.
A third theme is the rising hostility to religion in America. The Bible is not studied in high schools or colleges as a source of wisdom. This is not because it fails in that regard – the greatest western thinkers until the modern era utilized the Bible extensively in their theorizing. It is a fear or even hatred of religion that has shut it out of intellectual history. This has created a crippling blind spot in contemporary political theory that must be repaired by reintroducing the Bible as a source of wisdom.
This is not about religious missionizing in the university any more than teaching Greek classics indoctrinates Paganism. It is about incorporating the insights of classic religious texts into a contemporary political theory.
Hostility to religion is ominously evident in the threat that identity politics poses to religious freedom. Recent Supreme Court decisions set troubling precedents about religious accommodation. Ever since the 1990 Oregon v. Smith decision about a Native American peyote ritual, the court no longer requires a compelling interest before limiting religious freedom. Over the past few years we have seen Christians lose religious freedom lawsuits where accommodation was readily available.
For example, pharmacists who believe they are religiously proscribed from selling specific contraceptives are legally required to do so – even though they can easily refer customers to other pharmacies and industry experts testify that customers will not suffer from the practice. This legal hostility to religion threatens not just religious freedom but American society, whose unstated civil assumptions emerge from religious traditions.
Is a Christian-Jewish Alliance a contradiction in terms? Aren’t the two religions mutually exclusive? Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik wrote: “When, however, we move from the private world of faith to the public world of humanitarian and cultural endeavors, communication among the various faith communities is desirable and even essential. We are ready to enter into dialogue on such topics as war and peace, poverty, freedom, man’s moral values, the threat of secularism, technology and human values, civil rights, etc., which revolve about religious spiritual aspects of our civilization” (Maggid edition of Confrontation and Other Essays, p. 119).
Jews and Christians will see things very differently sometimes. None of us should compromise on our particular beliefs or enter into dialogue about the “doctrinal, dogmatic or ritual aspects of our faith vis-à-vis ‘similar’ aspects of another faith community” (ibid., p. 118). In fact, the self-sufficiency of a religious community’s beliefs is essential to an authentic Christian-Jewish alliance. But on the many issues we have in common we must work together as religious minorities in a secular world to reassert the country’s Hebraic political tradition.
Progressives have co-opted religious terminology for their projects; “tikkun olam” is a favorite. However, religion runs deeper than ambiguous defenses of the divine image in all human beings. The Bible teaches about right and wrong, life and death, male and female, marriage and family, community and obligation. One presenter pointed out the change in rhetoric of black activists. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of biblical promises, of hope and redemption. Black Lives Matter activists have abandoned religious language and speak about victimhood and grievances. What used to be about restoring America’s promise is now all about individuals.
Can the Bible restore the society underlying American democracy? This is not about missionizing secular Americans or using politics as a tool for religious revival. It is about restoring the principles of American democracy. Even non-believing Americans will find the American heritage in the Bible. Perhaps a Christian-Jewish alliance is just what politics needs to get back on track.
Rabbi Gil Student