Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Excerpt from Irving Kristol (part II)

Very interesting excerpts from the writings of social, political and philosophical commentary of the late Irving Kristol. I wish that more politicians on the right and on the left would take heed of his wise words on the merits of federalism in maintaining peace in a culturally diverse nation. Attempts by the religious right and the secular left to impose their visions and values regarding church-and-state, abortion, gay rights, etc. on a national level is a recipe for social conflict and possibly even secession. Allowing communities to work out these very divisive issues and individuals to live in communities that best reflect their values is far from a perfect solution, but it is most likely the best. Also, his writings on the place of Jews in issues of church and state are interesting and before you accuse Mr. Kristol of anti-semitism its worth considering that he was Jewish.

The possibility of reconciling conservative traditions of religion or morality with the freedom of a market economy is not only a matter of speculation. It has formidable historical antecedents, which, even if they are unfamiliar to many today, are nevertheless at the heart of the Anglo-American tradition of free government. In the United States, between the founding of the republic and World War II, approximately 175 years of conflict between the secular market economy and a religious predisposition excited scarcely a tremor in the body politic. One can find proof of this by consulting any major textbook in American history published before 1945. A glance at the index may reveal a few passing references to “church and state” relations, but nothing more. You look up “censorship” and you find no reference at all, although there was a great deal of censorship taking place.

Over the last fifty years, the national issue which we now refer to as “religion in the public square” has engendered an entire library of legal arguments, but prior to 1945, it is clear that the issue could not have been that controversial, for the simple reason that there were hardly any legal rulings on the subject: There were virtually no Supreme Court decisions that addressed this issue. The reason for this is an instructively practical one: Under the American federal system, issues such as school prayer, religious activities on public grounds, censorship of pornography—in short, the great majority of religious and moral issues—were adjudicated by political negotiations at the local level. These negotiations took into account the magnitude and intensity of public opinion on either side of an issue, and after some useful if sometimes painful experience, each community reached a via media that it could live with. In general, minority opinion was always respected, but majority opinion always received the greater deference. To reach such accepted norms in such a way that people could live together did not require a great deal of theorizing about absolute systems of universal rights; but what it did require was a great deal of inherited wisdom and common sense, on the part of the majority and on the part of the minority.

A few examples will suffice to make it clear what this meant in practice. When I went to elementary school in Brooklyn, we had an assembly once a week, which the principal of the school always began with a prayer. Now, the school was about one-half Jewish, with the rest of the students being Irish, Italian or Anglo-Saxon Protestants. The principal was no fool, so he read a Psalm. The nice thing about the Psalms is that they are of Jewish origin, are part of the Christian Bible, but Jesus is not mentioned. So what Jew was going to object? Mind you, Jews these days do object to the reading of Psalms in public schools. But in those days, there were no Jews who would object to reading a Psalm, and no Christians who would object either. It was a common-sense solution to a problem; it worked for many, many decades.

Similarly, when I was young, there were burlesque shows, “topless” shows, we would call them, in New York, and Fiorello La Guardia, a very liberal and progressive mayor, decided that this was not good for the city. He did not want New York City to be known as a center for strip-tease shows, so he prohibited them. Just like that. The issue was taken to court, and the court ruled that La Guardia was the elected representative of the public, and if the public wanted things that way, it was their right. People who didn’t like it could leave New York City and move to Newark, where you could go to a burlesque show. There was no outraged public debate, no crisis, no book written on the subject. In the United States in that era, any community that wanted to order its public life in a certain way was permitted to do so. One’s position had to be “within reason,” but the point is that the range of issues which one could reasonably decide one way or another was considered to be quite broad, and open to a process of political trial and error. If Boston wanted to ban a book that had sex scenes in it, it did so. And then the book sellers in New York put up big signs in their store windows that said “Banned in Boston,” and this would be great for business. This might have been difficult to fit into some great universal system, but it took into account the traditions and feelings of these very different cities, and as a consequence, public life in both Boston and New York was conducted in a way that allowed most people in both cities to be happy.

In general, the political handling of controversial religious and moral issues in the United States prior to World War II was a triumph of reasoned experience over abstract dogmatism. Unfortunately, since around 1950, it is abstract dogmatism that has triumphed over reasoned experience in American public life. As everyone knows, this unwarranted and unfortunate reversal has provoked a constitutional crisis where there had never been one before. And much as I regret to say this, the sad fact is that American Jews have played a very important role—in some ways a crucial role—in creating this crisis.

It is a fairly extraordinary story when one stops to think about it. In the decades after World War II, as anti-Semitism declined precipitously, and as Jews moved massively into the mainstream of American life, the official Jewish organizations took advantage of these new circumstances to prosecute an aggressive campaign against any public recognition, however slight, of the fact that most Americans are Christian. It is not that the leaders of the Jewish organizations were anti-religious. Most of the Jewish advocates of a secularized “public square” were themselves members of Jewish congregations. They believed, in all sincerity, that religion should be the private affair of the individual. Religion belonged in the home, in the church and synagogue, and nowhere else. And they believed in this despite the fact that no society in history has ever acceded to the complete privatization of a religion embraced by the overwhelming majority of its members. The truth, of course, is that there is no way that religion can be obliterated from public life when 95 percent of the population is Christian. There is no way of preventing the Christian holidays, for instance, from spilling over into public life. But again, before World War II, there were practically no Jews who cared about such things. I went to a public school, where the children sang carols at Christmastime. Even among those Jews who sang them, I never knew a single one who was drawn to the practice of Christianity by them. Sometimes, the schools sponsored Nativity plays, and the response of the Jews was simply not to participate in them. There was no public “issue” until the American Civil Liberties Union—which is financed primarily by Jews—arrived on the scene with the discovery that Christmas carols and pageants were a violation of the Constitution. As a matter of fact, our Jewish population in the United States believed in this so passionately that when the Supreme Court, having been prodded by the aclu, ruled it unconstitutional for the Ten Commandments to be displayed in a public school, the Jewish organizations found this ruling unobjectionable. People who wanted their children to know about the Ten Commandments could send their children to heder.

Since there was a powerful secularizing trend among American Christians after World War II, there was far less outrage over all this than one might have anticipated. The Jewish campaign against any suggestion that America was a Christian nation won one battle after another; eventually it made sufficient headway in the media and the legal profession—most importantly on the Supreme Court—that today there is widespread popular acceptance of the belief that this kind of secularism, which is tolerant of religion only so long as it is practiced privately and very discreetly, was indigenously and authoritatively “American,” and had always been so. Of course, it has not always been so, and Americans have always thought of themselves as a Christian nation—one with a secular government, which was equally tolerant of all religions so long as they were congruent with traditional Judeo-Christian morality. But equal toleration under the law never meant perfect equality of status in fact. Christianity is not the legally established religion in the United States, but it is established informally, nevertheless. And in the past forty years, this informal establishment in American society has grown more secure, even as the legal position of religion in public life has been attenuated. In this respect, the United States differs markedly from the democracies of Western Europe, where religion continues steadily to decline and is regarded as an anachronism grudgingly tolerated. In the United States, religion is more popular today than it was in the 1960s, and its influence is growing, so the difference between the United States and Europe becomes more evident with every passing year. Europeans are baffled and a little frightened by the religious revival in America, while Americans take the continuing decline of religion in Europe as just another symptom of European decadence.

And even as the Christian revival in the United States gathers strength, the Jewish community is experiencing a modest religious revival of its own. Alarmed by a rate of intermarriage approaching 50 percent, the money and energy that used to go into fighting anti-Semitism, or Israel Bonds, is now being channeled into Jewish education. Jewish day schools have become more popular, and the ritual in both Reform and Conservative synagogues has become more traditional. But this Jewish revival does not prevent American Jews from being intensely and automatically hostile to the concurrent Christian revival. It is fair to say that American Jews wish to be more Jewish while at the same time being frightened at the prospect of American Christians becoming more Christian. It is also fair to say that American Jews see nothing odd in this attitude. Intoxicated with their economic, political and judicial success over the past half-century, American Jews seem to have no reluctance in expressing their vision of an ideal America: A country where Christians are purely nominal, if that, in their Christianity, while they want the Jews to remain a flourishing religious community. One can easily understand the attractiveness of this vision to Jews. What is less easy to understand is the chutzpah of American Jews in publicly embracing this dual vision. Such arrogance is, I would suggest, a peculiarly Jewish form of political stupidity.For the time being, American Jews are getting away with this arrogance. Indeed, American Christians—and most especially the rising Evangelical movements—are extraordinarily tolerant, if more than a little puzzled, by this novel Jewish posture. And the lack of any negative Christian reaction has only encouraged American Jews in the belief that they have discovered some kind of universally applicable formula for dealing with non-Jews. One can see this in the way many American Jews have taken to speaking about Israeli foreign policy in recent years. After all, why should getting along with believing Moslems be different from getting along with non-believing Christians? Many Jews honestly do not appreciate the difference, and therefore assume that if there is no peace in the Middle East, Israeli Jews must be doing something wrong.

With the exception of a few quotations from the Prophets, there is nothing in the Jewish tradition that prepares Jews to think politically about foreign policy. It is not surprising, therefore, that Europe’s Jews were so vulnerable to the universalist utopianism that characterized the Enlightenment, whose essence is the attempt to make do with abstract theories of universal rights and international laws, in precisely those areas in which a people most desperately needs the practical experience of statesmanship and the political wisdom which at great length grows out of it. This political utopianism has left the Jews intellectually disarmed as they attempt to deal with the intractable foreign policy problems of an independent Jewish state, and charging down a blind alley in their search for constitutional arrangements that serve the Jewish interest in both the United States and Israel.


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