This essay by Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, has been making the rounds. On the occasion of the 9/11 commemorations, Rabbi Sacks meditates on whether the West really is doomed to follow the path of all great civilizations before it to inevitable decline. He’s not hopeful. Like all civilizations that become rich and powerful, he says , the West today has lost its moral cohesion: it has grown secular, self-indulgent and soft. He thinks the only thing that can save the West is a return to covenental politics of the sort advocated by the Abrahamic religions:
It is a peculiarity of the Abrahamic monotheisms that they see, at the heart of society, the idea of covenant. Covenantal politics are politics with a purpose, driven by high ideals, among them the sanctity of life, the dignity of the individual, the rule of justice and compassion, and concern for the poor, the widow, the orphan and the stranger. G.K. Chesterton called America a “nation with the soul of a church.” Britain used to be like that also. In the 1950s there was no television at certain hours on Sunday so as not to deter churchgoing. Sundays helped keep families together, families helped keep communities together, and communities helped keep society together. I, a Jew growing up in a Christian nation, did not feel threatened by this. I felt supported by it – much more than I do now in an ostensibly more tolerant but actually far more abrasive, rude and aggressive society.
What is unique about covenant is its seemingly endless possibility of renewal. It happened in the Bible in the days of Joshua, Josiah and Ezra. It happened in America between 1820 and 1850 in the Second Great Awakening. It happened in Britain at the same time through the great Victorian social reformers and philanthropists. Covenant defeats the law of entropy that says that all systems lose energy over time. It creates renewable energy. It has the power to arrest, even reverse, the decline and fall of nations.
Now, one can quarrel with some of the points in Rabbi Sacks’s piece. He characterizes the Soviet Union as a great civilization, when it lasted only 70 years, and he overemphasizes the parallels between the Soviet and American invasions of Afghanistan. His call for a covenental politics to reverse decline is nothing new. Americans have been speaking in these terms since the English Calvinists founded Massachusetts Bay. Still, his basic point about civilizational decline seems unassailable, and his piece is very much worth reading. Would the religious politics he advocates work in our increasingly pluralistic society? Each Abrahamic religion has is own covenant, after all; there’s going to be friction. Rabbi Sacks writes that, as a Jew in 1950s Britain, he felt supported by a frankly Christian public life. Even assuming Christians would want to return to those days, would members of minority religions still sign up for such a regime? –MLM