Independence Day: Can you blend religion and democracy? - opinion

Religious people should cherish democracy and practice liberal values while rejecting much of modern liberal ideology.

 UNCLE SAM: Dressed up as the US Federal Government’s national personification. (photo credit: Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)
UNCLE SAM: Dressed up as the US Federal Government’s national personification.
(photo credit: Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)

This coming week, the United States – the longest-running, most successful democracy – will be celebrating its Independence Day

This ambitious experiment or “the city on the hill” has both transformed modern politics and profoundly shaped contemporary culture. And yet, because democracy has so dramatically advanced society, it is sometimes over-glorified. Intoxicated with democracy, we often ignore its flaws and we don’t sufficiently acknowledge the hazards it poses to religion. Democracy is so fashionable and so revered that it becomes its own religion, blinding us to its own anti-religious demons.

Individual freedom

Democracy successfully liberated humanity from centuries of repressive totalitarian rule, offering each individual political liberty and personal freedom. Democracy’s emphasis on the individual and his or her essential freedoms clashes with religion’s stress upon our submission to a higher authority and to divine commandments.

Furthermore, democracy fosters individualism whereas religion asserts collectivism. Religious identity is pivoted upon belonging to broader “networks” beyond our own selves, such as community and historical nationhood. While religion attempts to stretch our imagination beyond ourselves and beyond our needs, democracy often traps us in narrow prisons of self-interest, locking us in a withered cell of individualism.

Rights or duties?

Additionally, by highlighting the inalienable rights of every human being, democracy prioritizes privileges and entitlements over duties and responsibilities. Preservation of rights is paramount, but as a precondition for human well-being, so that, ultimately, human beings with rights can better express their duties. These are just a few of the areas in which democratic values deviate from religious sensibilities and from ritual life.

A woman plays with her dog as the municipality building is lit in the colours of the American flag on the first day of U.S. President Donald Trump's visit in Israel, in Tel Aviv, Israel May 22, 2017. (credit: REUTERS/CORINNA KERN)
A woman plays with her dog as the municipality building is lit in the colours of the American flag on the first day of U.S. President Donald Trump's visit in Israel, in Tel Aviv, Israel May 22, 2017. (credit: REUTERS/CORINNA KERN)

Distortion of “equality”

In the broader social arena, democracy often distorts our moral thinking. Democracy seeks to bestow political equality, empowering each citizen with equal influence in government and its policies. However, political equality is often confused with other types of equality. Just because everyone is equal in the ballot box doesn’t mean they are also equal in the moral conversation. This misconstrued notion of equality has produced a confused world, bereft of absolute moral opinions and absent of clear divisions between “right” and “wrong.”

Under the “spell” of moral relativism, society struggles to assign absolute moral positions. Each and every viewpoint must be accredited and every personal perspective must be validated. A terrorist is merely a “freedom fighter” restoring violated national pride. Worse, radical political correctness suffocates free speech and hijacks meaningful conversation. Only “safe” and meaningless speech is tolerated.

Scrubbing identity

Absolute equality is also creating a crisis of identity. Previous societies were built upon rigid political, social, racial and economic hierarchies with limited opportunities for upward mobility. These hierarchies were oppressive, but they also provided clear and unmistakable value systems upon which to build identity.

With the abolition of hierarchies and the expansion of freedom, a crisis of identity has emerged. In a world in which the only indisputable value is freedom, every other value is “up for grabs” and ultimately, we start to ask ourselves “Who am I?” If religion, morality, nationality, or even gender aren’t assumed and there are no longer any objectives or absolutes, identity becomes quicksand. In an endless carnival of values, we no longer have clear identity anchors.

Should Israel be democratic?

In Israel, in addition to pondering the religious and moral challenges of democracy, we struggle with an even broader question: Should our State be a pure Democracy? 

Undeniably, our homeland must be structured upon a foundation of democratic values. In our daily prayers, prior to petitioning for a return to Jerusalem, we pray for the restoration of a righteous government and for ethical leaders. Our return to Jerusalem, the city of justice, can only be enabled through a moral political system. Our return home was delayed until the world discovered democracy. Yet, despite its value, democracy is not the highest or most supreme value. 

One day, God will restore our theocracy and install a benevolent monarch, but until that day, democracy is the best and fairest form of government that humans have imagined, and it must serve as the political platform of our historical return. 

Israel is the Jewish historical homeland that we have collectively longed for across time and space. Although every race, religion and nationality must be afforded equal rights, personal dignity and religious freedom, our state must retain its Jewish character. 

For many, the very thought that Israel should not be a pure democracy is heretical. For religious people, it should be obvious. Democracy is an indispensable feature of the state we are assembling but it is not the overriding feature. Israel must first be historical and only afterwards, democratic.

Upholding democracy

Just the same, and given all the potential hazards to religion, it is fair to ask whether religious people sufficiently value democracy and sufficiently uphold its principles. I fear that, given all its flaws, democracy is too often taken for granted and even vilified by religious people. If we critique its potential hazards, we must first reinforce our support of it.

Though democracy traces its origins to ancient Greece, its modern incarnation stems from the 17th century, as philosophers, primarily British, began to articulate its principles. 

In the 18th century, these ideals became embodied in the American and French Revolutions. Initially, democracy drew inspiration from the Bible. God, not Man, is the ultimate authority and He invested every Man with dignity and with freedom of conscience. Humans are religiously bound to preserve this divine dignity and to assure that God’s creatures could exercise their moral agency. Ironically, especially in the United States, while religion was formally separated from politics, it still wielded significant influence, both in individual identity and communal life.

It may seem odd to the modern perspective, but democracy had deep roots in religion. In its ideal form, democracy is a political instinct delivered by God enabling Man to protect the divine potential which God Himself endowed.

In the past two centuries, democracy and its offshoot, capitalism, have dramatically improved the human condition, eliminating hunger and poverty as causes of death – and fueling industrialization, scientific discovery and technological advance. 

One of the core tenets of monotheism is that God covets the improvement of the human condition. He isn’t arbitrary or indifferent but desires human welfare. Any political system which enhances human welfare is a divine gift to Man.

Jews, in particular, must cherish the freedom of worship that democracy has conferred on us. For the first time since we were evicted from our homeland, we enjoyed absolute and unconditional freedom to practice our religion without discrimination. For the first time in exile, we were treated as equal members of society, enjoying full rights and equal opportunities. Until recently, democracies also protected us against antisemitism. The fact that, sadly, certain elements of modern democracies have fueled the “new antisemitism” shouldn’t obscure the considerable manner in which democracies have curbed antisemitism.

Religious Jews must deeply value democracy, despite its religious challenges and despite some of the modern expressions of democratic culture. Sadly, the term “liberalism” which is so foundational to democracy, has been twisted to reflect values that are often incongruent with religion.

Ideally, the principles of liberalism demand that we respect people who behave differently from us and that we protect their freedom, even if we sharply disagree with their views. Unfortunately, this term has been commandeered and perverted to reflect very different cultural perspectives. However, we can’t overreact, and we must not reject liberal values simply because the term has been radicalized. Don’t allow others to steal your terminology and disqualify important values.

Religious people should cherish democracy and practice liberal values while rejecting much of modern liberal ideology.■

The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He received rabbinic ordination and a BS in Computer Science from Yeshiva University, as well as a Master’s in English Literature from the City University of New York.