No Holds Barred: Politicians cannot save America

Religion is rendered powerless when it becomes yet another superstition, with our needs rather than God at its center.

Captain America 311 (photo credit: JTA)
Captain America 311
(photo credit: JTA)
This whole week, I’ve digested an endless number of op-eds by writers saying America is going down the drain. We’re a downgraded nation. The world doesn’t trust us to pay our bills. Our debt is strangling us.
There is gridlock in Washington. China’s got us in a chokehold.
Half the writers say it’s Obama’s fault; he’s a closet socialist. The other half say it’s the Republicans and the Tea Party which are destroying America. They are extremists who brook no compromise. They are the party of the rich who want grandmas to pay off our debt rather than hedge fund managers.
Both opinions miss the point. Politicians will not get us out of this mess. The proof: Every two years we make a radical political power shift. Two years ago Obama was the Messiah, his words capable of reviving the dead. Two years later his poll numbers are on life support.
A few years before, it was George W. Bush who was going to save the globe from tyranny, with a strong majority of Americans – and Congress – supporting his efforts to invade countries that practiced and exported said tyranny.
Now we blame him for saddling America with two wars that have bankrupted us. No doubt whoever wins the presidency in 2012 will be seen as a hero for about a year before they, too, are demoted to the rank of loser.
This lurching to and fro in jarring electoral shifts just proves that we’re searching for something politics can’t provide.
The real problems lie elsewhere, with us, the electorate.
We, the people, are losing our values. Drunk with decades of material indulgence unbalanced by authentic spiritual endeavor, we’re fast becoming corrupt. We look to objects for happiness and fulfillment. We go shopping when we feel empty and depressed. We elevate billionaires and Hollywood entertainers to positions of public acclaim they have not earned.
AMERICA IS not experiencing a crisis of leadership so much as a crisis of values. Politicians cannot provide them; they are mere caretakers of public business, and are as much in need of values guidance as the rest of us.
So whence do values stem? From faith. From religion.
From a belief in lofty ideals that are not man-made. It is religion rather than politics that teaches that all humans are equal and of infinite value and therefore matter more than ephemeral material objects. It is religion that teaches that family is sacred, marriage is a sacrament and relationships are a more reliable road to happiness than careers. And it is religion that teaches that one good deed – even if it isn’t captured on camera or broadcast on TV – has the power to change the world.
So why isn’t religion reversing the values-rot in America? Because it, too, has been drafted into the service of insatiability. God has become yet another avenue for material gain. Pastors preach ‘prosperity theology’ in which God is He who provides a promotion. Rabbis watch in silence as congregants turn spiritual celebrations into showcases of material excess. Islam promises virgins in paradise to those who strike a blow or suffer death in its name.
At its core, religion is the antidote to decadence, the subordination of self-centeredness to God’s higher purpose.
It is the inspiration behind altruism and the engine powering empathy. But it is rendered powerless when it becomes yet another superstition, with our needs rather than God at its center.
We Americans would do well to heed the call of Moses in this week’s Torah reading for a religion that is a cure for materialism: “It is not by bread alone that man may live, but on the word of the living God that man shall live.”
The loss of religious values has consequences. Britain, where only 42 percent of the population believes in God, is in the throes of humiliating riots where the demand for justice has been transmuted into stealing a television. The Church of England, with its weekly 5-percent attendance rate, seems powerless to imbue deeper values to a citizenry losing its spiritual core.
This is not to say that a nation must be religious to be healthy, and indeed many religious nations are cruel, wicked and utterly corrupt. It is to say that those nations that prosper have religious values, even if they are not themselves religious. A case in point is Israel, whose majority is secular, yet is informed and influenced by the Jewish values on which he country was built.
I WAS in Israel last week when I heard the terrible news that 30 of our bravest fellow Americans were killed by a Taliban rocket. This news was one among many headlines back home. In Israel, it would have sent the entire nation into paroxysms of national mourning. Wherever you travel in Israel, you see signs demanding the release of Gilad Schalit, the IDF soldier who has been held like an animal by Hamas – a prime example of evil religion – for more than five years.
“I have set before you life and death,” said Moses. “Choose life.” These values are what makes Israel ready to trade 1,000 terrorists to free Schalit.
Last week in Tel Aviv, I took 40 young Americans who were visiting the Jewish state for the first time to the American Embassy, where we were guests of our outstanding new ambassador, Dan Shapiro, and heard a briefing on all that America does to support democracies like Israel. As we emerged onto the street, I spontaneously led our group in loudly singing Lee Greenwood’s beautiful song “God Bless the USA.” It was a hymn to my country, a paragon of benevolence and kindness.
A few days later, I was in Washington, speaking at a conference, and took my kids to the marine, air force, and World War II monuments, explaining that the US military is today the foremost force for good in the world. And it’s no coincidence that its greatness is marked by a service to something other than money.
The writer will shortly be publishing Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Yourself and Kosher Jesus. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.