Last evening, Jews around the world concluded their celebration of Rosh Hashanah — the Jewish new year. In Judaism, Rosh Hashanah commences the Ten Days of Repentance that ends with the full fast of Yom Kippur. During this holy time, Jews earnestly repent for their transgressions, engage in deep introspection about wayward ways and habits, and beseech the Almighty to inscribe us in the Book of Life.
The Jewish process of teshuvah — atonement, introspection, vowing to always improve, and humbly supplicating the Divine for a charitable ruling — is a fundamentally healthy and salutary exercise. We as a society would go a long way toward collectively bettering ourselves if we all more frequently and rigorously engaged in meaningful soul-searching, penitence, and course correction.
I thought about this a lot in shul over the past couple of days. Religious Americans of all stripes increasingly find themselves on the defensive in contemporary society. In the year 2019, cultural currents all firmly point in the direction of leftism and paganism. The reality is that modern America is a pretty great time to be a secularist — the media, Hollywood, the Fortune 500, the academy, and sundry other prestigious institutions comprising our broader societal vanguard all routinely shill for the advancement of taxpayer subsidized abortion on-demand, stigma-free self-inflicted genital mutilation under the “compassionate” guise of “transgenderism,” and homosexual- and transgender-infused revanchism that would oppressively snuff out the ability of many religious Jews and Christians to practice their religions.
I serve in an of counsel capacity for the nation’s largest law firm solely dedicated to defense of religious liberty. Religious liberty, defined perhaps as the ability of the religious to freely and unobtrusively practice their faiths and worship and obey the Almighty in accordance with the idiosyncratic dictates of one’s own conscience, is the cornerstone of the American republic. Numerically, the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment are the first enumerated provisions of the very first ratified constitutional amendment. That is no mere coincident — the Framers first listed religious liberty for a reason. As John Adams once famously said: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” And Alexis de Tocqueville once averred that “[Liberty] considers religion as the safeguard of morality, and morality as the best security of law and the surest pledge of the duration of freedom.” To be sure, if one cares about restoring the original public meaning of the Constitution and securing the eternal blessings of the liberty that Constitution secures, therefore, it logically follows that one must necessarily also care about safeguarding religion.
But crucially, religion as it has historically been practiced in America ought not to be merely viewed as a purely pragmatic cudgel to wield as a steppingstone toward the broader goal of constitutional elevation. Nor, to borrow the conceptual framework of the ongoing intramural conservative dialogue between the New York Post’s Sohrab Ahmari and National Review’s David French, should religious liberty be merely thought of as the defensive terrain of those who would procedurally plead for “peace” or “tolerance.” Instead, conservatives and religious Americans ought to begin framing their defense of America’s religious tradition through a distinctively normative lens — namely, by arguing that the Judeo-Christian family of religions are intrinsically good for the pursuit of human flourishing.
Against the domineering would-be cultural hegemons of the modern Left, procedural arguments from religious Americans rooted in the universal equality and tolerance of the First Amendment’s Religion Clauses are deeply necessary, but hardly sufficient. Fundamentally, it is time for conservatives and religious Americans to go back on the offensive in the culture war. As I formulated it last month at The American Mind: “Genuflecting and begging our illiberal brethren for ‘tolerance’ and ‘respect’ is a proven failure; values-neutral pluralistic liberalism has been tried and found wanting as a remedy. … Instead of retreating to procedural neutrality, conservatives must be willing to advance moral arguments and wield the levers of political power to guide our culture toward a rediscovery of virtue and the promotion of the common weal.” But a necessary antecedent to the moralistic wielding of the levers of political power is to make the substantive, straightforward argument that the Judeo-Christian religious tradition is not just constitutionally proper or useful as a means to an unrelated end — rather, we must make the case that a more religious society is a better and more just society.
The Jewish practice of teshuvah is but one small and timely example. There are a myriad other examples of inherently wholesome and purifying rituals and activities undertaken in the name of the world’s great monotheistic religions, and it is incumbent upon religious Jews and Christians in America to highlight them. Only by standing forthrightly and unapologetically for the goodness of our religions can we lay the groundwork for culture war legislation. And only via progress in the culture war and a subduing of our secularist opposition can we, in the words James Madison in The Federalist No. 57, “obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society.”
The republic will be most grateful for our efforts.