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What We Face: Reasserting Liberal Values

Lawrence Bush
June 1, 2005

Thoughts on the Struggle to Reassert Liberal Values in Defiance of the Christian Right and the Corporate Empire
Image of Two American Flags
by Lawrence Bush
In a discussion about abortion and Judaism that I led several months ago, a veteran feminist activist expressed the feeling of many in the room when she said, with wide eyes: “I can’t believe I have to be discussing abortion rights again! I thought we won this thirty years ago!”
I responded with a fact that I had learned in preparing for the class: that in 1973, Roe v. Wade had upended laws making abortion illegal or highly restricted in forty-six states. The “right to choose,” in other words, had been established not by legislative victories rooted in a nationwide moral consensus, but by what President Bush would today mockingly call “activist judges” who located within the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution an implicit “right to privacy.” We should not be surprised, I said, at having to refashion moral, political and religious arguments for abortion rights today when, thirty-plus years ago — with all due respect for the dedication, creativity and ferocity of the women’s movement — our victory came with relatively little spadework.
During those same three decades, in fact, the right wing has been digging, digging, digging at the foundations of liberalism to foster its collapse. We on the left, impressed by our capacity to effect major social change in the 1960s and ’70s, have mostly failed to repackage and “market” progressive principles and their underlying values to the American public. Among these principles, I would count the following:

  • that government should be viewed as an embodiment of communal responsibility and a welcome protector of the vulnerable;
  • that cooperation and mercy work better at mobilizing human beings to build a better society than unbridled competition and harsh justice;
  • that wealth should be treated not primarily as an individual accomplishment, but also as a social product; likewise, that poverty should be treated not primarily as an individual failure, but as a communal responsibility;
  • that personal freedom and expression, including choices about consensual sexuality, health, family and culture, should not be restricted by legislation except to protect life or property from physical harm;
  • that status derived from class, race, gender, religion, sexual preference, and other factors that shape hierarchies, should not be the main determinant of fulfillment in life;
  • that national pride and national self-interest should be balanced by a respect for the self-determination of other peoples and a strong commitment to the kind of international cooperation needed to preserve our planet.

Each of these principles could make use of religious scripture and the treasured documents of American history as “proof-texts.” Each could be embodied in inspirational slogans worthy of repetition. When is the last time liberalism got a fresh airing and some skilled marketing in the broad public sphere?
Instead, the ascendancy of conservative thought in America is nearly complete, and liberals have been reduced to behaving like faux conservatives (the Democrats, for example, are now recruiting anti-choice senatorial candidates in the name of “enlarging the tent”) while fighting defensive battles about this or that policy. No longer do right-wingers even feel it necessary to speak in code, as in the 1950s and ’60s, when “states’ rights” meant Jim Crow, the “right to work” meant opposition to unionization, and so on. Today, outside the propaganda mills of the White House, the right sees little need for euphemism.

This was made breathtakingly clear by the Reverend Pat Robertson, leader of the Christian Coalition and the Christian Broadcasting Network, in a January 15th address before the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Robertson presented a six-point agenda for the Christian right:
First, he said, “What people of faith want above all else is an acknowledgment by government, by media, by educators, and especially the courts, that the greatness of our nation depends on its spiritual strength. . . . [They] do not want their collective wisdom to be derided, ridiculed and ignored by a tiny elite who are working tirelessly to strip our nation of its spiritual heritage and its moral foundation.”
Second, Robertson said, “people of faith . . . are opposed in 2005 to a policy of silent acquiescence to tyrannical regimes like Iran and North Korea . . .”
Third, “we also oppose tyranny at home . . . [especially] the usurpation of legislative and executive power by nonelected judges . . .”
Fourth, “people of faith . . . resent the influence of a powerful left-wing teachers union . . . they deplore the lack of standards, they are offended by the ongoing vendetta against religious values and traditions in many public schools, and they do not want their children to be used as guinea pigs in social experimentation . . .”
Fifth, “Experience shows that the good done by faith-based organizations is beyond calculation because they are able to serve not only the physical needs of the poor, but their spiritual needs as well.”
Sixth, “people of faith applaud the efforts of the president to foster in our nation free enterprise, individual initiative, and an ownership society free from the intrusion and whims of big government.”

It’s all there: the targeting of the judiciary’s constitutional obligations to interpret law (and sometimes to overturn it); the targeting of church-state separation, particularly in the schools; and the advocacy of faith-based social services, deregulated capitalism, a shrinking domestic role for the federal government, and an aggressively militaristic foreign policy.
The most astounding aspect of Robertson’s manifesto, however, is his tone of “anti-Establishment” insurgency. Despite his confident proclamations about the robustness of Christian evangelism in America and around the world, he paints a picture of an oppressed Christian population subject to the authority and the condescension of secular humanistic “powers-that-be.”
To those on the left who feel like an endangered minority in America, Robertson’s tone of wounded indignation may seem preposterous. We are the ones, after all, who feel plagued by right-wing media bigots, prevented from building same-sex families, forced to subject children to test-driven education, repulsed by the manipulative consumerism that brings SUVs to the highways and Wal-Mart to the landscape, and trapped in a two-party political system that encourages the repeated betrayal of liberal values by Democratic candidates. Yet the passion that makes the Christian right the most dynamic force in American politics today is that feeling of aggrieved insurgency — and the feeling is actually quite valid.
Think about it: For all of the mobilizing that the Christian right has done on behalf of Bush-Cheney (and, before them, Reagan-Bush), its most fundamental demands have not been fulfilled by the increasingly empowered Republican Party. Abortion remains legal, if increasingly constrained; prayer remains banned from the schools; gay and lesbian Americans continue to make progress towards equal citizenship, despite the hatred poured on their heads by the likes of Pat Robertson; evolution remains on the science curriculum in the great majority of school districts; sexual explicitness (for better or worse) pervades the popular culture. Just as the left has been consistently betrayed by Democrats in service of their corporate sponsors, the religious right has failed to see a single major item on its agenda turned into federal law by its Republican “allies” over the past three decades.
One key reason for this failure is that the U.S. Constitution — thank heavens! — defines a society based upon commerce and democratic political struggle, not, in Pat Robertson’s words, upon a particular “spiritual heritage” and “moral foundation.” The Constitution was the product of what historian Gordon S. Wood has called “the radicalism of the American Revolution,” which did away with feudal or religious hierarchies by basing relationships (among propertied white males, to begin with) on commerce while establishing guarantees for individual liberties. Efforts by contemporary religious groups to establish a Puritan-like atmosphere of social control cannot easily stand up to constitutional scrutiny or to the “radicalism” of American commerce.
Even while it may impede the progress of the Christian right, however, American capitalism, as shaped by today’s behemoth corporations, has embraced its own version of radical conservatism as the surest route to maximum profits. Elements of this economic conservatism include domestic and international deregulation, environmental heedlessness, elimination of taxation, monopolistic mergers, anti-labor legislation, vigorous debt collection, easy recourse to war in order to dominate resources and put down rivals, the squelching of public advocacy through “tort reform,” manipulation of political systems, and much more. Unlike the Christian right, moreover, economic conservatives have had near-total cooperation from Congress, presidents and the Supreme Court. It adds up to a devouring “empire capitalism” that is unsustainable in our fragile world.

So which of these forces should we fear more: the theocratic ambitions of the Christian right, or the unsustainable rapacity of the corporate empire? If we were to base our judgment on the strategies of the American Jewish community, Pat Robert-son would be the main bogeyman.
Take, for example, the Reform synagogue movement’s Religious Action Center in Washington, DC — a dynamic liberal Jewish institution that lobbies on fundamental political issues like campaign finance reform, civil liberties, judicial appointments, and foreign policy. A visit to their “press room” shows a stress on church-state separation, reproductive choice, gay rights, and other “lifestyle” issues that far outweighs any opposition to corporate power. Even when corporate scandals burst into the headlines in 1992, with Enron, Global Crossing, ImClone, and numerous financial institutions falling into disrepute — and with several Jewish corporate executives dragged into court — embarrassingly few Jewish organizations wagged their fingers or quoted from the prophetic books of the Bible in condemnation of greed and exploitation.
Several factors contribute to this reticence. One is the oligarchic structure of organized Jewish life, in which wealth readily translates into influence and power. Simply put, many leaders and funders of Jewish organizations are themselves wealthy corporate players who are not likely to make corporate social responsibility a major focus of concern.
Second, corporate power is a more elusive foe than right-wing Christian radicalism. Corporate malefactors do not often stand, like Pat Robertson, in front of the National Press Club and deliver a six-point agenda of insurgency. Robertson and his allies are also tainted in Jewish eyes by centuries of Christian anti-Semitism and conversionary pressure (even their affection for Israel is rooted in an eschatological fantasy with anti-Semitic implications). By comparison, corporate anti-Semitism has been barely a blip on the Jewish radar.
Third, Israel’s survival, so preoccupying to the Jewish community, has been dependent upon an alliance with the U.S. military-industrial complex. By contrast, the movement for corporate social responsibility was first launched to challenge that military-industrial complex. For example, the 270-plus church groups that today are members of the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) first began uniting in anti-military and anti-nuclear sentiment in the late 1960s — while the Jewish community was being pressured by President Johnson to tone down its opposition to the Vietnam War for the sake of preserving arms sales to Israel. In the 1980s, the ICCR campaigned to force corporations to withdraw investment from South Africa — while the Jewish community, aware of Israel’s opportunistic alliance with the apartheid regime, was unable to unite around a divestment agenda. Even today, the ICCR, a key activist center for corporate responsibility, has only two Jewish member groups. (One of them, the Shefa Fund, is trying to overcome Jewish inertia on these issues by creating a shareholder activism campaign tailored to Jewish institutions.)
Meanwhile, those who do take to the streets in opposition to corporate power tend to be committed anti-capitalists who are not thought of as acceptable allies in organized Jewish life. Today’s Jewish majority would not be caught dead behind police barricades shouting at a World Bank meeting. While many have a militant socialist ancestor of some vintage whispering in their ear, most of the community highly values the freedom and bounty that American capitalism has bestowed upon the Jews. What inspiring role models of socialist democracy and prosperity exist to sway them leftwards — especially now that Israel has shed most of its socialist image and institutions?
All of these factors bring the organized Jewish community into perfect alignment with the Democratic Party, whose own powerbrokers seem far too indebted to corporate sponsors to challenge economic conservatism in a fundamental way.

Nevertheless, within Judaism and Jewish history run streams of liberal theology and economic philosophy that could be pooled to provide a precious antidote to Christian and corporate conservatism. Time and again the Jewish Bible instructs us to empathize with the vulnerable and the stranger, “for you were strangers in Egypt.” Other sacred Jewish texts, as well as Jewish heroes and heroines of years past, have emphasized such principles as the collective nature of wealth, the dignity of labor, the role of mercy in preserving the world from barbarism, and the mandate to treat other living creatures as fellow beings, not as objects. These affirmations can give religious and moral foundation to the liberal principles expounded at the opening of this article — far more readily, in fact, than the New Testament can provide foundation for most of Pat Robertson’s six-point agenda.
By itself, of course, quality liberal rhetoric will not stem the conservative onslaught. But as radical right-wingers in the pulpit, corporate boardroom and halls of government overreach the goodwill of the American people, as they inevitably will do — perhaps on social security, or on the environment, or on war and economic sacrifice — a liberalism that speaks boldly about working people’s economic realities and about a moral vision of human interconnection will be positioned to make a comeback. We can help bring about that day by abandoning our posture of stunned disbelief — “I can’t believe I have to be discussing this again!” — and engaging in new explanations of our values and our vision.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.