For people who feel lost and lonely, what’s the best way to work your way back to home and wholeness? Does it make more sense to rely on faith or politics?
In this autumnal season of electoral fever – and of the Jewish high holy days – the choice between God and government significantly divides right and left, Republicans and Democrats.
At their Denver convention, the Democrats adopted the most unabashedly liberal platform in the party’s history, including the following remarkable promise: “We will provide immediate relief to working people who have lost their jobs, families who have lost their homes and people who have lost their way.”
While one can imagine frenzied Democratic efforts to muster “immediate relief” for lost jobs and lost homes, how, exactly, do they propose to assist those who have “lost their way”? For all the messianic pretensions of the Obama campaign, the junior senator from Illinois has not yet, to my knowledge, proclaimed himself “the way, the truth, and the life.”
Nevertheless, the candidate’s most devoted acolyte, Michelle Obama, has repeatedly suggested that the purpose of the campaign isn’t just to transform our politics and to heal our earth, but to rescue shattered and stricken souls. On February 3, 2008, she told a rapturous crowd at UCLA: “We have to fix our souls. Our souls are broken in this nation.” The next week she expressed similar sentiments to an audience in Green Bay, Wisconsin, declaring: “We are dealing with a basic hole in our soul of the nation- we are lost.”
In other words, the wife of the presidential candidate echoes the Democratic Party platform in openly defining the campaign’s goals in spiritual and not just political terms. Is it any wonder that the movement behind Barack Obama has taken on some of the weird, zombie-like trappings of a trendy religious cult? In promising the repair of broken souls and showing the way to those who are lost, this campaign has undertaken tasks usually reserved for religious institutions.
In the Jewish tradition, the fall season is devoted to repentance, prayer and restoration of the soul, even more than campaigning for your favorite candidate. Rosh HaShannah – the Jewish New Year which began on Monday night – introduces the “ten days of repentance” culminating with the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), which falls this year on October 9th. The Hebrew word for repentance – “t’shuvah” – literally means “return” and the whole purpose of the sacred season is to bring back lost souls (all of us, in actuality) to the Godly and honorable path we are meant to walk. Despite the sad fact that most American Jews feel passionately committed to liberal causes, our liturgy and tradition never suggest that we rescue the lost and repair our souls through supporting specific candidates or government policies, no matter how worthy. The process of slate-cleaning and fresh starts that we undertake every year at this time requires an intensive effort of self-examination and personal change, not the easier (and shallower) immersion in sweeping social movements.
For religious Jews and committed Christians, real change demands a commitment to God and His law, not just volunteer efforts for an inspiring politican. The very idea that government and politics can accomplish the work of spiritual renewal counts as a ludicrous insult, an obamanation. When it comes to the job of “fixing souls” or showing the way to lost sheep, the right response for any presidential candidate would be: “That’s beyond my pay grade.”
The leftwing tendency to view politics as a substitute for religion will properly worry more Americans than the right’s habit of allowing faith commitments to impact political positions. It’s true that social conservatives sometimes feel such fervent religious enthusiasm that we allow our faith to spill over into the political realm. On the other hand, liberals nurture the sort of political intensity and fervor that not only invades the religious domain but often takes the place of organized faith. Liberal denominations regularly describe their chief mission as “social justice” – meaning the agitation for redistributionist and activist government policies long advocated by the left. My friend, columnist Mona Charen, memorably described Reform Judaism (the most “progressive” branch of our ancient faith) as “nothing more than the Democratic Party with holidays.”
If there’s one message of this season’s real holidays, it’s that no movement, no political campaign, no public initiative can fill “holes in the soul” as effectively as nurturing a private relationship with the Creator. As Rabbi Daniel Lapin trenchantly observes, people will either worship “the big G” – God, or else they will worship “the little g”—government.
The adulation and embrace of government will undermine devotion to God, just as subservience and love for God will dilute the authority of government. That’s why totalitarian systems of every sort distrust and suppress authentic religious faith.
This year, the month of October brings both political frenzy and religious reflection. In the dual spirit of this season, may we help to return the lost from their wandering and restore all broken souls, finding the strength and the insight to uphold the right “G.”