Chief Rabbi Sacks: Jeffersonian Rights, Civil Society and Covenant Renewal Keys to Reversing Decline of Western Civilization

October 15, 2010 — Big ideas take time to explain. Fortunately for audiences at the University of Virginia, Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, head of the largest synagogue conference in the United Kingdom and an adviser to former British prime ministers Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, had more than five hours over the course of three lectures last week to explain his ideas.

A philosopher, theologian and authority on faith and society, called by Blair "a towering figure in the intellectual life of Britain today," Sacks sought to explain how complex forces have been gradually undermining Western societies, and prescribed remedies that include a renewal of civil society through covenant – a concept at the foundation of American identity but under threat in recent decades.

Sacks argued that Western civilization is declining as the social supports for morality and religion – the civil institutions of marriage, family and church – have been undermined by a crucial "crossed wire:" allowing the logic of markets and politics to invade civil society, with disastrous results. 

This decline can be reversed, and civil society renewed, Sacks suggested, by returning to covenantal relationships – within marriages, families and the nation as a whole.

Sacks delivered all three lectures on "Difference and Democracy in the Post-Secular World" in the Rotunda Dome Room, sponsored by the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences' Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

Noting his great admiration of Thomas Jefferson and the privilege of speaking in his "Temple to Reason," Sacks said that the West must recover a Jeffersonian approach to human rights as limits to the power of the state, rather than the French Revolution's model of human rights granted by the state to individuals, because the latter tends to trample institutions of civil society – like marriage, family, church and voluntary associations – that stand between the individual and the state.

"That is when rights become wrongs," he said.

Politics is inherently divisive, so society needs something to hold it together, to inspire a sense of common good, and that role has traditionally been filled by religion and civil institutions like families and churches, Sacks said.

Economics and politics are arenas of mediated, principled competition for money or power, where individuals struggle to survive and beat others.

But social goods, like knowledge, trust, learning, friendship and love, inherently work differently, Sacks explained. "The more I share, the more I have," he said. Social goods don't operate by the logic of scarcity and zero-sum games, so where those goods are involved, we should promote cooperation rather than competition, he said.

That cooperation can take two forms: a contract or a covenant. In a contract, two parties, each focused on personal interest, come together for a specific purpose from which both benefit, for limited time. In a covenant, two or more people come together with a moral commitment to stay together in good and bad times, for the greater good, and, by doing so, are transformed.

"Contracts are about interest; covenants are about identity. Contracts benefit; covenants transform," Sacks said.

Civil institutions like family, church, voluntary associations and universities, where members work for the good of the group, thrive under covenants, but are destroyed by the competition and contract thinking of the market and state – which is exactly what's happening in Europe and America, Sacks said.

For instance, as we have put marriage into rights terms, we have made it a battleground of women's rights, children's rights and father's rights, with everyone demanding their rights rather than giving up things for the greater good of the marriage and family, he said.

Marriage is the central institution of civil society, and in the space of just two generations since World War II, it is seriously faltering. Far fewer people are getting married. In the U.K, half of all children are born outside marriage. In the U.S. roughly half of all marriages end in divorce, and Britain is approaching that level, he said. "We have very nearly destroyed the institution of marriage – the most vital of all institutions – where we discover and become literate in love, giving and trust."

We have also seen the rise of incivility, which flows directly from moral relativism, the source of a new intolerance, he said. If a society has no shared moral framework, there is no point in reasoning together within that framework. Instead we are left with just shouting voices, competing to be attract attention as the loudest or most shocking – the current state of much talk radio and cable news, he noted.

In Sack's third lecture, he offered, for the first time in public, a novel interpretation of the pivotal events of 1989: the fall of the Berlin wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.

We are familiar with two interpretations of that event, he explained.

One holds that the events represent a bloodless victory for free market and the liberal democratic state, which is poised to slowly and surely spread across the world – which Sacks described as an "end of history narrative."

A second interpretation holds that, with the fall of Soviet Union leaving just one superpower, the world would see not peace, but many more smaller, localized conflicts, based not on political or ideological conflicts, but simply based on different cultures clashing – the "clash of civilizations narrative."

Sacks offered a third interpretation, and suggested it may have been the view of those who orchestrated the Sept. 11 attacks. In this third interpretation, the Soviet collapse was set in motion earlier in 1989 when the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, pushed out by the mujahedeen, a small, driven group that defeated the mighty Red Army, exposing the rot within Soviet society.

Perhaps with that interpretation of events in mind, some involved with the mujahedeen
were emboldened to believe that a small, committed group could also bring about the collapse of the other, "much less ruthless superpower" by committing an utterly ruthless act calculated to produce shock, trauma and outrage that would provoke the U.S. into a reaction: a war on a territory not of its choosing. "What better place to lure it than Afghanistan?" It might take decades, but eventually Americans will be forced by an impatient electorate to withdraw, setting off a loss of national confidence and sending the U.S. into a slow decline.

"That may have been the logic of the people who went to their death on 9/11," Sacks said. "That's different than all the narratives we've heard, and different than the narrative of radical Islam."

The narrative of decline has gained little traction in the contemporary public sphere because, Sacks said, since the Enlightenment, the West has tended to view our history as a linear path of progress, rather than cycles of rise and decline.

Sacks was optimistic about America's ability to reverse this decline because of the covenantal nature of American society.

America, unique among modern Western democracies, still renews its covenant every four years with the presidential inaugural address, Sacks said. President Obama's address in 2008, like so many before it, included the three hallmarks of covenant renewal: references to a covenantal document, collective responsibility and keeping faith with the future and with the past.

After reading three example passages from Obama's inaugural, Sacks concluded, "This is biblical language, and it constitutes the power of America to renew itself so long as it doesn't abandon the model of covenant."

— By Brevy Cannon