Morning After Memo to Religious Conservatives

The views expressed in the following article are solely those of the author, and are not intended to reflect or represent the views of Kol Hamevaser and its editors.

For a while nearly everyone I met, mostly students and colleagues, looked and talked depressed and disappointed, whether because they had voted for Mrs. Clinton or, as I did, for a write-in, or because they expected me to be unhappy—as a college professor, they may have reasoned, even those who label me a political conservative, I couldn’t possibly have been for Trump and as college students they were reluctant to jeopardize my opinion of them.

I did not quite share their mood. The reason is that I knew in advance that the results of the presidential election, whoever won, would not make me happy. Forewarned of the bad news, I woke up on the morning in question without a hangover. I knew that “we” conservatives had lost, and “bigly,” not when the Ohio and Wisconsin results were projected a few hours before, but several months earlier, when Mr. Trump clinched the Republican nomination.

Not having been intoxicated or deluded Tuesday night, I fancy myself a kind of “designated driver” for those whose deepest commitment is neither Democrat nor Republican, liberal or populist, but religious, particularly those who believe that at this time and in this place, conservatism is the best overall political expression of that commitment.

Where do we go from here?

The most painful aspect of the last presidential campaign is the disgusting rhetoric and the deterioration of political debate. The winner of the Electoral College majority set new lows for abusive national political discourse. Yet it will not do to pretend such coarsening was unexpected. Review the past 50 years: the elegant Kennedy, whose exchanges with Nixon seem, in retrospect, a golden age of engagement with substance, had more skeletons in his closet than almost any contemporary politician, even if he was shielded by a sycophantic media. The personal flaws of the eminently well-prepared and savvy Johnson and Nixon were hard to ignore, even before they led to shipwreck and self-destruction. Secretary Clinton’s husband did so much to lower the dignity of his office. I say nothing of lower level political potentates. One of the few times I felt a twinge of sympathy for Mr. Trump is when his transgressions towards women– verbal and quite possibly the actions that accompany the verbal attitudes– were singled out by those who had tolerated the same or worse across the political aisle. (Who knows? The whiff of hypocritical ad hoc persecution may actually have gained him votes!) The fault, dear friends, is not in one of our reality TV stars, but in ourselves and in our culture.

As long as we have universal democracy we will have uninformed and, increasingly, very selectively informed voters with short memories and short sight. It is not an option in today’s culture to quarantine politicians who fail miserably to meet a minimal threshold of civility and knowledge. Yet each of us in his or her respective sphere can try to foster a culture of yirat Shamayim (fear of Heaven) in which human dignity and responsible behavior can survive.

One small suggestion: Judaism enjoins respect for the established civil authorities. There is no ground to believe that Roman emperors and high officials were, as a rule, more admirable human beings, or wiser than our democratic leaders today. But without such respect human society cannot be sustained. Contemporary democracy, by dissolving the element of dignity and majesty in our political transactions, has replaced the prestige of authority with the magnetism of notoriety and insouciance, with results even more evident and predictable than the much talked of climate change. In the months ahead few simple citizens like us will feel compelled, for the sake of the country, to work for and with a president they find unappetizing. Many experts and politicians will have that task and I wish them well. But we too must likewise contribute to the civil atmosphere by treating political big shots with the respect appropriate to their positions and power. Is it necessary for us, however, to call them by their first names, as if fantasizing them as our pals or aspiring to intimacy with their aura? Does doing so add to their professional dignity or detract from it? Let us stop fueling the baleful identification of the statesman with the celebrity.

What else should matter to religious conservatives? Yes, the Supreme Court. We know that President Trump does not care about the judiciary the way we do, but there is comfort in the hope that in this area he will satisfy the expectations of his nominal party. Yes, the courts mean a great deal. But I am not at all certain that appointing conservative judges will make a permanent difference unless accompanied by a reversal or at least a stabilization of the social trends that make it necessary for us to worry about the composition of the courts. A temporary majority in Congress can delay unwelcome developments but cannot forestall them forever. That can only be done through the commitment of individuals and communities and by commanding the respect of those who disagree with us and whom the swinging pendulum may well return to power tomorrow.

The same goes for Israel, an overriding concern for religious Jews and many Christians. Given President Trump’s unpredictability and his perceived tendency to personalize policy judgments, we can only hope and pray that his favorable statements will translate into a pro-Israel agenda executed with tact and prudence. Even so, we cannot ignore the increasingly anti-Israel mood of the Democratic base. When Mrs. Clinton’s election was in the offing it occurred to me that she, with some links to an older generation of liberals, might retard the growth of doctrinaire anti-Israel opinion on the left—a hypothesis that now will never be tested.

As religious individuals our ultimate loyalty is to God, not to any political ideology or party. I mentioned Israel and the protection of religious liberty by the courts because these challenges speak to the survival of our community and our ability to live our lives as a religious minority without intrusion and compulsion on the part of those in power. Many other political questions are less urgent and also less clear-cut. One hopes that “sane” liberals and “sane” conservatives recognize an overlapping list of values: for example, that we are all concerned about personal and national security while still anxious to safeguard individual liberty; that we believe in the value of individual responsibility but do not exclude some measure of intervention on behalf of the less fortunate; and so forth. Religious individuals will resist the temptation to reduce human welfare to the satisfaction of desire. Nevertheless they may differ significantly among themselves, even those who share a commitment to the same set of spiritual institutions, practices and doctrines, about how to balance these values in the political arena, both in principle and under particular conditions. They may also disagree about matters of fact and about likely outcomes.

Political parties are coalitions. Liberalism and conservatism, for example, connote a set of moral judgments, economic preferences and views about international affairs. There is no necessity for a liberal or conservative in one area to adopt liberal or conservative principles in all. You may be an opponent of homosexual marriage and a libertarian regarding government intervention in the marketplace and combine these views with a variety of positions on national defense. Due to fear of primary challenge or loss of campaign contributions, politicians, especially in our hyper-partisan era, are often trapped into conforming to the literal party line of the Democrat or Republican parties, with all the harm this entails for individual integrity and intelligent compromise. As simple citizens we have no excuse. We must recognize the worthy courage of public figures who resist the pressure to walk in lockstep and, to the extent that we study the issues, we should avoid the temptation to adopt views at variance with our convictions merely because they are prevalent among our political bedfellows.

Lastly, in that vein, let me mention one concern that should be a conservative one but does not seem to be high on the agenda of the incoming administration. If you are convinced that the threats of climate change and other drastic environmental upheavals are imaginary you are right to do nothing to prevent or mitigate them. If, however, you believe there may be real dangers then conservatives ought to do no less than conserve the environment for our old age and for future generations. Of course, as realists about human nature and 20th century history we are wary of the use that liberals make of such situations as an opportunity to expand centralized government intervention and regulation, and we know the effect of inertia on liberals and conservatives alike, whatever lip service they pay or withhold from the thought of environmental catastrophe: there will always be more urgent problems to be dealt with, and the sacrifices can always be postponed until it is too late. Politicians thus have a built-in excuse for passing the buck.

Our “progressive” brethren may celebrate the exciting transformative impact of disorder. The worse it gets, the old Marxists intoned, the better the prospects for the revolution. We, better than they, have reason to fear the effect of extreme and unpredictable breakdowns of our physical environment. If these begin to occur, the dislocations driving current social despair will be nothing to the resulting disruption and resentment.

One student I heard from the morning after entertained the idea that desperate people are willing to try desperate remedies. Perhaps his explanation of Mr. Trump’s astonishing rise to power has some merit, though surely it applies to the mentality of his most vociferous opponents as well. And we must always remember that despair is most profoundly not about material possessions and social status alone; often, as Kierkegaard taught, it is more about restlessness and boredom than about the hunger for more. The student’s next thought was that those who bet on desperate remedies—and he could have added those who do not no less– are then compelled to live with them. This is a sobering thought indeed.

Rabbi Shalom Carmy is an associate professor of Bible and Jewish Thought at Yeshiva College, and is the editor of Tradition.


I have recently written about parallel questions in

“Judaism and the Limits of Liberalism” (First Things, June 2012)

“A Pistol Shot in the Middle of a Concert”–And a Shocking Statement of R. Kook” (Tradition 47:1, Spring 2014)

“After Obergefell” (First Things, June 2015)

“The Lights Must Never Go Out”: The Future of Democracy From John Stuart Mill to Rav Kook by Rabbi Shalom Carmy (Tradition 49:2, Summer 2016)