Having long been regarded as the godfather of neoconservatism, Irving Kristol is well known for his political writings. Less well known are his essays on religion. And yet, the more one reads of his work, the more apparent it becomes that this is in some sense the wrong way around. Though Kristol was no theologian, matters of religion, morality, and meaning underpin his entire political worldview. This, however, forces a question, and not one without some controversy: If religion was so central to the thought of Irving Kristol, then is this equally the case regarding the political persuasion with which he is so intimately associated? Does neoconservatism actually have some deeply religious roots? This is the question I found myself asking after reading Kristol’s Jewish essays, now conveniently gathered as an e-book and published by Mosaic magazine.
Kristol’s first Jewish essays were penned in the late 1940s, while he was serving as managing editor at Commentary. His work from that period appears tortured by an effort to make sense of the Holocaust, Nazism, and anti-Semitism. The most striking result of this labor was an essay titled “The Myth of the Supra-Human Jew: The Theological Stigma.” In it we find Kristol wrestling with the contrasting currents, philo-semitic and anti-Semitic, that intermingled in Christianity and Western culture. He interprets hostility to the Jews as originally bound up with guilt about the erotic. The effort to rid the world of Jews, he concludes, was also an effort to free man from oppressive biblical prohibitions, so as “to have men’s secret lusts dance unrestrainedly under the open sky.”
Throughout his life, these essays on Judaism and the Jews provided Kristol with a forum both familiar and provocative enough for exploring his thoughts on religion, society, and human nature as a whole. Take the boldly titled “On the Political Stupidity of the Jews.” Ostensibly this essay is about promoting free-market thought in Israel. Yet here Kristol also reflects on a larger concern that ran throughout much of his work—that is, that democratic capitalism is undermining itself by eroding the very Judeo-Christian heritage on which it rests. That same fear surfaces in his essay “The Future of American Jewry.” Observing the ascendance of secular humanism, Kristol ponders how long any community or society can survive once its members suspect that “the universe is bereft of transcendental meaning.”
This, then, is the great religious obsession spun into all of Kristol’s political writing: the belief that secular liberalism breeds a valueless individualism that necessarily progresses toward moral disorder and even nihilism. Kristol feared that without religion, society would witness a growing discontent with what democratic capitalism can realistically provide. Stripped of any belief in the kind of higher consolation that makes sense of life’s inevitable injustices and humdrum frustrations, the demands that people place on the political system “become as infinite as the infinity they have lost.” Eventually the democratic regime is no longer able to justify or defend itself against the expectations of a citizenry that experiences no spiritual nourishment. Indeed, those expectations become unappeasable in the limitless material improvement that they insist government must provide and that capitalism promises. Without a religious culture, the slide into statism, if not authoritarianism, seems to become irresistible.
For this very reason, Kristol believed that religion was a vital component of a well-functioning free society. He maintained that a market economy depends on industrious individuals with enough self-restraint to delay gratification so that the future can be nourished at the expense of the present. Such discipline, Kristol believed, ultimately derives from the ethical codes preserved in biblical religion.
Similarly, Kristol pointed out that democracy depends on the notion of a public that is self-governing. But for self-government to function, citizens must be capable of drawing some basic moral distinctions that cannot be found in market forces or the popular culture that the market gives rise to. Capitalism can make men free; it can even make them prosperous. But on its own it won’t make their society virtuous. For that, Kristol insisted, there is simply no substitute for religion.
But what kind of religion are we talking about here? Judaism and the Jewish tradition could be said to reinforce and embolden these values, but it seems clear that what is really being promoted here is a set of broader Judeo-Christian ideas that Kristol believed applied to society as a whole. He was undoubtedly in favor of Jews being more traditionally Jewish—with the hope that this would help them to resist the secular counterculture. But he was also an advocate of Christians embracing Christianity, which meant a strong Christian tenor to American society in general.
This sympathy for Christianity and solicitude for its enduring influence over the American way of life marked Kristol as a unique Jewish voice in his generation. He was well acquainted with Christian theology, having been particularly influenced as a young man by the thought of Reinhold Niebuhr. And it is quite striking just how regularly Kristol’s writings reference Christianity, often tracing contemporary economic and social phenomena back to ideas buried deep within Christian thought and the history of the Church. Even many of his Jewish essays, particularly the earlier ones, are as much about Christians as they are about Jews.
The temper and character of Kristol’s own religious beliefs have been a matter of some debate. He grew up in a traditional, if not devout, Jewish household in Brooklyn. Like many young Jewish intellectuals of the Depression era, he early embraced the politics of the radical left. And yet during an interview with Brian Lamb in the mid-1990s, he declared, “Oh, I’ve never had a problem with God, never. Even when I was a young Trotskyist, I never had a problem with God,” and suggested that, given a different sort of life, he might have considered being more Jewishly observant. Having been a neo-Trotskyist, a neo-socialist, a neo-liberal, and finally a neoconservative in matters of politics, Kristol also quite characteristically declared himself to be neo-Orthodox when it came to religion. This seems to have entailed a more liberal attitude toward some of the strictures of Jewish law but an appreciation for the sentiments of conservative religion nonetheless.
These sentiments also resonated in Kristol’s conservative politics. When discussing the question of equality, he quips in his essay “The Spiritual Roots of Capitalism and Socialism”: “Here, I will simply plead my Jewishness and say, equality has never been a Jewish thing. Rich men are fine, poor men are fine, so long as they are decent human beings. I do not like equality.” That sums up Kristol’s politics: pragmatic, moralist, and fiercely anti-utopian. In one of his very few pieces of autobiographical writing, Kristol notes that even as a young man he was more moved by the lawgiving books of the Bible than by the Jewish prophets. The prophets’ “religious utopianism” was perhaps too close to the political utopianism with which he was already becoming disillusioned.
He believed that whether one places the greater emphasis on the prophetic or the lawgiving aspects of the Bible will inevitably determine whether one favors a more conservative or a more progressive approach to the religion. And this notion extended into the political realm as well. Indeed, within Kristol’s thought it is possible to draw a line between his hostility to the gnostic impulses that rebel against Judeo-Christian orthodoxy and the equally strong aversion he felt to the subversive nature of the 1960s counterculture. In each case he was battling against the forces seeking to overturn the existing moral order so as to usher in a more perfect and more just society. The danger is that much of the old order is lost while little of the utopian dream is realized. Kristol was not opposed to prophets, but he wanted them to remain prophets rather than usurping the role of lawgivers, which is perhaps the root error he saw in progressive politics.
The extent to which Kristol’s thought represents neoconservatism as a whole is an ongoing debate. Yet inasmuch as neoconservatives are concerned with defending democracy, combating relativism, and promoting a politics of virtue, Kristol’s attitudes are still very much present within that persuasion. And as one is reminded by rereading him, and his Jewish essays in particular, Kristol’s was an attitude that championed the kind of moral clarity found first and foremost in religion. In that regard, neoconservatism owes very much to Irving Kristol’s religious—and indeed Jewish—orientation.
Tom Wilson is a British commentator. He blogs regularly for Commentary Magazine.