American politics are chaotic these days. But if you want a glimpse into the future, take a look at the Supreme Court decision handed down at the stroke of midnight on Thanksgiving day.
Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo blocked New York State from enforcing capricious restrictions on houses of worship. Nearly all the justices agreed that these restrictions were unjustified by public health concerns. What's most remarkable about the decision isn’t its commitment to the Constitution, but rather the identity of the plaintiffs: traditional Christians joined Orthodox Jews—with an assist from the Muslim community—to uphold America’s core commitment to religious freedom.
Far from a coalition of convenience, this may very well be a sign of an ascendant voter bloc, one that’s likely to shape politics for decades to come. That’s because the future of American elections isn’t likely to be about the exhausted old affiliations—Democrat vs. Republican, say, or the coasts vs. the heartland—that are crumbling before our eyes. Instead, as the Supreme Court case helps us understand, elections in future are likely to revolve around the struggle between two conflicting worldviews.
The first, ably represented by New York’s Gov. Cuomo, sees religion as just another pursuit for which American society can make space. This is largely because the Cuomonists, if you’ll forgive the pun, believe, like William James, that we’ve no greater value than usefulness. Is religion good? Only if it helps us meet our earthly goals. “If the hypothesis of God works satisfactorily in the widest sense of the word,” James once quipped, “it is true.” But if the hypothesis of God clashes with the hypothesis of the governor’s office, say, or the Democratic party, or any other equal organization or organizing principle, well, you should feel free to discard it.
This view of religion has become increasingly common these past five or six decades, especially among America’s elites. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, as it takes the idea of liberal democracy to its logical extreme. To borrow an image from the Portuguese writer Bruno Maçães, imagine America as a hotel: You’re free to come and go as you please, and you can do whatever you want in your room as long as you don’t bother the other guests. And being a good hotel, it also has superb soundproofing, which means that it’s designed to keep all noisy chatter about God or virtue or truth from seeping out into the lobby and the halls.
You can see why people find this approach appealing. Hotels are great, which is why we’re all delighted to check in from time to time and take a vacation from our own messy homes and neighborhoods. But while staying at a hotel is fun, living in one is sad and lonely, which helps explain why, even prior to the pandemic, a Cigna report calculated that the percentage of Americans who say they are lonely is up seven percentage points and is now at a whopping 61 percent. Put simply, as fundamental goods like community, faith, and tradition have become just another set of amenities to enjoy or discard at will in Hotel USA, two-thirds of Americans now report feeling irredeemably alone.
That’s where the second worldview comes in. This one, represented aptly and loudly by the Catholics, the Muslims, and the Jews who took Gov. Cuomo to task, rejects the notion that America can afford to be politely indifferent toward faith. Instead, it sees faith as an essential element of the American experiment. There can be no free society that is not first a good society, and the best way we humans know to create good societies is through the precious institution of religious community.
Perhaps the best exponent of this approach was our very own founding father. In his 1796 Farewell Address, George Washington reminded his countrymen that “of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.” He further warned that even if individual goodness can be achieved without religion, “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
In other words, it’s not America that protects religion, Washington told us; it’s religion that protects America.
Religion, tradition, and community have always supplied us with the sense of mutual responsibility, audacious moral imagination, and shared vocabulary we’ve needed to remain free, stay united, and strive for greater virtue as a nation. But though Americans used to take this for granted, it’s become increasingly difficult to do so of late. A growing consensus of political, cultural, and academic elites throughout the country has gradually but inexorably concluded that religion is, at the very best, just another amusing pastime—like birdwatching or online gaming. At worst, our cultural betters regard religion as hopelessly retrograde, an easy target for gubernatorial scapegoating during a pandemic. In the face of all this, it’s become much harder to see how faith and tradition might continue serving the essential role in American democracy that Washington envisioned.
That’s why the SCOTUS decision handed down just in time for Thanksgiving should give Americans hope. The people of faith standing up in court weren’t just fighting on behalf of their own narrow interests; they were fighting in defense of us all. They showed us what those “indispensable supports” that Washington spoke of look like, and they rose in defense of the Constitution when others were happy to let petty tyrants seize our basic liberties.
Alone, these communities would have little hope of staving off the culturally chic and increasingly self-confident custodians of Hotel America. But by joining together, they might just restore America’s capacity to be not only great again, but—more importantly—good again.
Ari Lamm is chief executive of Bnai Zion and founder of The Joshua Project.
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