Religious Hedonism on Capitol Hill

Opinion

By Avraham Bronstein

Published December 01, 2010, issue of December 10, 2010.
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Religion has long been front and center in American conservative political discourse. Far more than liberals, conservatives have been effective in framing issues with resonant religious language and values. Yet the theological language employed by some of today’s leading Republicans has degenerated into what can be described only as religious hedonism.

Take Senator Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican who has been widely cited as a “kingmaker” of the previous election cycle. Speaking in September at the Values Voter Summit, he said: “When you have a big government, you’re going to have a little God. You’re going to have fewer values and morals, and you’re going to have a culture that has to be controlled by the government. But when you have a big God, you’re going to have a responsible and capable people with character to control themselves and lead their own lives.” In other words, God’s bigness renders government regulation unnecessary and, indeed, counterproductive.

Rep. John Shimkus of Illinois, who has emerged as a leading candidate for the chairmanship of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, has taken this sort of thinking even further. In March of last year, speaking during a meeting of the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, Shimkus quoted Genesis in discussing climate change: “Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood and never again will I destroy all living creatures as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seed time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, will never cease.”

Shimkus then remarked: “I believe that’s the infallible word of God, and that’s the way it’s going to be for His creation.” He concluded: “The earth will end only when God declares it’s time to be over. Man will not destroy this earth.”

In this view, religious faith reinforces our appreciation of God’s greatness and, correspondingly, man’s weakness. It is this conception of human powerlessness that encourages some of the worst excesses of the modern conservative movement. For instance, the guarantee built into Shimkus’s reading of Scripture allows us to continue producing ever-bigger cars and to ignore industrial pollution, because any environmental effects are insignificant against God’s unchanging plan for the universe.

Classical rabbinic thought, however, advances a strikingly contrasting view toward man’s power. Citing Ecclesiastes 7:12 — “Consider the work of God; for who can make that straight which he hath made crooked” — the midrashic text Kohelet Rabba offers the following interpretation: “When the Holy One, Blessed be He, created the first man, He took him and led him around all the trees of the Garden of Eden, and said to him: ‘Behold my works, how beautiful and commendable they are! All that I have created, for your sake I created it. Pay heed that you do not corrupt and destroy my universe; for if you corrupt it, there is no one to repair it after you.’”

The power of this midrash lies precisely in its assertion of human agency and its consequences: We are indeed capable of destroying the world, and we are living without a safety net. Therefore, one would logically conclude, we must find meaning and fulfillment in establishing the restraints and limitations that enable us to preserve and sustain the world that God gave us. Being aware of our own capacity to do real damage challenges us to be accountable for the world we see around us — a world of our own making, for better or for worse.

Rabbi Avraham Bronstein serves as assistant rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, N.Y.


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