I spend a great deal of time on the road, which I like to take advantage of by listening to some well-chosen podcasts as well as music, news, and political commentary. One person whom I listen to frequently is the late Jonathan Sacks.
In the summer of 2018, this former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom hosted a ten-part radio series on the BBC entitled Morality in the 21st Century. In each episode, a public thinker of stature presented his or her ideas on the topic in response to Rabbi Sacks’ questions. As well, in each episode the rabbi well moderated a panel of high-schoolers who had listened to the talks and then responded to the ideas of that week’s presenter.
One of Rabbi Sacks’ guests was Dr. Robert Putnam. Professor of Public Policy at Harvard, Putnam is best known for his 20-year-old Bowling Alone, a study written in highly accessible language marking the decline of the organizations and clubs that used to so pepper the American social landscape.
I remember the clubs and organizations that held a prominent life in my family when I was a child. My father was a member of the Jaycees and then of Rotary, of our synagogue’s Men’s Club. He spent time with organized sports, refereeing football and umpiring baseball, and he served a term as a Cub Scout Pack Leader. My mother spent some time in the synagogue’s women’s club, but she devoted the great bulk of her volunteering to the local public library, where she helped to galvanize the local town and township residents to support a library that could meet the needs of an expanding population.
This rich mix of volunteer commitments built up what Putnam in his book called “social capital.” This refers to a growing sense of a community defined by reciprocity, whose members can with greater and greater assurance on their community-minded actions being met by similar generosity by others. This is not a direct tit-for-tat. The expectation that grows is not so much that one will receive and exact reward from the beneficiary of his good deed as that the community as a whole will openly and reliably be characterized by a desire to reciprocate beneficence and to grow an ever-broader and ever-stronger web of reciprocity.
If Putnam’s book saw a significant and troubling decline in America’s webs of beneficial association, the man himself, speaking with Rabbi Sacks on the air nearly twenty years later, seemed in a hopeful mood. It seemed that his hope was not because the trends had reversed. If anything, the blitzkrieg conquest of the social landscape by the social media has had woeful effects beyond what most would have imagined. The culture of instant judgment, cancellation, and shaming endemic in the cyber world has produced a tremendous pessimism about the institutions of our society and their ability to bring about effective self-government. This culture has spread far beyond the world of the new media, and has produced ever-mutating noxious quasi-associations, built on paranoid, malevolent fantasies masquerading as truth, whether QAnon or Antifa or any similar morph.
Perhaps it was Sacks’ calm influence or perhaps it was his own sense of the underlying resilience of American democracy that accounted for Putnam’s lack of pessimism. We don’t know how resilient something is until it is tested, and so the mark of a successful system is not its lack of problems but its ability to overcome them and advance.
America’s Founders saw democracy as being prone to problems. The Founders’ genius was in finding a way to learn from the failures of historical democracy and incorporate what was learned into the republic that the Constitution established. Central to their solution was the enshrining in the Constitution that the strong centralized federal authority had only such powers as delegated to it by the people, and all other powers were reserved to the smaller and weaker states and to the people themselves. Furthermore, that powerful central government would have its powers divided between three co-equal branches, so that negotiation and reciprocity would be necessary within the government itself, and not just the imperial will of single body or a single leader.
When the astute and observant Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in 1831, he was impressed by the success of the Founders’ project. Tocqueville attributed much of what was working in America to the power that private associations held, especially the private association with religion, protected in the strongest way by the First Amendment.
Tocqueville was not pollyannish about human nature. The individuals whose rights the Constitution protects can just as well use their freedoms for unworthy ends as for worthy ones, with it equally possible to lapse into isolation as to join together as coordinated and effective commonwealth. What tipped the scales for American society towards the good was the great role that small voluntary associations played. They provided a self-selected congenial environment in which individuals could learn how their own individuality was enhanced through cooperation and how the reciprocity that can only thrive in a group setting can enhance rather than hobble liberty.
Tocqueville scholar Carson Holloway summed up the Frenchman’s view in these words:
The preservation of democratic freedom requires more than just an astutely organized government. It also calls for certain social and cultural institutions. Among these, he emphasizes newspapers, the legal profession, and the country’s impressive network of private voluntary associations. But most important, he also notes the role that American religion plays in checking the tyranny of the majority.
Though naturally sympathetic to his own Catholic faith, Tocqueville saw the benefit of religion for the republic as not specific to his own brand of religious association. And it is more than a coincidental that many of America’s greatest political leaders, men like Washington and Lincoln, recognized and believed in religion’s benefits to our national life even though not being models of conventional parochial piety.
Rabbi Sacks had a marvelous way of seeing the good of religion in this broad way. An orthodox Jew, his faith enabled him to go to the core of the message of God to all and to make its wisdom accessible and understandable across the dividing lines of religious and political identifications. His universality was not out of weakness, but out of feeling the compelling need to hold open the kind of conversation that provides the ability for a republic to overcome its difficulties and recommit itself to the eternal values that have made it an inspiration through the years to so many, even as it continues to be a work in progress.
At the core of it all is that understanding that the unity that upholds all of existence provides adequate ground for us to find the ways to talk to each other. Beginning with the communities we join to affirm the power, the truth, and the beauty at work in us, we create the working possibility of a great nation governed by its own citizens’ sovereign consent. This way lies our hope and for that hope and the accomplishments it has made possible, we give thanks.
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