Until the second half of the twentieth century, the major parties of the left and the right in the United States and in other advanced Western democracies operated within a framework of shared basic moral values. These universal ethical values—which predate, but were authoritatively reiterated at, Mount Sinai over 3000 years ago—constitute the common root and the enduring shared values of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. They are known as the “Noahide Laws,” the moral covenant established by G-d with Noah for the renewal of civilization after the Flood. They were practiced and transmitted by Abraham until they were reaffirmed at Sinai as the eternal and universal legacy of humanity.
As laws of a Divine covenant, they found deep resonance in natural law traditions from Cicero to the American Declaration of Independence with its reference to, and reliance upon, “Divine Providence.” Indeed, an Act of the US Congress in 1991, on a bipartisan basis, recognized how these “ethical values and principles . . . upon which our great nation was founded . . . have become the bedrock of society from the dawn of civilization, when they were known as the Seven Noahide Laws.” (In the same legislation, they warned that “without these ethical values and principles the edifice of civilization stands in serious peril of returning to chaos.”) With this deep, shared tradition underlying Western society in general and American society in particular, any laws contradicting its fundamental moral principles would have been almost unimaginable until recent times.
In recent decades, however, a new secular, hedonistic, materialistic worldview has emerged, which is supported by elites within our judicial system, media, and educational institutions. It has achieved significant success in pulling the major political parties away from the moral center of traditional universal values that were based on the Seven Laws of Noah. But this now “politically correct” mentality has produced a serious disconnect between our political establishments and ordinary citizens, many of whom experience with unease the dissolution of traditional values, family, and community. These citizens seek a return to more traditional universal moral values in order to produce just and cohesive societies, to protect spiritual and political freedoms for all citizens, and to anchor our political-moral center.
Today, we face the ultimate choice between these two opposing worldviews—the traditional spiritually embedded worldview that has anchored our society and the secular hedonistic materialistic worldview that has unmoored it. A serious battle over the direction of our culture and politics is underway. It may look at times as if defeat were inevitable for the worldview that relies on tradition, faith, and family values. However—aside from the religious conviction that only good is inevitable—there are signs that the end result will be a reconfiguration of politics that will ultimately correct the moral drift of our major political parties, and encourage a similar, broader trend to restore the traditional moral center of politics in other parts of the world.
How the Moral Center No Longer Holds
Until recent years, it was unthinkable that the major parties of the right and the left (in most moderate Western democracies, more rightly called center-right and center-left) would operate outside the periphery of these traditional, universal ethics that have prevailed for centuries. It was unthinkable that either party would validate homosexual practices as co-normative with heterosexual ones up to their enshrinement in same-sex marriage, or endorse abortion on demand, let alone enforce such practices by government edicts involving punitive compulsion to comply. It was unthinkable that one of them would force a religious institution to provide birth control, mandate that they employ staff with values and practices at variance with their religious ethos, or force doctors and nurses to comply with abortion laws. In the past, only a fringe political party could hold such views.
But today, with respect to the universal ethical values of civilization, our major parties have become, in moral terms, fringe parties. As former United Kingdom Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks observed (paraphrasing Yeats), “The center no longer holds. Things are falling apart. Anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
The philosophical root of the problem is the widespread acceptance of a worldview that is fundamentally atheistic, materialistic, and geared to a pleasure-and-pain calculus alone. This movement sees the human being as simply another animal within nature. In this commonwealth of nature, there is no distinguishing soul within the human being and no G-d within or beyond nature. There remains only sentient flesh, the pleasures of which should be gratified by morphing sexual morality; the pain of flesh and psyche is meant to be escaped through euthanasia, assisted suicide, and abortion on demand.
These advocates of the new “politically correct” ideology seek to prohibit all religious teaching in schools and universities—even if it is optional—for fear that it may derail their movement. They also want to end state and local support for religious schools, even though a very significant majority of taxpaying Americans are religiously affiliated. This movement knows that traditional morality has its roots in religious tradition and education, and its goal is to destroy the transmission of these values by crippling religious education.
Our academic institutions have never been as politicized as they are today. Hedonistic secular materialism, with its omnisexual, genderless “utopia” has taken root, and is strongly cultivated, in universities, where academics must march to the beat of political correctness on pain of losing their research funding, academic contracts, and career advancement. Generations of students are educated in the positions of secular hedonistic materialism, and they risk failing or doing poorly if they do not conform. The indoctrination begins in elementary school, continues in high school, and is most intense in universities. Some teachers and administrators believe the rhetoric while the others are simply afraid to speak up against it.
We live in times when possibly the least free forum of speech and openness to a genuine discussion of ideas is the university. We need educational institutions whose teachers and administrators are not afraid to stand up for the traditional values promulgated by G-d to Noah after the Biblical flood and that found their way via Sinai into the great Abrahamic religions. Allowing this ethical tradition to be represented in intellectual discourse not only enhances the spiritual good of students but also verifies the wholeness of intellectual inquiry.
The court system has contributed greatly to the revolution against universal ethics. The courts have effectively changed the constitutional protection of the free exercise “of” religion into a freedom “from” religion. Their interpretation of the Constitution is no longer anchored in either the words or the original meaning of the Constitution. Instead, their opinions often represent their personal views, little beholden to G-d’s moral covenant with humanity, on contemporary social issues.
Beyond that, this phenomenon infringes on democracy. In his powerful dissent from the Obergefell decision, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia insightfully stated, “To allow the policy question of same-sex marriage to be considered and resolved by a select, patrician, highly unrepresentative panel of nine is to violate a principle even more fundamental than no taxation without representation: ‘No social transformation without representation.’” But such transformation is precisely what judges in the American court system, personally beholden to the ideology of secular materialism, are and have been creating at the local, state, and federal level.
What to Do Now
Many traditionally minded individuals and grassroots communities sense what has happened and are beginning to speak up in an effort to reverse the cultural tide. American, European, and Australian populism have each shown that if the major parties do not find the true moral center of the society and align themselves closely on either side of it, they will cease to function as major parties and as representatives of the broader population.
In historical terms, radical secularism is a fringe phenomenon that became “mainstream” and pulled the major parties out of the moral-political center. Such radicalism ultimately does not fit with the overwhelmingly religious character of human history and society. Thus, we can hope and trust, movements, and leaders who are unequivocal in their commitment to universal faith-tradition-based values will electorally force the major parties back to the moral center and high ground.
The more our political class validates the secular-materialistic worldview and ignores universal, Noahide law, the more it finds that it has pulled itself away from its traditional support base. We can no longer speak of politics as usual. Anger has replaced complacency, in part, because of the recognition that conventional politicians have failed us and, in part, because society is in crisis. The real question, of course, is what kind of leadership will emerge to overcome the dysfunctional politics of the contemporary West.
Contemporary populism is a reaction against a regime of “politically correct” values. It is driven by populist discontent with the radical secularist uprooting of community and traditional values. This movement needs to be informed of—and by—the actual content of the moral tradition of the human spirit, that is, the Noahide laws that lie at the root of the great religions and cultures. By doing so, we can invigorate this dissidence with a “populism of the spirit.”
Those of us who understand the theory and practice of universal moral ethics must reach out with this ethical legacy to populist movements in order to redeem and empower them as authentic vehicles for bringing politics back into the moral center. The benefits will be felt not only in the restoration of meaningful values and human relationships but also in what American democracy has promised and in the past excelled in—personal, intellectual, and religious freedom.
America’s constitutional principle of separation of religion and state was not intended to exclude religiously inspired values from the public square nor from observance in public institutions. What it meant was that the government could not prescribe adherence to a particular religious sect, or require its officers to be of that religion. Religion, however, as a source of values in the public square, which influence social policy, is absolutely legitimate. To curtail the expression of religious values in public policy and institutions and replace them with secular materialism violates the separation of religion and state as it would ironically install a new religion of secularism, thereby purging authentic, traditional religious values from social institutions and social policy.
Citizens must work to recreate a political culture where civilization predicates itself on a belief in G-d and the principles He laid out over 3,000 years ago. The Noahide laws serve as this moral foundation, providing a universal moral/ethical code on the basis of which larger social issues can be solved.
To achieve this restoration of our moral-political center, we must look to either political leadership, spiritual leadership, or grassroots partisans who unabashedly promote Noahide values. One way or another we must bring the major political parties back to the true moral-political center. To re-anchor our contemporary political culture to a template of universal ethical values found in the Noahide principles, we must crystalize into our collective consciousness the principles of the Noahide Code. After all, they remain part of humanity’s conscious or subconscious root moral values.
A combination of grassroots movements, religious institutions, and visionary politicians who unabashedly promote traditional morality will either bring the major parties back to the true moral-political center or replace them with new political parties. Such parties could represent right and left, yet they could each operate within the bounds of the Noahide universal moral values—the concepts at the core of the most influential faith traditions of the Western world. In this way, it may still be possible to enable citizens and our political leadership to reestablish the moral center of social, cultural, and political life that the Noahide Laws have provided for over 3000 years.
Rabbi Dr. Shimon Cowen is Director of the Institute for Judaism and Civilization in Melbourne, Australia. He is the author of Politics and Universal Ethics, The Theory and Practice of Universal Ethics—the Noahide Laws, and Homosexuality, Marriage and Society. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Arthur Goldberg is Co-Director of the American-based Jewish Institute for Global Awareness and former Co-Director of JONAH, Inc. He is the author of Light in the Closet: Torah, Homosexuality, and the Power to Change. Email: Arthur@JIFGA.org.