Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: The Foundation of America is a Good Society

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

Last month, AEI awarded its highest honor, the Irving Kristol Award, to Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. Rabbi Sacks delivered a stirring speech at AEI’s Annual Dinner, which you can read in full here. Here are a few of the most compelling and insightful parts of his talk:

1. On the politics of anger and grievance

Friends, these are really tempestuous times. . . . We’ve seen the emergence of what I call a politics of anger. We have seen the culture of competitive victimhood. We have seen the emergence of identity politics based on smaller and smaller identities of ethnicity and gender. We’ve seen the new politics of grievance. . . .

We’ve seen the silencing of free speech in our universities in the name of safe spaces. . . . We have seen public discourse polluted by fake news and the manipulation of social media. . . . And we’ve seen the reemergence in the West, certainly in Europe, of the far right and the far left.

2. On the difference between a social contract and a social covenant — and what it means for America today

In a contract, two or more people come together to make an exchange. . . . And so you have the commercial contract that creates the market and the social contract that creates the state.

A covenant isn’t like that. It’s more like a marriage than an exchange. In a covenant, two or more parties each respecting the dignity and integrity of the other come together in a bond of loyalty and trust to do together what neither can do alone.

A covenant isn’t about me. It’s about us. A covenant isn’t about interests. It’s about identity. A covenant isn’t about me, the voter, or me, the consumer, but about all of us together. Or in that lovely key phrase of American politics, it’s about “we, the people.”

The market is about the creation and distribution of wealth. The state is about the creation and distribution of power. But a covenant is about neither wealth nor power, but about the bonds of belonging and of collective responsibility. And to put it as simply as I can, the social contract creates a state but the social covenant creates a society.

GettyImages-810888668 (1) The Ku Klux Klan protests on July 8, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Chet Strange/Getty

3. On the origins of the United States

Biblical Israel had a society long before it had a state, before it even crossed the Jordan and enter the land, which explains why Jews were able to keep their identity for 2,000 years in exile and dispersion because although they’d lost their state, they still had their society. Although they’d lost their contract, they still had their covenant.

And there is only one nation known to me that had the same dual founding as biblical Israel, and that is the United States of America which had its social covenant in the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and its social contract in the Constitution in 1787. . . .

Listen to this sentence. See how odd it might sound to anyone but an American. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”

Those truths are anything but self-evident. They would have been unintelligible to Plato, to Aristotle, or to every hierarchical society the world has ever known. They are self-evident only to people, to Jews and Christians, who have internalized the Hebrew Bible.

And that is what made G. K. Chesterton call America “a nation with the soul of a church.”

4. On what America understands better than other Western nations

Now, why does this matter to America and to the American Enterprise Institute? Because America understands more clearly than any other Western nation that freedom requires not just a state, but also and even more importantly a society, a society built of strong covenantal institutions, of marriages, families, congregations, communities, charities, and voluntary associations. . . .

In America, the social contract is still there, but the social covenant is being lost. . . . And because half of America doesn’t have strong families and communities standing between the individual and the state, people begin to think that all political problems can be solved by the state.

But they can’t. And when you think they can, politics begins to indulge in magical thinking. So you get the far right dreaming of a golden past that never was and the far left yearning for a utopian future that never will be.

And then comes populism, the belief that a strong leader can solve all our problems for us. And that is the first step down the road to tyranny, whether of the right or of the left.

5. On nationalism versus patriotism

Nationalism is about power. Patriotism is about pride. Nationalism leads to war. Patriotism works for peace. We can be patriotic without being nationalistic.

6. On safe spaces

We believe, like the University of Chicago, in free speech on campus because we believe that the only safe space there is one in which we give a respectful hearing to views unlike our own. That is what a safe space actually is.

7. On what must be done

We need people willing to stand up and say, rich and poor alike, we all have collective responsibility for the common good. And we need a culture of responsibility, not one of victimhood, because if you define yourself as a victim, you can never be free.

We have to have people to have the courage to get up and say that earned self-respect counts for more than unearned self-esteem. And we have to say the fundamental truth that is at the heart of the Hebrew Bible and of American politics that the state exists to serve the people. The people don’t exist to serve the state. . . .

Don’t lose the American covenant. It’s the most precious thing you have. Renew it now before it’s too late.

Read the full speech: 2017 Irving Kristol Award recipient Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks' remarks