(Jewish) Liberalism (Socialism) Christian


obama at wall

This is going to smack of cultural essentialism but I can’t find any better way to frame my ongoing and for the most part friendly sparring with dear friend and colleague GH about liberalism and Marxism. But I can’t help  but think the conceptual blind-spotting, this inability to see eye to eye about liberalism and politics, has something to do with the tension between concepts in combination with culture and religion; not entirely, but in part.

My sense is that for G., liberalism is always defined conceptually in terms of individualism, individual rights and personal freedoms over and against the larger social good of a just society. But is this conception of liberalism itself essentialist (i.e. essential to liberalism), or is it culturally specific to this or that mutation of liberalism? If the former, then Marxism or conservatism have  to make sense as an alternative to liberalism in that Marxism and conservativism commit one to tracing out the kinds of social-structural and historical dynamics and change, or the thick cultural traditions that conservatives claim they seek to preserve. These, it is usually assumed, tend to get lost in the Anglo-American liberal tradition starting with Locke, and including the classical laissez faire liberals of the 19th century. In particular, I’m wondering if that’s the way liberalism is always going to constitute itself in white American Protestant culture, as an individual rights-liberalism that stands, perhaps, in a dialectal relationship with a form of Christianties, particularly southern U.S. Christianities, that are both culturally conservative and individually moralizing.

These would not be the cultural contexts from  which I look at liberalism. This means that if I reject both Marxism and conservativism  because I reject the foil and caricature of bourgeois and liberal society against which they are both set up, and against which they are reactive. As I understand liberalism, it s has almost always been positioned as social form, marked by group solidarity and social conscience, and a commitment to active statist intervention into and alongside the private market economy, at least in the 20th c, trying to secure the greatest common good,  especially basic forms of rights, equality, and justice, while promoting particular social goods such as health and education, as well as regulating and redistributing economic and other goods. That’s what defines the legacy of FDR and LBJ and all the other large scale liberal social programs in the United States during the heyday of liberalism for the thirty years or so between the 1930s and 1960s.

In relation to modern Jewish thought and history, I would trace the embrace of this understanding of the social-liberal tradition, philosophically, from Moses Mendelssohn through the emergence of Reform Judaism to Herman Cohen in Germany; and culturally, in the United States, from the immigration of bourgeois German Jews to the United States in the middle of the 19th century, and the transition from the socialism of the first generation Eastern European Jewish immigration to liberal Jewish culture and Judaism of the second and third generations by the 1920s and into the 1950s and 1960s. What this means is that, for American Jews, the transition from socialism to New Deal liberalism was seamless.

Another way to put this is that around national elections, one can always be certain that the Jewish vote is going to trend heavily democratic. There is little indication that the Jewish vote, except for the ultra and modern orthodox, is ever going to go Republican. The reasons for this are structural. There’s a Democratic lock on the Jewish vote, because liberalism secures for American Jews, as a minority population, the intervention of a strong state vis-à-vis civil rights protections, especially those regarding the separation of church and state and women’s rights, while promoting, even if in an uneven way, the politics of inclusion, to which most liberal Jews are committed, albeit in an uneven way. In the liberal Jewish imaginaire, the social justice of socialism-blending-into-liberalism is rooted in the Exodus from Egypt, the prophetic tradition, the scourge of anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, the East European Jewish immigrant experience, the social justice tradition of the labor movement, and the memory of the Holocaust, and the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement. In contrast, the kind of liberalism that roots itself in this kind of a picture of group memory seems less engrained among the white Christian electorate, less a part of the cultural DNA of that larger segment of American political culture.

None of this caricature makes sense of course, but only on the one hand. Locke tends to get kicked around as an asocial individualist in these kinds of discussions. But Craig Martin, in Masking Hegemony, reminds us that Locke was very committed to a form of public culture qua civic culture. In other words, for Locke, Protestantism was, once upon a time, not simply private, but civic and, therein and only therein, hegemonic. Indeed, the history of Protestant cultural hegemony in this country would speak to a thick tradition of liberal Christian politics that extends at least back to the Social Gospel movement, including the Christian Century crowd, the Niebuhr’s, etc. As for white non-mainline Protestants, perhaps they could bail on liberalism or the Democratic Party in the 1960s and 1970s because, individually, they had options, as members of the majority; and because of structural dynamics relating to race, ethnicity, and prejudice. In contrast, Jews, as a minority group, suspicious of the majority, had always to rely on a strong central state to secure their position in this country on a fair and equitable basis.

I don’t know. I always wonder about the white Protestant electorate in this country. Really, I don’t know what’s wrong with “those people.” Probably a combination of individual options of majoritarian cultural actors and structural dynamics of majoritarian cultures. Growing up in Baltimore, I knew a lot of conservative white, mainline Protestants. For a time, I went to school with “them,” until I couldn’t stand the anti-Semitism anymore, and then I switched schools, with my father’s support. Perhaps that too was structural as well as a personal choice. This was a long time ago, in the 1970s. In contrast, I did not know many conservative or Republican Jews, maybe one in high school, in addition to my father. As in all things, he was an exception to the rule. Both open to other people, but not unprejudiced racially, Sheldon was more of a cynic and a moral anarchist, than a cultural or intellectual conservative, per se. In this, perhaps, even he was kind of liberal.


About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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4 Responses to (Jewish) Liberalism (Socialism) Christian

  1. Gail says:

    Hey, There is always more to say than I have energy to compose, of course.
    First, my nuclear family, which is rooted so strongly in soils south of the Mason-Dixon line, always laughs at the New Hampshire motto, “live free…OR DIE”. This is pertinent because in mottos like NH’s, I see a crusty north-eastern and New England individualism that is as meaty and rich as Southern Protestant forms. Thus, I don’t think the individual-rights form of liberalism is traceable only or even “particularly” to “southern US Christianities” but devolves from a much deeper and more diffuse ‘puritan imaginary’ that affects most of the country (though the folks at Stanford, when I talked with them, wanted stridently to excise the West coast from this assessment. Hence Schwarzenegger, I guess). In the book I’ve not gotten around to writing, I would argue that this puritan imaginary has been dented and re-formed in the face of the growing dominance of a kind of scientific atheism, one I see in many of my university and professional (doctor/lawyer) friends, and which exacerbates modalities of individualism. It is an odd thing to see practices of acute individualism in theorists critiquing the subject, but even odder to hear community friends so attached to rabid forms of individualism that they panic in the face of political obligations to think communally. Not all liberal individualism is explicable by the Southern Baptists: that’s point one.

    Second, I suppose one difference between liberal thinkers and socialist thinkers may lie in where one starts one’s analysis–and I mean “may” in the gentlest sense of floating out an hypothesis. I might agree with your assessment of an alternate or subaltern genealogy of liberalism–one that allows a “seamless” transition from European socialism to US New Deal liberalism–if evidence of that liberalism constituted the material conditions of life and culture outside my window. But what I read and see and hear is not that; what I read and see and hear supports your “wonder about the white Protestant electorate in this country.” So, and again with hesitation, I suggest that one difference may be that of starting with the actual material conditions of life as it’s being lived right now (to paraphrase Marx) versus the “cultural contexts from which [you] look at liberalism”, contexts that are, as you state in the genealogy of the next paragraph, historical and not contemporary. Liberalism “is” not what we might (want to) think of it but how it’s operating right now.

    I’m not going to argue with you in this forum however, so I’ll let you have the last word, again.

    • zjb says:

      Gail: You are always right, especially about the more diffuse form of American Puritanism, south and north. And yes, let’s leave out the West Coast, whose “ethos” is harder to trace. About the material conditions of life that buttress the ideologcal form of social liberalism, I’d point to the New Deal and Great Society legacies of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, regulatory regimes protecting our food, air, and water, public schools, public universities, public parks, the Interstate, and the internet –all these public supports and private-public hybrids that shape our liberal order, all these things under attack by the hyper-privatizaiton of hypercapitalism. That’s what I see and hear everyday, no? Please let me know if this is not to the point, yes?

  2. noisy22 says:

    Reblogged this on David Chery.

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