Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of the UK, published an essay in the current issue of Standpoint arguing that internal moral decay – not the Islamists or any other external enemy – is the true challenge to the West’s future, and offering his own ideas about how to arrest what he views as the current decline.
Identifying a lack of “social cohesion,” he writes that the “late capitalist West, with its urge to spend and its failure to save, its moral relativism and hyper-individualism, its political culture of rights without responsibilities, its aggressive secularism and resentment of any morality of self-restraint” is rotting from within. The Islamists are not monsters who can destroy us but mice who, in nibbling our toes, reveal how incapable we have become of meeting even minor challenges.
This is of a piece with another article he wrote recently for the Wall Street Journal, in which he argued that the same development was the cause of the London riots.
Together, they are a set of basic truths at least one writer identified well almost 25 years ago. Today, they probably are best expressed by the French novelist Michel Houellebecq, who, in his description of a Europe obsessed only with youth and sex and filled with ciphers incapable of moral commitment even to their lovers, sees no conclusion other than a descent to barbarism. (A profound scientific breakthrough that somehow fundamentally alters the human condition is held out as a faint hope, as in the genetically modified human clones able to live off photosynthesis in The Possibility of an Island, but even they are driven to despair over their inability to truly love.)
The solution for Sacks is a return to the Judeo-Christian tradition. How he thinks secular urban masses can be won back to a tradition they are generations removed from is unclear. (He has, it should be noted, laid out a serious view of how that can and should be done for the Jews, maybe the West’s most difficult target for this work.) The essence though is clear: The solution to our problems with the Islamists, our economic decay, and a sense of decline and malaise, is to pick up the tradition’s remnants that lay all around us.
Sacks is undoubtedly largely correct. His courage and persistence in laying out these views are a model of true religious leadership.
But his diagnoses, like those of Houellebecq, may not carry entirely well to the United States. For the urban areas that are most “European,” the analysis largely holds. But America remains culturally much more than just those places. A fundamental belief in God persists (more than 92 percent of the country, according to Pew) as does an outsized influence of religious life in many places. In America, the religiously inclined are also unafraid to fight for their views in the public sphere, and the traditional worldview just may be a very public guiding light for our next president.
Moreover, what Walter Russell Mead sees as an Anglo-Saxon restive desire to conquer new worlds remains a strong governing power on the worldviews even of the young Silicon Valley tycoons who also often sadly embrace the West’s relativism. The United States, it can’t be said enough, continues to be more disposed than any other country to lead the world.
None of that means Sacks’ concerns should not be taken seriously. It would be foolish to underestimate our own society’s moral decay. But we should take comfort that America remains an exceptional nation, where the morality that has both given us the strength to lead the world and built the freest society in history is more likely to triumph than not. It will just take some work to get there.