Why Religion Is the Best Safeguard for Liberty

Sept. 13 2018

The Swiss-born philosopher and politician Benjamin Constant (1767-1830), one of the founders of 19th-century liberalism, sought in his five-volume treatise On Religion to provide a comprehensive history of religion in its various forms and manifestations. Despite his commitment to the separation of church and state and to religious toleration, Constant argued that religion—any religion—is necessary to the flourishing of society. On the occasion of the publication of the first complete English translation of On Religion, Gianna Englert writes:

“By studying the epochs when the religious sentiment triumphed,” [Constant] concluded, “one sees that in every one liberty was its companion.” For Constant, the choice was between religious sentiment and self-interest, or to put it more strongly, between self-sacrifice and egoistic materialism. Absent the direction of religion, he worried that human beings would accept self-interest as the foundation of both individual morality and public life. In so doing, they would lose the beauty and nobility of religion, that which is definitively and uniquely human—and their political freedom as well.

Constant regarded self-interest as a thin, unstable foundation for societies that would lead eventually to isolation and “the hunger for wealth,” . . . arguing that the private life governed by self-interest is less than human, fit only for “industrious beavers . . . or the well-regimented activities of bees,” not for human communities. He worried that a society so constituted was susceptible to tyranny, since it was simply a collection of isolated persons who cared little about protecting free institutions.

What exactly does religion do to counteract these tendencies? Constant offers many answers throughout the book. Religion tells us “what is evil and what is good,” “reveals to us an infinite being,” and creates “order.” . . . On an individual level, religion sets our sights above material wellbeing to encourage the capacity for self-development. It gives us spiritual goals that extend beyond our immediate wants and needs. Most importantly, it encourages us to sacrifice for those goals, promoting a “certain abnegation of ourselves.” This, in turn, serves political institutions that can become “empty forms when no one will sacrifice for them.”

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More about: Liberalism, Political philosophy, Religion & Holidays, Religion and politics

The Reasons for Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Staying Power

Nov. 20 2018

This week, Benjamin Netanyahu seems to have narrowly avoided the collapse of his governing coalition despite the fact that one party, Yisrael Beiteinu, withdrew and another, the Jewish Home, threatened to follow suit. Moreover, he kept the latter from defecting without conceding its leader’s demand to be appointed minister of defense. Even if the government were to collapse, resulting in early elections, Netanyahu would almost certainly win, writes Elliot Jager:

[Netanyahu’s] detractors think him Machiavellian, duplicitous, and smug—willing to do anything to stay in power. His supporters would not automatically disagree. Over 60 percent of Israelis tell pollsters that they will be voting for a party other than Likud—some supposing their favored party will join a Netanyahu-led coalition while others hoping against the odds that Likud can be ousted.

Opponents would [also] like to think the prime minister’s core voters are by definition illiberal, hawkish, and religiously inclined. However, the 30 percent of voters who plan to vote Likud reflect a broad segment of the population. . . .

Journalists who have observed Netanyahu over the years admire his fitness for office even if they disagree with his actions. A strategic thinker, Netanyahu’s scope of knowledge is both broad and deep. He is a voracious reader and a quick study. . . . Foreign leaders may not like what he says but cannot deny that he speaks with panache and authority. . . .

The prime minister or those around him are under multiple police investigations for possible fraud and moral turpitude. Under Israel’s system, the police investigate and can recommend that the attorney general issue an indictment. . . . Separately, Mrs. Netanyahu is in court for allegedly using public monies to pay for restaurant meals. . . . The veteran Jerusalem Post political reporter Gil Hoffman maintains that Israelis do not mind if Netanyahu appears a tad corrupt because they admire a politician who is nobody’s fool. Better to have a political figure who cannot be taken advantage of than one who is incorruptible but naïve.

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More about: Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel & Zionism, Israeli politics