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

 

Syria’s Downing of a Russian Plane Put Israel in the Crosshairs

Sept. 21 2018

On Monday, Israeli jets fired missiles at an Iranian munitions storehouse in the northwestern Syrian city of Latakia. Shortly thereafter, Syrian personnel shot down a Russian surveillance plane with surface-to-air missiles, in what seems to be a botched and highly incompetent response to the Israeli attack. Moscow first responded by blaming Jerusalem for the incident, but President Putin then offered more conciliatory statements. Yesterday, Russian diplomats again stated that Israel was at fault. Yoav Limor comments:

What was unusual [about the Israeli] strike was the location: Latakia [is] close to Russian forces, in an area where the IDF hasn’t been active for some time. The strike itself was routine; the IDF notified the Russian military about it in advance, the missiles were fired remotely, the Israeli F-16s returned to base unharmed, and as usual, Syrian antiaircraft missiles were fired indiscriminately in every direction, long after the strike itself was over. . . .

Theoretically, this is a matter between Russia and Syria. Russia supplied Syria with the SA-5 [missile] batteries that wound up shooting down its plane, and now it must demand explanations from Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. That won’t happen; Russia was quick to blame Israel for knocking over the first domino, and as usual, sent conflicting messages that make it hard to parse its future strategy. . . .

From now on, Russia will [almost certainly] demand a higher level of coordination with Israel and limits on the areas in which Israel can attack, and possibly a commitment to refrain from certain actions. Syria, Iran, and Hizballah will try to drag Russia into “handling” Israel and keeping it from continuing to carry out strikes in the region. Israel . . . will blame Iran, Hizballah, and Syria for the incident, and say they are responsible for the mess.

But Israel needs to take rapid action to minimize damage. It is in Israel’s strategic interest to keep up its offensive actions to the north, mainly in Syria. If that action is curtailed, Israel’s national security will be compromised. . . . No one in Israel, and certainly not in the IDF or the Israel Air Force, wants Russia—which until now hasn’t cared much about Israel’s actions—to turn hostile, and Israel needs to do everything to prevent that from happening. Even if that means limiting its actions for the time being. . . . Still, make no mistake: Russia is angry and has to explain its actions to its people. Israel will need to walk a thin line between protecting its own security interests and avoiding a very unwanted clash with Russia.

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More about: Hizballah, Israel & Zionism, Israeli Security, Russia, Syrian civil war