The Disastrous Banishment of the Hebraic Spirit from American Public Life

Accompanied by massive social pathologies that it can neither contain nor reverse, the emerging secular order is itself unsustainable.

Vigil in Gloucester, MA on International Overdose Awareness Day, August 31, 2019. Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images.

Vigil in Gloucester, MA on International Overdose Awareness Day, August 31, 2019. Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images.

Jan. 20 2020
About the author

Wilfred M. McClay is professor of history at Hillsdale College and author of Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story (Encounter, 2019).

Eric Cohen’s powerful essay in Mosaic is, at bottom, a clarion call for Jews and Christians, particularly the latter, to stop wallowing in guilt and indecision, to get up off the mat, and to start consciously and actively fighting the forces of militant secularism that are bent on destroying them and our civilization with them. When they do so, he argues, they can gain heart and direction for what they want to achieve by looking to the guiding star of Jerusalem—not only as a symbol or an idea but as an actual city, a fragile and precarious miracle of robustly embodied Jewish life.

In many ways, Cohen’s argument in “The Message from Jerusalem” reminds me of The Benedict Option, an important book by the Christian writer Rod Dreher that similarly counsels resistance to militant secularism: resistance in the form not only of engaging in legal and political battles but also of building thick and resilient communities of faith, places where lives are consecrated to ideals realized through concrete modes of conduct that stand in contradiction to the spirit of the times.

But Cohen’s essay also reminds me of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s plaint that Christians tend not to make good soldiers because they are too willing to die. The admonition to fight strikes many Christians today as a betrayal of their irenic faith, hinting at a triumphalism redolent of aspects of Christian history of which they are rightly ashamed. Cohen wants to shake them out of that unproductive brooding, and to open their eyes to the real circumstances before them.

In doing so, he points in particular to the theologically and culturally improbable (but empirically undeniable) fact that today most evangelical Protestant Christians in the United States already feel a genuine and passionate affinity for Jews and Israel, an affinity that is proving to be very deep—deeper, in fact, than that of many secular American Jews.

Why is that? In part, Cohen writes, it is because evangelicals grasp that the very existence of the Jews, and of their city of Jerusalem, “are the clearest evidence and starkest reminder of the Western world’s fighting Hebraic spirit,” a spirit that provides essential nourishment to the roots of their own faith. They understand that the words “Never Again” can be translated as “We Shall Fight.” Jerusalem represents a fighting affirmation of foundational principles without which the Christian revelation cannot stand. The fortunes of these two groups, Jews and, especially, evangelical Christians, are thus “fates bound together” as never before.


Cohen’s call to the fight is also evident in his praise for Attorney General William Barr’s magnificent speech this past October at Notre Dame: a defense of religious liberty that was also, as Cohen recognizes, quite a bit more than that. It was, in the end, an argument for religious indispensability, recalling the view of nearly all of the American Founders that the moral supports provided by the biblical worldview would be necessary to the sustenance of our constitutional and republican institutions.

The Founders were clear, of course, that faith should not be coerced. But no less clear is that religious liberty was for them a precondition of the social order envisioned in the Constitution. Nor did Barr himself hesitate to stress, in language leaving no room for ambiguity, that the forcible, deliberate banishment of the Judeo-Christian moral system from our public life has been disastrous, accompanied at it has been by the rise of social pathologies of epic proportions. Yet the new order seems powerless to recognize these pathologies, which Barr details at some length, let alone to reverse or even contain them.

As if to illustrate Barr’s point that what has happened has not been a slow erosion of values but a purposeful sandblasting, the New York City Bar Association has just asked Congress to investigate him, accusing him of a “pattern of conduct that is inconsistent with the role of the Attorney General in our legal and constitutional system and with the norms and standards that govern the fair administration of justice.” The request is without merit, as the bar association must recognize, but the aim is to harass and put Barr and others on notice that it is no longer permitted to speak of such things in public—thereby, to repeat, making his point for him.

The evidence adduced by Barr and others suggests that the emerging secular order is not going to be sustainable. It is parasitic upon the order it would destroy, and does not even believe in its own future. Nothing speaks more convincingly to this last contention than the astoundingly low levels of fertility that have taken hold in the major Western countries—with the notable exception of Israel.

The biblical command to “be fruitful and multiply” is not just the working-out of a demographic strategy; it is a profound reflection of what kind of creatures we understand ourselves to be, and wherein lies our greatest happiness and fulfillment. It is the model of true sustainability.

To live in a way that “bears fruit” is a path of righteousness, in which one takes one’s place in the circle of life and the succession of generations, and proclaims one’s self-giving stake in both the past and the future. To do the opposite, to cultivate an adult population that increasingly refuses to embrace the experience of bearing and rearing children, is to break that circle and interrupt that succession, in ways that will have profound consequences both for the souls of individuals and for society as a whole.


Still, there are some aspects of Cohen’s essay about which I’m hesitant. For example, I wonder whether he doesn’t pass too lightly over the remarkable degree of contentiousness, in Israel itself, about such fundamental matters as the definition of a Jew. Indeed, the country often strikes one as both enlivened and plagued by such polarizing debates.

This is not just a recent phenomenon. As a Gentile boy growing up in a typical American small town, I knew almost nothing about Israel, but I was fascinated by the astonishing man I kept hearing about—his name was Teddy Kollek—who as the mayor of Jerusalem, year after year for almost three decades, somehow managed to hold together that ethnically and religiously divided city despite the self-evident impossibility of the task.

Of course, all of this could count as yet further evidence for Cohen’s thesis about the miraculous and abnormal normality of Jerusalem. I grant that. But questions nevertheless remain. In particular: does the actually existing Jerusalem correspond to the political vision of Davidic restoration? If so, in what sense, to what extent, and with what qualifications? And how are secular Israelis to recognize themselves in Cohen’s description of Jewish life in Jerusalem?

To put this another way: is there not a high degree of standard Western liberal-democratic pluralism underwriting the Israeli political order as it actually exists? That question may help explain why I also stumbled a bit at Cohen’s provocative, stimulating, and admittedly not implausible contention that Jerusalem is the “moral capital of the West.” Not that I have better candidates for the slot—New York? Paris? London? Brussels?—but I wonder about that word “West,” which introduces a different element into the discussion. For, whatever else we may mean by the term “Western civilization,” we generally mean a civilization that balances the imperatives of biblical piety against other, more rationalistic sources of meaning.

The classic formulation of that balance is the symbolic opposition of Athens and Jerusalem. It goes back to the Church father Tertullian, who used it to express an irreconcilable opposition between Greek philosophy (for which he had no use) and biblical faith. “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” he famously asked, entirely rhetorically.

But history has a way of making even irreconcilables lie down together. Thus, in the 19th century, a variant version of this fundamental antagonism was postulated by the English poet and critic Matthew Arnold in his essay “Hebraism and Hellenism.” (It appears as a chapter in Arnold’s 1869 book Culture and Anarchy.) The two, he wrote, were competing “spiritual disciplines,” each aiming at man’s perfection or salvation.

“The uppermost idea with Hellenism,” Arnold wrote, “is to see things as they really are; the uppermost idea with Hebraism is conduct and obedience.” In turn, these divergent conceptions are themselves rooted in divergent perceptions and experiences. “As Hellenism speaks of thinking clearly, seeing things in their essence and beauty, as a grand and precious feat for man to achieve, so Hebraism speaks of becoming conscious of sin, of wakening to a sense of sin, as a feat of this [same] kind.”

For Arnold, Hellenism celebrates man’s capacity for perfection and glory, in and through the exercise of his own power; Hebraism reminds man of his capacity for ignominy and shamefulness, in and through the identical exercise. Neither impulse could ever succeed in driving the other away entirely; each has enjoyed its season of dominance, and its season of recession; both have played roles as successive elements in an unfolding economy of mind and spirit.

In the 20th century, the political philosopher Leo Strauss gave a new twist to this discussion by arguing that in fact the tension between Athens and Jerusalem is what has made Western civilization what it is.

In Strauss’s scheme, Athens stands for the spirit of free rational inquiry undertaken in a fully intelligible world whose contours and dimensions are themselves fully commensurable with our powers of understanding. Jerusalem, by contrast, stands for the spirit of piety, which postulates the weakness of human understanding and the inadequacy of unaided human nature; we are, it insists, utterly reliant for guidance upon the few ways in which God has revealed Himself and His will to us, and such reliance constitutes a wisdom superior to any ratiocination. It is not by our knowledge but by our faith and a faithful way of life that we are saved; there is nothing that takes precedence over the fear of the Lord.

For Strauss, the antagonism between these two “conflicting roots” is “the core, the nerve of Western intellectual history.” It is also the secret of the West’s vitality—a life lived “between two codes,” in fundamental and unresolved tension. The combination is intellectually incoherent—and yet, should we become all one, or all the other, we would no longer be ourselves.


Admittedly, both of these modern formulations, Arnold’s and Strauss’s, fail to capture the full dimensions of Hebraism in particular: its ebullience, its creative energy, its reverence for the law, its electric sense of living in a world suffused with moral significance. These are some of the very things that Eric Cohen delights in finding in the streets and shops and gathering places of Jerusalem. But the opposition of the two, as part of a larger unity (or creative disunity), has been central to the ways that we have so far conceived of the West.

Might it not therefore be more accurate to speak of a restoration of Jerusalem’s status not as the moral capital but as one of the moral capitals of the West? I think so, and I don’t think it takes very much away from Eric Cohen’s argument to put it that way.

What is clear, in any case, is that the balance between Athens and Jerusalem, or between Hellenism and Hebraism, or however one wants to put it, has been altered, very much to the disadvantage of the latter, and is in danger of being destroyed altogether. The progress of our scientific and technological knowledge in the West, and of the culture of mastery that has come along with it, has displaced the cultural centrality of Christianity and Judaism. But, notwithstanding the pretensions of some of its spokesmen and acolytes, the new dispensation has not yet been able to replace Christianity and Judaism, or to offer itself in their place as a moral preceptor.

It never can. For that, we will have to look, once again, to Jerusalem, and to the “I am that I am” that exists before all things, and undergirds all things, defying our feeble predicates while giving us life—and, if we are so blessed, making our hearts grateful for everything, for the sheer miracle of our existence, even for the fragility of everything we cherish.

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