| Outlook |

A Guiding Light or a Dead Hand?

Revealed religion is antithetical to the progressive mindset


After the recent passing of Roger Scruton, considered by many the foremost conservative thinker of the last 50 years (and a one-time lecturer at a Tikvah Fund summer program for kolleleit), Daniel Hannan paid tribute to his great mentor. Hannan, a former member of the European Parliament and perhaps the most articulate advocate for Brexit, began with a story from his schoolboy days. Scruton had spoken to Hannan’s class, and at the end of his lecture in modern language theory, he asked the class whether they had any questions.

Mostly to break an awkward silence, Hannan thrust his hand in the air and asked, “What is the role of a conservative thinker in our day?”

Sir Roger responded, “To reassure the people that their prejudices are true.” By prejudice he did not mean the modern usage of prejudice as a synonym for racism or bigotry. Rather, he intended prejudice in its proper meaning — those things pre-judged based on past experience.

As Hannan rephrased Scruton’s words, “Life would be unlivable if we treated each situation by reasoning from first principles, disregarding the wisdom of our ancestors, and ignoring our own rules of thumb worked out on the basis of past experiences in similar situations.”

In Hannan’s four-minute tribute, I discovered the answer to a question that has long puzzled me: Why, when people become religious, do they almost inevitably become much more conservative politically? The obvious answer is that they recoil from the modern progressive agenda, which is anathema to traditional religion in many ways — for example, in its glorification of abortion as a sacrament and its upending of traditional views of marriage and family.

But I think the matter goes deeper than particular policies advocated, and centers on attitudes toward the past. For the believing Jew, the decisive event in human history took place at Sinai over 3,300 years ago. For Torah Jews, the superiority of early generations is axiomatic: Amoraim do not argue against Tannaim; Acharonim don’t take issue with Rishonim.

Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky once found himself on a transatlantic flight next to Histadrut head Yerucham Meshel. Throughout the flight, Rav Yaakov’s son and granddaughter frequently came to his seat and inquired whether there was anything they could do for him. At some point, Meshel expressed his amazement at the honor Rav Yaakov received from them. He told Rav Yaakov that he barely ever saw or spoke to his children, and his grandchildren almost never.

Reb Yaakov explained to him that the difference in their relationships to their descendants was a natural outgrowth of their differing worldviews. “You believe in a Darwinian universe of random, purposeless events. In your children’s eyes, you are just one generation closer to the apes than they are.

“But for us, the central event in human history was the moment when the Jewish People stood at Sinai and heard G-d speak. The generations immediately after the Revelation lived in awe of their parents as people to whom G-d spoke... My children and grandchildren honor me as one who had contact with spiritual giants beyond their comprehension, and therefore attribute to me a wisdom and spiritual sensitivity they lack.”

Conservatives do not necessarily believe in Divine revelation, but they do share a respect for the accumulated wisdom of human beings over the millennia and for the institutions of their country that have developed incrementally over centuries.

Not so progressives. For them the past is a “dead hand” restraining change. That explains the recent eagerness of our elite universities to jettison large chunks of Western civilization. The University of Pennsylvania English department recently replaced a portrait of Shakespeare with that of an unread woman of color. And Yale ended its most popular art history course because of the predominance of white males among those studied.

Progressives are, in Thomas Paine’s words, ever ready “to begin the world over again,” armed only with the power of their unaided human reason. Where the conservative is perpetually skeptical of rationalist schemes to remake humanity, for progressive intellectuals no plan is too all-embracing, no government too large as long as they run it.

President Woodrow Wilson, one of the leading lights of modern American progressivism (albeit, like many of his contemporary progressives, a dyed-in-the-wool racist), envisioned a government run by administrative experts, unburdened by any system of checks and balances. He did not hesitate to declare the Constitution to be antiquated and unsuited for modern conditions — too reliant on votes and suffering too many restraints on the exercise of power by those properly knowledgeable.


Revealed religion is antithetical to the progressive mindset. Progressives have no patience for claims of immutable laws whose validity is not subject to their reason. For them every principle, every social arrangement must continually submit to the judgment of human reason.

The first target of revolutionaries of all stripes has always been traditional religion. The leaders of the French Revolution seized the property of the Catholic Church, and built Temples of Reason in place of the old churches.

Progressives also take aim at the traditional family, correctly recognizing its role in the transmission of values from previous generations. One of the centerpieces of progressive curricular reform, as Orthodox schools in Great Britain have recently learned, is the promotion of the panoply of modern families, all equally valid, besides the traditional family consisting of a father, mother and children.

Enlightenment rationalism has always been subject to the totalitarian temptation. If human reason is to reign supreme, how much more rational to leave matters in the hands of the “wise.” Markets and democracy, which allot equal weight to the decisions of the foolish and unlearned, are, by contrast, irrational. Much of the attraction of Marxism for intellectuals always lay in its claim to be based on scientific principles, though few waded through Das Kapital. Similarly, socialism claims to allocate wealth on the basis of abstract principles of justice rather than via the unruly market.

From Rousseau onward, enlightenment thought has favored the top down imposition of order. The would-be commissars on our university campuses today, with their waning patience for free speech, are open about advocating diminished rights for the unenlightened.

Enlightenment rationalists, of which modern progressivism is one strain, look askance at all the mediating institutions of civil society — family, church, voluntary associations — that de Tocqueville saw as the glory of American democracy. Those institutions, based on human affection and loyalty, are too messy to satisfy the quest for rationality.

Rulers of the progressive state, whether dictators of one form or another or the European Union bureaucracy in Brussels, resent all groupings that command the loyalty of individuals to anything other than their wise leaders. As such, family, religion, even the nation-state, are inherently suspect.

In short, there is nothing coincidental about the disdain of progressivism for traditional religion, which denies both the right and ability of human beings to remake the world anew in every generation according to the dictates of the wise of that generation. Thus, it is perfectly natural for baalei teshuvah to become more conservative in their politics as they rediscover their ancestral religion.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 801. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at rosenblum@mishpacha.com

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