Being a Politically Conservative Reconstructionist
It is no secret that among Reconstructionist Jews there is a paucity of political conservatives. Indeed, the Reconstructionist movement tends to see itself as diametrically opposed to rightwing social policies and prides itself as being progressive on such issues as equal rights and opportunities for women and homosexuals. Most Reconstructionists argue that a commitment to "social justice" is central to Judaism, particularly to the practice of Reconstructionist Judaism. "Only when a just social order prevails throughout the world," wrote Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (The Future of the American Jew, 1948), "can the Jewish people find peace, and Jewish civilization thrive."
Generally, when Reconstructionist leaders provide examples of social justice activism, they include: protest of welfare cutbacks (see, for example, Rebecca Alpert's and Jacob Staub's Exploring Judaism: A Reconstructionist Approach, page 83 of the new edition); advocacy for reproductive rights (see David Teutsch's The Public Presence of American Jewry in The Reconstructionist, Fall, 2000); support for affirmative action; and "preaching against 'big money' and 'corporate insensitivity' " (see Steve Gutow's Tikkun Olam: A Public Policy Focus in the same issue of The Reconstructionist). The movement much more readily accepts a range of views about Israel and the war on terrorism. Nevertheless, given the emphasis on such a traditionally liberal domestic political agenda, one wonders whether it is possible to be a Reconstructionist conservative.
I believe that the conclusion that Reconstructionism demands liberalism is actually based on two inaccurate myths about conservative political thought. Myth #1: Conservatives believe in a policy of complete self-interest and do not care about general social welfare. Therefore, by definition, they cannot have a true commitment to social justice. Myth #2: Conservatives adhere to a policy of "family values" that supports discrimination against women and homosexuals and therefore cannot be committed to the Reconstructionist value of inclusivity.
Let me tackle each of these in hope of affirming that it is quite possible to be a Reconstructionist and a conservative without dissonance.
MYTH #1 The most basic argument against the possibility of conservative Reconstructionism focuses on the face that conservative political philosophy relies on the doctrine of self-interest. Such right-wing philosophers as Robert Nozick and Ayn Rand have argued that a truly moral society is one in which individual rights are regarded as the highest priority and each human being is dedicated only to self-interest. This individual rights-based ideology is crucial to most conservative political thought.
Most conservatives would argue, as did the 18th century economist Adam Smith, that the public good is best served by the maintenance of individual rights within a system of voluntary exchange. The highest amount of good is achieved by what Smith called the "invisible hand" of capitalism because marketplace exchanges occur only when they are mutually beneficial. One could argue that this belief in the power of voluntary exchange to create social justice was borne out during the Clinton years, when Congress shifted its focus from Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty" to a "war on welfare dependence." Throughout the welfare reform period of the 1990s, low income participation in the labor market increased significantly and poverty rates declined steadily. It appeared that market forces, rather than handouts, were the best means of fighting poverty.
However, a belief in complete self-interest is as rare in conservative circles as is a belief in communism (or complete altruism) in liberal circles. While a strong free market is central to conservative economic policy, it is clear to most conservatives that market forces alone are not sufficient to provide for all members of society. Consequently, most conservatives also believe that citizens have a moral and ethical responsibility to give charity — which tends to increase when government lessens regulation. As Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman points out (in Free to Choose, 1980), it was during the late 19th century, when governmental regulation of the economy was at its all-time low, that "nonprofit private hospitals, orphanages, and numerous other institutions sprang up like weeds. Almost every charitable or public service organization, from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to the YMCA and YWCA, from the Indian Rights Association to the Salvation Army, dates from that period." Conservatives, therefore, generally support faith-based initiatives, as proposed by President Bush, because religious organizations are often the most effective and efficient administrators of charitable donations.
It is certainly arguable, within Reconstructionist thought, that we should be using our religious community to aid the less fortunate rather than simply delegating such responsibilities to the federal government. The faith-based initiatives plan represents a tremendous opportunity to take upon our own shoulders the responsibility for caring for our neighbors. In The Future of the American Jew, Mordecai Kaplan emphasized that the Jewish community was responsible for adhering to an ethical standard "higher . . . than the average." He also argued that the "truly religious person is a lover of freedom because [he or she] feels the need to be free from obedience to arbitrary decrees, in order to serve God." Thus, the reconciliation of freedom with tzedakah, righteous charity, and gemilut hasadim, acts of loving kindness, is certainly Reconstructionist.
MYTH #2 When it comes to "family values," a distinction must be made between the Christian Right and the mainstream "neoconservative" wing of the Republican party. While the two groups often have similar positions on social issues (pro-school vouchers, against the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade), they often hold these positions for very different reasons. Certainly, a conservative who believes that homosexuality is a sin or perversion could not be comfortable within the realm of Reconstructionist belief — but that belief about homosexuality is not characteristic of all conservatives. Similarly, a conservative who believes that no woman should ever have the right to abort a pregnancy because a fetus is a human life would probably be outside the realm (or at least at the margins) of Reconstructionist belief — but not all conservatives hold that position, either. Some conservatives, in debates on social policy, disagree with liberals not about the goals to be pursued but the appropriate processes to be used to achieve those goals. In the case of reproductive rights, there are conservatives who believe that a woman should have a right to choose an abortion, but most would argue that the proper avenue for creating such a right is the state legislative process, not the judicial process. Some conservatives likewise do not support President Bush's recent proposal to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage. However, most are appreciative of the fact that the President chose to pursue his agenda through the legislative process — thus opening it to public debate — and not through the courts.
There is a tendency in the liberal camp to write off these concerns about the constitutional process as a mere conservative tactic for holding back desirable social change. However, the legislative process has been the means by which most major social changes have been made in the last two centuries, and its importance should not be belittled. It was legislation that led to the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment prohibiting slavery and the Nineteenth Amendment granting women the right to vote. To many, moreover, the preservation of the appropriate governmental process in determining social policy is at least as important as any one particular policy. Our Constitution places the important decisions regarding our communal welfare in the hands of the larger community by delegating lawmaking power to elected representatives. When unelected judges make new law through activist rulings, this communal process has been subverted.
Reconstructionists should, as a general matter, appreciate this emphasis on appropriate process — an emphasis that can be witnessed throughout the Reconstructionist community. While one Reconstructionist congregation might keep traditionally kosher and use a traditional liturgy, another might keep "eco-kosher" and use a liturgy highly influenced by eastern religions and meditation. Both congregations fall under the rubric of Reconstructionism, not because of their uniform practices, but because of the communal processes they use to derive those practices. This process of decision making is, like our American system of government, a form of individual and communal process. In their book, Exploring Judaism, Rabbis Rebecca Alpert and Jacob Staub detail the way that a Reconstructionist decision ought to be made:
The Reconstructionist movement strongly advocates that Reconstructionist groups consider collectively questions of ethical and ritual behavior, but Reconstructionism ultimately is an approach to Judaism. We learn and appreciate what the tradition has to say, we come to a spectrum of options that reflects that understanding and . . . individuals must decide for themselves about the proper Jewish way to proceed in a given situation.
By the same token, conservative political thought is, at its core, an approach to the way government ought to work that emphasizes both individual choice and communal decision making. Conservatism is not necessarily a mandate for specific government policies.
During the past three years, it has been my privilege to meet many aspiring and current rabbis in the Reconstructionist movement. Invariably, they are thoughtful and dedicated men and women whose political beliefs, though often different from my own, I hold in the highest esteem. It has not been the intent of this article to change those beliefs, but rather to emphasize that Reconstructionism has ample room for those on both sides of the political spectrum. The challenge to the Reconstructionist movement in the coming years is to make sure that Reconstructionist communities are welcoming and inclusive spiritual homes for those with a wide range of political beliefs.