Author David Brog sheds light on the Judeo-Christian idea and the struggle for humanity.
Frontpage Interview’s guest today is David Brog, the executive director of Christians United for Israel. Before CUFI, Brog worked in the United States Senate for seven years, rising to be chief of staff to Senator Arlen Specter and staff director of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He has also served as an executive at America Online and practiced corporate law in Tel Aviv, Israel and Philadelphia, PA. Brog is the author of the new book, In Defense of Faith: The Judeo-Christian Idea and the Struggle for Humanity.
FP: David Brog, welcome to Frontpage Interview. Share with us what inspired you to write In Defense of Faith.
Brog: As the title indicates, this was largely a defensive maneuver. I used to think that all the talk about a “war on faith” was nothing more than exaggerated conservative cant. But my experience working closely with the faith community over the past few years has taught me otherwise. The fact is that religious faith is being attacked, and these attacks are taking a toll.
Among other recent assaults we’ve seen a series of mediocre books attacking faith being released to the orgasmic approval of the mainstream media. Every night on television some new pundit is smugly ridiculing the beliefs or statements of religious leaders. And, with limited exceptions, Hollywood continues to portray people of deep religious faith as crazed villains.
I probably wouldn’t pay very much attention to these attacks if they ultimately didn’t change minds. But they are changing minds. Church walls are not impervious to the culture – they never have been. More Americans than ever before are identifying as atheist or agnostic. More Americans than ever before are abandoning church and synagogue. Our young people in particular are turning their backs on our Judeo-Christian heritage, convinced by these attacks that it offers nothing of value for them or the world.
If we who value faith want to ensure that the next generation at least keeps an open mind to our religious heritage, we need to respond to these attacks. And, even more importantly, we need to respond to these attacks on the same plane on which they are being made. The critics of faith employ history and logic to appeal to our reason. Defenders of faith must do likewise. Merely asserting the superiority of faith will not speak to this lost generation.
FP: Why is the assault on religious faith increasing with such intensity?
Brog: My pet theory is that most of these “new atheists” were inspired by a stunningly simplistic reaction to 9/11. On 9/11, people of faith attacked us. People of deep religious conviction were the ones who knocked down the twin towers and killed over 3,000 Americans. Therefore, some concluded, faith must be the problem. If we could only eliminate religious faith, they argue, there would be no force left that could drive men to commit such terrible, irrational acts.
I think part of this “all or nothing” mentality towards faith has actually been exacerbated by moral relativism. We are not permitted to judge between faiths, right? So therefore if one interpretation of one faith (Islam) leads to such violence, then all faiths must be equally guilty and dangerous. Because militant Muslims commit suicide bombings, we are told, we must be equally wary of devout Quakers and Bahais. It is a strange relativism indeed that can condemn all religious faith. But then again, even more consistent relativists typically make exceptions for ideologies they don’t much like such as Christianity, conservatism, etc.
Ultimately, the answer does not lie in the impossible goal of rejecting all beliefs and “isms.” Instead, we must do the hard work of sorting the good ideas from the bad. We have no alternative. And when we do this hard work, we will realize that the Judeo-Christian tradition has done a miraculous job of eliminating violence in furtherance of the faith. We will likewise realize that so many of our most cherished values are not just floating out there in the atmosphere, but flow directly from this faith tradition. And we will also realize as well that those who take this tradition most seriously – believing Christians and Jews – have been at the forefront of our greatest human rights struggles.
FP: What is the source of our morality in your view?
Brog: Our morality comes almost entirely from our environment i.e. the lessons we are taught by our family, faith and culture. Yet these powerful cultural forces act upon certain moral instincts with which we are all born. So we must start with these shared moral instincts to fully understand the ways in which our environment ultimately influences us.
Even the most superficial review of society and history will demonstrate that we’re born inherently selfish. To the extent we have altruistic instincts at all, they extend only to our blood relatives and those in our “ingroup,” however defined, be it our tribe, nation or race. This innate compassion does not extend to those who are outside our ingroup. Indeed, the greatest failing in human nature is our ability to turn with ferocity upon those in “outgroups” the minute our interests clash with theirs – and such clashes are inevitable. This is why slavery, war and genocide have been constants of human history.
I’m hardly alone in reaching this pessimistic conclusion. Today there is a universal consensus among religion, social science and hard science that we’re born selfish. Christianity has always taught that we’re born selfish through the doctrine of original sin. Judaism has always taught that we’re born selfish through the concept of our “evil inclination.” And even a leading atheist such as Richard Dawkins has concluded through his study of evolutionary biology that we’re born inherently selfish, although he locates the source of the selfishness at the genetic level. Dawkins claims that we’re born with “selfish genes.”
Just because we’re born selfish, however, doesn’t mean we’re doomed to remain selfish. We have the ability to transcend our impoverished human nature and embrace a bigger love if we are taught to do so. This is where culture and faith can play an elevating role. And this is where the Judeo-Christian tradition has made its greatest contribution to our civilization.
FP: What is the “Judeo-Christian” idea, and what has it contributed to the West's morality?
Brog: What I call the “Judeo-Christian idea” is the beating heart of Judeo-Christian morality. And it is one of the most revolutionary ideas ever introduced to humanity. It is the two-part idea that (1) all humans are of equal, inestimable value, and (2) we must not merely recognize the value of our fellow humans, but we must love them and act on this love by serving them. The Judeo-Christian idea provides a path towards transcending our impoverished genetic morality. It is the antidote to our selfish genes.
Growing up in the heart of a society that has embraced the Judeo-Christian idea so completely – at least in theory -- we forget how stunningly revolutionary this idea was and continues to be. Think about it -- the Judeo-Christian idea teaches us that the richest king in Europe and the poorest child in Africa are equal in the eyes of God. This radical egalitarianism stands in stark contrast to all previous ways of viewing humanity. Under the Code of Hammurabi, it was a far greater offense to kill a wealthy man than a poor man. The Greeks viewed most non-Greeks as inferior beings who could and should be enslaved. The Romans viewed females as inferior and often killed their baby daughters at birth in their quest for sons. The Enlightenment philosophers created the concepts of race and racism. I could go on at length.
Those who believe we are born believing in the Judeo-Christian idea are making a common but quite dangerous mistake. They are confusing the moral lessons they were taught from birth with their innate morality. They fail to see that they never would have arrived at these moral insights in the absence of such lessons. They thus fail to recognize that if we don’t continue teaching these lessons, future generations will not necessary ascend to the same moral heights.
FP: What does the historical record tell us that happens when humans reject the Judeo-Christian idea?
Brog: As you indicate, we don’t need to hypothesize about what happens when we reject the Judeo-Christian idea. The experiments have already been conducted, and the price has already been paid in human blood. We should at least have the decency to learn the lessons.
As discussed above, we’re born inherently selfish. We may care about ourselves and those in our ingroup, but this innate compassion has never extended to outgroups. When we are taught to transcend this innate selfishness we can rise to heights of humanity. But when this innate selfishness is celebrated and even empowered, tragedy ensues.
Nazism empowered this instinctive selfishness. It taught Germans that only their racial ingroup – the Aryans -- were created in the image of God and that everyone else was expendable. Communism empowered this inborn selfishness. It taught the urban masses that only their class ingroup -- the working class -- had a meaningful role to play in the forward march of history. Everyone else was expendable. Skeptics will comfort themselves with the thought that I am exaggerating the ease of this moral degradation. I wish I were.
FP: It has been Christians that have led every major human rights campaign in Western history. Tell us a bit about that fact and why it took Christians to do this.
Brog: Since so many people will take issue with this premise -- that Christians have led every major human rights campaign in Western history -- I want to be specific. When I discuss the West’s “major” human rights campaigns, I’m referring to the efforts to stop the genocide and ethnic cleansing of the American Indian in both North and South America, the campaigns to end the slave trade and then slavery itself in Britain and North America, our own civil rights movement, and the modern effort to combat the debt and disease of the third world, especially Africa. Not only have Christians led every one of these campaigns, but their rank-and-file activists have come almost entirely from churches and synagogues.
The reason that Christians have played such a prominent role in these human rights struggles is that Christians so often take the Judeo-Christian idea so seriously. After all, for Christians the belief in the sanctity and equality of all humans isn’t just a nice philosophy – it’s a divine insight. And for Christians, serving our fellow men isn’t merely good advice – it’s a divine commandment. In addition, believing Christians tend to go to church and otherwise surround themselves with people who share this worldview, making it far easier to form “conspiracies of goodness” in furtherance thereof. Finally, the fact that Christians believe they are doing God’s will when they take risks for their fellow humans gives them the courage to proceed where others often fear to tread.
Now I need to add some important qualifications. First of all, to note that all of these human rights struggles have been led by Christians does not mean that all Christians have been humanitarians. Far from it. Faith offers a path towards transcending our selfish genes, but it in no way guarantees such transcendence.
In addition, to note the leadership role of Christians in these efforts is not intended to deny the values or activism of the adherents of other faiths. Jews also take the Judeo-Christian idea quite seriously. But we Jews have spent most of the modern era struggling for our survival against people – including millions of Christians – who didn’t take the Judeo-Christian idea seriously enough to overcome their anti-Semitism. It is only recently that we Jews have had the security and freedom to worry about the survival of others, and we’ve being doing so quite actively. In addition, members of non Judeo-Christian faiths may also embrace similar ideas about humanity. But until recent years there have been far too few adherents of such faiths in the West to lead public campaigns. This may well change in the future.
Finally, I should also note that many atheists, agnostics and other secular folk also take the Judeo-Christian idea seriously and have participated in the more recent of these human rights efforts. In fact, atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins typically use the language and values of the Judeo-Christian tradition to sit in judgment on the Judeo-Christian tradition and find it wanting. Ironic, don’t you think?
FP: Your thoughts on the Enlightenment as the source for many of our high ideals?
Brog: The Enlightenment is highly overrated. It tends to be seen as the shining full moon, the bright antithesis of religion’s dark side. Yet neither stereotype withstands critical scrutiny.
The Enlightenment certainly introduced many new and valuable ideas to the world. But it also introduced some extremely dangerous ones. We therefore need to be careful about when we should look to the Enlightenment for guidance, and when we’d be better off looking elsewhere.
In particular, there is an important distinction to be made between theories of government and civil rights on the one hand, and theories of humanity and human rights on the other. When it comes to government and civil rights, the Enlightenment was of enormous value. If we agree that people have a right to rebel against tyrannical governments, we should thank the pre-Enlightenment philosopher Locke (I’ll leave the discussion of Locke’s philosophical debt to the Bible for another time). If we like the idea of separation of powers at the heart of our Constitution, we should thank the Enlightenment philosopher Montesquieu. And so on.
Yet when it comes to our conception of humanity and human rights, the Enlightenment’s record is far more troubling. Enlightenment philosophers updated ancient rationales for slavery and gave them respectability in a new era. And Enlightenment philosophers and their progeny introduced dangerous new divisions of mankind that gave renewed relevance and urgency to the separation of ingroups from outgroups. Enlightenment thinkers invented the concepts of race and racism. The romantic reaction against the Enlightenment brought us the concept of nationalism. And the children of the Enlightenment brought us Communism.
The Twentieth Century was a century punctuated by genocide from start to finish. And almost every one of these genocides was inspired by one or more of these modern, secular ideas of racism, nationalism or Communism. I’m not saying that those who invented these concepts intended that they be used to rationalize genocide – this clearly wasn’t the case. But it is equally clear that once these ideas were unleashed into the world, they empowered that selfish drive inherent in all of us to persecute outgroups with a vengeance.
FP: What are your thoughts on Israel and why we should stand beside her?
Brog: America has always stood for something greater than power and realpolitik. There has always been a purpose to our power. And this purpose has led us to stand for certain morals, certain freedoms, and certain ideals in the world.
Israel is the embodiment the best of these morals, freedoms and ideals. Israel is a democracy in a region dominated by despots. Israel provides full civil rights and religious freedom to all of her citizens, while most of her neighbors openly flout such freedoms. Israel is an outpost of Judeo-Christian civilization surrounded by militant Muslim enemies bent on her destruction. When we talk about the “special relationship” between the United States and Israel, we are talking about these shared values and beliefs.
Yet even when we leave principle aside and think only of power and realpolitik, it turns out that Israel is an important strategic ally. During the Cold War, Israel was a democratic ally that repeatedly defeated the Soviet satellites who attacked her. Today, Israel is front-line ally in the war on terror. When Israel fights Hamas, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda or Iran, it is fighting our enemies as well.
Those who believe that if we only abandoned Israel the terrorists would no longer hate us get it terribly wrong. Iran hates Israel because they see it as an outpost of America in the Middle East, and not visa versa. Iran’s hatred of America came first, and it stems from our involvement in overthrowing their elected government in 1956 and putting the Shah in power. Likewise, the Muslim Brotherhood, which has spawned modern terrorists such as Al Qaeda and Hamas, has hated America since its founding in 1928, well before there even was an Israel. We need to stop blaming Israel for harming our interests and realize the great extent to which Israel furthers our interests without ever once asking American boys to sacrifice their lives for her. I pray our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan produce countries even half as free, and allies even half as valuable, as the Jewish State.
FP: David Brog, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.