Kingdom of Priests

Kingdom of Priests

A Challenge to Religious Liberals

Over at the interesting website Beyond Teshuva, devoted to issues raised by Jews returning from secularism to Judaism, Kressel Housman comes “out of the closet” as…a liberal. As someone “raised on liberal values,” she reflects:

I know liberalism is unpopular in frum [religious] circles, and I know there are good reasons for it. Israel is number one, of course, but then there are matters like abortion and gay marriage.

I salute the author for being open, and for giving me an occasion to formulate Klinghoffer’s Law, based on my experience of hearing many people’s personal stories:

Jews who return to Jewish tradition often become more politically conservative, sometimes stay as they were, but almost never become more liberal. This is a strong indication that the natural political stance of a believing Jew is conservative, not liberal.


I suspect a similar dynamic could be identified among Christians who have experienced a renewal of or return to faith. I bet it’s also true of Reform and Conservative Jews who were previously less committed. If true, this poses a major challenge to liberals who see their religion as supportive of their politics.

Think I’m wrong? Let’s put it to a test. I invite readers, Jewish and Christian, to share their own experience. Did your spiritual recommitment translate into changed political views?


If so, how? My hunch is that we will find few if any cases where religious involvement translated into a leftward movement across the political spectrum, but many cases where it translated into enhanced conservatism. Again, if you think I’m wrong, and if you think you can prove it — not with insults, please, but with examples — go right ahead.
If your experience fits my proposed Law, please also let me know.
In my own memoir about teshuva, or spiritual return, The Lord Will Gather Me In, the political element was among the most controversial. My current book, How Would God Vote?, goes into detail about why Torah’s politics are so conservative.
The argument in a nutshell is that conservative views on a variety of issues (though not all) are linked by a common insistence on personal responsibility, an emphasis that pervades Torah, especially as understood by the great modern Orthodox sage, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch.
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posted May 8, 2009 at 7:45 pm

Very well…I’ll be happy to start off. In college I was “born again” and became active in a conservative Baptist church. Over the years my political, religious and personal views were formed by Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Alan Keyes, Rush Limbaugh, Charles Stanley, and a number of other stalwarts of the conservative/evangelical circle.
In the late 90s I suffered a “crisis of faith” and left Christianity for a time, almost 10 years.
In recent years I have found myself returning to the Christian faith, but with much more liberal views. Having switched from a Republican to a Green, from a Baptist to a UU, and from a staunch fundamentalist (very close to a KJV onlyist) to a progressive Christian, I am now reaching out to many of those same groups that I once condemned from the pulpit.
While I may well be among the minority in the group who responds to your challenge, I am quite content with the spiritual home I have found among stalwart, sincere people who share my political and religious beliefs.

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posted May 9, 2009 at 9:06 am

People who convert to a conservative religious faith are more socially conservative? This isn’t exactly a ground-breaking assertion. It’s like saying that people who order lobster in a restaurant are more likely to like lobster than people who don’t.

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posted May 9, 2009 at 3:00 pm

I was raised in a Pentecostal/Salvationist home. Strict, hard-line conservative family – church 3 times a Sunday not counting Sunday School (with a 17-year perfect attendance record and the Robert Raikes ‘diploma’ to show for it), mid-week prayer service, youth group, choir practice, Crusaders, Daily Vacation Bible School, Church camps for holidays, Inter-School Christian Fellowship, Youth for Christ. I doubt anyone could have had a more conservative Christian upbringing.
I ‘left the church’ during my university years (though I did choose to go to a Lutheran University). But I still loved “the Church”, and Christ’s message of love.
When I did re-join “the Church”, it was in one of the most liberal imaginable – the Metropolitan Community Church. It exemplifies Christ’s message, imo, and is passionate about social justice. I have served faithfully in it – a deacon (appointed for life, served actively for 10 years), as a sign language interpreter (18 years), on the board of directors (4 years), in AIDS ministry (12 years, and the first – of any kind – in our very large metropolitan area). And more. And my marriage (same-sex and legal and recognized by the government where I live) took place in my new church. My pastor was my best man. (I’ve known him longer than I’ve known my husband.)
“Did your spiritual recommitment translate into changed political views?”
Yes, but not in the way you imagined. The complete 180 degrees opposite, in fact. I see Jesus as a very progressive, liberal ativist, one who’s message is anathema to the “right”.
So much for your ‘theory’. In my experience, you would lose your “bet”, David. And I know many with very similar stories to tell.

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47th Problem of Euclid

posted May 9, 2009 at 6:17 pm

I was raised by secular Jewish parents, on my mother’s side, secular for five generations. While both of my parents had b’nei mitzvot, that was the extent of their religious participation, and my brother and I were not given a religious education. Last year, I decided that I wanted to be actively Jewish. I researched different Jewish denominations, and chose an unaffiliated synagogue. My synagogue has roots in both the Conservative and Jewish Renewal communities. I became a member a year ago (during Parashah Tazria), and have rarely missed a Friday night or Saturday morning service since then. I have learned enough Hebrew to follow the prayers in services, and pray in the mornings on my own.
Before my return, I was enough to the left of the Democrats to dislike the Democrats, never mind the Republicans. Now I’m a bit less critical of the State of Israel than I used to be, but am still deeply distrustful of the current Israeli government’s commitment to peace. I feel the Torah justifies a social commitment to the needy and disadvantaged. I believe that I’m probably less dogmatic than I used to be, and more comfortable entertaining other political points of view. I also believe that I’m more tolerant of other faiths as well.

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Your Name

posted May 11, 2009 at 11:50 am

Three out of three. (Kevin didn’t answer the challenge.)
You’d better call some of your uber-conservative friends and have them post their stories for some balance, David. Your “law” seems preposterous. As usual.

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posted May 11, 2009 at 1:51 pm

I have returned as a liberal reincarnation of my former conservative self also. I know many people who have remained conservative, or who were politically conservative, then joined a conservative religious movement. I don’t know anyone who was liberal and who is now conservative and religious.
I suppose that if you really take the Torah completely at its word and fully embrace the Deuteronomist’s political outlook, then you are going to be VERY conservative, but in some outdated sort of way that doesn’t apply today. Thank goodness we have midrash to take the edge off of it. I don’t really see personal responsibility scoring too high in the Torah anyways. It looks like collective responsibility and social cohesion are paramount. Not to mention your brith right, that establishes your relationship with God. Look at poor Esau getting cut out of the loop. David had a some serious shortcomings in terms of personal responsibility but he had a spectacularly good ride nevertheless.

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posted May 12, 2009 at 9:55 pm

I used to be secular and very liberal. Then I become convinced that Orthodox Judaism was true, and began reading and trying to live by Breslover Hassidic literature. I have become more conservative in some ways. Before I shared the liberal critiques of Israeli policy, but now I strongly support Israel (I’d consider voting for Ichud Leumi if I could vote there!) I’m no longer in favor of gay marriage, though I still have nothing wrong with civil unions.
However, I’m still quite liberal on most issues. I support a strong welfare state, designed to cut poverty, ensure universal access to health care, and encourage people to get jobs. I support dramatically improved environmental protections, including the quite ambitious goals of retooling our social organization so that your average person is much more likely to walk, bike, or take a bus to work, and likely to eat more plants than meat. I also think we should be highly regulating and restricting pesticide use and confined animal operations.
Even if you can derive a general personal responsibility ethic out of Jewish law, I don’t think that means the government can’t intervene, even in quite expensive and activist ways, when doing so would have positive consequences on the quality of life and people’s behavior. People need to take responsibilities for their actions, but we also need to help people gain the tools have the right circumstances for learning how to act responsibly. A small, reticent government constrained by artificial, ideological limitations will not be successful at this. Government should experiment in solving social problems (in collaboration with private parties), evaluating the success of their efforts in a hard-nosed empirical way, and stopping, expanding, or changing their efforts in response. I don’t see the conservatives promoting this pragmatist approach to government; instead, they denounce certain policies, like welfare, based on anecdotes and other shards of evidence, in a really stiff ideological way. Liberals can also be doctrinaire and too forgiving of irresponsibility, but it’s really only liberals (and maybe centrists) who are willing to give the government a chance to improve society with an a experimentalist, empiricist, and collaboration and partnership oriented good government ethos. I’m not happy with Obama’s Israel policy but otherwise I think the model of a modestly activist, self-critical state is right on.
I think liberals who become religious on average probably become somewhat more conservative, but the reason is not inherent to religion — which in all its forms is compatible with well-designed welfare schemes, for example. Instead, the reason is that secular liberals (like religious conservatives) are very doctrinaire, and figure they ought to side with their “side” on every issue. Religious people are confronted with other perspectives in their coreligionists, and so they come to believe that it’s OK and defensible to have other views. Then when they rethink their beliefs in a less constrained way (and perhaps influenced by some new values, like say pro-life if you’re talking about Catholics), they come up with new results, which are usually more toward the middle.
By the way, I really hugely enjoyed your book The Lord Will Gather Me In, and I wasn’t bothered by the political aspect, even though I didn’t always share your views. I also support your intelligent design work — despite all the abuse of Charles Johnson and his ilk.

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Steve Shay

posted May 13, 2009 at 12:16 pm

Your Name
May 11, 2009 11:50 AM
Three out of three. (Kevin didn’t answer the challenge.)
You’d better call some of your uber-conservative friends and have them post their stories for some balance, David. Your “law” seems preposterous. As usual.
In response to “Your Name” and the above statement. Your position is based on a small, anecdotal sample. To truly know if the Klinghoffer law is valid or not one would need to take a census of tens of thousands of people to prove or disprove this law. I admire David for reaching out and asking others for their anecdotal experiences knowing full well that readers whose life experiences contradict David’s “law” will be quicker to weigh in on this forum than those whose life experiences concur with it.

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posted May 14, 2009 at 9:08 am

David, I have to wonder if its a return to religiion that makes one more conservative (if that is what happens) or if its becoming more conservative that causes one to return to religion. I guess we’ll never be certain without a large sample. In either case, it is my opinion that the God of the Bible is a pretty conservative God. Still, I wonder where He would come down on issues like immigration.
I do belive that God is very much interested in personal responsibility. Even in passages such as II Chronicles 7:14, the call for “My people” to humble themselves, and pray, etc., are actions that ultimately can only be taken by individuals. So many times we read of Israel (or Judah) turning away from God and suffering as a result, while there was always a remnant that remained faithful. Again, an individual choice.
I guess I haven’t really helped on the small anecdotal sample. Sorry. :-)

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Your Name

posted May 14, 2009 at 11:07 am

“To truly know if the Klinghoffer law is valid or not one would need to take a census of tens of thousands of people to prove or disprove this law.”
No, Steve, I would not “need to” do any such thing.
Surely the formulator of a proposed “law” would need to do that. Otherwise, it isn’t a “law”, it’s a hunch. Much like Rod Dreher’s many wild ‘guesses’, ‘hunches’ and ‘feelings’. Empty air. Hollow electrons. Amounting to not much more than a hill of bad beans.

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posted June 4, 2009 at 7:58 am

I was raised “Jewnitarian” and have become a more observant Jew, though certainly not an Orthodox one. My liberal politics haven’t changed at all. However I must admit that sometimes the conservative bent of many Jewish institutions, particularly in regards to Israel/Palestine issues, has made me feel uncomfortable and sometimes unwelcome.
And I know of some cases of Protestants and Catholics where increased religious observance and/or religious fervor has led to folks becoming way more liberal or even radical. Have you ever heard of liberation theology? Have you heard of Dorothy Day, or ever met any of the folks active in the Catholic Worker Movement? I met very religious Catholics in Central America who may have been socially conservative on some issues but were way left-wing on economic issues.

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posted June 5, 2009 at 3:49 pm

Interesting that the only topics chosen here are Gay Marriage and Israel, I will expand, and Arab affairs
While I am sure that both of these are on the left – I am unsure how any one religious JEwish or otherwise can be anywhere but against anything to do with homosexuality.
what about
religious freedom especially if we are talking about Israel?

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