I’m always stirred by the seemingly primitive features of Jewish religious observance. On Yom Kippur, celebrated this Shabbat, we read from the book of Leviticus about the sending away of a sacrificial goat to the Judean wilderness, bearing to its death the combined sins of the people. Judaism’s insistence on animal sacrifice must strike many Jews today as embarrassing.
But the truth is, far from being primitive, the logic of sacrifice is widely acknowledged in our modern world, if implicitly. That fact even helps explains what, at bottom, separates the two dominant political philosophies in American public life.
Just ask Senator Hillary Clinton. This past June, she participated in a Democratic presidential candidates’ forum with a focus on religious angles on political issues. It took place at George Washington University and was televised on CNN. The transcript is fascinating.
At one point, Clinton forthrightly said, with reference to herself and her fellow Democratic candidates, “I think you can sense how we are attempting to try to inject faith into policy.” That line alone, spoken by a Republican candidate, would have been trumpeted on the front page of a 1,000 newspapers and Web sites as proof that the speaker harbors secret plots to turn America into a theocracy along the lines of Iran or Saudi Arabia.
Clinton went on to note the fact that 45 million Americans don’t have health insurance, a “moral wrong,” as she sees it. She said that this wrong would have to be fixed, “And that means something has to be taken away from some people.”
Americans will be compelled to sacrifice. But sacrifice what, exactly?
Our money? The current quality of American medical care? The New York senator didn’t elaborate, but she would gladly tax me to finance health care for thee.
Disagreements between rival worldviews always seem to come down to the dilemma of what must be sacrificed, and by whom. When Judaism and Christianity split in the 1st century, it was over that question.
The Temple in Jerusalem had been burned by the Romans in 70 C.E., so an alternative to its sacrificial system had to be found. Jews pointed to Scriptural passages, such as Hosea 14:3, suggesting that synagogue worship and Torah study could substitute for animal sacrifice. Christians said only the sacrifice of a God-man would be sufficient — an equally audacious proposal for which, however, Jews could find no indication in the Bible.
Today, liberalism has its scheme of proposed sacrifices. The secular moral framework — a religious faith in its own right though lacking a deity — emphasizes physical health above all else. So not surprisingly, liberal presidential candidates agree on prioritizing universal medical coverage.
They are also passionate about addressing climate change. To do so, as Al Gore advocates, would cripple the economy of many Western countries, including our own. But, as we are invited to reflect while bicycling to work from now on, the sacrifice is worth it.
By the same token, there are sacrifices that Republicans feel morally at ease approving. The conflict in Iraq, for example, has cost American lives, though far fewer than any comparable war in our history. Every single time an American serviceman is killed by a roadside bomb, it’s reported on National Public Radio in the same tones of muted shock and horror in which we would normally discuss a tragic death. But in the traditional understanding, a soldier’s death in wartime is not tragic. The word “tragedy” implies a loss suffered for no good reason — for example, a child who drowns in the swimming pool, God forbid. As Republicans who support the war would argue, a combat death is a sacrifice, a payment toward a future good — in this case, a free Iraq.
Conservatives ask gay couples to sacrifice any passionate desire they may feel to have their sexuality applauded by society in the form of a state-issued same-sex marriage license. Pro-life Republicans would ask a pregnant woman to sacrifice her comfort for nine months to give life to her baby. Proponents of abortion rights would give the same woman permission to sacrifice the baby.
Today, no less than two millennia ago, when the last scapegoat was led into the wilderness to be pushed off a cliff by a representative of the Temple priesthood, the logic of sacrifice is ironclad. It may be summarized in three words: No free lunch. Every good under the sun must be paid for.
Complementing this fact of life is a feature of human nature. There seems to be, hardwired into us, a need for sacrifice — whether to give up our own goods or to make other people give up theirs. This is why religious groups that ask little of their believers usually dwindle while groups that demand sacrifice prosper, as the historians Roger Finke and Rodney Stark show in their book “The Churching of America.”
A secular culture like ours invents its own sacrifices — cigarette bans, enforced recycling, carbon offsetting, peanut-free schools and the rest. Of course, you’ll meet people who insist that lunch is free after all, and the greatest good may be purchased for nothing. You might call them optimists, naïve or, less charitably, fools.