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Renewed covenant or populism? Rabbi Lord Sacks on the West’s alternatives

The deepest division running through the West is not between Right and Left, or liberty and collectivism. Western civilization must choose this day whether it is grounded in a covenant or populism, according to the former Chief Rabbi of the UK.

While receiving AEI’s highest honor, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks distinguished between two rival views of society derived from his exegesis of I Samuel 8. A social contract creates a government, while a covenant creates a society:

In a contract, you make an exchange, which is to the benefit of the self-interest of each. … A covenant isn’t like that. It’s more like a marriage than an exchange. In a covenant, two or more parties each respecting the dignity and integrity of the other come together in a bond of loyalty and trust to do together what neither can do alone. A covenant isn’t about me; it’s about us. A covenant isn’t about interests; it’s about identity. A covenant isn’t about me, the voter, or me, the consumer, but about all of us together. Or in that lovely key phrase of American politics, it’s about “We, the people.”

The social consequences of each path become clear. A covenant calls a people upward toward virtue, higher purpose, and values shared in community. Degraded populism inflames self-interest to the point of envy. A covenant unifies society in pursuit of the people’s agreed telos. Degraded populism Balkanizes by generating conflict based on ever-finer divisions. A covenant creates the social trust necessary for society to create wealth through free (not to mention honest and harmonious) exchange, specialization of labor, and economies of scale. Degraded populism divides society to redistribute some of its members’ belongings.

Populism remains on the march across the transatlantic sphere. Rabbi Sacks cited a recent Bridgewater Capital survey that found populist sentiments in the West highest levels since the 1930s. Similarly the European Policy Information Center (EPIC) found that “Authoritarian-Populism has overtaken Liberalism and has now established itself as the third ideological force in European politics.” (The European definition of “liberalism” is akin to “libertarianism” in American parlance.)

Much populist sentiment is fueled by justifiable disenchantment with the academic-government-lobbyist nexus.

One need not turn to academic surveys when election returns will do. The Alternative for Germany (AfD) became the first populist party to land a seat in the German Bundestag in the postwar era. Europe’s youngest leader, 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz of Austria, is seeking to form a governing coalition between his conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) and the populist Freedom Party. The newly elected prime minister of the Czech Republic, Andrej Babis, is trying to form a coalition government with anyone who will partner with his populist ANO Party. (So far, his only takers have been the Communists.) They join the populist leaders entrenched Central and Eastern Europe.

Much populist sentiment is fueled by justifiable disenchantment with the academic-government-lobbyist nexus typified by rampant cronyism, bail outs, and sweetheart deals. “Today’s elites,” wrote Philip Stephens in the Financial Times, “should ask themselves just when it became acceptable for politicians to walk straight from public office into the boardroom” of “big corporate monopolies that have eschewed wealth creation for rent-seeking.” The self-interest of the powerful provokes populist backlash.

Thankfully, the call of covenant is deeply embedded in American culture. It is reflected in the closest thing the United States ever had to a national prayer book, the Book of Common Prayer, which asks God every morning to keep “all in authority … ever mindful of their calling to serve this people in Thy fear.”

America, Rabbi Sacks said:

understands more clearly than any other Western nation that freedom requires not just a state, but also and even more importantly a society, a society built of strong covenantal institutions, of marriages, families, congregations, communities, charities, and voluntary associations. Alexis de Tocqueville rightly saw that these were the buffers between the individual and the state.

Family decay undermines our national covenant, as a growing share of Americans have no traditional family structure or role model for healthy problem-solving. Instead, they turn to State – which so adeptly enriched the elites – for “our bail out.” A disengaged and self-serving people outsource their compassion to the government – and, in Rabbi Sacks’ phrase, the covenant degenerates into a social contract.

At that point, “politics begins to indulge in magical thinking” and “people begin to think that all political problems can be solved by the state,” said Rabbi Sacks. “Then comes populism, the belief that a strong leader can solve all our problems for us. And that is the first step down the road to tyranny.”

First, of course, comes perpetual social upheaval.

But this can be arrested, even reversed. “Covenants can be renewed,” Rabbi Sacks said, “and that has to be our project now and for the foreseeable future … strengthening marriage and the family.”

The permanent antidote to populism demands spiritual renewal.

The temporal response to authoritarian-populism comes when politicians competently steward the power entrusted to them. “The opposite of populism,” said Hungarian MP Zoltán Kész at the 2017 European Liberty Forum in Budapest, is “taking responsibility and working hard for citizens.” Government is most competent when limited to constitutionally delegated powers, the market is free to generate wealth, and civic and faith institutions create a self-reliant citizenry.

The permanent antidote to populism demands spiritual renewal. When faith forms, informs, and transforms the culture, then families are literally – a virtuous people are figuratively – their brother’s keeper. And the people recognize, and embrace, everyone as a member of the covenantal family.

Can covenantal kinship be revived in the West? The prophet Ezekiel experienced a mystical vision of a national regeneration from mere “dry bones.” When he followed the commandment to speak God’s word over the graveyard:

“Behold, there was a shaking, and the bones approached each one to his joint. And I looked, and behold, sinews and flesh grew upon them, and skin came upon them above … and the breath entered into them, and they lived, and stood upon their feet, a very great congregation" (Ezekiel 37:7-10, LXX).

Such a resurgence demands the recitation of our covenantal creed, the values of Western civilization, and a strong respect for the faith traditions that contributed the very heart of the culture.


Rev. Ben Johnson is a senior editor at the Acton Institute. His work focuses on the principles necessary to create a free and virtuous society in the transatlantic sphere (the U.S., Canada, and Europe). He earned his Bachelor of Arts in History summa cum laude from Ohio University and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. 

Rev. Johnson was a panelist at the 2016 CPAC. His writings have appeared in The (UK) GuardianHuman EventsThe Stream, Real Clear Policy, Aleteia.org, Conservative ReviewThe Daily Caller, and have been cited by National Review, CBS News, and Fox News.