David Goldman on Israel, America’s Founding, and the Dangers Posed by the Impending Global Baby Bust
Esteemed columnist and author David Goldman is best known for his long-running pseudonymous column as “Spengler” for Asia Times. Under his own name he has written for a wide array of publications, and published two important books on culture, religion and the future of family life: Why Nations Die — and Why Islam Is Dying Too and It’s Not the End of the World, It’s Just the End of You.
Stream senior editor John Zmirak encountered Mr. Goldman at the annual conference Acton University, where he gave a sobering talk on the collapse of birthrates throughout the world, and the spiritual background of nihilism and narcissism that are causing it. Mr. Goldman agreed to an interview for The Stream on these and related issues.
1. Many American Christians have a special affection toward the state of Israel. Often that connection is ridiculed in the media as merely Christian excitement at the apparent fulfillment of apocalyptic prophecy. But you have written that it is based on something much deeper. Can you elaborate?
As an American Jew, there are three things that strike me — and often move me deeply — about the Christian response to the State of Israel. The first is that the inner life of Christians is in some sense a recapitulation of the history of Israel. One of the children’s songs my mother used to sing was about Noah’s ark, and its chorus said, “One more river, and that’s the River of Jordan — there’s one more river to cross.” It didn’t occur to me until much later that crossing the Jordan meant personal salvation. For Christians this isn’t metaphor but fulfillment. Freedom from Egyptian bondage, the giving of the Torah at Pentecost, the holiness of the Temple — all of these have deep personal meaning for Christians. And the revival of the national life of the Jewish people in their ancient homeland resonates deeply among Christians who relive these events as part of their own personal journey.
The second response is something I hear often in Christian writings: the fulfillment of God’s promise to the Jewish people is proof that this is a God who keeps promises, and that reinforces the faith of Christians that God will keep his promise to them, too.
The third is that the hand of God has visibly been upon the Jewish people in our lifetime: the miracle of Israel’s founding, and the miracle of the 1967 victory, which had a profound impact on Christian thinking. We Jews are extremely reticent about attributing any contemporary event to divine intervention — we have not had a prophet since Malachi. But even the most rationalist of our Orthodox rabbis, for example Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, saw a miracle in Israel’s founding. As the Psalmist wrote, it is wondrous in our eyes, and in the eyes of our Christian brothers and sisters.
2.You’ve written about what we might call the “original sin” of nationalism that planted the seeds of division and war in what was once called “Christendom.” Can you explain what you meant?
We Americans have many problems, but one great problem we are spared for the most part is ethnic self-worship: We are a mix of immigrants from all over the world and have no ethnicity. What holds us together is common commitment to a set of principles and the shared history of fighting for these principles. Tragically, that has not been true of a great deal of Christian history in Europe, where Christians fought devastating wars against other Christians — Frank against Byzantine, Protestant against Catholic (as well as Catholic against Catholic) in the Thirty Years War, and of course the two World Wars of the past century. How did Christendom degenerate into this sort of fratricide? A reproach that we hear from many Jewish writers — from Heinrich Heine, Sigmund Freud, Franz Rosenzweig and more recently Michael Wyschogrod — is that Europe never was fully converted, and the European Christian harbored an inner pagan. Wyschogrod put it this way:
As understood by Christianity, a model of dual loyalty develops. The individual belongs both to a nation and to a religion. He is a Frenchman and a Christian or a German and a Christian. As Frenchman or German, he is a member of a national community with territorial and linguistic boundaries. But he is also a member of the supra-national church which has no national boundaries. … When such a bifurcated existence is decreed for human life, European wars in which Christian fights Christian, not as Christian but as German, Frenchman or Pole, become possible. That such a church-sanctioned conflict was the rule rather than the exception in the history of Europe was not simply the result of a failure of Christianity. Once religion and nationality are separated, the historical order in which national destinies are realized is almost inevitably de-Christianized.
Rosenzweig put it more poetically: he wrote that the afterlife wasn’t enough for Europe’s Christians. They wanted to be saved in their own skins, and so each of them sought to be a “chosen people” in distinction to the others. The Churchmen who created Europe out of the ruins of the Roman Empire were giants, and their accomplishment was one of the greatest in history. But it wasn’t complete, and the old paganism kept returning in the guise of the ethnic imperative.
3. How does Europe’s demographic collapse emerge from the wreckage of those failed nationalist projects?
We can quantify the relationship between fertility and faith. Academic demographers have done exhaustive studies on this during the past fifteen years. The question is: Whose faith? The Europeans, as Franz Rosenzweig said, mistook Siegfried for Christ. Too often under the veneer of Christianity they worshipped themselves. After two World Wars, the Europeans lost faith in the Christianity that failed to hold Europe together, and they lost faith in their own ethnic pretensions. And as they lost faith in their own future — in this world or the next — they lost interest in bringing children into the world. Europeans of faith have lots of children, just like Americans of faith — but there are far fewer of them.
4. In what sense was America founded differently from those European nations, in a way that avoided the same mistake?
We often forget that the Pilgrims left Delfthaven in 1621 three years into the Thirty Years War, after the Austrian Empire had crushed the Bohemian Protestants, and when the Spanish army was poised to invade the Netherlands. Christendom was disintegrating before their eyes; by 1648, perhaps two-fifths of the population of Central Europe was dead. William Bradford wrote that they feared the Spanish more than the native Americans. They set out to create something different and better, a new mission in the wilderness leading to a new City on the Hill, a beacon for all of humankind. Nearly 100,000 German Protestants came to America before 1776. They looked to the ancient Hebrews for a better model of governance, and drew support for the radical notion of republican government from rabbinic commentaries. Prof. Eric Nelson of Harvard published a remarkable book in 2010 called The Hebrew Republic, which overturns the usual story that the secular enlightenment produced the American Revolution. Prosperous and comfortable people don’t risk their lives for checks and balances, but for something great and holy. The Founders didn’t seek to set up a little England, but rather a new kind of republic that would welcome like-minded citizens from every country and every faith.
5. What is the greatest threat to America’s ongoing pursuit of its founding mission?
The greatest threat, I fear, is that we have forgotten our mission. Our concept of government begins with the biblical covenant. Lincoln called America an “almost chosen people,” and I believe that Americans are in a sense chosen. But we should remember that election in the biblical sense runs both ways: God chose Israel, but the people of Israel also chose God, with all the obligations that implies. American freedom is not something dispensed from on a high by a benevolent elite, but something that we earn every day of our lives. If we become “a nation of takers,” as Nicholas Eberstadt entitled his 2012 book on welfare dependency, and if we devolve into a Tower of Babel of identity groups, we abandon that sense of mutual obligation. We view ourselves as passive victims demanding succor from the state, not as free individuals with responsibility for our own lives. We give the state powers to manage our lives in the delusion that we can have security without freedom. I agree with libertarian conservatives on many issues, but I believe that we obtain the strength to be free from a higher power.
The progressive left doesn’t believe in freedom. Secularists have spent centuries constructing an intellectual apparatus that excludes the possibility of human freedom in the first place. By and large they have succeeded. Most educated people believe that scientists will make machines think the way that humans do, which means that human thought is a physical process. They believe that brain science one day will give an adequate accounting for human consciousness. They believe that our consciousness is the result of random genetic mutations over millions of years. They believe that endocrinologists and surgeons can take a person of one gender and make a person of the other gender. They believe that human behavior is socially determined, and can be altered by changing social circumstances. In short, they believe in man-as-machine (or in machine-as-man, which amounts to the same thing).
Such is the narcissism of the determinists, who laugh at the idea that there is a God in heaven, but believe with the fervor of fanatics that they themselves are little gods on earth. They believe that human beings are a lab experiment, but they also believe in a basic “right to define and express an identity,” as Justice Kennedy wrote in the Obergefell decision. They believe that human beings are the mechanically determined product of a physical process, and they also believe that we can choose our gender at whim—and they don’t seem to notice that these beliefs are mutually exclusive.
We run the risk of trading our freedom for the right to make trivial and arbitrary lifestyle choices. We run the risk of eventual depopulation and ruin, not too far behind the Europeans.
6. What is the greatest threat to Israel’s future, and why should Americans care enough to intervene decisively?
Prime Minister Netanyahu warns us that nuclear weapons in the hands of Iran are the greatest threat to Israel. The Middle East no longer revolves around an Arab-Israeli conflict, but a conflict between terrorists with apocalyptic ambitions, and responsible states. Egypt and even Saudi Arabia are now working with Israel to try to stabilize the region while Iran is hell-bent on destabilizing it. Our enemies are not stupid. Iran has inveighed against the “Great Satan,” namely us, and the “Little Satan” Israel since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. They know that Israel is part of America’s cultural DNA. If Iran and its allies can destroy Israel, they will have demonstrated to the world that America is impotent and deracinated. Many conservatives oppose any sort of military intervention, fearing that this would lead us into another morass like the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations. That isn’t necessary. America could wipe out Iran’s nuclear capacity in a day or two of bombing. Humiliating the Islamic Revolution in Iran makes it vulnerable to regime change. The Iranian people detest the regime, and with some encouragement would overthrow it as they almost did in 2009.
7. If you could urge a single course of action on America’s Christians today, what would it be?
I would urge them to remember that the United States of America is the greatest of all the creations of Christian culture — and as a Jew, I would add that America embodies the Jewish heritage that Christianity embraced. It was founded by people of faith, and it would be tragic beyond all lamenting if people of faith today were to allow it to be perverted into something low and wicked. All people of faith seek to sanctify their lives, and after all of our defeats in the culture wars, it is tempting to withdraw into the cocoon of family and faith-community life and withdraw from public affairs. Most individuals have the opportunity to be creative in their capacity as parents. But families live in communities, and the relationship between family members is mirrored in broader society — whether in the form of a covenant of love and mutual obligation as in Judaism and Christianity, or in hierarchical obligations as in East Asia. That is true in Islam as well, where the paterfamilias has the legal status of the governor of a province and thus has the right to inflict violence on his wife. The character of the family and the character of society are inseparable.
Destroy the family and society is atomized; destroy society and the family is reduced to a tide pool struggling to survive in a hostile environment. It is good to protect our children by creating our own institutions and counterculture, our own schools and other institutions, but that isn’t enough. Americans who reject the oxymoronic blend of compulsion and caprice that now has been enshrined in law by the Supreme Court face a long and exhausting swim against the current. We owe it to the Founders, who risked everything to give us this country, never to accept defeat. Never.