Reconciling Religion’s Role in the West: An Interview with Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks speaks at a press conference announcing his winning of the Templeton Prize. Photo credit: AP Images.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks speaks at a press conference announcing his winning of the Templeton Prize. Photo credit: AP Images.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks is a British religious scholar and philosopher who served as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013. He has served as a professor at institutions including New York University, Yeshiva University, and Kings College London, and has written over 30 books, with his most recent book, Not in God’s Name, published in 2015. Rabbi Sacks recently spoke with the HIR to discuss his ideas in this book and his perspective on the role of religion in modern Western society.

You wrote in your book, Not in God’s Name, about a lack of fundamental answers in modern society. Individuals ask questions like “Who am I?” and “How shall I live?” that modern science or capitalism cannot answer effectively. Do you think this lack of answers or deeper meanings helps explain recent phenomena like the rise of populist movements or Western feelings of “malaise”?

The issue is identity. Human beings search for meaning and for identity—“who am I,” “of which story am I a part”—and that is something that neither science nor technology nor the market economy nor the liberal democratic state can answer. It seems to me that the 19th century was the century of the nation-state, so identity had to do with this entity… patriotism and so on, and any other identities were ruled out. That century of nationalism gave rise in the 20th century to two world wars, so nationalism… [seemed to be] ruled out, certainly in Europe. I used to see on gravestones of people from my late parents’ generation the statement “a proud Englishman” or “a proud Jew.” But after two world wars [Europeans seemed to] quietly abandon identity.

That has certainly affected Europe’s capacity to integrate ethnic minority communities. When my parents came to England, there were kinds of ground rules—you’re English, and there are certain things you do or don’t do—and citizenship came with concepts of identity and cultural integration. In the last generation or two, identity has kind of dissolved, and that’s had a very interesting impact on ethnic minorities. If you go back several generations, ethnic minorities would tend to identify themselves by their place of origin, so someone would say “I come from Pakistan” or “I come from India” or “I come from Bangladesh.” Nowadays, if you ask people their identity, they are more inclined to say “I’m a Muslim” or “I’m a Hindu,” because ethnicity doesn’t last for very long—it’s not a strong source of identity—whereas religion is. And I think that’s become problematic for Europe for these last several decades.

Not in God’s Name analyzes possible influences behind religious extremist movements. Does part of the work in combatting extremist messages require mainstream religious leaders to better engage with technology or new forms of mass communication?

I think it’s a hard job. All the social scientists and the psychologists tell us that the impact of bad news is at least five times as great as the impact of good news. It’s much easier to communicate hate than to communicate love. Good news does not agitate us whereas bad news—this feeling that we’re victims, that we’re humiliated, that somebody else is doing this to us—that’s very easy to communicate. If we are going to use the new media to communicate a positive message, then we are going to have to run hard and fast… ISIS is among the world’s greatest users of YouTube and Facebook messaging, and I don’t think there’s anyone outside of it [and other extremist movements], or anyone on the side of the angels, who has been quite that good.

I did an experiment [with short videos] eight years ago, for the 60th anniversary of the State of Israel, and I just wanted to deliver a positive message about Israel about peace… It’s now been seen by 2.7 million. We have the unexpected privilege of winning the Templeton Prize this year, and that is going to be our big project—can we get this technology, can we produce strong video messages with a very positive message, can we do this in an interfaith way, and can we do it in ways that speak to people who are not necessarily religious. It’s a long shot, but it can be done. Because the establishment itself is so comfortable with old ways of communicating, it tends to be the radicals who see the opportunities of new ways of communicating. I really think we’ve been slow.

How do you think global institutions or Western governments can better take a stand against this teaching of hate and violence in the future?

Within days of 9/11, both George W. Bush and Tony Blair were saying this is not just a battle of weapons, it’s a battle of ideas. That was 15 years ago, and so far I haven’t seen the ideas.

Wars are won by weapons, but peace is won by ideas. In the 17th century, you had people really wrestling with these issues—how can people be religious without killing each other? You had figures like John Milton, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Benedict Spinoza—all of them in dialogue with religious text despite the fact that Hobbes and Spinoza were not religious believers. Out of that came these five extraordinary ideas: the social contract, the moral limits of power, liberty of conscience, the doctrine of toleration, and human rights, and what I would call the Lockean-Jeffersonian conception of human rights. Out of the Cold War, you had figures like Sir Karl Popper, Sir Isaiah Berlin, and Friedrich Hayek with new defenses of liberty. They framed the intellectual debate—they won the battle of ideas. Now where are the new ideas coming out of the confrontation with radical political Islam? There haven’t been any. If you listen carefully to any speech by any Western politician who is trying to engage in a battle of ideas, they will use two words: freedom and democracy. But what is freedom going to say to somebody who believes that ultimately religion is about submission, not free choice? And what is democracy going to say to somebody who believes that the will of God always trumps the will of the people? These are the wrong words. They’re using words that we understand, but that the people we’re trying to persuade don’t understand at all—they don’t even want to understand.

Must these new ideas come in a specifically religious domain, then?

I think so. Thomas Hobbes was not a believer—we call him an atheist—but he quotes the Hebrew Bible more than 640 times in the course of Leviathan. Why? Not because that’s what he believed, but he knew that that’s the language he was going to have to speak if he wanted to persuade. I think the people who need to be persuaded today are people who are religious. It will have to include, deep down, an intuition that God does not particularly want us to be murdering innocent men, women, and children… And that’s why I wrote Not in God’s Name, as one way of starting to think differently about my own faith in the context of trying to create a world in which there can be peace and mutual acceptance between my faith and Christians and Muslims who both see themselves also as children of Abraham.

How might Western governments better incorporate that into their foreign policy—addressing issues related to religion while maintaining the separation of church and state?

An institute did an interesting piece of research on why the whole Oslo process failed in the Middle East between Israel and the Palestinians. They came up with the conclusion that every single issue was discussed except one, and the one that was never discussed was religion. Now in 2001, Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan and myself went around to visit the then-Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, and we asked him to convene a religious peace process in the Middle East. And he did it. He brought together priests and imams and rabbis in Alexandria in 2001. It was a very tough process, but there were real breakthroughs. I met a former member of Hamas who had become a Palestinian peace activist. This was an extraordinary thing.

They came out with the Alexandria Declaration, and they then found it didn’t mesh with any known political process… none of the governments were interested in looking at the religious factor. They saw it as the problem, and they failed to see it as the solution, or at least part of the solution. There’s a Western prejudice against religion, saying religion is always leading to strife, and failing to see that if I regard certain things as holy, I’m probably well-equipped to understand that somebody else will find other things holy… So I don’t think [solutions related to] religion have been tried.

Many would say that you are a leader in interfaith dialogues. Do you think that such dialogues have been effective as a way of getting groups of people to, as you say, “see the other side”?

Deep down, I would have to say no. I tried in one of my books, The Home We Build Together, to distinguish two kinds of interfaith engagement. One I call “face to face.” The other one is “side by side.” “Face to face” is classic interfaith dialogue—“I believe this, you believe that,” and we try and split the difference, or reduce the dissonance. “Side by side” is something completely different. It’s a way of saying, “look, we all face the same problem and none of us can solve it alone, so maybe we can solve it together.” That is good community relations done by social action, built by interfaith dialogue. So Jews, Christians, Muslims, and people of other faiths are equally affected by climate change, by the radical and ever-growing disparity between the 1 percent and the 99 percent, by the breakdown of family and community… And to stand together side by side to work out ways of ameliorating the situation is so much more powerful than the classic forms of interfaith dialogue.

Interfaith dialogue tends to be an elite undertaking, usually done halfway up a mountain in the most beautiful scenery. It’s when you come down the mountain to street level that the problems arise and then all the goodwill evaporates very fast. Whereas “side by side” is street level from day one… you go out in the streets, and you’re standing together and you’re fighting the good fight. It doesn’t depend on any liberal theology. It just depends on recognizing that we can solve problems together that we cannot solve alone.

In that case, how would you generally define the appropriate role for religious leaders in politics in the West?

A classic text on this was Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. He’d come from France, where religion had power but no influence at all, to America, where the First Amendment meant that religion had no power at all. He assumed religion would have zero influence, but he suddenly discovers that religion is enormously important in America, and went so far as to call it the first of America’s political institutions. He saw, too, that it was doing two things. The negative thing was, to his amazement, religious leaders stayed out of party politics—they said, “well, if we get engaged in party politics, we will become divisive.” The positive thing de Tocqueville said religion does is that it strengthens marriages, families, communities, charities, educational systems—that whole business of what he called the art of association, which he saw as the apprenticeship of liberty. I think that’s where religion belongs.

In American Grace, Robert Putnam said there is social capital in America, and the place you’ll find it is in religious communities. He said it’s got nothing to do with religious beliefs but everything to do with being part of a community. A democracy tends to turn us all inward, to be concerned only with our own welfare and to delegate more and more responsibility to the state. [As de Tocqueville saw,] the only way you could protect against that is with strong communities and strong families, and he said that’s what religion does. The place of religion is in civil society, not political society, and it is in cultivating virtues… a culture that says “yes, I can do it,” and “yes, I can afford it,” and “yes, I might even get away with it,” but “I still shouldn’t do it because it’s the wrong thing to do.”

About Author

Jonathan Sacks

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks is a British religious scholar and philosopher who served as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013. He has served as a professor at institutions including New York University, Yeshiva University, and Kings College London, and has written over 30 books, with his most recent book, Not in God’s Name, published in 2015.