If there is a single aspect of support for President Trump by faith communities that is most disappointing to me, it is the rationale that “he has been so good to us.”
I am certainly an imperfect vessel for the teachings of my own Jewish tradition, but I try my best to live life according to the essential messages of my faith. While many of those messages are about personal conduct – we have 613 of them, just to start – the folk medicine of my rabbinic ancestors provides a pithier perspective on what it means to live in community.
Millennia ago, people believed that the heart was the center of human thought and behavior. The ancient rabbis posited that it was made up of two chambers and that a single impulse was contained in each. In one chamber was the impulse to goodness. In the other was the impulse to evil.
The more I learned about those two impulses, the less satisfied I was with their designations. For example, a fanciful story was told about the day that a band of pious people captured the evil impulse so that the world would be entirely good. On that day, no one built a house, no business was conducted, and the chickens didn’t lay eggs.
Is there anything evil about those activities? Not inherently, of course. But each one is an activity that is self-serving. (The chickens are euphemistic for human reproduction!) The tale concludes with the affirmation that the world cannot survive without the “evil” impulse.
When I learned this story, I began to call the two impulses altruism and selfishness. We mortals cannot survive this world without meeting our hierarchy of needs. We need food, shelter, safety and, of course, someone to care about us. No person can only give, never receive. Religious folk (like me) posit only one such being in the cosmos – a self-sufficient God.
So it is no surprise that faith traditions find different ways to encourage adherents to emulate the altruism of the divine being. The power of this selfish impulse seems never to abate. A consciousness of the impulse to selflessness – that is, to Godliness – is necessary to hold it in check.
In the current political climate, nothing is holding the selfish impulse in check, especially among those in the faith communities who are sycophants of the president. They are satisfied to have received support for their own narrow desires.
In the conservative evangelical community, in the politically right-wing Jewish community, in the racially-driven supremacist community, the willingness of the president and this administration to feed their selfishness without regard for others strikes me as exactly the opposite of what participants in creating “a more perfect union” ought to be about.
In the Jewish community, I hear a lot of how there has never been a president who was better for Israel and the Jewish community. The claim is based on symbolic acts of doubtful effectiveness – moving an embassy, singling out Jews on campus for special protection, reneging on a agreement to control nuclear proliferation that enjoyed wide support.
In the end, pandering to the selfish desires of any group makes one an agent of that second chamber of the heart, the one that impels us to take, never to give. Cloaking such activities in the language of piety or framing the desires as inherently good circumvents the character development that genuine religious faith is supposed to encourage. The person who receives abundance and turns their back on those who receive less than they need or deserve is not blessed. Rather, they are unfairly privileged.
A famous activist once said, “A person who does not vote in self-interest is a fool. A person who votes only in self-interest is a scoundrel.” In political terms, that formulation is the same as the ancient understanding of the two chambers of the heart. While too often we cynically view our electoral choices as the lesser of two evils, we might have a greater impact on turning our society away from its current political misery if we framed our choices as the greater of two goods. A balance is necessary between self-interest and unlimited generosity. The question to ask of candidates – and of those in office, high or low – is not “whose interests will you serve,” rather “how can we make this a more perfect union.”
When “he has been so good to us” is a code phrase for “he has disadvantaged others for our benefit,” the result is a betrayal of admirable faith values. It is a capitulation to the wrong chamber of the heart, the one that contains the impulse to selfishness at the expense of altruism. It is the opposite of Godliness.
Each tradition has a name for the agent of selfishness. It should never be President of the United States.
While everyone is focused on the state-wide election results in Virginia, it is a local contest that gives me encouragement that Americans have had enough anger and divisive rhetoric from the top.