Since the Christian Coalition issued its 10-point legislative agenda, titled the Contract with the American Family, I've been wondering: What might a Jewish Contract with the American Family look like?
The Christian Coalition's document holds no real surprises: It is anti-abortion, anti-welfare and pro-prayer in public places including schools. It favors school vouchers, tax incentives to reward women who are homemakers, and an end to so-called elite cultural institutions such as the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Since the contract was published, the left has been eerily silent. Still unaccustomed to Ralph Reed's well-organized campaign quoting Scripture, liberals are bogged down in defending abortion and gangsta rap, mistaking the forest for the trees.
Either the left can articulate a vision of American life that addresses the perceived disintegration of American society, or the Christian Coalition will win, little by little. Do not underestimate the power of a true believer.
For those discouraged by the Christian Coalition's mean-spirited take on American life, the time has come to ask: What is your alternative? Does the left have a moral vision, or is its political philosophy merely a retread of old civil-liberties theories? The ball is now squarely in the liberal court.
Jewish liberals, always in the vanguard of social action, have a particular burden to defend their agenda on moral as well as secular terms. We must get into the battle as it is being waged, unafraid to use words like "values," "ethics," "spirituality" and even right and wrong.
The left has not done its homework, allowing even the Hebrew words tikkun olam (repair of the world) to become synonymous with warmed-over FDR policies.
Here are four areas in which to begin:
*Jobs: Jewish family values start not with public prayer or abortion (as do the Christian right's) but with jobs. The basic premise is that every nuclear family needs to be economically self-sustaining, knowing the dignity of work. While there is no shame in being needy nor in asking for help, the great sage Maimonides established that the greatest form of charity is to give a person a job.
A Jewish Contract with the American Family would call for serious investment in job creation and job expansion in both the private and public sector, and the retraining for middle-class workers whose jobs have been lost through downsizing.
Neither the rush to end welfare nor the balanced budget amendment makes sense against a shrinking economy — one that has recently lost tens of thousands of white collar jobs plus much of its defense and manufacturing sectors. Either we invest in our people and our future or we don't. Welfare will be with us until government and private sector jobs programs kick in. Any contract that does not place jobs at the top of its platform does not have the interests of the American family at heart.
*Shalom bayit (peace in the house): A Jewish Contract with the American Family would recognize the rights of children to live in a peaceful home where they are wanted, with adults who do not beat or abuse them.
Such a contract could offer financial inducements for parents to get off drugs, and it would come down hard on deadbeat dads, wife beaters and child molesters. A welfare safety net would remain in place to allow women the freedom to leave abusive relationships. This contract would strongly defend our arts and culture, and call for federal and state support of media that soothe the savage beast.
*Education: Ecclesiastes was right. "Where there is no vision, the people perish." Vision is only possible in a society that helps every child become a productive member of society.
A Jewish Contract with the American Family would guarantee a practical, quality education to every student through high school, but redirect its focus toward job training. American education today is in a dream-world, lost in an elitist notion that everyone can and must go to college. Religious education with no basis in skills is just as foolish as a liberal education without morality. The high drop-out rate among today's youth plus the high illiteracy rate among the prison population indicate not that our children are immoral but that what they're learning is useless.
A Jewish contract would respect teachers, and offer them subsidies or grants and salary increases, until their pay scale equals that of corporate lawyers.
*Defense of the secular space: Finally, a Jewish Contract with the American Family recognizes that the family and community, not the government, are the transmitters of religious values. The proud expression of our tradition recognizes the value of religious harmony, including the rights even of non-believers to be left in peace.
The Christian Coalition will have neither a binding Contract with the American Family, nor a rightful claim on its interests, once the rest of us know and assert who and where we are.