Opponents of President George W. Bush chart the erosion of his presidency to the war in Iraq, the failure to initially address the Katrina devastation, and the breakdown of the American banking system. All of this may be so, but it is equally likely that the outgoing president did much good for which he is given little credit.
Be that as it may, I identify President Bush’s going-off message to another event entirely. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the president’s famous reaction was to encourage the country to go on a shopping spree.
“Get down to Disney World in Florida,” he urged, just over two weeks after 9/11. “Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”
There are times when a great nation awakens from a materialistic slumber and experiences an urge for spirituality and togetherness. And those are the wrong times to turn their hearts back to shopping malls and the impulse purchase.
Few of us living in the United States can believe the extent of the financial meltdown in our country. I have consistently maintained that it is devastation born of a spiritual crisis. For too long we Americans have tried to plug the gaping holes at our center with fancier clothing, bigger homes and the latest gadgets. We have thought that shopping was an acceptable alternative for a true spiritual calling. This failure to awaken the nation to a higher spiritual purpose is in turn a failure of religion itself.
All across our nation religion is being ridiculed and is on the retreat. The 80 million born-again Christians who had such a pronounced role in Bush’s two victories were impotent in the last election. Bill Maher and a host of other atheists make a financial killing by portraying religious people as knuckle-dragging Neanderthals who swallow faith uncritically and send their money to charlatan televangelists who fly around in their gas-guzzling G500s.
Indeed, great defenders of the faith would be forgiven if they were to conclude that in America religion is losing its focus as well as its rational dimension.
Take the American religious obsession with homosexuals. This World: The Jewish Values Network, which I founded, hosted a debate this month between a leading evangelical scholar and myself on whether Judaism and Christianity are religions of peace. My opponent, a man of great learning and even greater decency, made it clear that in stating “Love your enemies,” Jesus included Osama bin Laden. Yet, when it came to gay men who want to get married, he seemed to concur that were this to happen the whole of American society would begin to unweave. Indeed, I have heard some of my evangelical brethren make it sound as if gays were a greater danger to America than terrorists.
I will not in this column get into the arguments for and against gay marriage. What I will say is that religion in America has made homosexuality into a false bogeyman, which has seriously distracted religion from giving real values to an increasingly valueless society. Is this really what religious values in America has come to, opposition to gay marriage?
What do you think would do more to save heterosexual marriage in America? Making sure gays can’t get hitched, or changing the tax code so that marital counseling for heterosexual couples becomes tax-deductible so that couples can actually afford the help they need? What should religion be devoting its energy to? Opposing gay marriage in California, or supporting an effective national campaign for school vouchers so that parents can afford to send their children to schools that teach religious values like male respect for women and the sanctity of a loving relationship?
I have devoted my entire life to saving marriage. I have counseled thousands of couples in crisis. I have authored 20 books on spirituality and relationships. Never once have I believed that by opposing homosexuality I was bringing a husband and wife closer together.
Rather, by seeking to increase the desire between husband and wife and by fostering true emotional intimacy between them, I was working to ensure that fewer American children would end up like me, the product of a broken home. Homosexuality is nothing but a distraction.
America has serious social problems. Fifty percent of all marriages end in divorce. Forty million married Americans are in platonic marriages. One out of three American women are on an anti-depressant. Innumerable men are deeply into pornography. Our teenagers have unacceptably high rates of sexuality and pregnancy. And yet I cannot name a single religious initiative that appeared on a single ballot to combat any of these problems, save for Proposition 8 in California that sought to ban gay marriage.
Let’s be honest. Gays don’t have to kill off heterosexual marriage. We straight people have done a fine job already.
What religion suffers from, not just in our time but for all time, is its dualistic impulse. Simply stated, religion seems to need enemies. Many religious people thrive on an us-vs.-them mentality. The godly and the godless. The righteous and the sinful. The forces of light battling the forces of darkness.
But Judaism’s vision of a religious future is monist, one in which all people’s will come together to create a just and compassionate society. The prophet Isaiah said that in the future, “I shall bring them to my holy mountain, and I shall make them joyous in my home … for my temple shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” The future of religion in America and abroad is one in which religion finds the good in others even as it maintains its standards and morals.
Pastors may oppose gay marriage. But given the limited resources available to religion and the social rot that is all around us, can we not dedicate those resources to ends that unite and inspire instead of divide and alienate?
My plan to save the American family does not involve fighting any group, but rather bequeathing the Jewish Sabbath as a gift to all the American people. I propose that we turn Friday night into family night throughout the nation, with millions of families committing to having dinner with their children with the TV and cell phone off, with guests invited so that hospitality is practiced, with children being heard by their parents with the noise of the world filtered out, and with husbands and wives focusing on each other rather than the myriad actors that invade their home through television.
An ancient Jewish legend says that when the whole world keeps just one Sabbath, the Messiah will come. For our time perhaps this means that when religion chooses to give the world something that unites rather than divides, redemption will finally come.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the founder of This World: The Jewish Values Network. His new book, “The Kosher Sutra: Eight Sacred Secrets of Desire,” will be published in January.