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Time to reclaim our conservative moral language

By Rabbi Aryeh Spero

As an idealistic and religious people, Americans have shaped societal issues within the framework of moral narratives, be it abolition, civil rights, or matters of war and peace. The candidate running for president who could best articulate a vision that reflected the prevailing moral nomenclature already embedded in society’s consciousness most often won. He did so because what he expressed touched something already deep within the electorate.

If conservatives are to regain the hearts of the people, they first must persuasively enunciate and educate Americans with a moral language that is uplifting and value-laden so that conservative positions are seen as constituting the moral high ground. The case we make must go beyond the parameters of what simply is practical and effective to that which is seen as moral and personal. Those running for office will find their quest more attainable if their outlook fits into an already prevailing national moral perspective. More than just a contest, the voters will see the election as a homecoming.

Mr. Obama’s “moral” narrative during this last election was encapsulated in “You didn’t build that,” a communitarian notion that minimizes the efforts and risk inherent in entrepreneurship. Instead of making the moral case for personal responsibility and capitalism, Mr. Romney focused on the details of his tax and deductions plan and separated himself from Mr. Obama regarding X billions for Medicare Part B. Such may be appropriate when delivering the annual balance sheet to a board of directors or to members of think tanks titillated by arcana, but it falls far short of the moral and personal language that touches the hearts of individuals and makes them feel part of a grand and uplifting cause.

It has been quite a while since Republicans chose a candidate unabashedly confident in announcing the morality inherent in Americanism, to wit: the right of the individual over the group, meritocracy, personal responsibility and accountability, free markets, the need to fight evil and a moral clarity that eschews moral relativism. These attributes reflect our historic Judeo-Christian ethos – our American civic heritage. These virtues constitute what many call American exceptionalism, a value system minimized and often rejected by Mr. Obama and those on the left.

Though underscored in the Bible, these virtues represent not simply religious morality but classic morality. Aristotle defined happiness as living a virtuous and productive life, one in which personal responsibility, though tough, allowed the person to become more enlarged and mature at the end in relation to what he was in the beginning.

Unlike the French social philosophers, such as Rousseau and Voltaire, who wished to reshape and social engineer society, their predecessor Aristotle focused on human nature. He distinguishes between selfishness and self-interest, positing that the individual grows when involved in projects of self-interest. We give more care, he said, to those and that over which we have self-interest; thus self-interest is beneficial to posterity and society.

Though all men are created equal, the equality to which they are entitled is not the provision of equal material goods but, as the Bible states, equal justice under the law. The Bible, Aristotle and our Founding Fathers had a completely different moral vision than that of the French social-engineering theorists and its concomitant, socialism and the welfare state. Though touted as moral, socialism is but a political paradigm, giving control to the state and those who operate it. It curtails liberty and induces and encourages dependency under the notion of entitlement.

Worse, it spawns an ever-growing segment of the population chasing the brass ring of victimology. It weakens and infantilizes the individual and subverts the biblical aspiration that humans become strong, independent and productive. The left peddles victimhood and entitlement under “social justice.” It is, rather, the actualization of socialism and a ruling class sitting atop a dependency class looking to it for eternal support. The Almighty’s goal for us is, in contrast, not dependency but robust autonomy.

As we are morally responsible to take care of ourselves, similarly is it immoral for the able-bodied to shirk personal responsibility and demand that others take care of him. No man is to be someone else’s partial serf or sacrifice the needs of his family under the notion that others are automatically entitled to his earnings. It is theft, and makes a mockery of the whole notion of individual liberty. The Bible in Deuteronomy heralds “liberty throughout the land” as did Jefferson who reminded us the God who gave us life gave us liberty. Many clergy are beginning to realize that religious liberty is indeed dependent on economic liberty.

While we are to take care of the widow and orphan, we are not to institute socialist/dependency policies that effectively make more widows and orphans. While we are to help the poor, it is with basic clothes and meals per day, not subsidies equaling $50,000 a year that answer wants over needs (cell phones and babysitting) and militate against the need to work. Work is essential to human growth and dignity: “Six days shall ye work,” the Bible proclaims. Daily work inculcates good habits, purpose and the talent for cooperation.

A nation drained by socialist entitlements is a nation incapable of funding its own defense and protection of citizens. Self-defense and preparedness is a biblical and moral imperative. It preserves innocent life, the foremost responsibility of government.

No economic system has provided more blessing and prosperity to the greatest number of people as has American capitalism. It has abundantly bestowed opportunity, individual growth, space for creativity, vehicles for life-saving medicines, plentiful food, conveniences and comforts. It gives us choices in life. That itself makes it a moral paradigm, one over which we should boast – not shy away from. That some earn or have more than others is not evil, though it is maligned under the politics of envy, which appeals to our demons and not our angels.

We have allowed the political left to hijack and corrupt the moral language, terms such as compassion, fairness, tolerance, love, social justice, greed, peace. Let 2013 be the start of an era in which we take the language back and infuse it with its original religious and classic meaning. That is my goal in “Push Back: Reclaiming our American Judeo-Christian Spirit.” We need once again to own our historic moral vocabulary. The rekindling of our conservative moral language will not only ameliorate individual character but is also good politics.

Rabbi Aryeh Spero is author of “Push Back: Reclaiming our American Judeo-Christian Spirit” and president of Caucus for America.