What I’m Afraid to Say in Synagogue

Arnold Kling

I belong to a politically very left-wing synagogue (not in Pittsburgh), and I mostly keep my own views, which tend toward conservative-libertarian, to myself. For example, when President Trump went to Pittsburgh to denounce anti-semitism, I thought that Jewish protests were in bad taste and unwise. After all, don’t we want Mr. Trump’s supporters to hear a message that anti-semitism is bad? Why try to drown out that message with a protest? But I did not want to get into a battle with my fellow congregants, most of whom were sympathetic to the protests.

My fellow congregants are not dogmatic about religion. They would be horrified if someone got up and said that there is no merit to any religion other than ours. No one would ever say that we have nothing to learn from Islam or Christianity or Buddhism or atheism or other branches of Judaism. No one would dismiss the adherents of other faiths as “deplorable.”

But when it comes to politics, it is a different story. Is it possible that conservatives have some good political ideas? My fellow congregants do not think so. To them, conservatism is nothing but a collection of pathologies and hatreds.

In a recent article in The Atlantic, Emma Green highlighted the intense political feelings of secular Democrats.

Secular Democrats were also much more likely to say they’re angry about what’s going on in the country today: Forty-one percent described themselves this way, compared with 28 percent of religious Democrats. Of all the groups highlighted in the data — divided by race, education, geographic region, and more — secular Democrats were the most likely to say they’re feeling this rage.

Green’s article concludes,

Many liberals are feeling anger, and finding ways to express that. The elite part of the party, especially those who are well educated, is most engaged. And for these people, progressive politics may offer a form of meaning making, especially if they are disconnected from other forms of ethnic or religious identity.

This describes the progressives at my synagogue. Although they have a Jewish identity, they approach religion with an open mind and an even temper. It is politics where they are committed and angry.

Several years ago, I made the sad observation that most political commentary does not try to engage with the other side or to question the beliefs of one’s own side. Instead, Internet posts, cable news commentaries, and op-eds typically involve preaching to the choir, with the other side denounced as the devil. I wrote a book, The Three Languages of Politics, that described this process. I ended up delving into political psychology, especially motivated reasoning and tribal behavior.

When your tribal mindset takes over, you demonize the other side and never question your own beliefs. I think we need to do the opposite. We need to take the most charitable view of those with whom we disagree. And we need to examine our own views critically, as if we were trying to knock them down.

I am afraid that this is not a message that my fellow congregants wish to hear. I am afraid to even say it out loud in my synagogue. I wish that people could treat their political beliefs the way that they treat their religious beliefs: as ideas and values that they find appealing, but which are by no means the one true way.

Arnold Kling

Written by

Author of nonfiction books, primarily in the area of political economy. In a previous life, I started one of the first commercial web sites. Ph.D in economics

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