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Of course, it comes from Judaism and Christianity. Covenant is a key word both in the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament. It became the basis of what the sociologist Robert Bellah called the “American civil religion”. As America becomes less religious, the word covenant appears less often. Absent the covenant, all we have left is the social contract. The social contract is something different. The social contract is like the contract you have with your mechanic or your dentist or the local supermarket. You pay and receive. You pay your taxes and you receive government services. The parties argue about who has to pay less and who gets most services, but that’s just a contract. It’s not a covenant. It’s not about how “we are each responsible for one another”. If we lose the social covenant, all we have left is the social contract. Less and less gets done by private citizens on the basis of this sense of collective responsibility. More and more work that was once done by families and communities is today done by the state. It’s outsourced to government agencies. The result is that you get a bigger state and smaller and smaller society.

That is really bad news because in the social contract, some win and some lose. The winners win and the losers lose big. You don’t have this sense of shared identity, and the losers very often are the ones who don’t have access to networks of support. They are left vulnerable and alone. As Arlie Hochschild writes, half the people find themselves as “strangers in their own land”.

So we’ve gone through the three categories. You lose your religion. You begin to lose your families and the will and sacrifice to have children. You begin to lose strong communities and you begin to lose the covenantal bond of society itself, this society of “we the people”. If I am right, huge consequences follow. It turns out that Western freedom, the thing that was born in England in the revolution of the 1640s and in America in 1775, is not the default setting of the human condition. It turns out to be the highly specific outcome of a particular Judaeo-Christian tradition. You won’t find its exact parallels anywhere else.

Holland, of course, was also part of that covenant, but very few other countries. It was Puritan or Calvinist in origin and then subsequently modified by figures like Spinoza in Holland, John Locke in England, and later by Jefferson and his friends in America. That is a very, very special kind of freedom. So let me sum up my argument. We’re passing through one of humanity’s great moments, a cultural climate change. The signs of it are that the weather patterns that existed for so long, the progressive secularisation, the progressive Westernisation, the progressive accommodation of religion to society — those weather patterns no longer hold. We are entering one of the world’s great ages of desecularisation and it is the rise of non-Western cultures that will shape the 21st century. The end result is — as Rabbi Soloveitchik and Alasdair MacIntyre and others warned us decades ago — that if you lose religion from the mainstream of society, you will lose the sanctity of marriage. You will lose the bond of community and you will lose the social covenant that says e pluribus unum: we’re all in this together.
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Dissapointed
September 12th, 2017
5:09 AM
What starts as an interesting article descends into the classic 'it doesn't matter if you believe it or not, but it's better to believe' acts of proselytization.

Jose Carp
September 9th, 2017
9:09 AM
Rav Sir Jonathan Sachs who I admire immensely, omits the fact that the world population has quadrupled in the last 40 years. This has certainly contributed to more ignorance and the dispersion of religions into various sects (some more redical than others).

J Dale Debber
September 8th, 2017
2:09 PM
Rabbi Sacks has put words and meaning to the identification of precisely what is happening In the 21st century world. Moreover he outlines the choice of paths that both societies and individuals have.

North West Johnny
September 1st, 2017
1:09 PM
Rabbi Jonathan Sachs is seriously one of the greatest thinkers of our time. He needs to come home to the UK and speak from every corner of our island to give the silent majority a voice and some direction. The decades to come are going to be dark if we do not break the growing threats to our society.

ron hurtAnonymous
September 1st, 2017
4:09 AM
Quite brilliant analysis. Reminds me of the late Francis Schseffer

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