Despite the religious convictions of the United States’ founders, the separation of church and state is one of the most fundamental-and unique-concepts on which the nation is based. Given the resurgence of American religious fervor of late, the relevance of debating religion’s place in the political landscape is clear. But though the amount of religion present in American politics was the nominal topic of Rabbi Michael Lerner and Michael Novak’s discussion, their point of contention was actually what type of religion is most appropriate and most constructive.
Rabbi Lerner began by stating that the United States operates under a religious system already: a “religion of capital.” Likening think tanks and journalists to idolatrous priests singing praises to God, he established immediately his disappointment with capitalism as a system by which to live. According to Lerner, religious groups in America are subservient to the major religion of capital, modifying and selecting their beliefs to fit the model already established. Lerner called for a change to a more compassionate and loving viewpoint, referring to this philosophy as the new “spiritual left.” Although his passion and fervor were remarkable, it was difficult to extrapolate precisely how one would compromise between the current system of capitalist democracy and a set of ideals that include hiring and retaining employees based on kindness rather than their ability to contribute to a company’s efficiency or profit.
Novak took the stance that since the basic principles on which America was founded sprang from Judeo-Christian values, religion is necessarily the background to our political life. In opposition to Lerner, he contended that compassion and generosity are integral components of success in business, and that our capitalist system is the only one proven to generate a lowered rate of poverty and general well-being.
Both Lerner and Novak are eminent authors, speakers, and thinkers, and while the debate strayed frequently from the topic, it remained intriguing and thought-provoking throughout. Perhaps the point of such an event is not so much to solve the problems of the world as to stimulate dialogue. If so, Mr. Novak and Rabbi Lerner accomplished the debate’s purpose in style.