Politicians Cannot Save America

This whole week, I've digested an endless number of op-eds on the part of writers saying America is going down the sinkhole. We're a downgraded nation. The world doesn't trust us to pay our bills. Our debt is strangling us. There is gridlock in Washington. China's got us in a chokehold.

Half the writers say it's Obama's fault. He has a spending addiction. He's a closet socialist. The other half say it's the Republicans and the heartless Tea Party who are destroying America. They are extremists who brook no compromise. They are the party of the rich who want grandmas to pay off our debt rather than hedge fund managers.

Both opinions miss the point. Our politicians will not get us out of this mess. The proof: Every two years we make a radical shift of political power. Two years ago Obama was the Messiah, able to walk on water, his words capable of reviving the dead. Two years later his poll numbers are themselves on life support.

A few years before, it was George Bush who was going to save the globe from tyranny, with a strong majority of Americans -- and Congress -- supporting his efforts to invade countries that practiced and exported tyranny. Now we blame him for saddling America with two wars that have bankrupted us. No doubt whoever wins the presidency in 2012 will be seen as a hero for about a year before they too are confined to the ranks of loser.

This lurching to and fro in jarring electoral shifts just proves that we're searching for something that politics can't provide.

The real problems lie elsewhere, with us, the electorate. We the people are losing our values. Drunk with decades of material indulgence unbalanced by authentic spiritual endeavor, we're fast becoming corrupt. We look to objects for happiness and fulfillment. We go shopping when we feel empty and depressed. We elevate billionaires and Hollywood entertainers to positions of public acclaim they have not earned.

America is not experiencing a crisis of leadership so much as a crisis of values. Politicians cannot provide them. They are mere caretakers of public business and are as much in need of values-guidance as the rest of us, and perhaps more.

So whence do values stem? From faith. From religion. From a belief in lofty ideals that are not man-made or human-manufactured. It is religion rather than politics that teaches that all humans are equal and of infinite value and therefore matter more than ephemeral material objects. It is religion that teaches that family is sacred and marriage a sacrament and that relationships are a more reliable road to happiness than career. And it is religion that teaches that one good deed -- even if it isn't captured on camera or broadcast on TV -- has the power to change the world for the better.

So why isn't religion reversing the values-rot in America? Because it too has been drafted into the service of American insatiability. G-d has become yet another avenue for material gain. Pastors preach prosperity theology where G-d is He who provides a promotion at work. Rabbis watch in silence as congregants turn spiritual celebrations into showcases of material excess. Islam promises virgins and paradise to those who strike a blow in its name.

At its core religion is the antidote to decadence, the subordination of our self-centeredness to G-d's higher purpose. It is the inspiration behind altruism and the engine powering empathy. But it is rendered powerless when it becomes yet another superstition with our needs rather than G-d at its center.

We Americans would do well to heed the call of Moses in this week's Torah reading for a religion that is a cure for materialism: "It is not by bread alone that man may live but on the word of the living G-d that man shall live."

The loss of religious values has consequences. Britain, where only 42 percent of the population believe in G-d, is in the throws of a vulgar tabloid scandal and humiliating riots where the demand for justice has been transmuted into stealing a television. The Church of England, with its weekly five percent attendance rate, seems powerless to imbue deeper values to a citizenry losing its spiritual core.

This is not to say that a nation must be religious to be healthy and indeed many religious nations are cruel, wicked, and utterly corrupt. It is to say that those nations that prosper have religious values, even if they are not themselves religious. A case in point is the State of Israel, whose majority population by far is secular, yet is informed and influenced by the Jewish values upon which it is built. I was in Israel last week when I heard the terrible news that 30 of our bravest fellow Americans were killed by a Taliban rocket. The terrible news was one among many headlines back home. In Israel it would have sent the entire nation into paroxysms of national mourning. Wherever you travel in Israel you see signs demanding the freeing of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who has been held like an animal by Hamas, a prime example of evil religion, for more than five years. "I have set before you life and death," said Moses. "You must choose life." These values are what makes Israel ready to trade 1000 terrorists to free Shalit.

Last week in Tel Aviv I took forty young Americans who were visiting Israel for the first time to the American Embassy, where we were guests of our outstanding new ambassador, Dan Shapiro, and heard a briefing on all that America does to support democracies like Israel. As we emerged on to the street I spontaneously led our group in loudly singing Lee Greenwood's beautiful song, "G-d bless the USA." It was a spontaneous hymn to my country, a paragon of benevolence and kindness. A few days later I was in Washington, DC, speaking at a conference, where I took my kids to the Marine, Air Force, and World War II monuments, explaining that the US military is today by far the foremost force for good in the world. And it's no coincidence that their greatness is marked by a service to something other than money.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach will shortly be publishing "Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Yourself" and "Kosher Jesus." Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.