The “Citizens United” decision and the Image of God

There was once a healthy and interesting conversation in this country about the relationship between religion and democracy. Not the specious bombast of the Rick Perryesque “America is a Christian country so we should be able to hate anybody we want and celebrate Christmas” kind of conversation. Rather a conversation about the roots of democracy and the relationship of democracy to the authoritarian reigns—political or religious, monarchic or ecclesiastic, and usually an admixture of the two—which preceded democracy. The move to democratic politics, according to many thinkers, retained the theological structures, if not the faith of their predecessors. In a way, democracy is a kind of secular mysticism. It is grounded in the belief that, according to the ancient maxim, vox populi vox dei, “the voice of the people is the voice of God.” That is, authority is grounded in the decisions of the people as a whole, which carries an authority beyond that of any individual, and does not rest in any token, singular, individual whether king or cleric.

This idea was articulated by one of the more interesting Jewish intellectuals of the mid-twentieth century, Jacob Taubes. A Jewish intellectual, ordained as an Orthodox Rabbi, he was born in Vienna in 1923 and died in Berlin in 1987 but spent a good deal of the fifties, and sixties in the United States. He was in conversation with the so-called New York intellectuals and taught talmud and discoursed upon everything from Paul to contemporary philosophy with the likes of Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell and Susan Sontag. In his 1953 essay, “On the Symbolic Order of Modern Democracy,” he wrote the following:

For the real source of the democratic belief lies … in the religious and political experience of the medieval and modern sects. There the image of God is not seen in the colors of power nor the image of society in the colors of arbitrary sovereignty. Religion is not authority, but participation in the community; the deity not the sanction of power, but of love. The principle of association that came to the fore in the sects is still a legacy to the future and the question is still open whether a community so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.

Taubes’ allusion to the “Gettysburg Address” in the last sentence and his affirmation of the power of love bring to mind Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial of a decade later. Taubes’ argument is that religion (as my colleague Rabbi Elliot Dorff often says) is the ligament that ties a community together. However, his argument goes far beyond that. Authority is no longer vested in a mortal symbol—neither symbol of God nor symbol of the State sanctioned by God, neither cleric nor king. Rather, authority is vested in the individual voices that come together in association which reflects the God of love not power. It is the combination of all of these individual voices into something greater which is the source of authority of the democratic state. It is this democratic community which, according to Taubes (in the words of Lincoln), is still in its experimental stage.

This mysticism, both secular and sacred, is grounded in the idea of the ultimate worth of every individual person—an idea that is articulated religiously as the image of God/tzelem elohim/imago Dei in which each person was created. A related idea is articulated in an ancient Rabbinic comment on the revelation at Sinai. The midrash collection Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael says that the Torah was revealed to each person according to each person’s ability. It is only in the collective understandings of the hundreds of thousands of individual perceptions that Torah is revealed.

Democracy is the belief that every person’s voice, opinion and therefore vote matters.

I have been thinking of this recently in the light of the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case. The decision, in granting first amendment rights of free speech to corporations, establishes an idea of corporate personhood. The majority opinion of the Court writes against distinguishing between “natural persons” and corporate “persons”. (“The Court has thus rejected the argument that political speech of corporations or other associations should be treated differently under the First Amendment simply because such associations are not ‘natural persons.’”) The decision speaks of “an association that has taken on the corporate form,” and writes of corporations that don’t have first amendment rights as “disadvantaged persons”.

I do not wish here to discuss the awful legal ramifications of this decision. This has been done by many who are more learned than I—beginning with the dissent by Justice Stephens (“The conceit that corporations must be treated identically to natural persons in the political sphere is not only inaccurate but also inadequate to justify the Court’s disposition of this case.”) (I would mention as an aside that the Court’s argument that “The appearance of influence or access, furthermore, will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy,” seems on its face absurd when one looks at levels of participation in elections.)

I do want to talk about the religious ramifications within the parameters drawn above. Corporate personhood is a throwback to pre-democratic notions of authority. The aggregation of power in the “person” of a corporation, essentially the claim that the aggregate capital of many stakeholders and therefore their voices are incarnated as the voice of the CEO of a corporation, sits on the other end of the spectrum from the idea of vox populi vox Dei. Giving an association of investors an individual identity harks back to the royal belief that the reigning monarch was the state. It is exactly this point which is challenged by the inclusive discourse which undergirds the secular mysticism of our democratic culture. When individual voices are drowned out by the aggregate voices of corporate “persons,” it is no longer an image drawn as a mosaic, but rather a claim to omniscience by an oracle.

There is one more relevant Talmudic tale. It is told in both the earlier, fifth century Palestinian Talmud and in a more robust form in the later Babylonian Talmud. It is the story of the confrontation between the Patriarch Rabban Gamliel, an aristocrat who (in the Talmud’s telling) stood as the spiritual and political head of the Jewish community in Palestine, and Rabbi Joshua, a Sage of a less exalted rank, one among many in the study hall. The confrontations between the two were numerous and finally came to a head when Rabban Gamliel humiliated Rabbi Joshua in public. This caused a backlash and Rabban Gamliel was deposed and replaced as Patriarch by a different Sage. The story itself is long and wonderfully told. However, for our purposes, the important point comes toward at the end of the narrative.

As background, one needs to remember the biblical story of Korah and Moses. Korah was the Levite who challenged Moses’ leadership by quoting God’s words that “for all the congregation is holy, every one of them.” Korah demand complete egalitarianism whilst Moses stood apart and above. In the Torah, Moses wins and Korah is swallowed up by the earth.

In the face-off between Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Joshua, it is Rabbi Joshua who is in the Korah role, claiming that position is no guarantee of being right.Rabban Gamliel’s response is the aristocratic and authoritarian response of humiliating his opponent. However, in this story Korah, that is Rabbi Joshua, wins. The community of scholars would not stand for the silencing and humiliation of Rabbi Joshua’s voice. At the end of the story, Rabban Gamliel goes to Rabbi Joshua to ask his forgiveness. He finds Rabbi Joshua at home and is shocked to discover that Rabbi Joshua is a poor blacksmith who lives in a blackened hovel. When Rabban Gamliel expresses his shock, Rabbi Joshua’s response is: “Woe to the generation whose leader you are, for you do not know the suffering of the Sages and how they must support themselves.”

I think that we might say a similar thing to today’s leaders. The corporate leaders, the 1% who assume the mantel of “leadership” by way of access to inordinate resources, do not know the suffering of the people. The CEOs of the banks do not know the suffering of those that they are displacing. More disturbing than that, however, is that the Citizens United decision articulates a vision of a political culture which puts into question whether we are moving forward to form a more perfect union. A “union” in which the voice of aggregated wealth reigns will not long endure. It is rather the beloved community of many and disparate voices being heard and hearing each other which reflects the deity of love and enacts the mysticism which is democracy.


My deepest gratitude to Martin Kavka for sharing his unpublished work and the Taubes essay with me.

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