Laborare est orare: Work is worship. Once upon a time that Latin cry arose from scores of medieval monasteries. Their monks believed that—as Carlyle later put it--“all true Work is Religion: and whatsoever Religion is not work may go and dwell among the Brahmins, Spinning Dervishes, or where it will…One monster there is in the world: the idle man.” Nor were those old monks the first to believe in the religious nature of work, the blasphemous nature of idleness. In Hebrew the word for labor (avodah) is also the word for prayer.
But when Douglas Elmendorf, chairman of the (nonpartisan) Congressional Budget Office, recently announced that one of the effects of the new health law will be to reduce, by 2017, the total number of hours Americans work by the equivalent of over two million full time jobs, President Obama’s spokesmen were quick to praise this massive “disincentive” to work as a blessing in disguise. Jason Furman, chairman of the White House’s Council of Economic Advisors, declared that “this is people having new choices they didn’t used to have.” From the White House itself came the declaration that “individuals will [now] be empowered to make choices about their own lives and…have the opportunity to pursue their dreams.” Another Democratic Dr. Pangloss celebrated this new opportunity “to spend more time with your children.” So much for the brave and religious nature of work in the Era of Obama.
Such repudiations of ancient wisdom have by now become a hallmark of the Obama administration. Not long after Elmendorf’s announcement came the news of Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to grant the brides and grooms of same-sex marriages the same legal rights in federal matters that couples married in the old-fashioned, “mixed” marriage mode have in, among other things, bankruptcy proceedings, legal testimony, and prison visits. Holder’s diligent researchers are now ransacking the archives to seek out every possibility for legally changing federal rules and regulations to accommodate those married according to the new dispensation without going to the trouble of getting Congress to pass new legislation.
Uncharitable critics of the Obama administration have derided Holder’s move as a typical example of the Obama executive making law lawlessly, i.e., by fiat, as a distraction from the colossal embarrassments of Obamacare and the blood-drenched calamities of Obama-Kerry foreign policy. But these critics underestimate the deep rootedness, the foolish consistency, of Obama-Holder ideology. In fact, Holder’s action is a perfect existential realization of the two cravings of Obama liberalism: the craving for forbidden fruit and the craving for legality. No sooner had the president belatedly “evolved” (not very long ago) into his recognition that same-sex marriage was as legitimate as the biblically-approved kind anchored in Genesis and the collective experience of a large portion of the human race than he and his lawyer in chief sought to impose it wherever they could (and to deal harshly with troglodytes still in bondage to ancient prejudice).
Meanwhile the president has for weeks been harping on his frequently expressed conviction that “the defining issue of our time” is “income inequality,” the enormous and (during his presidency especially) growing gap between the “one percent” or “the rich” and the unhappy “ninety-nine percent.” Here too the appetite for forbidden fruit, the poisoned apple of envy, takes precedence over that declaration of ancient wisdom called The Tenth Commandment, which warns against the moral poison of covetousness, which in the last century alone abetted the murder of millions: “Neither shall you covet … your neighbor’s house, his field, or his manservant, or his maidservant, his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”
So far as I know, not a single prominent priest, minister, or rabbi in the country has seen fit to remark on the demagogic, conscienceless nature of Obama’s repudiation of this ancient precept. It was left to Ruth Wisse, a professor of Yiddish literature, to observe in the Wall Street Journal, that “stoking class envy is a step in a familiar, dangerous and highly incendiary process.”
In one sense Obama and his liberal acolytes, in their craving for forbidden fruit, are being loyal to the founders of liberalism, like John Stuart Mill. In On Liberty (1859) Mill complained that in biblical morality “thou shalt not predominates unduly over thou shalt.” In other words, liberals have always chafed against the troubling truth that morality is essentially a bridle and not a spur. But Mill stopped well short of confusing his own certainty with absolute certainty. He despised Mormonism, for example, but was a fierce critic of English attempts to outlaw it. Obama-Holder liberalism brooks no such limits upon the legalization of its dogmas and the extension of its empire.
Edward Alexander’s most recent book is The State of the Jews: A Critical Appraisal (Transaction Publishers).