Which great friend of working men said in 1872 England, "No important step can be gained unless you can effect some reduction of their hours of labour and humanise their toil"? You might suggest Karl Marx, who at that time sat in the British Museum scribbling his magnum opus, Das Kapital, but it was actually Benjamin Disraeli, the British prime minister and leader of his country's Conservative Party-and therein hangs a tale.
Disraeli (1804-1881) created Britain's modern Conservative Party by changing it from a special-interest group for the benefit of assorted lords to a party that emphasized the interdependence of social classes. From the 1840s, when he wrote memorable novels such as Sybil, to 1874, when he led the Conservative Party to a big election victory, he stressed ways for his country to move from two nations, rich and poor, to one, with a common social identity.
Disraeli knew that it was easy to pass legislation by which people would supposedly toil less and earn more. But he wrote that-and this insight distinguished him from the left-"the great problem is to be able to achieve such results without violating those principles of economic truth upon which the prosperity of all States depends." Or, in other words, the great problem is to emphasize the humanizing principles of the New Testament without violating the laws laid out in the Old.
You might think it either playful or disrespectful of me to move from political and economic matters to biblical truth, but the shuffle is deliberate. That's because, after reading lots of writing by and about Disraeli over the summer, I'm convinced that the political philosophy of Disraeli, this crucial figure in British history, owes much to his cultural and religious position as a Jewish Christian. (Since I'm in the same boat by ancestry and profession, he's naturally of interest to me.)
Disraeli's father Isaac was heavily influenced by the late 18th century's rationalistic critique of Judaism. He agreed with Voltaire that the Bible with its emphasis on sacrifices (animals in the Old Testament, Christ in the New Testament) was barbaric, and that the Talmud was a mass of superstitions and contradictory opinions. But Isaac, fascinated by Jewish history and convinced of Jewish intellectual superiority, collected books on Jewish culture and wrote The Genius of Judaism. Isaac was a synagogue member until his son Benjamin was 12; in that year Isaac quit and had Benjamin baptized.
Benjamin always remained proud of his Jewish ancestry while religiously committed to Christianity. He wrote in one of his 1840s novels, Coningsby, that Europe owes to Jews "the best part of its laws, a fine portion of its literature, all its religion." In another of his novels, Tancred, Disraeli wrote of how Old Testament laws protect the life and property of Englishmen and assure them of a day of rest. But he also emphasized that, above all, Englishmen owe a debt to Jews for knowledge of the true God and for the means-Jesus Christ-through which salvation can be theirs.
So Disraeli, like his dad, emphasized Judaism's cultural attainments and the need to follow the Old Testament's moral law and the principles embedded in its civil law. But while Isaac Disraeli had decided to ignore the ritualistic law, Benjamin's deeper understanding led him to understand how that law was fulfilled in Christ, "the sacrificial mediator [whose] atoning blood [purified] the myriads that had preceded and the myriads that will follow him." Disraeli thought it terrible that "several millions of the Jewish race should persist in believing in only a part of their religion." He argued vigorously that Jews should become Christians not to abandon their heritage but to fulfill it.
Just as Disraeli hoped that more people would unite Jewish perception with Christian theology, so he hoped that the liberals of his day would move away from worshipping the excesses of individualism, and the conservatives would concentrate less on their land and more on their social duty. He saw liberal individualism eventually leading to the growth of government, because individualists would weaken and perhaps even destroy the religious and civil institutions that were a barrier to tyranny. But he also believed that the affluent should voluntarily share their blessings with their poor neighbors.
The relevance to today's compassionate conservatism is apparent. But with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, being celebrated today, September 30, so we should also celebrate Disraeli's contribution to Jewish-Christian relations. He tried to integrate two economic nations, the rich and the poor, and two religious peoples, without becoming soft-headed in the process. Rational economic law and compassion could work together because God's holiness and God's love had for once and all time been fused in and through Christ.