“The unholy alliance of the political Right and Religious Right threatens to destroy the America we love. It also threatens to generate a popular revulsion against God and religion by identifying them with militarism, ecological irresponsibility, fundamentalist antagonism to science and rational thought, and insensitivity to the needs of the poor and the powerless.”
With these sweeping words, Michael Lerner, noted Rabbi and editor of the moderate Jewish magazine, Tikkun, begins his new book, The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right.
And though filled with lots of political strategy, he is not trying to be the savior of the Democratic Party. His main concern is how religion is used and abused for partisan purposes. As a result of this abuse, Lerner argues, both society and religion suffer.
Rabbi Lerner spends considerable space trying to understand why the political and Religious Right has been so successful in mobilizing people of faith, primarily Protestant Christians, to sustained and cohesive political action. His conclusion is insightful. People in America are hungry for a spiritual component in their lives. Not a particular religion or denomination or doctrine, but a deeply felt spiritual connection that gives life meaning.
The political and Religious Right has stumbled on to this need and has found a myriad of ways to manipulate it. They dangle in front of people of faith certain hopes and aspirations, like prayer in school or public displays of Scripture, as a way to achieve that spiritual connection that is longed for. Sadly, however, once in power, the activities and values of the political and Religious Right actually restrict and hinder the process of spiritual connections.
For instance, the elevation of greed as a proper life pursuit certainly works against any authentic spirituality. The heavy presence of violence as the answer to every global issues strikes a blow at the heart of our spirituality. The violence brutalizes us even as it brutalizes those it is used against. The anger and intolerance that fuels so much of the Right’s rhetoric leaves us numb. And the fear that is used to manipulate people of faith into action eats away at our hope.
Lerner argues that a spiritual connection can be reintroduced to the political process by candidates and parties who are willing to make spiritual connections a priority.
Lerner does not mean candidates should adopt some particular religion or champion some particular religious cause. Spirit will be reintroduced into our social existence when the political process makes common cause with movements and ideas that are already making spiritual connections. Lerner mentions in particular the anti-war movement, environmentalists, advocates for human rights, and activists who serve the poor and the powerless.
Rabbi Lerner has a critical warning at this point. The hunger for spiritual connections is real. That these longings are manipulated for political purposes does not invalidate their authenticity. People of faith are drawn into the political and Religious Right not because they love violence or hate indiscriminately. They are drawn in because they want a better world and believe their faith can make a difference. And in this they are correct.
For this reason, Lerner argues, people of faith who happen to be on the Right must not be treated with disrespect or belittled in any way. Their faith is real and can make a difference in our world. The separation of church and state has never meant a separation of faith from life.
Rather than disparaging faith as having a place in the political process, we need to nurture it. But nurture faith in ways that promote the common good. Nurture faith as a part of the political world that brings people together around our great ideals of democracy and freedom. Nurturing faith in these ways helps to create that sought after spiritual connection and introduces hope as a goal of the political process.
Lerner acknowledges that the ideas and movements which he encourages politicians and candidates to make common cause with have become largely discredited by the political and Religious Right. But that is no reason to avoid them. In fact, our unwillingness to embrace those who are already working for the common good, contributes to the spiritual vacuum that now consumes us.
Lerner calls on leaders to be leaders. In what is perhaps the most important paragraph in the book, Lerner calls on political parties to, “Fight for ideals that are not popular and be willing to stand for those ideals even if that means temporarily losing some elections. The respect generated by sticking to one’s ideals even at the expense of one’s short term electoral ambitions is necessary for building trust. No party can hope to retain the enthusiasm of its own supporters, much less the interest of the undecideds, unless it can clearly articulate its own vision, require that vision to be shared by its candidates, and argue for that vision even before it is popular.”
Lerner gathers all this up under the image of the “left hand of God.” His point is to emphasize a view of God different from that proclaimed by the Religious Right. The God of the Religious Right is an angry, judging and violent God ready to wipe out sinners with his strong right hand. The left hand of God refers to a God of compassion and mercy, who bends toward the weak and the powerless with a message of hope.
Rabbi Lerner believes if candidates and voters will embody this vision of God, make common cause with those who are working for the common good, and care, really care about what happens to the planet and to those who are the weakest and most vulnerable on the planet, that we will discover a powerful spiritual connection that will not only revitalize our country, but also give meaning and deep purpose to our lives.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.