Michael Lerner, a liberal public intellectual and rabbi, fears the Religious Right–its power, militarism and moral contradictions. But he admits he appreciates it, too–its confidence about its beliefs, its sensitivity to the yearnings of Americans for religious meaning and its awareness of a gathering spiritual crisis.
But he admits he appreciates it, too–its confidence about its beliefs, its sensitivity to the yearnings of Americans for religious meaning and its awareness of a gathering spiritual crisis.
The Democrats and the left, meanwhile, are unable to acknowledge that such a thing as a spiritual crisis even exists.
Instead, catastrophically, progressives have presented themselves as allergic to religion and contemptuous of any “dumb” American who voted for President Bush. Lerner says Democrats have turned downright elitist toward the working class, failing to articulate a credible slate of moral values or stir the spiritual energies of the nation.
Harsh words, yet Lerner is a man of hope. He believes progressives can triumph if they embrace “the Left Hand of God.”
In this ambitious new book, he pleads with his left-wing brothers and sisters to create a new spiritual agenda and win back the hearts of a weary, wary American electorate.
A progressive “Spiritual Covenant with America” would not ape the unholy alliance of the secular and religious right, with their Sunday morning pieties and prime-time rhetoric of war, greed and scapegoating. That’s the fear-based imagery of the “Right Hand of God.”
A progressive spiritual politics proclaims a different slate of values–generosity, kindness, respect, gratitude, humility, honesty, awe and wonder at the grandeur of creation. This is the “Left Hand of God.”
“The essence of the spiritual crisis of the Western world is this: our economic and political order rewards us for selfishness and punishes us for openheartedness and caring for others,” he declares.
“We value the Right Hand of God, with its emphasis on fear and dominion, rather than the sense of hope and generosity that accompanies the Left Hand of God. We no longer listen to our highest aspirations but content ourselves with what is ‘realistic.’ ”
Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, wages a two-front struggle here. He exposes the tainted morality of the Religious Right. But he also discloses the left’s own history of spiritual blind spots and explains why voters gravitate to Republican slogans. A trained clinical psychologist, Lerner is a listener. For nearly 30 years he has interviewed working Americans about their hopes and fears. Progressives, pay attention:
“Our research has led us to conclude that more than half the working people who vote for the right do so because they are suffering from the spiritual crisis in American society. They are concerned about living in a society where values are eroding, families are unstable, sexuality is cheapened and money and selfishness rule everything. These people have come to believe that the right is the only political force that addresses this spiritual crisis in a systematic and public way.”
Red states have shifted to the GOP, he argues, precisely because they suffer the most from an “epidemic of uncontrolled me-firstism”–higher levels of abortion, divorce and big corporate destruction of local businesses. Red-state citizens are looking for spiritual answers in public life. Only Republicans, these days, speak the language of spirit without embarrassment.
The cruel irony is, the Religious Right blesses the same overheated free-market values that are causing bottom-line workplace pressures, workaholic family stresses and anxiety about affordable health care and pension savings.
Yet voters have no idea an alternative spiritual politics is plausible, he argues. The left doesn’t try. Progressives are gripped by illusions of technocratic pragmatism, the fantasy of a value-free politics, a naked public square. The political left assumes religion is just what Jerry Falwell says it is–a fundamentalism of doctrinal purity and premillenial politics–a right-wing horror to be avoided.
Lerner says to the left: Give up the fabled and failed neutrality and start arguing for your own values. This means two things: Oppose the Religious Right’s sectarian disregard for separation of church and state. And proclaim a “new bottom-line” of love and generosity that defies selfishness and materialism.
Lerner envisions a fresh coalition between open-minded secular leftists, worship-going liberals and I’m-spiritual-not-religious progressives, built on an interfaith vocabulary not limited to the Bible.
Assuming such an uneasy trinity can be cobbled together, Lerner devotes the second half of the book to the practicalities of a Spiritual Covenant with America. Much of it fits with current Democratic ideas–universal health care, earth-friendly alternative fuels, full employment, a massive housing movement to end poverty, an ambitious program of natural-disaster readiness. The difference is the Covenant boldly embraces these things in the name of spiritual values of generosity and care.
“The fundamental goodness of the American people is now awakening to the need for a new bottom line based not only on economic success but also on our deepest spiritual values, values that are shared by religious as well as secular people, values that were and are central to the building of American society.”
Is this naive? Lerner warns his left-wing cadres to brace themselves for cynical accusations of New Age flakiness and (needless to say) communism. But remember, he says: Most world religions affirm kindness, Golden Rule, non-violence and care of creation. The biblical Sabbath is a rebuke to a 24/7 ideology of globalization. Jesus’ words in Matthew 25 command generosity to the underdog.
Lerner’s book is rich and sweeping–also lengthy and repetitive. He underestimates, I think, the locked-and-loaded ideology of conservative religion in this media age of sneering talk radio and internet false witness, where millions of Protestants now believe unfettered capitalism is mandated by the Bible and the primary image of Jesus is not the peacemaker of the Gospels but the apocalyptic avenger of Revelation.
As a new Moses pulling together a quarrelsome left-wing, Lerner’s work is cut out for him. Last week, he gathered some 1,200 people for his new Network of Spiritual Progress, with mixed success. The New York Times headline said: “Religious Left Struggles to Find Unifying Message.”
But he is an empathetic writer who avoids invective and draws on a deep pool of hope. The world has changed before, he declares. Feudalism was defeated. So was slavery, child labor, apartheid, Soviet tyranny, segregation, the suppression of women. (And not so long ago, voters elected, twice, a spiritually sensitive Democrat who united people around ideas of the common good–Bill Clinton.) The domineering voices of the RIght Hand of God will falter and implode. This spiritual liberal isn’t giving up.
Ray Waddle, a writer based in Nashville, Tenn., is author of Against the Grain: Unconventional Wisdom from Ecclesiastes.