A Journal of America's Political Soul Heaven & Earth: Where Politics and Spirituality Meet
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Issue No. 9 - Heaven & Earth
F E A T U R E S :

New » A Message for Humanity

On Morality: The Most Sacred Good

On Courage: Acting in the Presence of Fear

From Darkness, Awakening: A Department of Peace

Spirit Matters:
G&G Interviews Michael Lerner

We Still Need a Religious Left

9/11 and the American Empire:
How Should Religious People Respond?

Saving Fundamentalists From the Religious Right

The Dark Jesus: Spiritual Imagery Inspires Change and Heals Racism

Will We Choose To Survive?

A Sneak-Peak Interview with the Messiah

G&G Arts - Essay
Whose Good? Who's Evil?

Yes, We Still Need a Religious Left

Transformation Towards a Progressive 'Politics of Meaning'

For years the Democrats have been telling themselves "it's the economy, stupid." Yet consistently, for dozens of years, millions of middle income Americans have voted against their economic interests to support Republicans who have tapped a deeper set of needs.

Tens of millions of Americans feel betrayed by a society that seems to place materialism and selfishness above moral values. They know that "looking out for number one" has become the common sense of our society, but they want a life that is about something more – a framework of meaning and purpose to their lives that would transcend the grasping and narcissism that surrounds them. Sure, they will admit that they have material needs, and that they worry about adequate health care, stability in employment, and enough money to give their kids a college education. But even more deeply they want their lives to have meaning – and they respond to candidates who seem to care about values and some sense of transcendent purpose.

Many of these voters have found a "politics of meaning" in the political Right. In the right-wing churches and synagogues these voters are presented with a coherent worldview that speaks to their "meaning needs." Most of these churches and synagogues demonstrate a high level of caring for their members, even if the flip side is a willingness to demean those on the outside. Yet what members experience directly is a level of mutual caring that they rarely find in the rest of the society. And a sense of community that is offered them nowhere else, a community that has as its central theme that life has value because it is connected to some higher meaning than one's success in the marketplace.

The liberal world has developed such a knee-jerk hostility to religion that it has marginalized many people on the Left who have spiritual yearnings.

It's easy to see how this hunger gets manipulated in ways that liberals find offensive and contradictory. The frantic attempts to preserve family by denying gays the right to get married; the talk about being conservatives while meanwhile supporting Bush policies that accelerate the destruction of the environment and do nothing to encourage respect or awe for God's creation; the intense focus on preserving the powerless fetus and a culture of life without a concomitant commitment to medical research (stem cell research/HIV-AIDS); gun control and healthcare reform; the claim to care about others and then deny them a living wage and an ecologically sustainable environment – all of these are rightly perceived by liberals as a deep inconsistency that makes them dismiss as hypocrites the voters who have been moving to the Right.

Yet liberals, trapped in a long-standing disdain for religion and tone-deaf to people's spiritual needs that underlie their move to the Right, have been unable to engage these voters in a serious dialogue. Properly angry at the way that some religious communities have been mired in authoritarianism, racism, sexism, and homophobia, the liberal world has developed such a knee-jerk hostility to religion that it has both marginalized those many people on the Left who actually do have spiritual yearnings and simultaneously refused to acknowledge that many who move to the Right have legitimate complaints about the ethos of selfishness in American life.

Revisiting 2004

Imagine if John Kerry had been able to counter George Bush by insisting that a serious religious person would never turn his back on the suffering of the poor, that the bible's injunction to love one's neighbor required us to provide health care for all, and that the New Testament's command to "turn the other cheek" should give us a predisposition against responding to violence with violence.

Imagine a Democratic Party that could talk about the strength that comes from love and generosity and applied that to foreign policy and homeland security.

Imagine a Democratic Party that could talk of a New Bottom Line, so that American institutions get judged efficient, rational, and productive not only to the extent that they maximize money and power, but also to the extent that they maximize people's capacities to be loving and caring, ethically and ecologically sensitive, and capable of responding to the universe with awe and wonder.

Imagine a Democratic Party that could call for schools to teach gratitude, generosity, caring for others, and celebration of the wonders that daily surround us! Such a Democratic Party, continuing to embrace its agenda for economic fairness and multi-cultural inclusiveness, would have won in 2004 and can win in the future.

As an aside, please do not tell me that this is happening outside the Democratic Party – in the Green Party or in other Left groups – because except for a few tiny exceptions it is not! I remember how hard I tried to get Ralph Nader to think and talk in these terms in 2000. I remember also how little substantive response I got from the Green Party when I suggested reformulating their excessively politically-correct policy orientation in ways that would speak to this spiritual consciousness. The hostility of the Left to spirituality is so deep, in fact, that when they hear us in Tikkun talking this way, they often can't even hear what we are saying. They systematically mis-hear it and say that we are calling for the Left to take up the politics of the Right, which is exactly the opposite of our vision. Speaking to spiritual needs actually leads to a more radical critique of the dynamics of corporate capitalism and corporate globalization, not to a mimicking of right-wing policies.

Our Possibility for Transformation

If any group on the left – and the Democrats are the biggest – were to foster a religions/spiritual Left, they would no longer pick candidates who support preemptive wars or who appease corporate power. They would reject the cynical realism that led them to pretend to be born-again militarists, a deception that fooled no one and only revealed their contempt for the intelligence of most Americans. Instead of assuming that most Americans are either stupid or reactionary, a religious Left would understand that many Americans who are on the Right actually share the same concern for a world based on love and generosity that underlies Left politics, even though progressives often hide their value attachments.

Yet to move in this direction, many Democrats would have to give up their attachment to a core belief: that those who voted for Bush are fundamentally stupid or evil. It is high time everyone got over that elitist self-righteousness and developed strategies that could affirm our common humanity with those who voted for the Right. Teaching ourselves to see the good in the rest of the American public would be a critical first step for liberals and progressives learning how to teach the rest of American society how to see that same goodness in the rest of the people on this planet. It is this spiritual lesson – that our own well-being depends on the well-being of everyone else on the planet and on the well-being of the earth itself, which is a lesson rooted deeply in the spiritual wisdom of virtually every religion on the planet – that could become the center of a revived Democratic Party.

Yet to take this seriously, Democrats are going to have to get over the false and demeaning perception that the Americans who voted for Bush could never be moved to care about the well-being of anyone but themselves. With this transformed outlook, Democrats would become more than just serious contenders.

The last time Democrats had real social power was when they linked their legislative agenda with a spiritual politics articulated by Martin Luther King, Jr. We cannot wait for the reappearance of that kind of charismatic leader to begin the process of constructing again a spiritual and religious Left.

Rabbi Michael Lerner, RabbiLerner@tikkun.org, is national co-chair (with Cornel West and Susannah Heschel)Rabbi Michael Lerner of The Tikkun Community, an interfaith organization that seeks to build on the political vision articulated above and more fully explained in Core Vision, which can be read at www.Tikkun.org. Lerner is also editor of TIKKUN, a bimonthly Jewish Critique of Politics, Culture and Society, author of The Left Hand of God: Taking Our Country Back from the Relligious Right, and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun synagogue in San Francisco.



Here's what you can do:

  1. Send this article to everyone you can possibly think of.
  2. Call the media and demand that they cover this perspective.
  3. Join (yes, you personally) The Tikkun Community, the organization that is taking the lead in creating this direction in liberal and progressive politics. Become a dues-paying member to enable this view to be heard. The organization we are creating has as its first and foremost responsibility adding this discourse to American politics, not only by challenging the Right, but also by challenging the anti-spiritual biases and demeaning attitudes that prevail in too many parts of the liberal and progressive world.

We are up against a difficult period ahead. There will be struggles to end the war in Iraq and to protect us from what is likely to be very scary moves to limit civil liberties, to decrease social supports for the poor and the powerless, to increase militarization, and even to launch new wars. If we face all this with the kind of liberal and progressive movements that we've been relying on the past, we are likely to be ineffective. That's why taking the Tikkun ideas and building a new kind of social change movement is such a pressing priority. We are not asking anyone to become religious or spiritual if he or she is not; we are asking for a new sensitivity and new ways of talking to people, new ways of framing progressive ideas, and a new openness to awe and wonder to replace a narrow utilitarian way of approaching other human beings and nature. Increasingly, this idea is accepted in many ecologically-sensitive circles. Please help us! It's not enough to support our ideas – we need your active support. If you can find a strategy that is more powerful, more psychologically sophisticated, and more compassionate in its approach to the people who need to be won over to the side of progressive social change, let us know what it is. If not, join and help us build this strategy!!!

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Comments on this Article

MaryBeth Ingberg of Chicago, IL writes: Thanks for a breath of fresh air, Rabbi Lerner. Meaning is indeed missing from the Democratic Party wing of this nation's power elite. Therefore, inspiration, courage and leadership must emerge from among the people who strive daily to have a positive impact on their neighbors' lives. Thoughtful and insightful article.
Posted Jan 30, 2006


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