Heaven & Earth
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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) 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
P.S.: DON'T DESPAIR
YOU CAN HELP BUILD THIS NEW APPROACH INTO AMERICAN
Here's what you can do:
- Send this article to everyone you can possibly think of.
- Call the
media and demand that they cover this perspective.
- 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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