NETWORK OF SPIRITUAL PROGRESSIVES:  When the Right Breaks the Barrier, How Should a Spiritual Left R

Rabbi Michael Lerner

Posted Aug 4, 2005      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
Bookmark and Share

When the Right Breaks the Barrier, How Should a Spiritual Left Respond?

  Michael Lerner

AP photo/ Susan Walsh

At the private, progressive, Christian grammar school called Far Brook Country Day in Short Hills, New Jersey to which my parents sent me in the early 1950s, there was a beautiful Christmas play each year in which all of us students reenacted a New Testament account of the birth of Jesus. In early grades I was one of the townspeopleӔ who came to worship the baby Jesus, and then later a shepherd who heard the angels proclaim the imminent birth of our savior.Ӕ As one of the very few Jewish kids in this school, I knew better than to complain, and in any event the story seemed beautiful and inoffensive. Each student was also asked to paint a religious scene on our classroom window, and my fifth-grade teacher, a progressive and tolerant Christian, suggested I do a Chanukah scene. As I was completing it, my classmate Dickie Holden came over to me and slugged me in the face, yelling you killed Christ.Ӕ It was an unpleasant way of learning that religion did not always bring out the best in people and helped me understand why many Jews wanted religion out of the public sphere.
One reason I remain particularly adamant about church/state separation is that Ive watched how religious coercion has been one of the major factors contributing to the overwhelming anger that most Israelis have at God and religion, making Israelis among the most secular people in the world. From my standpoint, this has been a tragic loss, because I believe that Judaism separated from coercion would have much to offer the Jewish people.

So getting the state out of the God business is important for those of us who take God seriously.

I remain a proud civil libertarian on these issues. Yet in retrospect, I think that some of my civil liberties comrades may have become First Amendment fundamentalists who suspect that any spiritual or religious values are a violation of church/state separation. That perspective, in turn, may be contributing to a backlash that might eventually lead to re-imposition of religion in a far more virulent form than it had taken in the past. The fact is that most Americans are religious, and many have come to feel that their religion is under assault by a militant secularism that allows no place for their beliefs and shows no respect to their culture.

What is particularly outrageous to many of those religious people is the way that many secular liberals and progressives think that secularism is on a higher intellectual and moral plane than any form of religion. Tolerant religious people recognize secularism as a legitimate perspective, one of many possible perspectives on ultimate questions about the nature of reality. But too often they find secular people talking and acting as though secularism is the only position compatible with intellectual sophistication and scientific truth.

In maintaining this sense of superiority, secularists are pulling a fast one that doesnҒt stand up under scrutiny. Science does not and could not take any stand on religionany more than it could take a stand on whether divorce is a sin or whether insider trading should be illegal or whether the knowledge of the atom developed in science should be used to create atomic weapons or whether those weapons should be placed in space. Or even whether it is a good or bad thing that continued destruction of the environment will diminish the worldגs resources and may end human life in the next two hundred years. These are not questions that can be subject to empirical observation or laboratory experimentation, and though scientists are as welcome as anyone else to have their positions on these questions, they are not scientific but moral and spiritual questions.

So it is a self-deception for secularists to think that somehow their position on God has a scientific foundation that puts them at a higher level than religious people.
Secularists often talk about religious wars, witch burnings, the Inquisition, and the general persecution of nonbelievers, rightly pointing out how disgusting these were. Yet why blame religion for these distorted uses of religion without similarly blaming atheism or secularism for the First World War, generated by secular imperial powers, the Second World War, generated by secular imperial powers, and the mass murder of millions under self-avowed secular regimes led by Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot? The inconsistencies are just one of the many reasons that the Religious Right has been able to portray secularists as aggressively trying to destroy their religious heritage and to rally to their side many people who are not fundamentalists but who do want religious values to play a role in their lives and the lives of their children.

In my view, their concern is legitimatebut not for the reasons they think. There is a massive undermining of religious and spiritual sensibilities in the modern world, but the main problem is not secularists but rather the materialism and selfishness that have become the common sense of global capitalism. Free market ideology encourages us to see each other in narrow utilitarian terms, to דlook out for number one and maximize ԓthe bottom line of money and power. It is the values of capitalism that are undermining our spiritual capacities, not the refusal of liberals to allow prayer in schools (why donԒt religious people encourage their children to do what I didpray each morning before school?) or nativity scenes on public property.

The task of the Tikkun Community and our Network of Spiritual Progressives is to acknowledge what is legitimate in the Religious Rightגs concern about the undermining of spiritual consciousness, but then to show that the solution is not to impose religion or spirituality through the mechanisms of the state, but rather to challenge the capitalist ethos in every aspect of life (and in the process to defend secularists from being unfairly targeted by the Religious Right). Conversely, the most effective way to defend the separation of church and state is to insist that spiritual values have an important role in public policy to counter the values of capitalist social relations. However, those values should be argued for on universal moral grounds and not on the grounds that they are mandated by a particular religious tradition.

Religious and spiritual people have as much right as anyone else to have their values presented and argued for in the public sphere. And, if they are convincing, adopted by others who do not share their religious perspective but can respond to the universal ethical content of those beliefs (for example, when religious or spiritual people warn about the dangers of creating new seeds for food that can be patented, or the dangers of cloning human beings and creating designer versions of the human race). But when their arguments dont resonate universally, as they do not in the case of abortion or homosexuality, where many religious people come up with different conclusions (most Jews, for example, are deeply opposed to any attempts to legally limit abortion or discriminate against homosexuality), we want to be sure that no state mechanism can be used to impose them on the rest of us.

That does not mean keeping spiritual values out of the public realm, which essentially leaves that realm dominated by capitalist values. LetҒs take the most essential issue: what counts as efficiency, rationality, or productivity.Ӕ In the contemporary world, these are defined largely by how much any given institution can produce money, power, or some other empirically verifiable outcome. But there is no scientific experiment that will ever prove that this is the only scientific standard for rationality or efficiency.
The Tikkun Community contends that it is equally valid to demand a New Bottom LineӔ in which institutions get assessed as rational, efficient, and productive not only to the extent that they maximize money and power but also to the extent that they maximize love, caring, ethical and spiritual sensitivity, and enhance our capacity to respond to other human beings and to nature with awe, wonder, and radical amazement. We dont cite Divine or religious authority to legitimate this position. But we do claim that this spiritual perspective has a right to be championed in the public sphere because it offers a redemptive alternative to the allegedly neutral, ғvalues free ethos of capitalist social organization.

In fact, it is precisely by allowing this kind of values debate in the public sphere that a Spiritual Left can strengthen the barrier between church and state, by showing that this barrier, while preventing the state from imposing any particular religion on the rest of us, does not keep us from exploring and considering spiritual values when we shape our public policies.

We chose to discuss these issues with two of the leading students of religion in America: Martin Marty and Robert Bellah. A historian, Marty is a columnist for The Christian Century, a Lutheran pastor, and co-editor of The Fundamentalism Project, a multivolume series on global fundamentalisms. Best known for his groundbreaking 1985 study of American individualism, Habits of the Heart, sociologist Robert Bellah is the author of numerous works on religion and society, including Beyond Belief and The Broken Covenant.

Michael Lerner is Editor of Tikkun.  Rabbi Lerner invites American Muslims to join with him in creating the Network of Spiritual Progressives, an organization which seeks to challenge the misuse of God and the Bible by the Christian Right, the hostility toward religion and spirituality by some sections of the liberal and progressive culture of the Left, and the materialism and selfishness of consumer culture in America. 1,200 people attended the first of two founding conferences, and Rabbi Lerner wishes to increase the percentage of Muslim participation in the founding of this enterprise. For more information, please read the Core Vision and the plans for this organization at