SPIRITUALITY: Moments for Fear Moments for Hope - Part II Why America Needs a Spiritual Left

Rabbi Michael Lerner

Posted Feb 7, 2005      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
Bookmark and Share


Why America Needs a Spiritual left


Michael Lerner

After the Fall: Why America Needs a Spiritual Left
For years the Democrats have been telling themselves ‘it’s the economy, stupid.’ Yet millions of middle-income Americans have voted against their economic interests to support Republicans who have tapped a deeper set of needs. Democrats differ on the fix. The center/right activists of the Democratic Leadership Council warn that the Party needs to distance itself more from its economic populism, its anti-war discourse (what they call the George McGovern or Howard Dean wing of the party), and its identification with gays, feminists, and other cultural legacies of the 1960s. On the other hand, center/left activists like Robert Borosage of the mainstream progressive Campaign for America’s Future and Katrina van den Heuvel, editor of the Nation, call for ‘big ideas’ from progressives but actually have little more to offer than the recycled ideas that failed to catch primary voters when they were offered by Kucinich, Sharpton, and others. Both conservatives and progressives in the Democratic Party continue to miss the point. To conservatives masquerading as Democrats we say: John Kerry is as conservative as the Democrats need to be. His militarism didn’t win the militarists, his vision of chasing down and killing every terrorist didn’t win him the votes of those most fearful about terror, his support for capitalist globalization didn’t win the capitalists, his support for Ariel Sharon didn’t win him the right-wing Jews, and his refusal to make the environment an issue in the televised debates didn’t win him anything. To progressive Democrats we say: do not reduce the ‘values’ issue to a minority’s objectionable support for homophobia, anti-abortion, and the evangelical attempt to impose one religious perspective on the rest of us. There is a real spiritual crisis in America. If you progressives would get over your ferocious anti-spiritual and anti-religious anger, you’d be able to discover what we knew from the moment we started Tikkun more than eighteen years ago: that the spiritual crisis is rooted in the dynamics of capitalism and can only be healed by a fundamental transformation of the economy and political structures that govern our world.

The founders of Tikkun discovered America’s spiritual crisis in the course of our research at the Institute for Labor and Mental Health (ILMH). Tikkun magazine, and more recently the Tikkun Community, were founded in order to communicate this central research finding of the ILMH:?? that Americans have what we call ‘meaning needs’ that are just as important a determinant to their behavior as their material needs. People hunger for loving connection with others and recognition by the other of our uniqueness. We seek the opportunity to manifest ourselves in creative work and joyous play and a way to connect with a higher meaning for our lives than that which is offered by a society that tries to convince us that ‘he who has the most toys wins.’ 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. All day long they work in institutions governed by the competitive ethos of the capitalist market and internalize its instrumentalist and materialist worldview: that progress means accumulating more things and better ways to control the world, that the ‘bottom line’ is to maximize money and power, that others are likely to take advantage and try to dominate you in their own desire to maximize their own advantage unless you do that first by dominating or effectively manipulating them first. These ‘lessons’ are brought home into personal life, inevitably corrupting our relations with each other, replacing solidarity with self-interest, and leaving most people feeling deep despair about how much they can really count on other people.

The irony: most people in our society (and not just in the United States but wherever the ethos of the market predominates) hate this ethos and feel dirtied by the extent to which they participate in it. Most people desperately desire a way to build part of their lives upon a higher spiritual and ethical standard. Yet, because they have internalized the market consciousness as ‘reality,’ they have resigned themselves to living in a world in which this selfishness is the only ‘realistic’ possibility.

This ‘realism’ accounts for what seems to be the apparent hypocrisy in people who complain about selfishness and materialism and yet continue to live lives in which they are frantically consuming and advancing themselves in every way possible. It explains those who support candidates whose policies call for cuts in services to the needy: it is not that their desire for a more ethically coherent world is phony, but that they simultaneously hold a conflicting belief that this desire is ‘unrealistic’ and that therefore it should only be expressed in church or synagogue, but not in economics or politics. Many of these voters have found a ‘Politics of Meaning’ in the political Right. In right-wing churches and synagogues, these voters are presented with a coherent worldview that speaks to their ‘meaning needs.’ And it’s not just talk: most of these institutions offer their members a level of mutual caring that they rarely find in the rest of society. Through these institutions the Right provides voters with a sense of community that is offered to them nowhere else, a community that has as its central theme the idea 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 support for policies that accelerate the destruction of the environment and do nothing to encourage respect for God’s creation; the intense focus on preserving the powerless fetus and a culture of life without a concomitant commitment to medical research (e.g., stem cell research or research on HIV/AIDS); the claim to care about others while denying them a living wage and an ecologically sustainable environment’all this is rightly perceived by liberals as a level of 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 the spiritual needs that underlie the move to the Right, have been unable to engage these voters in a serious dialogue. Justly angry at the way that some religious communities have been mired in authoritarianism, racism, sexism, and homophobia, correct in their determination to not allow the Right to impose their variant of religion on the rest of us under the guise of making America ‘a Christian nation,’ 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. While happy to use the Black churches as staging grounds for mobilizing Democratic voters and happy to use religious leaders to provide appropriate biblical quotes to back whatever liberal program is currently being discussed, the Left has given a consistent message: leave your religious and spiritual ideas at the door when you participate with us in our public political campaigns.

We are not advocating that people on the Left should all become religious or spiritual. What we are advocating for is a Left that is friendly not only to secularists and militant atheists, but also to people of faith who share a commitment to peace, social justice, and ecological sanity. We advocate for a Left which believes that the most powerful critique of this society must be rooted in challenging the way this society’s capitalist marketplace fosters an ethos of selfishness and materialism.

A progressive politics of meaning does not require that one believe in a Supreme Being, much less the specific God that has been taught in orthodox versions of Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. But it does require a recognition that many people want more from their lives than an accumulation of comforts, pleasures, and material goodies. We want more than power, more than fame, more than sexual conquest’we actually want to connect our lives to something of transcendent importance the value of which will continue beyond our own individual life. Counter to the empiricist and scientific reductionism that sometimes gets confused with ‘rational thought,’ the Politics of Meaning insists that not everything real or important can be quantified or verified through sense-data. The deepest human desiresthe desires for loving connection, for transcendent meaning to life, and for justice and peace (not just for ourselves but for others)חare rooted in what we call a spiritual conception of the world.

In talking to this hunger for meaning, we should not follow the path of those fundamentalists and evangelicals who want to bring their prayers into schools, teach creationism, criminalize abortion and gay relationships, and restrict access to information on birth control. We are not trying to develop a politics that can speak to those who believe that when Jesus returns he will facilitate the dispersal to a fiery hell of Jews, Muslims, and anyone else who hasnt become an appropriate variant of Christian, nor those who think that the Bible requires believers to condemn gays (that is certainly not said in the Hebrew Bible), nor those who think that true Christians should welcome and support wars on non-believers, nor those who want to use governmental institutions to impose their particular variant of religion on everyone else, nor those who think that the Torah gives divine sanction to holding onto the West Bank without regard to the suffering that so doing causes to the Palestinian people.

Our voices instead should be directed to the soft periphery around those ғmuscular Christians and ԓsettler Jewsԗtens of millions of Americans who feel more recognized when their spiritual aspirations are explicitly addressed, but whose deepest moral insights are actually not fully expressed in the let the poor and powerless fend for themselvesӔ policy implications of the Right. Many of these people are sick and tired of what they perceive is the liberals pretense that the public arena is ғvalues neutral, when they know very well that our entire cultureԗmovies, television, even the bottom line of the world of workencourages a devaluation of other people through a competitive ethos, selfishness, materialism, and a sexuality used to exploit rather than to express loving commitment. Ironically, these values of the marketplace are blamed on the liberal world, because our frantic (and legitimate) attempt to prevent any specific religion from becoming the official religion of the country (the real point of the First Amendment) has too often slipped into an (illegitimate) attempt to keep values out of public discourse. Yet, our attempt to exclude any talk of values only disempowers us in the fight against the values that are already there, enshrined in the alleged neutrality of the capitalist marketplace, and empowers the Christian Right.

The Right has been able to use this legitimate concern as a wedge against First Amendment separation of church and stateחseeking to bring a Christian fundamentalism into the public sphere as the best way to combat the current moral pathology that reigns there. If we want to protect ourselves from those who seek to make this a ChristianӔ country explicitly committed to a fundamentalist reading of Christianity, we should not fall into the liberal trap of demanding that values and spiritual sensitivity be kept out of public discourse for fear of the slippery slope to religion.

You cant fight wrong values with a demand for no values. Instead, TikkunҒs Politics of Meaning proposes a universal spirituality and values not tied to any particular religion but foundational to all religionsrecognizing that taking seriously the demand for a New Bottom Line of love, caring, generosity, gratitude, open-heartedness, kindness, sexuality based in mutual respect, and celebration of the sacred in other human beings and in nature could actually lead to a social transformation far more humane, rational, and ecologically sensitive than anything likely to be produced by the current secular Left of the Democrats, the Greens, or the extremes.

Imagine if John Kerry had been able to counter George W. Bush by insisting that a serious religious person would never turn his back on the suffering of the poor, that the Bibleגs injunction to love ones neighbor required us to

provide health care for all, and that the New TestamentҒs command to turn the other cheekӔ 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 would apply that to foreign policy and homeland security. Such a Democratic Party would embrace Tikkuns call for a Global Marshall Plan in which the United States would lead all the advanced industrial societies in dedicating 5 percent of our GNP for each of the next twenty years to eliminate global poverty, hunger, inadequate education, and inadequate health care, and to rebuild the economic infrastructure of the entire globe in ways that would be both ecologically sustainable and socially just.

Imagine a Democratic Party that could talk of a New Bottom Line, so that American institutions would be judged efficient, rational, and productive not only to the extent that they maximize money and power, but also to the extent that they maximize peopleҒs 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 multicultural inclusiveness, would have won in 2004 and can win in the future.

When we make this argument for a spiritual Left we usually get a response something like this: You are just being nave about what attracts people to the Rights religions. You dont understand how very committed people are to _________ (and then they fill in the blank here, often with some policy or approach that proves that people who vote on the political Right are very bad or very stupidso the blank might be filled in with words like דhating others, domination over people who are weaker than they are, ԓmilitarism, ԓultra-nationalism, ԓpatriarchy, ԓracism, or other similarly unattractive attitudes).

Instead of asking how to appeal to whatԒs good in the American people, many on the Left find it far easier to blame the American people. When I first encountered this way of talking in the aftermath of the victory of the Reaganites in the 1980s, I thought that I was simply hearing a defensiveness on the part of the Left, a desire to avoid looking at where they had been ineffective themselves. But Ive come to recognize that these attitudes are based on two key elements in the liberal world that are deep within the liberal culture: 1. anger or tone-deafness to spiritual and religious concerns; and 2. contempt for those with whom we disagree.

The anger is understandable. Many people have had bad experiences in religious communities that were in fact authoritarian, ultra-nationalist, sexist, racist, or homophobic. When they hear us talking about spiritual or religious values, they automatically go back to their own experience, remembering how contradictory it felt to them to hear religious language being used as a cover for hateful policies. Yet this response is unnuanced, lumping all religion together under one reactionary banner. It fails to acknowledge that there are many other religious people who have been at the heart of the Civil Rights and peace movements, and who have been there precisely because of their own understanding of the loving parts of their religious heritage.

IҒm not sure it is really possible to heal the deep antagonism on the Left toward religion, spirituality, and the language of love, generosity, open-heartedness, and kindness to others. Its not that Lefties disagree with these values, but that their deep distrust of the American people makes them certain that the moment we introduce into public life programs based on values like love, caring, generosity, et cetera that cannot be ғobjectively defined, measured, and subject to scientific verificationԗand thus protected from the merely subjectiveӔthat we open the door to the public sphere being dominated by the hateful forces that are just waiting to reemerge in everyone and which already shape major strands in contemporary Christian fundamentalism. And herein lies what may be the ultimate self-defeating psychology of the Left: its inability to imagine that if we fought for our most visionary politics that we could eventually win the American majority to our side. This fear that Americans can be more easily manipulated into hate than won to a program of love and generosity guarantees that the Left will continue to project an elitism that most people find offensive.

If the Democrats and the Greens canגt change their culture in these ways, and the Republicans cant move beyond their commitment to the wealthy and the corporate elites, we may need a new political party that focuses not only on social change, but also on developing our own personal ethics and responsibility for how we treat each other, encouraging our own inner spiritual development, and our own psychological healing from the distortions in us that are an inevitable part of growing up in a patriarchal, competitive, narcissistic, and materialist world.

Such a spiritual political party would follow a progressive middle path, transcending the old Left/Right dichotomy, incorporating right-wing openness to a spiritual discourse and concern with personal ethics (however imperfectly they may live up to that concern) with left-wing sensitivities to peace, social justice, civil liberties, ecological consciousness, and a caution against allowing any one religion to become the established way to be an American. That kind of a spiritual movement must firmly remain committed to science, rational thought, tolerance, separation of church and state, and privacy protected from state intervention, and at the same time be firmly committed to these spiritual values that have been foundational not only to religious communities but also to the secular liberation struggles of the past two hundred years: love and compassionate caring for each other, generosity, open-heartedness, pleasure, joyous celebration for all the goodness that surrounds us, kindness, nonviolence, and awe at the grandeur of all that is.

ItҒs premature to think that anyone could create such a party today. Those of us who identify as the Spiritual Left lack the financial resources, access to media, and, hence, popular support to make any party like that a serious contender. But its not premature to bring together the people who would wish that there was a movement with this kind of worldview and dedicate our energies in the next twenty years to building the foundation for a society in which this kind of vision would win. That kind of Spiritual Left could function both within all the existing political parties, and outside and independent of all of themҗrefusing to subordinate a principled vision to the short-term goal of winning power. As a step in creating this kind of movement, we are organizing a five-day national Interfaith gathering on Spiritual Activism that will take place in Berkeley, California this coming summer (details in the next issue of Tikkun).

In the end, our commitment is fundamental to the well-being of the world and its peoples, and not to the electoral victories of any given political party.

The first step to repairing the political world in which we live is to to openly oppose the cynical realism that leads people to believe a better world is not possible.

Most people want to live in a different world, but most are very skeptical that such a world is possible. They have been so deeply indoctrinated into a depressive belief that no one else will ever respond to the vision of the good to which they themselves resonate, they have become so deeply committed to the alleged truth that everyone else is either too stupid or too evil to ever transcend the materialism and selfishness that governs this society, that they effectively remain cheerleaders for the very cynical realism that they simultaneously despise. It is this duality in people, the desire for spiritual transcendence and the despair about its possibility in the case of the Other,Ӕ that presents the central challenge for a Politics of Meaning. Undermining that depressive resignation will take incredible levels of creativity, psychological sensitivity, spiritual awareness, and political courage.

For those of us who still believe that the social energy field which has been moving toward despair can reverse its direction and move toward radical hope (see our Nov/Dec 2004 issue for more on that), the central challenge is to develop and implement the strategies that can overcome cynical realism among those who have become addicted to it on both the Left and the Right. At Tikkun, and particularly in the Tikkun Community, we have taken up this challenge. We refuse to give in to despair. We invite you to join us in healing and transforming the planet.


Rabbi Michael Lerner is the editor of Tikkun, co-founder of the Tikkun Community, and spiritual leader of Beyt Tikkun synagogue.