Can the Left Find God?

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Download Audio Interview: Michael Lerner (mp3, 8.2 MB).

An Interview with Michael Lerner

lerner.jpgA foolish person doesn’t recognize that one can learn much from opponents. So liberals have begun to understand that they need God on their side as much as the Christian Right does.

The lesson from conservatives, said Rabbi Michael Lerner, is that it’s okay to base policy on faith and spiritual values, and it’s important to stand up for what you believe in. “When they come to a decision about what they believe in, they fight for it,” he said of the Christian Right in a recent interview. “And they’re willing to lose an election for the sake of what they believe in.”

Last year, Lerner published The Left Hand of God, in which he argued for a new progressive movement based on spirituality. “Many Americans have a powerful desire for loving connection, kindness, generosity, awe and wonder, and joyous celebration of the universe,” he wrote. “These desires are frustrated by the way we organize our society today. A progressive movement or a Democratic Party that speaks to these desires in a genuine and spiritually deep way could win the popular support it needs to create a world of peace, social justice, ecological sanity, and human rights.”

“There needs to be a deep recognition that the liberal discourse has been one which has been technocratic and avoiding the spiritual crisis in American society,” Lerner said in our interview. The hunger for meaning and spiritual connection is common, he added, “and yet over and over again [is] ignored in the discourse of the Democratic party.”

Many liberals are coming to the realization that the Left’s self-imposed secularism has ceded the moral high ground to conservatives. “You get a discourse about dollars, instead of a discourse about values,” Lerner said. “And that’s a terrible error.”

Beyond that, the Left often vilifies the religious Right, creating “a culture of put-down toward religious or spiritual people,” Lerner said.

Even though Democrats arguably represent the poor and middle class better than Republicans, an “elitist” label sticks, he said: “A lot of people respond when they [Republicans] call them [Democrats] elitist ... because they understand that there is a contempt toward ordinary people.”

The shift to a spiritual approach for progressives is a clear nod to the successes of religious conservatives, who have used Christian faith as the starting point for policy discussions.

“They fight for their values, and will not compromise on what they believe in,” Lerner said about the Christian Right. “What I don’t like is what they believe in. ... But I don’t think the way to fight them is to say, ‘Oh, you’re a fanatic about what you believe in.’ I think that’s the good part of them, ... that they have a strong backbone.

“What makes many people feel reluctant to trust liberals is that the liberals don’t fight for what they believe in.”

A spiritual movement on the Left, Lerner argued, could draw political power away from the religious Right. “There are many people who vote for the religious Right who are serious about biblical values” but are hurt by conservative economic policies, Lerner said.

Against Pragmatism

This new spiritualism isn’t yet part of the Democratic mainstream.

Listen to any of the major Democratic presidential candidates, and you’ll likely hear only lip service given to religious values.

Lerner noted that Democratic wins at the polls shouldn’t be mistaken for progress. “Democrats have won elections, even the presidency, before,” he wrote in The Left Hand of God, “and yet the movement of intellectual and political energy keeps on sliding to the Right, and so Democrats in office often end up acting from the assumptions of the Right in order to show that they are ‘realistic’ and ‘non-ideological.’”

“When it comes to policies, they [Democrats] are not moved by what their deepest ethical or spiritual or religious insights are,” he said. “They’re moved by a level of pragmatism that assumes there’s no spiritual energy in the world.”

Many Democrats, for example, believe in ending the war in Iraq but refuse to act on that belief. “They don’t fight to end it because they think it’s not realistic and it’s not politically in their interest,” Lerner said. “They don’t want to offend those who do support the war. They’re afraid they’ll be labeled ‘not supporting our troops’ if they vote to cut off all funds and say that they’re going to end the war right now.”

These “practical” Democrats have their priorities wrong, Lerner said. “The spiritual world view tells us to go for our highest values, and to let them shape our actions,” he said, “not let your actions be shaped by what seems pragmatic at the moment. ... To believe in God is to believe that there is a force in the universe that makes possible the transformation of that which is to that which ought to be. To align yourself with that force is often to be aligned against being realistic.”

He cited the women’s movement, and said that it would have been easy to dismiss equality as an unattainable goal after millennia of patriarchy. But in a few decades activists have “managed to change the entire structure of our society,” he said.

The Agenda

So what would a spiritual-progressive agenda look like?

lefthand.jpgIn The Left Hand of God, Lerner breaks it down into eight “covenants” related to American families, personal responsibility, social responsibility, values-based education, health care, environmental stewardship, a safer world, and the separation of church, state, and science.

Those labels give a sense of the movement’s priorities but not much in the way of detail.

In our interview, Lerner applied the spiritual-progressive approach to homeland security.

“We have come to believe that the fundamental reality of the world is one in which people are out to get us and hurt us, and that the only way we can protect ourselves is to dominate others before they dominate us,” he said.

Instead, the United States should lead “a global Marshall Plan” and “act toward others in a spirit of generosity and caring.”

In terms of a policy recommendation, Lerner said the United States should dedicate 1 to 2 percent of its gross domestic product “to once and for all end global poverty, homelessness, hunger, inadequate education, [and] inadequate health care, and to repair the global environment.” Further, the U.S. should encourage other world powers to make the same commitment.

The effect would be “to dry up the cesspools of anger and hatred against the richest country in the world — us — and the resentment that people have about the way the United States has acted in the world, as a dominator,” Lerner said. Extremist groups wouldn’t be able to find recruits, he claimed.

“Democrats are at the moment really not offering a real alternative to the ideology of war,” he concluded.

Measuring Love

Lerner is co-chair of the national Network of Spiritual Progressives organization, which he said promotes judging government programs on the criteria of being “efficient, rational, or productive, not only to the extent that they maximize money or power, but also to the extent that they maximize love, caring, kindness, generosity, [and] ethical and ecological sensitivity; enhance our capacity to respond to human beings as embodiments of the sacred; and enhance our capacity to respond to the universe with awe and wonder.”

Lerner readily admits that people who value the secularism of the Left will chafe at talk of God and “love” as the foundations of policy.

“People in the liberal world sometimes respond and say, ‘How are you going to measure love?’” he said. “Well, who told you that the only way to live in the world is by things that can be measured? The commitment to the notion that what should guide societal policies are things that should be measured is a religious belief system. It has no more rational foundation than the view that I hold, namely that there are values that come from the spiritual world that are fundamentally equal in value to measurement. There is a sphere of reality, the spiritual sphere, which cannot be measured.”

He added that governments often support institutions or programs whose achievements are difficult if not impossible to quantify. “How can we measure if the art museum, or the symphony, or the creating of park land, is going to generate X level of pleasure amongst people?” he asked. “There are no effective measures for art. There are no effective measures for pleasure. There are no effective measures for love, or kindness, or generosity. So if you build a world in which all that counts is what can be measured, you end up with the current world, in which everybody is killing each other, and the environment is being totally destroyed, because there’s no money value you can put on the environment.”

That’s a reasonable point, but it also creates a values debate, in which people end up arguing about what they believe rather than engaging in rational, reasoned conversation based on evidence. That type of discussion largely precludes compromise in situations in which values are different.

And the reality is that people read the Bible (or their own sacred text) differently.

Lerner didn’t disagree. He said “cherry-picking” happens on both sides. Liberals might trot out the command to love your enemy, while conservatives might focus on passages condemning homosexuality.

But Lerner’s tactic isn’t necessarily about winning a debate on the Bible. He instead is seeking to neutralize the opponent’s advantage. In this case, progressives can’t even compete in a spiritual discussion if they aren’t talking about God, religion, and spiritual values.

Conservatives will continue to attract religious people so long as they’re the only ones invoking spiritual values. The moral superiority of the Right, Lerner said, is “a lie that can only be challenged by people who are part of a spiritual left.”

Next Steps

Lerner still hopes to shape the dialogue for the 2008 presidential race, even as Democratic candidates refuse to explicitly use their faith as a basis for policy.

Lerner said that candidates agree with him in principle, but are too hung up on practicality to act on it.

“Our task is to change the discourse, particularly in Iowa, where there’s a real chance of speaking to these candidates right now and demanding of them that they think in a different way and they talk in a different way,” he said. “Deep down in their hearts, they agree with me.

“I’ve had conversations with several of the leading candidates who have convinced me personally that they do agree. But they think it’s unrealistic to say so.” Lerner declined to name the candidates but said they are in the top tier — not in the league of Dennis Kucinich.

But even in the states with early influence on the presidential contest, grassroots organizations don’t have much sway. “The way that you normally do that [effect policy change] has been pretty much hijacked,” Lee said. “The money is what drives the process. ... We have to create our own vehicles to get it accomplished.”

Lerner said it’s imperative to get in front of the candidates and emphasize the importance of spiritual values. “It depends on whether people in Iowa and in New Hampshire and in a few other states get mobilized to go for their own highest values, and to demand that their candidates reflect the highest values of the people of the state,” he said. “What people need to do is reject the discourse from the media and the politicians about what’s practical [as a policy agenda], and demand what we actually need.”

(This article originally appeared, in slightly different form, in the River Cities’ Reader.)

>>Many liberals are coming to the realization that the Left’s self-imposed secularism has ceded the moral high ground to conservatives. “You get a discourse about dollars, instead of a discourse about values,” Lerner said.

I hate this rhetoric, which I keep hearing everywhere in regards to liberals. Why don’t we hear anybody talking about the possibility of holding the moral high ground without spirituality? Religion doesn’t have a monopoly on morality, to say the least. Instead of secular liberals being forced to bring God into their agenda, the Democratic Party should be developing the idea of a secular morality, of liberal values, bringing to the fore what they believe, rather than just saying they also believe in God. The last thing this country needs is more religion in its politics.

Ed: As you are likely aware, personally I agree with you completely.

But let’s say that you’re a religious liberal whose values are drawn from your faith. Why create some artificial secular morality when you have (in your opinion) a perfectly good public-policy moral compass through your spirituality? Secular morality is a substitute for religious morality, rather than a support beam; people whose values come from religion generally don’t want or need a logical rationale for their values.

I would also argue that because politics is mostly about building a base and consensus, religion is one way that liberals can take people/votes/support away from conservatives. A secular morality won’t draw from the GOP people whose primary reason for supporting Republicans is their professed adherence to Christian values.

Fundamentally, though, I think Lerner is playing a clever game. I believe his goal is to nullify religion as a factor in politics by using the same tactics as the Christian Right.

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