The religious left

News & Politics

I'm at "The Conference on Spiritual Activism" sponsored by Tikkun magazine (full disclosure: I worked at Tikkun before coming to AlterNet). Unsurprisingly, it's taking place on the campus of UC Berkeley.

Over 1,000 attendees were treated to three morning talks, all of which more or less addressed this problem: Democrats, liberals, progressives -- "the left" -- have done an abominable job of speaking to peoples' spiritual needs while "the right" has cornered the market. The left needs to connect its policies to a greater moral vision and learn how to communicate that vision.

Two quick points before sharing some of my notes:

  1. Grey hair is the norm; the average age is at least 50. Whether this is because 25-year-olds don't attend conferences in general, or whether this says something about the future of participatory democracy in America, I can't say.
  2. Aside from the odd person mumbling dissent at a speaker's thesis, or the constitutionally depressed, nearly every person in attendance walks, speaks, and generally comports themselves with hope.
  3. These notes are extremely rough sketches of speakers' points. Details, explanations and examples will follow within a week or so ...


I missed the first speaker and entered as George "Don't Think of an Elephant" Lakoff addressed the crowd.

He applied his "strict father"/"nurturing parent" model to the landscape of Christianity noting that conceptions of God -- and the works and beliefs of those who subscribe to them -- often fall into the aforementioned categories. The abolitionists, he noted, argued for a nurturing God, one who looked upon all people as his/her children and one who would not want some of those children enslaved. Ditto with women's suffrage. Strict father followers were often able to justify slavery as a part of the system of just and necessary punishment due to those in need of discipline and tough love.


Peter Gabel, founder of New College in San Francisco, followed by describing, on a more personal level, how the religious right has so effectively spoken to the sense of disconnection prevalent in American life.

His "aha" moment came 30 years ago in Cambridge when he watched a newscaster blithely declare that "the Red Sox won again and there was a deadly fire in Dorchester -- details at 11."

The 2-D stare of the broadcaster mirrored the inability many of us have to truly connect with one another -- what he called "the desire for mutual recognition." Or, more simply, it's the most elemental spiritual need, the spiritual dimension of water, food and shelter.

As a result, according to Gabel (who, in the interest of authenticity and connection, graciously admitted to his public speaking terror), many of us are left yearning to fill this need. Right wing churches have sprung up to accept people, unconditionally (provided you're hetero or trying to be) and have won their affection and attention by virtue of this ministry.

Democrats, liberals and progressives on the other hand, have been quick to embrace The List as a means of communicating their platform: We are for health care, education, no war, etc. etc. without any moral framework or attention to the spiritual necessities.

(Let me interrupt this dispatch to say that nobody is accusing Democrats of necessarily being immoral or uncaring. Nor is this about trumping up some saccharin sentiments to make the policies go down better. This is about recognizing that more than just helpful policies are necessary to a winning electoral strategy; that spiritual needs must be addressed and communicated effectively. Now back to the notes)

For example, saying that you're for the environment and providing studies and facts to argue for its protection is not an effective way of connecting with people and providing them with a sense of meaning.

Talking about the sacred nature of the environment and the dwindling species, or, if you're more secular, just the enjoyment and love you have for it, would be both more effective and truer to the core of the policy.

On education, he noted that: "there's a huge voting bloc of parents who love their kids." Meaning: speaking of education as a social service we should provide is once again poor communication. But speaking of it as a way to ensure that a child is better able to connect with their world and live a fuller life communicates to parents that progressives/libs/dems care about children.

Up next: building a religious left with Sojourners editor Jim Wallis and Tikkun's Rabbi Michael Lerner.

Look for updates and, when this is all over, an honest-to-god story on the need for and the prospects of, a religious left.

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