Readers Write: The Religious Left Fights Back

News & Politics

In The Religious Left Fights Back, Van Jones referred to Rabbi Lerner's 'Spiritual Activism' conference, encouraging Lefties to open up to the (marginalized) religious folks among them.

In their comments, some AlterNet readers responded with enthusiasm, but others remained unsure.

The conference -- held the week of June 25 -- was Lerner's launch pad for the Network of Spiritual Progressives (NSP). The NSP aims to unite "religious, spiritual and 'spiritual but not religious' progressives" across the country around shared progressive goals. Lerner hopes to "end 'religio-phobia' among progressives," overcoming the Left's mistrust of religious ideas. He also aims to halt the Right's monopoly on religion, and their abuse of it in the political sphere.

Jones adheres passionately to Lerner's goals. As a Christian African-American progressive, he wrote of being outraged by the "shocking levels of anti-religious bigotry" encountered among progressives.

Religion has played a prominent role in the Left's victories throughout history, Jones argued. He remembered the Civil Rights struggle as the last great victory of the Left, and reminds us of how "heroes and she-roes came marching boldly out of church-houses." Likewise, the Underground Railroad was run largely by Quakers, and religious congregations were at the head of the Sanctuary Movement, which opposed Reagan's immigration policies.

The religious Left, according to Jones, is already on the move, with "previously apolitical 'spiritual types' getting involved as activists for the first time." Smaller-scale efforts are springing up around the country, such as Rev. Frances Hall Kieschnick's Beatitude Society. These mini-movements, if brought together, will form what Jones sees as "the only type of progressive movement that stands a chance in a country as religious as ours."

Many AlterNet readers agreed with this assessment of America's current political and social atmosphere. One reader in particular was especially open to Jones' assessment, affirming that "the Spiritual Covenant could give the Democrats and the Greens a coherent and spiritually-sensitive platform" which would lend them the unity they need to take back the country. He is also encouraged by the fact that many on the Left are spiritual people; they merely lack "a supportive environment to articulate that spirituality and to connect it to a progressive political agenda." The reader was Michael Lerner himself.

Another reader, Marcos, shares Jones' belief that religion motivates for good. Referring to the Teologoia de la Liberacion, a movement the reader observed firsthand in Colombia where he saw priests and nuns living with and helping the poor, he says: "People saw the need for change and worked with all the tools at hand. It was just that for many Christ was an enormous well of energy for creating that change."

Many feel that the Right has been manipulating Christianity for their own ends, perverting the message of Christ. Billdake writes: "Cold hearted Christian Conservatives should read the Gospels of Christ and apply Christ's teachings to their life, instead of searching the Bible to spin off whatever works for them." Beetruetoyou asks: "Why do these folks only speak of their faith in terms of judgment, hatred, exclusion, power, wealth, the 'Gospel of Greed' as Jim Wallis has called it?"

True Christianity for a number of readers is very far removed from the Christianity of Pat Robertson or George W. Bush. For them, it's about "the truly radical message of Jesus….remember?… love, mercy, forgiveness, generosity, compassion, being with the outcasts of society, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and on and on" (beetruetoyou). Many readers believe that Christian ideals are progressive ideals.

Some of the progressive religious types Lerner wants to include also weighed in. Paulb describes himself as "a christian who is a 45 year old white male who could not agree with this more."

Bookwoman, a politically moderate Christian, relates her frustration at "being dragged down by the tirades of the Christian Right." Krotos, a Hicksite Quaker and "research scientist who fully accepts that life evolved," denounced the Left's anti-religious sentiment that Jones and Lerner describe: "A lot of liberals, sadly, seem to be too cynical or intellectually lazy to recognize that 'Christian' and 'raving, Bible-thumping wingnut who wants to force his religion on everyone else and return society to the Middle Ages' are not synonymous."

Many readers, on the other hand, did not agree so wholeheartedly with Jones' article. A few readers denied that the Left harbors any intolerance towards religion. Bornxeyed insists "In my experience it is the religious that are the intolerant, close-minded individuals," and adds "It's very rare I see an atheist walk down the street stopping people in an attempt to convert them to athesim or knocking on doors to announce they have witnessed the lack of a god and they are duty-bound to stand in your doorway spewing 'nonsense' until you agree or, at the very least, contribute a few bucks so they can continue to harass the neighborhood."

Joshy1234 believes that accusing the Left of hostility towards religion is not only false, it is actually harmful: "Michael Lerner, Van Jones and others, while clearly providing an important voice for the left, unwittingly amplify the right's bullshit by repeating the charge ad nauseum."

If intolerance does exist in the Left, it is for a historical reason, says turil: "I would say that the animosity that we godfree folks…harbour for the big 'g' God folks…is due to the long, long history of discrimination against us. It's hard to be compassionate towards people who believe you are undeserving heathens and such." Kym525 shares much the same viewpoint: "one of the reasons some on the left may not be as receptive to them has to do with history…Christianity has a long and rather violent history of forcing itself on those who might not share the same beliefs."

Other readers' qualms were with modern Christianity. Eocilian states: "I think this is all completely irrelevant and a waste of time as none of it is true. I also refuse to tolerate other people's beliefs as they are simply not real." Parise admits, "it's hard to be tolerant of people who think you're going to hell, although i do try."

Some readers disagree with Jones because they feel religion is fundamentally incompatible with tolerance and democracy. Parise writes: "i don't understand how the one god religions can be tolerant with out being hypocritical and i don't understand how they can pick and chose through their holy book." Justwayne feels "the Bible tells people to think like sheep think" and that "Organized religion…has been holding us back for millennia. We can do better."

Most of the hesitant readers feared endangering the separation of Church and State. Flora Gael, for example, declares: "I adamantly oppose ANY FORM of religion seeping into the political arena… I'm insulted when politicians discuss their personal faith and attempt to intertwine it with their political platform. It's dangerous, and it's wrong." Dlauber also cautions, "beware any civilization governed by 'faith' of any sort -- all too often the facts are ignored and problems worsened because people are depending on faith rather than careful, thoughtful analysis to form solutions to our nation's and world's problems."

That said, dlauber supports Lerner's efforts. He claims, "As a practical political strategy in this mixed-up world -- [his efforts] make sense." Drmeow also admits to being conflicted. While he believes "it is fundamentally wrong to base laws and political action on religion," he also recognizes that "religion, in particular Christianity, resonates tremendously in our country and culture." He goes on to say "while I don't like the fact that 'God' has to be brought into the progressive movement (and I think our Founding Fathers would consider this experiment they started a failure because it does), I recognize that we will never succeed without it."

Abortion figured as an example of the difficulties associated with bringing religion closer to politics. Rchmnd says "my personal conviction is anti-abortion, although I am not in favor of legislating my beliefs. I understand that each person needs to take their personal stand according to their own conviction." His stance represented to drmeow "the core of the progressive agenda/platform" because it allows people to make their own choices based on their own beliefs.

Rchmnd's compromise, however, was quickly called into question by Luis Nolan. Luis Nolan's comment "suppressing our values" sparked its own debate. To the idea of not legislating one's beliefs on others, he responds: "I find this incredible. We won the war for civil rights for African-Americans exactly by legislating our beliefs and forcing them on racist people." He goes on to declare: "anyone who believes in God also believes in Commmandments set by God, one of which…says 'You shall not commit murder.' Abortion is murder by choice and we religious progressives must fight against it."

Readers disagreed with Luis Nolan on various points. Thirdmg points out that a big difference exists between the Civil Right's struggle and the battle over abortion. In the former, African-Americans were freed from tyranny, thanks to the Left. In the latter, outlawing abortion would submit women to tyranny. Sojourner argues that the belief that abortion poses a danger to the community "can only be made by calling on a narrower and parochial religious commitment" which, if made into law, would violate the first amendment. Still, how and when to legislate religious convictions (or how to avoid legislating them) once people of faith have been invited into the party remains.

Lerner's proposals were bound to provoke disagreements. Towards the beginning of his article, Jones warns us that Lerner's efforts to embrace religion and spirituality in progressive politics may "draw some serious 'boos' from many parts of the Left" because they challenge the Left's perception of itself as the party of inclusion and tolerance.

Some of our readers did "boo," though they did so with eloquence and reason. Many others, however, agreed heartily with Lerner and Jones. At this point, only time will tell whether the NSP will transform the Left. Until then, Alternet's readers and American progressives can just keep talking in the hopes of creating a stronger, more inclusive Left.

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