Excerpt: The Left Hand of God

Editor's Note:The following is excerpted from The Left Hand of God: Taking Our Country Back From the Religious Right, by Michael Lerner (HarperSanFrancisco, Feb, 2006).

The unholy alliance of the political Right and Religious Right threatens to destroy the America we love. It also threatens to generate a popular revulsion against God and religion by identifying them with militarism, ecological irresponsibility, fundamentalist antagonism to science and rational thought, and insensitivity to the needs of the poor and the powerless.

By addressing the real spiritual and moral crisis in the daily lives of most Americans, a movement with a progressive spiritual vision would provide an alternate solution to both the intolerant and militarist politics of the Right and the current misguided, visionless, and often spiritually empty politics of the Left.

People feel a near-desperate desire to reconnect to the sacred, to find some way to unite their lives with a higher meaning and purpose and in particular to that aspect of the sacred that is built upon the loving, kind, and generous energy in the universe that I describe as the "Left Hand of God."

By contrast, the "Right Hand of God," sees the universe as a fundamentally scary place filled with evil forces. In this view God is the avenger, the big man in heaven who can be invoked to use violence to overcome those evil forces, either right now or in some future ultimate reckoning. Seen through the frame of the Right Hand of God, the world is filled with constant dangers and the rational way to live is to dominate and control others before they dominate and control us.

It is the search for meaning in a despiritualized world that leads many people to right-wing religious communities because these groups seem to be in touch with the sacred dimension of life. Many secularists imagine that people drawn to the Right are there solely because of some ethical or psychological malfunction. What they miss is that there are many very decent Americans who get attracted to the Religious Right because it is the only voice that they encounter that is willing to challenge the despiritualization of daily life, to call for a life that is driven by higher purpose than money, and to provide actual experiences of supportive community for those whose daily life is suffused with alienation and spiritual loneliness.

Many Americans have a powerful desire for loving connection, kindness, generosity, awe and wonder, and joyous celebration of the universe. These desires are frustrated by the way we organize our society today. A progessive 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.

As I watch the likely Democratic Party candidates for president in 2008 scramble to position themselves as mainstream, I am all too aware that taking this kind of spiritual politics seriously is going to require a huge leap for many of us. Some Democrats think that they don't need these changes to win power, and they may be right in the short run. The current implosion of the Bush administration as it wallows in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a failing war in Iraq, and scandal and indictments at the highest levels of government, may be enough to provide Democrats with election victories in 2006 and 2008 (though Republican redistricting is likely to dampen the chance for a Democratic landslide in 2006, and electoral fraud has increasingly characterized American national elections where so much is at stake).

But Democrats have won elections, even the presidency, before--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."

Nothing has been more dispiriting than to watch years in which Congressional Democrats continued to vote for tens of billions of dollars to fund the war in Iraq even after learning that the country had been lied to and manipulated into that war. Even after conservative Democratic congressman John Murtha called for immediate withdrawal from Iraq within six months in November 2005, the Democrats were unable to firmly endorse that courageous call.

Without a larger spiritual vision, the Democrats too often develop their programs by poll data, reacting rather than leading. They may eventually oppose a specific war, but they are afraid to oppose war. They throw money to alleviate suffering from some particularly terrible social injustice, but they are afraid to envision and fight for an end to all social injustice.

Let me reassure you that the spiritual vision I present is not an attempt to recruit you to some particular religious community or spiritual trip. You do not have to become religious to embrace a spiritual politics or to learn from the wisdom of various spiritual practices.

I do not blame many secularists who resent the way that some in the Religious Right seek to shove a fundamentalist and intolerant religion down our throats. Almost every religion, like almost every political and intellectual movement, has people of that sort, and holy texts (both religious and secular) have voices that validate an oppressive, dominating, fearful way of seeing. Yet in most religions (just as in many secular social change movements and liberation ideologies) there are also voices of the Left Hand of God, voices that embrace compassion, love, generosity of spirit, kindness, peace, social justice, environmental sanity, and nonviolence.

This political Right achieved power by forging an alliance with a Religious Right that is willing to provide a sanctimonious religious veneer to the selfishness and materialism of the political Right in exchange for the political power it needs to impose parts of its religious agenda on America. Capitalizing on a very real and deep spiritual crisis engendered by living in a society that teaches "looking out for number one" as its highest value, the Religious Right has managed to mobilize tens of millions of people to vote for candidates who end up supporting the very economic arrangements and political ideas responsible for creating the spiritual crisis in the first place.

With this alliance now propelling them into control of Congress, the presidency, and the judiciary, they have launched a cultural crusade against liberals, secularists, activist judges, homosexuals, feminists, and anyone who still believes in peace and social justice. The country received its strongest alert to the nature of the assault on the American tradition of religious tolerance when, in the spring of 2005, the Right began to talk openly about impeaching from the judiciary "activist judges" who were imposing "secular values" on the country, then managed to torpedo Bush's nominee to the Supreme Court (Harriet Miers) and encouraged him to appoint Samuel Alito, a sophisticated conservative ideologue.

Although I do not share the goals of many leaders of the Religious Right--and in fact believe that they pose a huge danger to American society--I must admit some appreciation for their willingness to state their objectives clearly and honestly, a refreshing change from the diet of mush that often emerges from the Democratic Party. Paul Weyrich, one of the Right's most serious strategists, said it clearly in 1980: "We are talking about Christianizing America. We are talking about simply spreading the gospel in a political context." I was invited that same year to debate Weyrich at the Moral Majority's annual Family Forum and found him a powerful advocate for a frightening worldview that I hoped would remain marginal in America. But twenty-five years later, having followed the advice of Jerry Falwell, who famously said, "Get them saved, get them baptized, and get them registered," the Christian Right is now carrying out its agenda.

It is perfectly legitimate to be alarmed at the growing power of those on the Right and the way they use it, to challenge their ideas forcefully, and to warn of the dangers should they succeed in their stated intentions. I will certainly do everything I can to prevent them from popularizing the notion that people have to be religious or believe in God to be moral and to challenge their particular understanding of what God wants of us.

What I will not do, and what I urge my friends in liberal and progressive movements not to do, is attribute evil motives to those on the Religious Right or to view them as cynical manipulators solely interested in power and self-aggrandizement. The Religious Right certainly has its share of power mongers and hypocrites. But the vast majority of those involved are people who are driven by principles and who want what is best for the world. We can strongly disagree with those principles, as I do, and we can argue, as I will, that they lead in a very dangerous direction, one that would actually increase the pain and suffering of humanity. But I do not doubt the sincerity or basic goodness of most of those who are involved.

So where are the Democrats, the liberals, and the progressive forces that have traditionally been able to provide a counterweight to corporate selfishness and have fought for separation of church and state?

For much of the past thirty years the Democrats have been more interested in showing how similar they are to the Right than how different. Faced with both a corporate takeover of the media that increasingly portrays liberal and progressive ideas as some form of extremism or "class warfare" and with a Religious Right that has managed to put secular people on the defensive, the Democratic Party and much of the liberal and progressive world (which for convenience I'll call the Left)* has contented itself with mild reforms. It tinkers with narrow policy goals instead of promoting an alternative vision and alternative values to those of the Right. Fearful of political isolation, Democrats listen to the wisdom preached by the media and by a bevy of corporate-friendly professional consultants who tell them to be "realistic" by accepting the contours of politics as defined by the Right. And the more they do so, the less anyone else sees these Democrats as a viable alternative. Democratic voters lose their enthusiasm. They go to the polls grudgingly, not because they believe that the Democrats have any solutions but rather to stave off the even worse consequences of Republican dominance. Many do not even bother voting, and millions of others look for vision elsewhere--and find it in the Religious Right.

Others take the approach of the "let's-move-further-to-the-left" section of the Left, insisting that the old formulas of the really radical Left, mixed with a repackaging of identity politics and presented as economic populism, would provide the magic formula, if only those Democrats would listen! But meanwhile, they can't explain why their candidates, running in Democratic primaries or as Greens, rarely manage to get significant support from American voters. But the "let's-get-closer-to-the-middle-of-the-road" mavens of Democratic leadership face that same challenge, since they've also tried the "let's-be-softer-and-gentler-born-again Republicans" strategy, and it too has failed.

We need to look deeper.

Liberals and progressives sometimes like to make fun of the Right by pointing out that it is precisely in the Red states of the Republican majority where abortions are most prevalent, where divorce is most rampant, where the power of corporate selfishness is most unrestrained by laws, where the malls have done most to uproot small businesses, and where materialism on the whole seems to be having its greatest field day. The same is true for many of the enclaves of Red-state consciousness in Blue states, such as the gated communities and mostly white valleys of Southern California or the suburban areas of many other Blue states. But that, of course, is just the point. It is precisely because people in the Red states are suffering most from the epidemic of uncontrolled me-firstism that so many residents of those states are so desperate to find a counterforce. They are the most susceptible to the appeals of a Religious Right that has become a champion for family values, tradition, the stability that is offered by authoritarian and patriarchal norms, and the real comfort that spiritual life offers through connection to something higher than money.

The point is that there is a real spiritual crisis in American society, and the Religious Right has managed to position itself as the articulator of the pain that crisis causes and as the caring force that will provide a spiritual solution. And then it takes the credibility that it has won in this way and associates itself with a political Right that is actually championing the very institutions and social arrangements that caused this problem in the first place. And with the power that each of these has gained by their alliance, they have become ever more arrogant in trying to impose their worldview on everyone else in society. Their alliance threatens to destroy the fragile balance between secular and religious people and to move the United States toward the very kind of theocracy that people originally came to this country to escape.

So, how could this happen?

It has happened because the political Left doesn't really have a clue about the spiritual crisis in American society and is thus unable to address it in any persuasive way. Witnessing the country give electoral victories to the Right, those on the Left are totally confused about why it's happening. They earnestly study poll data and then reposition themselves in ways that will not put them too far beyond where they imagine popular opinion is moving. It never occurs to them to be the shapers of this social energy instead of merely the responders. For much of the past twenty-five years, since the early days of the Reagan administration, the Democrats have explained their electoral losses by claiming that the country is just in a "conservative period," as though the political climate had fallen mysteriously from heaven and had nothing to do with the way liberals failed to develop mass support for a progressive worldview when they held political power. In this book I will provide you with an explanation of why we got into a conservative period and how that can be changed.

After the 2004 elections many Democrats read the exit-poll data and realized that some voters were motivated by "values." Since then the Democrats have been frantically looking for a magic bullet to win back the "values voters." But mostly their discussion has been about hype, not about substance.

If we, the American people, are going to win back our country from the Religious Right, we are going to have to reshape the Democratic Party and the Greens, or create some other party, to come to grips with the depth of alienation from liberal politics among the many people who continue to vote, unenthusiastically, for the Democrats as the only way to stop the Right.

A reshaped Democratic Party, or a new party, must minimally:
  • Understand, acknowledge, and respond to the spiritual crisis in American society--and provide a progressive spiritual vision that is more attractive than the one currently offered by the Right.
  • Recognize that people hunger for a world that has meaning and love; for a sense of aliveness, energy, and authenticity; for a life embedded in a community in which they are valued
  • Reject the tendency to regard people who are not part of the liberal culture as stupid, demented, or evil.
  • Fight for ideals that are not yet popular and be willing to stand for those ideals even if that means temporarily losing some elections.
  • Unite secular people in a movement with "spiritual but not religious" people and join both of those groups with progressive religious people.
  • Reject and combat the religion phobia that dominates important sectors of liberal and progressive culture.

Only a political party that can incorporate these goals at the center of its agenda can hope to win a majority, which would allow it to implement the other peace, justice, and ecological goals of the liberal and progressive agenda. For many Americans, meaning needs are the most pressing issues in their lives. This hunger for meaning, mutual recognition, and a spiritual foundation for their lives--for a sense of aliveness to counter the emotional and spiritual deadness that people experience in work and on television--is just as significant as the hunger for material well-being. Hence these are not issues that can be addressed "later," after all the peace and justice and ecological issues have been solved. These needs lie at the center of many Americans' lives, and unless we address them powerfully and convincingly, the Democrats and the Left will continue to lose power.

Read an interview with Michael Lerner here.

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