Finding Spirit Among the Dems

"Americans give a tremendous amount of credit to anyone who can name a pain that they've been experiencing but have been unable to locate," writes Michael Lerner in his new book "The Left Hand of God: Taking Our Country Back From the Religious Right" (HarperSF, 2006). (Full disclosure: The rabbi was also, at one time, my employer).

Every once in a while a book or an idea comes along that doesn't just change the view so much as it changes our way of viewing. George Lakoff's "Don't Think of an Elephant" was one such book and "The Left Hand of God" has the stuff to be its heir.

In Lerner's view, the Religious Right's considerable political power is the result of, not so much a particular liturgy or ideology, but its ability to locate this pain. More important, therefore, than its current domination of the federal government is that long after its allies are gone from office, the ability for the Religious Right to dictate the terms of the debate itself -- from tax cuts to war to civil rights for gays and reproductive freedom for women -- will remain unless something is done to change course. A few victories in the upcoming election isn't enough.

Having focused on short-term battles like ending this or that war and localized social justice issues, the inability of the Left in general, and the Democrats in particular, to insert these crucial issues into a larger framework that speaks to the deeper needs of many Americans, threatens to marginalize progressive and liberal ideas even further.

Ben Franklin's definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Here's Lerner's take on the Left:


Instead of trying to understand the religious Right ... the Left tries to point out the irrationality of the Right's positions, imagining that one more good argument will knock the socks off the Rightists, and then everyone will throw away their crutches and start a stampede to the Left. Imagine their surprise when it doesn't happen.
Using decades of interviews from his Institute for Labor and Mental Health and examples ripped from the headlines, Lerner has written a book that challenges assumptions on both the Left and Right, eschewing musty old arguments and putting forward a bold plan for progressive ideas to gain a foothold in the public debate. Along the way it's sure to piss off more than a few readers.

First, just briefly explain what the Left Hand of God means.

The Left Hand of God means looking at the universe through the perception that love, kindness, generosity and caring for others are the central ontological realities of life, and that when they do not manifest in the world in which we live, the world is distorted and needs to be healed. The Right Hand of God, conversely, means looking at the universe through the perception that life is a struggle of all against all, and that the only path to security is through domination of others.

Regarding the quote above about the Left's mistaken view that all we really need is one more good argument, aren't you simply suggesting that one irrationality be replaced by another? Isn't that how we got into this mess in the first place?

What I'm suggesting in this paragraph is that many of the millions of people who get attracted to the Religious Right are not motivated by excitement for their political program, but by the experience of community, caring for others, and its ability to recognize and address the deep distortions in life that are caused by a societal ethos of materialism and selfishness.

You can't undermine that attachment by arguments against what is really peripheral to their motivation. Yet there is nothing fundamentally irrational about being motivated by a desire to be part of a loving community or to want a world with less materialism and selfishness. What is irrational is that the Left is unable to see that this very desire is a positive and healthy desire, and that it could best be addressed by a progressive spiritual critique of capitalist society which is, as I show in my book, the source of the materialism and seflishness that people are seeking to escape.

By its tone-deafness to the spiritual suffering of the American people, the Left continues to miss the fundamental crisis that demands a social transformation, and in so missing this reality, it clears the path for reactionary forces to enter the spiritual arena and manipulate that crisis in destructive and potentially fascistic directions.

One of the central questions Left Hand seeks to answer is, in effect, What's the Matter With Kansas? -- or why do people consistently vote against their best interests (i.e., Republican)? You have a different answer than Thomas Frank.

I believe that, as a methodological principle, we ought to try to find the rational kernel in the irrational shell, to coin a phrase, or to start by asking what reasonable and decent things people are seeking when they're attracted to the Right. Here, it is important to distinguish between the hard core of the Right -- which has many people who are racists, sexists, homophobes or fundamentalists with rigid thinking and sometimes filled with anger -- on the one hand, and the tens of millions of others who were not always attracted to the Right but who, in the past 30 years, have been moving to, and voting with, the Right.

It is this latter group that I studied, and it is they, not the hard core of the Right, that I've found to be moving to the Right for reasons that are not a manifestation of either evil or stupidity. In Left Hand I show the spiritual crisis that has led people in that direction, and show that that spiritual crisis is actually rooted in the dynamics of capitalism, and that if we would take seriously the spiritual crisis, we'd have a much more powerful argument for why we need a fundamental transformation of our economic and political system.

So your view is that by claiming The Left Hand, Dems can win electoral victories. Are you suggesting that Dems should, like Hillary Clinton, affect the rhetoric of religion? Will that work?

No, it will not work. I don't believe that the Dems can trick people into voting for them. That was the major error in selecting Kerry, and that will be a huge problem for them should Hillary be the candidate. I think that Dems can win electoral victories through all kinds of tricks, but that they cannot through trickery actually be empowered to bring substantial healing to our society unless they run on an honest program that articulates a different worldview from that of the Right.

By claiming The Left Hand of God and creating a values and spirituality framework for the Dems' message, are you suggesting that they go after the "values voters" or those who are anti-gay and anti-choice?

Not at all. I'm pro-gay and pro-choice, and I think that that kind of anti-gay and anti-choice strategy is a nonstarter politically because it presents the Democrats as being the opposite of what most Dems really are.

On the contrary, I think we should be articulating a values perspective of a radical sort, what I call a New Bottom Line for America, and then arguing strongly for it. Our New Bottom Line: Institutions should be judged efficient, rational and productive not only to the extent that they maximize money and power (The Old Bottom Line) but also to the extent that they generate love and caring for others, generosity and kindness, ecologically sensitive behavior, ethical awareness, and enhance our capacities to respond to the universe with awe and wonder at the grandeur of creation.

We should be talking in that kind of language, a language that transcends the normal discourse of the Left and the Right and reaches to the highest aspirations of the human soul.

Let's put your ideas into practice. How would an opposition that had embraced The Left Hand have dealt with the Alito nomination?

First, we would have cut through the pretense that the issue was about discovering whether the candidate was fit to serve on the Supreme Court. Instead, we would have said from the start: We oppose any candidate who would seek to undermine gay rights, women's rights, the rights of African Americans, the rights of workers and the separation of church and state.

Since there was never any doubt that that is precisely what Bush was seeking to achieve in nominating Alito, we would have advocated that Democrats not take part in the charade and legitimate it in any way, so we would have called upon them to absent themselves totally from the Senate when the vote to confirm took place to give a clear message that they do not accept the packing of the judiciary with right-wing extremists as a legitimate move.

Instead of participating in that charade, they should have nominated a set of alternative justices, and held public hearings on their alternative justices, and in that process articulated a view of justice that was fundamentally different than that of the current justice system -- a view that talked about restorative justice, treating crimes as destructive of the social fabric of trust, and how to restore that social fabric. This would have been a great moment for Dems to present an alternative worldview. But you can't do that if you don't have one.

You claim that the '80 and '84 elections ought to be studied by those who oppose Bush. In interviews with two-time Reagan voters (as with two-time Bush voters) you discovered that contrary to the popular notion that they must be "pathological, stupid or hopelessly reactionary," these were ordinary people. What's your explanation for the vote and your recommendation for approaching these voters?

Empathically put yourself in the place of people whose actions we don't agree with. Too often progressives can do that when it comes to foreign terrorists but can't do that when it comes to right-wing voters. The truth is that the same logic applies: There are people who are acting in ways that we rightly deplore, but our task is to understand the underlying and well-intentioned motives, and then to help people find a better way to achieve what is good in what they want (in the case of terrorists, a nonviolent way; in the case of right-wing voters, a more progressive way).

And what my research showed was that many people were seeking a world of love and kindness and that they only heard that kind of language being articulated in the Religious Right. Now, I'm talking not of the hard-core Right, but of the formerly Democratic voters who have been moving to the Right politically. So the key is to find what is the good part of their motivational structure and then show them that there are progressive ways to achieve that which would be even more effective.

Second, stop assuming that people who don't agree with us are stupid or evil. Because others hear that we are saying that and feel that their lives are being dismissed, their problems are being trivialized, their beings are being disrespected, and that makes it impossible for them to hear anything else that we might have to say.

The Dems are in more trouble than they realize, according to one passage from the book. You won't get much of an argument from AlterNet readers, but our readers might be more likely to chalk it up to spinelessness. What's your take on that?

Spinelessness is only part of the problem. The other part is that Dems present themselves as concerned primarily about inclusion -- bringing into the material well-being of American society all those who have been left out. I want to do that, and so I completely support and am proud to have been part of the struggles for inclusion.

But this approach doesn't go deep enough, because it fails to speak to many millions of Americans who, though they may want more economic security, also want something more than that. What we discovered in the research that led to Left Hand is that people not only have material needs, but spiritual needs -- or what I sometimes call "meaning needs." That is, they hunger for a framework of purpose for their lives that transcends the values of the capitalist marketplace and the accumulation of money and power, connecting them to a higher spiritual or moral meaning in their lives.

Most people on the Left acknowledge this in regard to their own lives -- and in fact that is one reason they are part of the Left -- but they have no conceptual frame to explain their own transcendent desires. Instead, many have an ideology which denies the whole meaning framework, so they can't understand that most other Americans have a similar need for a framework of transcendent meaning for their lives. That hunger for meaning is not addressed adequately by the liberal and progressive forces. So having a strong backbone would be a good step, but it would not be sufficient to change the dynamics of American politics unless that was combined with a willingness to take seriously spiritual or meaning needs.

Creating a new framework, a spiritual or values-based framework for the Left is crucial, but what about the more banal problems like the force that money exerts in politics? Will your ideas falter in such an atmosphere?

Money in politics is distorting, but let's not forget that the impact of the civil rights movement, the women's movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement was greater than any amount of money could ever purchase. It remains the case that the major deficit of the Left is not inadequate money, but inadequate compassion for and understanding of the spiritual needs of the American people. No amount of change of laws about money in politics will change that. Still, we also need changes in the law. I favor full funding of all elections, with greater funds available to minority points of view that have not been fully aired in the media and with requirements that media give free time or space to the panoply of political ideas and parties and perspectives.

You write that "each week on TV ... humorist Bill Maher, in the presence of liberal intellectual glitterati as his guests, accuses Red State people of being stupid and assails religious people as being irrational -- to the laughter and applause of an adoring audience. This humor is hilarious only until you put yourself into the place of those being ridiculed." I know you're not attacking Maher, per se, but rather the intellectual environment it reflects. Doesn't long-term success, however, depend on defeating the small mindedness and not catering to it?

Yes, we shoud not cater to small mindedness on the Right or on the Left. The prejudice of many people on the Left against religious and spiritual people, the view that they must necessarily be on a lower level of intellectual or psychological development if they believe in God, is a view that is elitist and destructive.

We need to make that kind of elitism as unwelcome in the Left as we once had to make sexist or homophobic approaches to the world. I do not deny that there have been many distortions and destructive elements in the actual realities of most existing religious traditions. I can say the same thing, however, for most existing societies that called themselves socialist or communist, that they too had many deep distortions, and yet I don't accept the notion that their actual embodiments discredited the fundamental visionary elements in a socialist or communist worldview. So I don't accept the notion that the distortions in religious and spiritual communities discredit the fundamental visionary elements in religious and spiritual aspirations.

We have to recognize that Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, the two great leaders for nonviolence in the last century, were both deeply embedded in their own religious traditions, and that there are great capacities for religious or spiritual people to contribute deeply to the development of a progressive world. But today the hostility toward religion and spirituality in many corners of the liberal and progressive culture (though not all corners certainly) pushes away many people who would otherwise be involved and who might contribute major new elements to the thinking and to the successful outreach of a movement for peace and justice.

Leftists have to decide if they are more attached to winning peace, justice, and environmental sanity in the world -- in which case they need to make hostility to religion and spirituality an unwelcome sentiment on the Left -- or if they are more attached to their cynicism and elitism and ability to laugh at or ridicule those who hold on to a religious and spiritual vision of the world.

What are some steps that readers can take -- in the near and long term -- to change the direction and fortunes of the Left?

Those who agree with a spiritual perspective need to support each other. We have created a Network of Spiritual Progressives, and we urge people to join as members at www.spiritualprogressives.org and to come to our national Spiritual Activism Conference May 17 to 20 in Washington, D.C. (info HERE).

The Left needs to be challenged on its religiophobia. Most on the Left are as unaware of how deeply they disrespect and demean religious and spiritual people today as they once were of how deeply they disrespected and demeaned women or gays and lesbians.

So, we hope people will read the book and create study groups around it, and then begin to form local chapters of the Network of Spiritual Progressives in order to challenge the Left to think more deeply about a positive vision of the kind of world we want, rather than a purely negative critique.

We spiritual progressives have to work on both fronts -- challenging the Right and its very destructive policies and on challenging the superficiality and one-dimensionality of the Left with its resultant self-defeating policies. And yet, please understand that this is the opposite of trying to capitulate to or mimic the Right; we are calling for a challenge to the globalization of selfishness that goes under the title of "capitalist globalization," and we seek to replace it with a globalization of love and caring.

We believe that this is the most effective way to challenge the logic of the capitalist marketplace and will create far more radical politics than any other strategy currently in consideration in the Left. A world that takes love and kindness, generosity and caring for others, and responding to the universe with awe and wonder seriously will be a world that has no place for exploitation, manipulation or technocratic, reductionist and maniuplative thought or action.

So we are not calling for some capitulation to a mythical center, but a transcending of all those categories and reaching toward higher ground, which is the basis for common ground. And our central spiritual notion is this: The well-being of Americans depends on and is intrinsically tied to the well-being of every other person on the planet and on the health of the planet itself, so every chauvinistic and every ecologically insensitive approach is not only immoral but self-destructive, as it abandons the divine mission of human beings to be partners with God in the healing, repair and transformation of our world, our planet and ourselves. A politics that takes seriously both working on our inner lives and working on our social healing is the only politics that is sustainable, and it is the only politics that can win.

Read an excerpt from the The Left Hand of God here.

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