Re-examining 'The Left Hand of God'

A number of the comments from last Friday's interview with Michael Lerner brought a phrase of evangelical leader Jim Wallis' into sharp relief: The Left Doesn't Get It.

This problem is clearly not one of intellect as many commenters brought complex analyses, astute observations and impressive historical citations to bear. It's more like a blind spot; seeing what they wanted to see and addressing straw men while missing the essential point. That point, ironically, was one of the foundations for Lerner's entire book: that progressives have an irrational fear of religion.

For AlterNet readers who don't believe their comments are heard or make a difference, by the way, I attended a book signing earlier this week for The Left Hand of God near Rockefeller Center in Manhattan. In the middle of the talk, Lerner directed the audience to AlterNet's comments while making a point both about the rich debate taking place and the Left's refusal to let go of its religiophobia.

The most common misconception about the interview was that Lerner had somehow recommended that Democrats and Progressives seek to blur the church-state boundary -- an idea mentioned nowhere in the interview or excerpt. A faith-based reading, if you like.

What Lerner does suggest is that we try to understand what attracts moderates to the Religious Right and not to simply provide more facts:

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.
Despite the inclusion of this passage in the interview, some attempted the "just a bit more information!" approach without even referring to the fact that this was explicitly the mindset under the microscope.

Lerner's goal, both with the book and with his Network of Spiritual Progressives, is to build a religious Left that helps to locate issues on an ethical map, to connect civic issues to the spiritual concerns of Americans.

Besides, whether progressives like it or not, there is nothing in the Constitution that prohibits or even suggests that God stay out of politics. No religion may be established, but that's a far cry from the dream of a religion-cleansed state. Why such a state is expected to be different in any case is unclear, though it remains the grail in many progressive and intellectual circles.

One comment begins: "In my world, religion has to get checked at the door." Well sure, it's fine to hold that belief and to work toward it if you so choose, but we don't live in a series of discrete political worlds; we live in overlapping and interdependent ones. We either tangle with the one we've got or risk irrelevance.

In addition, the fight against fundamentalism in all forms is a fight against those who've closed themselves off and claim that only their world view has validity. Granted, the commenter isn't suggesting that religion be banned nor that retribution should follow, but the tendency to stop listening to others, to have no desire to reach common ground, is exactly what Lerner's addressing. Our own prejudices are interfering with our ability to build a more effective political movement and a better world.

The skepticism and fear with which progressives view the integration of religion, God and power is of course not unwarranted. But the conflation of God and bad politics, what many of the disagreements are predicated on, is faulty. God and good politics can play nice together.

Check out the Abolitionists, the civil rights movement, Thomas Paine, the Plowshares Movement or even this item on Catholics and birth control in Tuesday's PEEK. Or this, from commenter dlf:
"If the Black church, some Southern Baptist, and many Jewish pioneers hadn't been involved in the Civil Rights Movement, we would not be where we are today. In fact I dare to say that "Brokeback Mountain," the Women's movement, the United Farm Workers and many other things would not exist today if not for the religious leaders who moved to the front of the movement and carried it forward."
Another common concern was that "religion" was being called for to save the day. Or, as one commenter put it, that we should be wary of those who are "substituting a declaration of faith for actual actions that follow the values of religious faith …" Again, this was never on the table, and no disagreement would be found with the author.

Another, conflated "Terrorism. Religion. Racism. Homophobia." Would that commenter say that to MLK Jr. or to Gandhi?

Several commenters claimed that religiophobia on the Left is a fabrication: "Actually, we are trying to defend ourselves against an identity and behavior fabricated for us by the Right and the urban myth machine. Not guilty on either charge."

But several comments earlier, this could be found: "You won't attract angry-God believers because they do not have the mental capacity to understand arguments not based on fear or threats or fire or brimstone. Give up on them, they are lost." And it wasn't the only one of its kind in this interview or elsewhere.

I did an AlterNet search for Intelligent Design and checked out the most popular article, Jews Say 'Feh' to Darwin. Here's the first line of the first comment: "All religion is bullshit; why wouldn't that include Jews?"

NthnBrazil, who identifies as a "pro-choice, pro-civil union, Alternet reading, Born-Again Christian Republican," nails it:
How do you expect to be heard by people you revile? That's what this whole argument is about. If progressive ideas are so compelling (and I believe some of them are), then the real problem is you are not being heard. Part of that is caused by the fact that when you call people idiots, they tend to find excuses to ignore you.
But that's not really the point, I think. My guess is that most are bristling at the thought of replacing one theocracy with another. To which I would say: Yes, I agree and so would Lerner. The suggestion here is not to affect a veneer of religion nor any particular affiliation. Nor is it to infuse government with more religion, nor to establish a religion, nor to "get God," nor to create explicitly faith-based programs, nor to force atheists or agnostics to do anything differently, to believe anything different.

The recommendation is both a call to understand why the Religious Right has been so appealing and for a spiritual Left to begin to view the issues through a particular spirituality-oriented lens (called by Lerner The Left Hand of God, though it could've been called The Left Hand, I suspect) which says 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."

This is nondenominational and does not need to explicitly invoke a God. Flawedplan, who wonders whether "the other commenters have read the same article as I just did," writes:
"Pain, meaning, emotional needs, respect -- this isn't about God, it's about psychology. Hearts and minds, motivation and feelings, which we stubbornly devalue and ignore at our peril … It's time for too-cool leftists to wake up to the psychological vulnerabilities that capture and ensnare voters, regardless how close to home the investigation leads."

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