April 25, 2006
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Michael Lerner's 'Values' Are No Wedge Issue
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Rabbi Michael Lerner is a progressive person of faith. In his new book, The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right, he presents a plan that just might foil the Republican strategists' goal of dividing the churchgoers and believers amongst us from the spiritual and moral secularists. He challenges us to ignore the "values" wedge that political expediency has invented, and to reach out to each other for the good of all. His proposed "Spiritual Covenant with America" aims to replace soulless materialism with the core values that most Americans already embrace.
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BuzzFlash: What’s the difference between someone who says, I am a spiritual person, I believe in supporting my community, I believe in helping the needy, I believe in leaving the world a better place than when I came into it. But I don’t believe in organized religion.
Michael Lerner: The network of spiritual progressives that we are creating, and whose foundation is articulated in the book, The Left Hand of God, is not only for progressive religious people, but also for people who are spiritual but don’t believe in God. There’s nothing in my book or in the movement that requires one to believe in God or to be part of a specific religious community.
BuzzFlash: Last year, I talked to a pollster for a senior Democratic candidate who said that, in the polls in the flyover states, the term "secular humanism" was sort of a killer. In The Left Hand of God you have a chapter on “The Religion of Secularism and the Fear of Spirit.” What is the issue of secularism vis-à-vis spiritualism?
Michael Lerner: We had interviews and held groups with over 10,000 middle-income working people. Many were moving to the right politically, but they actually agreed with many parts of the Democratic Party’s program – for example, being against the war or against environmental destruction, or in favor of social justice, or in favor of civil liberties – but many of these people were nevertheless voting for the right. One of the reasons that they were doing so, one important reason, was that they felt put down and demeaned in the left - and not just in the left organizations, but in the whole liberal and progressive culture that surrounds organizations but doesn’t necessarily involve people who are activists. In that whole culture, they feel put down because of their belief in God or because of their spiritual practice, even if they don’t believe in God.
So we asked people about that. What they told us was that they feel that the people in the liberal and progressive culture act as though they are in a higher intellectual or psychological level of development than anybody who believes in God or who has a spiritual practice. Though they want the votes of people who believe in God, they actually think that those people are either stupid or underdeveloped.
What we’re saying is that the secular people have to develop a different understanding of their secularism, which is that it is another possible belief system. It doesn’t have any stronger foundations than other religious belief system. I’m for tolerating all religious systems, including that of secular humanism. But unfortunately, secular humanists very often act as though they have no tolerance – except that of a person on a higher plane looking down at the poor inferiors below them who happen to have a different religion than their religion. So the criticisms that I have in this book are for those who are "secular humanist fundamentalists." The fundamentalists are those who think they have all the truth, and that nobody else has any truth. Just as I’m very critical of Christian fundamentalists, Jewish fundamentalists, Muslim fundamentalists, and Hindu fundamentalists, so I’m also very critical of secular humanist fundamentalists.
BuzzFlash: In the second part of your book, "The Spiritual Agenda for American Politics: A New Bottom Line," you get to the fact that secular humanists share many values with people who are in organized religion.
Michael Lerner: Right. But the way you’re posing the question, it makes it seem that somehow this book is an attack on secular humanists. It’s not. It’s a critique of the religious right and of only those secular humanists who are fundamentalists, who have no respect for people, who have a spiritual but not religious perspective. The point is to be inclusive, and to affirm all of the different positions, including secular humanists.
BuzzFlash: But let us take, for a political perspective, someone like Tom DeLay. From our perspective, he is a man who constantly, even after he announced his resignation, wrapped himself in Christ. In fact, we said it’s kind of like religious fundamentalists wrap themselves in Christ like a friend chicken in Crisco Oil. And this, somehow, gives him a Teflon coating. Anything he does, he was sanctified by God because he says he is reflecting the image of Christ.
Michael Lerner: Right.
BuzzFlash: Many political people who are either loosely attached to organized religion or are secular humanists look at this and say, well, this is the problem with religion.
Michael Lerner: Yes. Well, there’s no world view that can’t be twisted to its exact opposite. For example, the liberal and left ideas that were prominent in the late 19th and early 20th Century were taken by Stalin and Lenin, by Mao and by the dictator of North Korea – and by many other tyrants, and used to justify the mass murders of tens of millions of people. Now does that make me think that I want to abandon anything to do with left or progressive ideology? No.
I’ve seen left ideas taken and twisted to the exact opposite of what they’re about. Similarly, I’m watching right now as democracy is being used to justify the murder of over 100,000 Iraqi civilians and the expansion of American power and domination around the world. Does that make me want to abandon democracy? Absolutely not.
So there is no world view that can’t be twisted into its opposite, and very often is. I know, on a more personal level, how many people report being oppressed by a partner who is doing the oppressing in a relationship on the basis of claiming that they’re really doing it out of love. We know that, in one way or another, they are hurting their partner, manipulating their partner. Does that mean I want to abandon love? No.
So it’s faulty reasoning for secular humanists to dismiss religion because people have used religion in destructive ways, unless they are simultaneously willing to abandon all their progressive and democratic ideals for the same kind of reasoning.
BuzzFlash: You’re very right. Your book is about commonalities rather than division. In contrast, the Republican Party has been very good at using "religion" as a wedge issue - essentially saying, "those people" – those other people, meaning Democrats, progressives – they don’t like religion.
Michael Lerner: Yes.
BuzzFlash: The Republican Party portrays the Democrats as elitist - as belittling religious people. What you argue in the second part of your book in particular is that the spiritual values of most progressives, even most secular humanists, are really shared values with most people’s religions. They’re about community, family, taking care of the environment, taking care of the poor and the needy and the elderly. They’re about compassion and peace. Somehow we’ve let certain wedge words get in the way of the commonality of the spiritual.
Michael Lerner: Yes. I affirm a spiritual vision that absolutely underlies most secular humanists and most religions. I believe that most of the people in the liberal and progressive world share a deep spiritual commitment to transcendent values, but they have been very reluctant to articulate those values. What I’m doing is putting forward a set of values that actually are a shared vision for a significant section of progressive people, and if articulated in the way that I articulate them in the book, The Left Hand of God, Taking Back Our Country From the Religious Right – if articulated in the way that I do it there, I believe that we would be able to win back millions and millions of people who have been pushed away by the kind of insensitivity that we’ve shown towards religious and spiritual people.
The way I do that is by looking at the central spiritual crisis in American society, which I talk about as the inability for people to transcend the materialism and selfishness of the competitive marketplace, and the way in which people find themselves in work situations which do not provide them with an opportunity to connect to higher meaning and purpose in their lives. And in personal life, bringing home the values of the bottom-line consciousness, and seeing other people through the framework of what you can do for me, or how I can be of use to you. That, brought home into personal life, undermines loving relationships and families.
So what I call for as the fundamental ethos or the fundamental central organizing idea of a progressive movement is a call for a new bottom line or, in more technical terms, a new definition of productivity, efficiency and rationality so that institutions are judged rational, efficient and productive not only to the extent that they maximize money and power, but also to the extent that they maximize love and caring, kindness and generosity, ethical and ecological sensitivity, enhance our capacity to respond to other human beings as embodiments of the sacred, and enhance our capacity to respond to the universe with awe and wonder, and radical amazement at the grandeur of all that is in this universe.
That new bottom line is what I take as a foundation for what I then lay out as a spiritual covenant with America. The spiritual covenant has eight planks that specify what it would look like to have a spiritual, progressive politics, and in turn, that spiritual progressive politics includes all or almost all of the liberal left agenda, but it deepens it because it addresses it at a level of values.
As an example, the liberal agenda on schools is largely we need more money for teachers so that they’re paid enough that we attract the best possible people. We need more money to build school buildings that are attractive and safe for children. We need more money to pay for curriculum. We incorporate all of that in our school platform plank of the spiritual covenant with America.
But we also say that we need to teach a different set of things in the schools. We not only need to teach about math and reading. We also need to teach about love and caring. We need to teach kids how to develop their capacity to be kind and generous towards other people. Yes, this can be taught in schools. I specify one of many, many suggestions that can be made about how to do this - that as one central class, starting in fourth grade, each student would start to mentor a first grader. And from that grade on, each grade up, they mentor somebody a few grades below them. And certain teachers are in charge of supervising mentoring. And the mentoring is not only about school subjects, but about how they’re doing in relationships with their fellow students – on the schoolyard, in the cafeteria, how they’re doing after school, how they’re doing with their families.
Kids have six to eight grades of learning how to mentor another child, learning a skill about caring for others that is critical for the moral and ethical and spiritual integrity of the society and of the future of love and caring in this society. That’s an example of taking the liberal agenda and deepening it with the spiritual content. We’re teaching values that, although they derive from a religious and spiritual foundation, do not require you to believe in God or any particular religious tradition. They are universal values that are also rooted in the spiritual world.
BuzzFlash: I think we’re getting to the crux of something, which your book addresses and Jim Wallis’s book, which is to say, that many people on the left look down on organized religion, like I don’t need God to live in the world. I don’t need an institutional framework. I don’t need a structured set of beliefs. Yet, as you point out in your book, and George Lakoff has pointed out, really the people on the left get scared of the word "values" because the Republicans have corrupted the word to mean something political.
But the actual values, if we take it outside of the political context– that people share many of the same values of someone who’s in a Unitarian church or a Presbyterian church, or even a Baptist church in Tennessee. They all value education, caring for the community, caring for the elderly, caring for others, mentoring, taking care of the weak. These are all shared spiritual values of what we think is important as human beings.
Michael Lerner: Yes.
BuzzFlash: Somehow in the political debate, this has gotten all mixed up as though we’re fighting each other.
Michael Lerner: The problem is that many liberals are afraid to introduce their values to the public sphere because they have the view that it’s a slippery slope to religion, and that they want to keep the First Amendment strong. One of the eight planks of the Spiritual Covenant with America is to keep the First Amendment strong. But we believe that the public sphere is not a value-neutral sphere. It is already dominated by a set of values. Those are the values of the capitalist marketplace - money and power and success are defined in those terms. In relationship to those values, the right comes forward and says, those values are not good enough. They are causing a lot of pain for people. The solution to that is to introduce Jesus and Christianity into the public sphere because the values of the capitalist marketplace are destructive. Then what’s happened is the left comes forward and says, oh, no, no, no. We want to keep the public sphere free of any values, and so you can’t bring your Christian values there.
That’s a very poor argument, because the public sphere is already dominated by values, and the Christian right knows it and understands that. And they’re saying: look, if we don’t bring Christianity there, there’s nothing to counter the selfishness and materialism of the public sphere. And they’re right. But the answer is not for us to argue for keeping values out of the public sphere; when the left does that, all it results in is keeping our values out of the public sphere.
Michael Lerner: Their values are already there. So we have to come forward with an alternative set of values and say, you Christians are right – there is a bad set of values in the public sphere. But the way to counter them is not by eliminating the First Amendment and establishing some religion there. The way to conquer that is to put forward a set of progressive values that actually are values that most Christians would also agree with, but that don’t require a belief in Christianity or in Judaism, or Islam, or in any other particularistic religion or God vision.
BuzzFlash: As a progressive, when I look at the Spiritual Covenant with America – there’s nothing that I wouldn’t support.
Michael Lerner: But there are a lot of things the progressives don’t say. For example, on the whole war issue and foreign policy, we have a plan for – the progressives so often know what they’re against, but they rarely know what they’re for. Now here in the book, The Left Hand of God, is a concrete vision of what we could be for. And it’s a vision that would unite spiritual people with people who don’t consider themselves primarily spiritual.
BuzzFlash: Would you say, for instance, if we look back at history, that the Marshall Plan was certainly an indicator of the U.S. reaching out to helping rebuild Europe instead of being punitive toward it?
Michael Lerner: Yes. And I think that if you want homeland security, we need to create a global Marshall Plan. The best way to achieve homeland security for the United States is to institute a global Marshall Plan that takes 5% of the gross domestic product of the United States for each of the next twenty years and dedicates that 5% to eliminating global poverty, homelessness, inadequate education, inadequate health care, and repairing the damage done to the environment by both capitalist and socialist countries in the past 150 years of irresponsible industrialization.
BuzzFlash: In "Oklahoma," the Rogers and Hammerstein musical, there’s a famous song that says "the farmer and the cowman should be friends." Since the Republican Party has so successfully driven a wedge between the true nuts-and-bolts, everyday believer, and the spiritual side of the progressive movement – how can the farmers and the cowboys be friends again?
Michael Lerner: We’re having a national conference of spiritual activists in Washington, D.C. May 17th to 20th – people who want this new bottom line. I’d really urge people to go to our website at spiritualprogressives.org to check out the conference and to consider joining the organization of spiritual progressives, because we are actually doing the very thing that you’re saying. We are bringing together progressive religious people with people who are progressive but not religious, but have a spiritual vision in their own minds.
The fundamental core of our understanding in this network of spiritual progressives is that in the 21st Century, we have to recognize that the well-being of each of us depends on the well-being of everyone else on the planet, and of the planet itself. And that has to be the beginning of all politics.
We can no longer afford to support candidates in any party who don’t understand that there is no solution to our individual or national problems that isn’t also a solution for everybody else’s problems. In other words, we are fundamentally interdependent, and we are looking forward to the day when mainstream politicians are able to say not only "God Bless America," but God bless every other country on this planet, and God bless all the people of this planet, because we all fundamentally interconnected.
If the left can get that - and I think many people on the left do get that – then they have to not only be willing to ask America to affirm the humanity of people all over the world with whom we disagree, but also the left has to affirm the humanity and the fundamental decency of many people in this country with whom the left disagrees. It’s critical that we be able to treat those with whom we disagree with respect, rather than be demeaning of the other.
That doesn’t mean that I don’t want to fight very hard against the policies of George Bush and Tom DeLay and the reactionary politics that are being put forward by this Administration and by this Republican Congress. I do fight very hard against them and will do everything I can to challenge those in the public sphere. But that doesn’t mean that I have to demean people who may have voted for those people.
BuzzFlash: Rabbi Lerner, thank you so much.
Michael Lerner: Nice to talk to you.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Interview Conducted by Mark Karlin.
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The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right (Hardcover) by Michael Lerner, A BuzzFlash Premium.