[Rabbi Michael] Lerner believes America is in the grip of a spiritual crisis.Although admittedly not the slightest bit religious or even spiritual, I have to say that this rings pretty true as a plausible diagnosis of what has gone wrong, and how Christianity in America has become twisted into a religion of intolerance and authoritarian power. But the prescription for what to do about it unfortunately seems a little vague - hopefully it's spelled out a little more in the book itself (giving it away in the review would be a disservice to the author, after all).
On the one hand, there is what scholar Walter Brueggemann calls "the imperial consciousness." This right-wing mind-set worships its own power — an act of idolatry, according to Lerner. Its adherents ignore the groans of the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized, conducting business as usual as though no one were hurting and there were no groans.
On the other, an impotent liberal cohort lacks the moral courage and political savvy to resist a culture of imperial domination in both church and state. The compromises made by the left because of political expediency result in a political lassitude, which amounts to complicity with the forces of empire.
But Lerner is chiefly concerned with the millions of people who are not conservative ideologues but who have in recent elections voted that way because they yearn for the "purpose-driven life of meaning" promised by the communities of the religious right. There they find a sense of belonging, of dignity, of outrage at meaningless marketplace thinking — and (in Lerner's indictment of his own liberal tribe) a respectful absence of condescension. The irony that begs for explanation is the phenomenon of this group voting against its own enlightened self-interest.
....What he and his colleagues discovered was "that many people need what anthropologist Clifford Geertz once termed a 'politics of meaning' and what I now call a spiritual politics — a spiritual framework that can lend meaning to their lives [and] allow them to serve something beyond personal goals and economic self-interest. If they don't find this sense of purpose on the Left, they will look for it on the Right." With consistent passion, Lerner insists on respect for this group of people. The left sabotages its efforts every time it views them as somehow less intelligent and evolved than, say, the liberal elite.
For Lerner, the key is something he calls "meaning needs." The left has to 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 for who they most deeply are, with all their warts and limitations, and feel genuinely seen and recognized; for a sense of contributing to the good; and for a life that is about something more than just money and accumulating material goods." The right, he maintains, has supplied all this in a variety of ways. The left is clueless, unaware that such needs even exist.
At the core of Lerner's argument is his description of two competing theologies.
The theology of the "right hand of God" gives conservative ideologues their religious credibility. This theology "sees the universe as a fundamentally scary place filled with evil forces…. 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….[T]he world is filled with constant dangers and the rational way to live is to dominate and control others before they dominate and control us."
The "left hand of God" theology sees God as "the loving, kind, and generous energy in the universe" and "encourages us to be like this loving God."
....The scriptural passages often used to justify a dominionist position... were originally written to empower the oppressed with assurances that God would hear their cries and come in power to liberate them and establish a reign of justice and peace. Thus, he argues, the hard-core religious right has perverted religion: They distort scriptural texts and ancient theologies written for the powerless and use them to theologically undergird the powerful. Lerner sees this core as a relatively small part of American society. The much larger populace that votes with the religious right does so in support of what it sees as "a community that gives priority to spiritual aliveness and is affirming and loving. That is the experience they are looking for, and for that they are willing to hear God's voice in the way the Religious Right hears it."
Lerner's solution is to call for the redemption of religion in the thinking of the secular left, along with the establishment of a politics that refuses to allow the values of the commonwealth to be trumped by the powers protecting private wealth. He advocates the development of a "spiritual left" as a coherent alternative to religious triumphalism. Were we to adopt this "spiritual-political alternative" and bring together three groups he has identified on the left — the secular, the "spiritual but not religious" and the "progressive religious" — then America could be rescued.
Even without a specific solution, just a deeper and more empathetic awareness of what's going on in the religious community would serve the Democratic party well. I found the references to the need for community especially intriguing, because that actually is something that the left does well, despite its own party.
While the Democratic party itself is completely insular and closed to any feedback from the common folk, the common folk have carved out a pretty cozy community for themselves in the world of blogs and their comments pages. Unfortunately, the contempt for Christians who vote Republican is very strong in that world (I myself am as guilty as any; I simply cannot stomach so-called Christians who vote against compassion and peace), and presents a very forbidding barrier to entry to that rich and otherwise welcoming community.
And that's where I'm stuck. I believe any Christians who come to, say, the Eschaton comments pages (hey, it's what I know) looking for an alternative to the Dobsons and Robertsons and *shudder* Phelpses would be welcomed with open arms. But the question is, how do we get them to A) Realize that they're worshipping the wrong God, and B) Convince them that we liberals don't hate religion? Fortunately, there are much smarter and religiouser people than me out there in the liberal blogosphere, and I'm hopeful that they will be able to figure something out.