Organizing the Religious Left

Bob Burnett

Berkeley polymath Rabbi Michael Lerner returns with his latest book, The Left Hand of God: Taking Back our Country from the Religious Right. Lerner’s raison d’etre is to catalyze a movement with a progressive spiritual vision [which] would provide an alternative solution to” the Religious Right. With the book weighing in at 408 pages, Lerner has ample space to demonstrate his erudition in psychology, philosophy and politics.

The Left Hand of God begins with a description of America’s Spiritual Crisis,” both in terms of its historical origins and its psychodynamics. Lerner follows with his prescription for this malaise, a new moral agenda – one that stems from a new bottom line” that values each person for their intrinsic worth rather than what they have to offer as a cog in a vast global assembly line.

Lerner argues that the social organization of the United States, dominated as it is by capitalism, has sucked meaning out of the daily lives of most people. Restating the thesis of his most famous book, the 1996 The Politics of Meaning, he deplores a bottom-line mentality that judges every activity, every institution, every social practices as rational, productive, or efficient only to the extent that it produces money or power.” He argues that such a mentality creates a spiritual vacuum that has been exploited by the Religious Right. Many very decent Americans,” he writes, 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.”

Lerner writes that the Religious Right has a theological view, the Right Hand of God,” that sees the universe as a fundamentally scary place filled with evil forces. … God is the avenger … who can be invoked to use violence to overcome those evil forces.” His alternative view features a compassionate God with loving, kind, and generous energy” – the Left Hand of God.”

Rabbi Lerner maintains that the intellectual framework of the American Left is ineffectual. Many on the Left have had no intellectual categories with which to understand their own spiritual foundations,” he writes. They have become addicted to a narrowly technocratic pragmatism.” Therefore, a new movement must challenge the values of the marketplace and call for a new bottom line of love and generosity,” as well as challenge the attempt by the Religious Right to impose its values on the society and its attempts to break down the separation between church and state.”

Lerner outlines a Spiritual Covenant with America” that would emphasize families, personal and social responsibility, values-based education,” environmental stewardship,” and building a safer world.”

The Berkeley Rabbi’s objective is to transform the Democratic Party. We will build the Network of Spiritual Progressives,” he writes, composed of secular, spiritual but not religious,’ and progressive religious people who will … affirm a vision of a world of love and generosity, nonviolence, social justice, and ecological sanity.”

There are two vexing problems with the The Left Hand of God. First, Lerner talks a lot about values such as love, generosity, kindness, responsibility, respect, gratitude, humility, honesty, awe and wonder at the grandeur of the universe.” However, these terms are never precisely defined in a way that mainstream Christians would find familiar. Awe and wonder are not traditional Christian values; most believers regard them as emotions.

Second, Lerner is writing for an American audience that is overwhelmingly Christian, but in terms that most Christians will not relate to. An August Zogby poll found that 85 percent of Americans self-identified as Christian. Approximately one-third of Christians are firmly in the camp of the religious right. Estimates vary, but many observers believe that another one-third can be regarded as members of the religious left. This book is not aiming for an audience that is primarily Jewish (one percent of the population) or secular (somewhere between 6 and 10 percent) but rather one composed of left-leaning Christians.

The question is: How observant are these lefty Christians? No one knows for sure. The one thing that demographers agree on is that they don’t go to church nearly as often as their right-wing counterparts. Lerner seems to feel that they fall into the values pattern that demographer Paul Ray describes as cultural creatives” – they find God in nature and relationships. In other words, their religious beliefs can be loosely defined as new age.”

Perhaps Lerner is right and the Network of Spiritual Progressives will not include those who identify themselves rigorously as Christians. But Steven Waldman and John Green, writing in the January/​February Atlantic Monthly, argue that the religious left” is about 12 percent of the electorate, the largest segment of the Blue” vote in the 2004 Presidential election, and draws members from many Christian denominations.” If this observation is correct, and other recent analyses appear to reinforce it, The Left Hand of God will miss a large portion of its potential audience.

Lerner seems to have circumscribed his message by largely ignoring the teachings of Jesus. Yet the Gospels directly address what Lerner describes as the right and the left hands” of God. In the Book of Matthew, Jesus teaches, We were once told, An eye for an eye’ and A tooth for a tooth’ [the right hand of God]. But I tell you: Don’t react violently against the one who is evil: when someone slaps you on the right check, turn the other as well [the left hand of God].” Progressive Christian theologians argue that Jesus transformed Old Testament laws by replacing the dominant vision of the right hand of God,” the warrior God, with the left hand of God,” the compassionate God. And Jesus taught a series of values that Lerner either overlooks or minimizes: equality, simplicity and care for the needy, to name only a few. One shouldn’t expect Lerner to dismiss all of the Old Testament, but he could have strengthened his case, and expanded his audience, by pointing out the similarities between his viewpoint and that of progressive Christians. After all, they comprise the majority of his potential audience.

Lerner’s book should be read by progressives, and anyone who seeks a deep understanding of American politics. Its suggestions for A Spiritual Covenant for America” need to be taken seriously by Democratic leaders and progressives seeking to revitalize democracy and protect all Americans. It is not, however, an answer to the moral agenda of the religious right. It doesn’t represent a comprehensive morality that can be embraced by voters, both Christians and non-Christians, who are inspired by the social gospel of Jesus of Nazareth – the vast majority of progressive activists.

Bob Burnett is a writer in Berkeley, Calif., and Quaker activist. He can be reached at bobburnett@​comcast.​net.
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