The politics of faith

The Rev. Ed Bacon is rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena.

RABBI Michael Lerner’s “The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country From the Religious Right” is his latest contribution to a long list of inspiring and practical writings. Here, Lerner contends that “the America we love” is threatened with destruction. His critique stems from the moral values, spiritual practices and political actions of the ancient speak-truth-to-power prophetic tradition.

Lerner’s career of balancing social and political action with religious practice began in the Jewish Theological Seminary, where his professor Abraham Joshua Heschel held that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in his preaching and his politics, was in effect the 20th century incarnation of the Hebrew prophets. In this book, Lerner -- rabbi of San Francisco’s progressive Beyt Tikkun synagogue and editor of Tikkun, a journal striving to “mend, repair, and transform the world” -- updates this tradition for the beginning of the 21st century.

Lerner believes America is in the grip of a spiritual crisis.

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.

Lerner’s reflections are informed by his interviews with “middle-income working people,” conducted over 28 years for the Institute for Labor and Mental Health, which he co-founded in 1977. “The psychotherapists, union activists, and social theorists who were working at the institute,” he writes, “had one question we particularly wanted to answer: why is it that people whose economic interests would lead them to identify with the Left often actually end up voting for the Right?” 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.”

Lerner readily admits that the right-hand theology exists in the scriptures of the world’s major religions, but he objects to its use by the religious right to promote a kind of imperial dominion, a la Pat Robertson’s 1986 stated goal “to rule the world for God.” The scriptural passages often used to justify a dominionist position -- in both Judaism and Christianity, Lerner points out -- 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.

Like Rabbi Lerner, I am a clergyman in a faith community rooted in the prophetic tradition. I share his concerns about the health of the United States and of the world, as measured by our care for one another in a context of peace. I share his hope that there is abundant spiritual energy available to individuals for effective social action over the long haul. That energy is accessed when people are meaningfully rooted in communities where their dignity (along with that of every other human being) finds warm affirmation and where prayer leading to vigorous social action is the norm. These communities can, as Lerner insists, be empowering oases of hope in the midst of the politics of fear in which we now live.

Rabbi Heschel taught that in every moment something sacred is at stake. His student, Rabbi Lerner, has written a book that sends a clear call to everyone who cares about the future of America to take part in the transformation of our history into something of beauty, meaning and justice -- a work that, whether we think of it that way or not, is intrinsically sacred.