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A rebirth of virtue: religion and liberal renewal.

This piece apeared in 1982.

"The hogs were really feeding. The greed level, the level of opportunism just got out of control." The speaker is the director of the Office of Management and Budget, describing the final negotiations among the leaders of our nation, liberals and conservatives alike, that led to the 1981 tax bill.

"I hate to say this, but I don't like to work with poor people. They are the kind of people who don't interest me. I can't help it; I'm not a nice guy; I don't like poor people." The speaker, more candid than most but not unrepresentative of his colleagues, is a leading Washington psychiatrist.

I don't know about you, but to me these examples suggest that this country is in serious trouble, and that the crisis, at bottom, is a moral one. We've lost something at the core of our national character that once acted to shape our behavior. We've lost our sense of virtue.

Maybe the Moral Majority is on to something. It's on to it too narrowly. It has applied its definition of virtue specifically to particular political positions that are insensitive to the discriminations suffered by blacks and that are militaristic and antifemale. This has given the idea of moral virtue a bad name. But the basic feeling that a spiritual renewal and a repairing of American moral fabric have something to do with each other is not far off the mark. Most liberal Democrats nowadays do not appreciate its importance. Discussion of moral values makes them uneasy.

Religious conviction-in all faiths-gives us the ability to reject the easy and safe career, or at least to risk that career if it conflicts with our ability to speak truthfully and act responsibly. It teaches us-rightly, I think-that happiness is hollow and ephemeral compared to the satisfactions of a life of service. It can inspire us to bear public denunciation and ridicule if we know that "the cause endures and the hopes still lives." And it can allow us to forgive and to love those who criticize us.

Instead of that model of modern thinking, the Washington psychiatrist, religion gives us the model of Saint Francis of Assisi, with his indifference to material things and his passionate concern for the poor. By cutting itself off from religion, the left has failed, as Harvey Cox, a professor of religion at Harvard, puts it, "to understand the power and significance of myth and ritual and symbol in the lives of ordinary people. . . .It has consistently abandoned the task of drawing out these cultural resources and turned the whole field over to the right'"

Among many liberals, religion, if it is recognized at all, is to be cool, low-key, and unimportant. Of course it's only a small step from hereto the feeling that fervor, especially when harnessed to social ends, is, well, gauche.

Interestingly, liberals who mock the idea of sin and punishment and find evangelists particularly odious are often able to tolerate and even applaud this type of religiosity among blacks. Thus the northern white Marc Connelly could in 1931 write Green Pastures, a play of biblical tales performed by blacks speaking in southern accents, while being an agnostic himself. Although the black actor asked to"de Lawd" suffered misgivings as to whether the play insulted his people, the show enjoyed phenomenal Broadway success and the critics raved. "The real spiritual hunger and steadfast faith of these souls is carried over the footlights by the simplest and most unaffected means," wrote the New York Herald Tribune critic.

Of course such spiritual hunger and steadfast faith wouldn't have counted for much if the play had been about whites. In fact, it probably would have flopped.

In this connection, it is worth reflecting on the greatest liberal triumph of my lifetime-the success of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. The movement was led by black clergymen who simply asked if segregation was consistent with the teachings of Jesus. This religious appeal had more impact than all the briefs of the government and the American Civil Liberties Union combined. It inspired Americans to examine their virtues and provided a moral foundation necessary to support legal change,

I believe liberals can achieve such triumphs again, but only if they open themselves up to their own religious impulses and-like the Martin Luther Kings and the Robert F. Kennedys-reach out to average Americans in a way that touches their souls.
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Title Annotation:Special Anniversary Section: Who We Are, What We Believe; Why We Believe It
Author:Townsend, Kathleen Kennedy
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Feb 1, 1989
Words:740
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