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Toward a progressive 'tipping point'.

Michael Lerner

The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right

HarperCollins, 2006. 408pp. $24.95

Historians from Henry Adams to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. have often pointed out how American culture oscillates between relatively conservative and relatively progressive eras. In The Left Hand of God, Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun, tries to bring the recent rightward-swing to an end. More than just a book worth reading, this is a brilliant manifesto. It plots a realistic, if occasionally breathless, course toward a spiritually-sustained peace that would dramatically transform American culture for the better.

Lerner understands the ambivalent legacy of religion in the twentieth century. On the one hand, the "Protestant" ethic and the spirit of capitalism unleashed egalitarian and technological impulses that led to creature comforts and global collaboration on an unprecedented scale. On the other hand, vestiges of imperial religiosity endured and took on new guises. Under the auspices of various nationalist movements or internationalist cabals, Crusader-like leaders have pillaged peoples, raped the environment, and, most recently, inspired backlashes of patriarchal and tribal violence.

Lerner's work faces clearly these problems, while adding spiritual depth to the prospects. The book is in two parts. Part One delineates "America's Spiritual Crisis." For the past twenty-eight years, as a practicing psychologist who founded the Institute for Labor and Mental Health, Lerner has interviewed middle-income working Americans. His research pursued a simple question. Why did people whose economic interests should have inclined them to vote with the Left, in fact vote for the Right?

The answer Lerner discovered is that "for many Americans, meaning needs are the most pressing issues in their lives." (18) That is, people "hunger for a framework of meaning and purpose that ... connects them to a community based on transcendent and enduring values." (44) These "meaning needs" can trump even economic interests, because when they are not met, their frustration manifests in the most immediate relations of peoples' lives--as family dysfunction, for instance. (65)

Enter the Religious Right. "The Right, very brilliantly, was able to appeal across class lines by taking the spiritual needs of working people seriously while putting the economic interests of the wealthy first." (220) The needs of working people have been addressed through what Lerner calls, variously "The Right Hand of God," the "domination paradigm," or "the paradigm of fear." This worldview posits a jealous God who works through domination and control, and who encourages His people (of course) to draw upon that power in a battle to defend against some demonized and threatening "other." It matters little whether this "other" is really threatening or not. As long as the threat is plausible enough to trigger people's fears, it can speak to their "meaning needs," and effectively function to organize consent. People are persuaded that God wants them to dominate some "other" before they are subject to domination themselves.

Lerner is honest in acknowledging both the biblical warrants for such a theology, and the psychological needs such scapegoating satisfies. He also compellingly demonstrates how this mentality and its corresponding policies invariably fail to satisfy. Their basis in fear ultimately exacerbates America's spiritual crisis. They deepen the hold of militarism and market-based inequities, driving middle-income Americans further into debt and despair.

If Lerner is unsparing in exposing the "idolatry" (110) of the Right, he is equally critical of the secular Left, especially the Democratic Party. The Left, according to Lerner, has a tendency toward elitism. While claiming to speak for the people, liberals too often manifest "contempt" for the people (119). Similarly, the Left has been paralyzed by a "fear of Spirit." Thus, while claiming to be "progressive," the liberal worldview was informed by a fear of faith. "One of the greatest failings of the Left," Lerner suggests, "has been its refusal to acknowledge that the greater number of its members are motivated by love, caring, generosity, and other spiritual values." (140)

Near the end of Part One, Lerner appeals especially to men to reject a "gendered politics," in which being "kinder and gentler" can only be possible when one also carries a very large stick. Instead, Lerner encourages men to speak up on behalf of a deeper kind of strength, and to refuse to be disarmed of what could be the Left's "most powerful weapon: a spiritual vision of a world based on love, kindness, and generosity." (158)

In the last chapter of Part One, Lerner offers a fascinating take on the fate of the Democratic Party in the late twentieth-century, suggesting that the Republicans, rather than the Democrats, capitalized on the spiritual energy of the sixties. Drawing especially on his experience with the Clintons, for whom he was an informal advisor during Bill's first campaign, Lerner shows how Democrats from McGovern through Kerry consistently drew upon spiritual principles, only to abandon them for prudential compromises with economic and military "realists." Such compromises with "cynical realism" made Democrats look "spineless, gutless, and visionless." (197) A Democratic party to Lerner's liking would have "enough backbone to stand up for peace, social justice, and ecological sanity in a way that will support our best selves." (210) He has no illusions about a "magical candidate." (212) He does urge active participation in a new venture--a "Network of Spiritual Progressives." The contours of that Network, or the principles of its platform, constitute Part Two of The Left Hand of God.

"The Spiritual Agenda for American Politics," as Lerner describes this platform, posits a "new bottom line" for American culture. Picking up on the theme that propelled Bill Clinton into the White House, Lerner wants to "take the energy that has been flowing toward fear and turn it toward hope." (220) Practically, this means rejecting the cynical realism that values only maximizing money and militarism, and means embracing instead "A Spiritual Covenant with America." Such a covenant would bring out "the fundamental goodness of the American people," as articulated in policies and practices based on values of "love, generosity, kindness, responsibility, respect, gratitude, humility, honesty, awe, and wonder at the grandeur of the universe." (229)

Lerner is well aware that such a list makes him appear utopian, even a "New Age flake." Yet he contends that such idealism is the only way to meet "meaning needs" and is the key to mobilizing the multitudes. As he points out, such nonviolent idealism proved itself in India, in the Civil Rights movement, in South Africa, and in Eastern Europe. He is convinced it can work again in the United States.

The challenge is to overcome "cynical realism" with clear facts and proposals. Consequently, the three substantive chapters of Part Two sketch out how a "new bottom line" might be applied to issues of personal responsibility, the economy, and foreign policy, respectively. If Lerner's prose occasionally becomes breathless in this broad-stroke sketch, the scope of his vision is also breathtaking. Nearly every page offers an insight worth exploring; a policy-piece-in-the-making.

Stealing the Right's primary thunder, Lerner contends that spiritual progressives promote a truly "pro-family" society "that is safe for love and intimacy, rather than a society that undermines loving relationships." (244) The competitive "domination paradigm" of the Right is actually "a menace to family life," Lerner reminds readers, as evident in a direct correlation between high divorce rates and Red-state voting patterns. A truly "pro-family" approach would build on the Right's rejection of sex as a commodity, but move beyond the Right to treat sex as sacred in the context of a loving and "honoring" relationship. Lerner proposes a "partnership model" for families based on personal responsibility, including a goal to make abortion "safe, legal, and rare," and including economic reforms to establish a living wage, full employment, and quality child-care. And a truly "pro-family" platform, Lerner suggests, would "get the government out of marriage." (262) States should instead issue licenses for "civil unions" open to any two consenting adults, leaving marriage rites to the various streams of religious tradition in America.

Lerner's most visionary economic proposal is for a "Social Responsibility Amendment" to the US Constitution that would institute "Ethical Impact Reports" for corporations, and establish dedicated jury trials to hold corporations responsible when their behaviors produce documented damages. Here is where the "new bottom line" becomes real: profits for the commonweal trump profits for private interests. Lerner is sanguine about the prospects of such an Amendment ever passing in Congress. But he proposes it in order to encourage the "growing number of corporate managers [who] have argued that giving greater priority to cooperation, mutual support, caring for others, and concern for the environmental and safety consequences of what is being produced may actually enhance, rather than decrease, a firm's profitability and success in international competition." (289)

Similar policy proposals spin from Lerner's pen regarding education, healthcare, and the environment. A "values-based education" would include study about religions as part of the standard secondary education of American citizens, and would require high school graduates to serve two years in a "Public Service Corps" before continuing to college or a career. (297) On healthcare, Lerner contends that a national health insurance plan--not socialized medicine, could take the extraordinary profits and decision-making that flow at present to private insurers, and put them back into the hands of patients and health-care practitioners. (306) And, finally, Lerner shows how "cynical realism" has depicted environmentalists as a lunatic fringe, when in fact a broad consensus exists that caring for the environment ought to be a top political priority, based on a sense that "the earth is our common wealth, on loan from God." (318)

Lerner's final chapter, "We Will Make You Safer," proposes a "strategy of generosity for foreign policy." The historical precedent here is the Marshall Plan, which rebuilt Europe after World War II. Lerner proposes a "Global Marshall Plan," led by the US and other G8 nations, in which "interdependence" is recognized as a "cold political reality," not just sweet sentiment. (321) One step toward that goal would be to end "alienating policies" on the part of the US, notably military adventurism. Another would be to mobilize "the powerful generosity of spirit of the American people" to end immoral financial practices attached to globalization. As an alternative, Lerner follows Jonathan Schell to argue for the realism of nonviolence as the normative way human beings operate under the rule of law and democratic institutions. He thus proposes support for a "Nonviolent Peace Force," not to replace the military, but to act alongside existing forces to foster trust, stop bloodshed, and provide aid in the wake of disasters.

It would, again, be possible to quibble with any one of these policy proposals, and even more to dismiss the whole as utopian. But Lerner's vision is based on listening to working people, and honoring their spiritual or meaning-based needs. His hope is contagious:
 If the Democratic Party can stand up and declare, "Yes, we actually
 take the teachings of Moses, Jesus, Buddha, and other spiritual and
 religious traditions seriously, and we are going to implement them in
 the real world because we see ourselves as part of one united human
 family," it will be able to win majority support and hold it for many
 decades to come. (353)

By building a "Network of Spiritual Progressives," composed of secular, "spiritual but not religious," and progressive religious people, Lerner is convinced that tens of millions of Americans can be mobilized, and American culture transformed. I suspect many CrossCurrents readers will join me in finding this prospect refreshing and surprisingly realistic--in contrast to the disastrous effects of the so-called "realism" of the Right, which led us to the debacle in Iraq, the debasement of Abu Ghraib, and the debt and despair that saps energy and poisons everyday life in America.

It is time, in short, for what Albert Schweitzer once called "reverence for life." Lerner's manifesto may very well mark the cusp of a progressive tipping point that recalls us to such a deep truth. It is surely the most comprehensive of many proposals to "take back" our country from the pseudo-innocence and failed dominion of the Religious Right.
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Title Annotation:The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right
Author:Pahl, Jon
Publication:Cross Currents
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2006
Previous Article:Paul's confrontation with class: the Letter to Philemon as counter-hegemonic discourse.
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