Religion and the Left: The Politics of Meaning

Pat Robertson speaks to the Christian Coalition in 1999
Pat Robertson speaks to the Christian Coalition in 1999 (James A. Parcell/twp)
Sunday, February 26, 2006

Two years ago, Thomas Frank's blockbuster What's the Matter with Kansas? posed a question: Why do so many blue- collar conservatives vote for Republicans at the expense of their own economic interests? Liberals everywhere immediately responded with vigorous head-nodding. Although Frank made a few stabs at answering his question -- Democrats haven't taken seriously parental concerns about our garish popular culture, and some conservatives favor cultural issues over economic well-being -- his frequent references to these Americans as "deranged" (eight times in the first chapter alone) implied that the real solution was to cure their irrational behavior.

Fortunately, Michael Lerner has weighed in with another take on the question in The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country From the Religious Right (HarperSanFrancisco, $24.95). A social thinker with impeccable liberal credentials -- he's a Berkeley-based rabbi, sometime Hillary Rodham Clinton guru and the editor of Tikkun magazine -- Lerner has studied this question for three decades while conducting psychotherapy research. He's concluded that America is in the midst of a " real spiritual crisis," one that has been recognized and exploited -- but not solved -- by the Republican Party. For the first half of the book, Lerner diagnoses the symptoms and causes of this crisis and argues that "the search for meaning in a despiritualized world . . . leads many people to right-wing religious communities" and politics. Among the thousands of people Lerner and his colleagues have interviewed, some common concerns surfaced time and again: eroding societal values, America's troubling emphasis on money and greed, unstable families, the attempt to place monetary value on everyone and everything, and spiritual isolation. Right-wing religious institutions appeal to these concerns by providing communities of comfort and instructions on how to change this status quo; right-wing politicians promise to fix the problem by imposing their own solutions. No wonder voters of modest means are attracted.

But as Lerner expertly details, the proffered solutions don't eliminate the concerns so much as they trade on their political value. Concerned about unstable families? Just outlaw gay marriage. Worried about popular culture? Impeach those activist judges.

And it's there, he argues, that liberals have the opportunity to craft a progressive "Spiritual Covenant with America," a blueprint that composes the second half of the book. From economic to family to national security issues, Lerner outlines a politics of meaning that connects traditional liberal values to what have been inaccurately defined as conservative concerns. The Left Hand of God is ambitious, sprawling and sometimes rambling, but it serves the vital purpose of articulating a progressive religious alternative to the conservative flavor of religion that has dominated American politics and society for the past 30 years.

-- Amy Sullivan

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