Last night, April 4, at Innis Town Hall at the University of Toronto, Rabbi Michael Lerner--author of The Left Hand of God: taking back our country from the religious Right—tackled a question a lot of us on the political Left ask from time to time. Why do working class people so often vote against their own self-interest? But being American, Lerner no longer speaks of the working class and so he asked the question about an ill-defined “middle class”.
It was an opening that set the tone for the evening. The questions that Lerner tackled in his well-reasoned lecture were of global perspective, but his particular focus and experience were clearly American.
At the root of political dissatisfaction, he argued, is a spiritual crisis that affect our whole western society. One of the symptons is that people feel their friendships and relationships are becoming "thinner" and more selfish. People are taught to “network” instead of forming real friendships-- to only give what they can expect to get back. The broad acceptance that this is the way the world works leads to individual cynicism about the quality of friendship and to great loneliness. Lerner's research shows that people yearn to be valued and loved for themselves and their deeper qualities.
Meanwhile romantic relationships exist in what Lerner refers to as the “dating Supermarket” in which individuals taste new partners for what adventures in experience they might bring. Marriage commitments are based, he says, on a judgment call about who will meet the most needs out of the pool of all possibly obtainable partners. Both partners realize they could be beat out by future competition. This leads to huge insecurity and the older, poorer, and less attractive the individual the higher the insecurity factor.
In the work world, employees feel that they are disposable cogs in the wheel. While people long for more meaningful work, the unions tend to only see and hear the demand for higher wages. When working people cannot find an intrinsic sense of value in their work, they can only push for higher wages to try to buy some time in the future to explore more meaningful things in life.
The Religious Right, Lerner argues, has sensed this spiritual hunger and spoken directly to those that feel de-valued in our society. Lerner finds a surprising similarity in their message to that of the Women’s Movement of the 60’s. The Women's Movement in speaking to women’s anger about being de-valued told women, “you’re not the problem. It is Society that is lacking the proper values and attitudes.” In like fashion, the Religious Right is saying to the over-worked and under-valued working class, “you’re not the problem. You’re not a failure. It is society that has the wrong values.” And while the Left would agree that working people are not the problem and society has the wrong values, the Religious Right goes on to blame this lack of human values on various scapegoats--an "other" that they can de-mean. In the USA, the “demeaned other” has included: blacks, gays, feminists and, with growing support and confidence has now expanded to "all liberals." All that it takes is to pin the “selfish” label on the demeaned group, to make them appear to be a part of the “me-first” spiritual crisis that has led so many individuals to feel rootless and invisible. At the same time the Right is supporting supremely selfish actions domestically and internationally.
How do they keep getting away with this clear contradiction?
In large part, Lerner argues, because the Left does not see the pain of the spiritual crisis. And the Right steps into that void. Here, Lerner's arguments resonated with the view articulated in the 2004 bestselling book, What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America by Thomas Frank . But in addition to not reaching out to the spiritual crisis in America, Lerner, states that the Left compounds their error by turning off people of faith. Any spiritual talk turns a lot of Left-wingers off. They hear it as some sort of New Age mush without intellectual rigor, or they mistake it for a form of Right Wing fundamentalism. And on top of the Left’s misunderstanding of individuals with a spiritual mindset, Lerner notes that the Left has a tendency to be religiophobic to the point of conveying to religious people that they can only be accepted into Left-wing political organization if they “park their spirituality at the door.” And it would appear that he hit a nerve of common experience in the Toronto audience as there was an exclamation of recognition and an outburst of “yes(!!)” as he made this observation.
Lerner is involved in organizing a political movementsThe Network of Spiritual Progressives and was partly in town hoping to recruit more members into this fold. He saw the goal of his organization as focused on two issues: 1) Calling and exposing the misuse of God by the religious Right to justify their war-mongering and selfish agenda, and 2) Challenging the religiophobic views of the traditional Left.
On the last point, Lerner suggested that even self-interest ought to lead the Left to moderate its critical and belittling attitude towards individuals with religious beliefs as he noted that the majority of Americans are believers. But, in turning once again to the model of the Women’s Movement, he suggested that it is not going to be enough for religious people to be merely “tolerated” in Left political organizations. Just as women educated those political movements that they brought skills and a perspective that was unique and valuable to the Left, so religious individuals bring a valuable perspective. Lerner remarked that the Left was never stronger in the US than when it had great religious leaders like Martin Luther King, jr. as key spokespeople. I wanted to yell out, “Tommy Douglas in Canada!” And I wish I had because in the midst of a great, thought-provoking speech I kept wishing for more of an informed nod to the Canadian experience and--as a member of the traditional religious Left—more of an informed look at the experience of existing religious Left organizations such as the Catholic Worker Movement, Christian Peacekeepers, the Society of Friends (Quakers), or as one young women in the audience requested, a look at the Unitarian experience. The response to this question, that involved some very specific US experience with the leadership of some Protestant religions seemed hugely off-base to much of the puzzled Canadian audience. Not only did Lerner not address the question about what the Unitarians could do differently to communicate their political message better, he seemed unaware of their strong political stand in Canada—and the fact that Unitarians are neither Protestant or Christian in any narrow sense.
In all a useful and thought-provoking lecture and I left with the book in hand. However, on the basis of this lecture, I feel that if Lerner’s movement is to travel outside of the USA, there is going to have to be more informed understanding of the history, political challenges and strengths of the international community. But perhaps even more, Lerner and his movement, need to understand, include and ally themselves with those of us in the religious Left who are part of existing movements with long traditions—some stretching back to post-Reformation traditions. But certainly his main message was in harmony with a lot of us in attendance, a lot of pamphlets giving information on joining the Network of Spiritual Progressives were picked up at the event. Perhaps Toronto will give its own multi-cultural, multi-faith perspective to what is--at core--a great idea whose time is past-due.