The 2008 election may be more than three years away, but one group is hoping to press the Democratic Party to infuse spirituality into its platform for that campaign. “The right is correct; there is a huge spiritual crisis in America,” said the editor of Tikkun magazine, Rabbi Michael Lerner. “And the left doesn’t get it.”
Republicans and their allies on the religious right have “done a good job” of articulating that crisis, Lerner said, but their analysis is “fundamentally flawed” because it’s based on demonizing “feminists, gays, liberals, African Americans.”
Lerner made his comments before an opening-night crowd of 1,200 attendees at a four-day interfaith conference on spiritual activism.
An initiative, as several speakers put it, to “take back God” — and the White House — from the religious right was the principle behind the forum, held July 20-24 at the University of California at Berkeley.
The real crisis in the United States, according to Lerner, is generated by the “ethos of greed and materialism” that drives Western culture and impoverishes human relationships. And until the left and the Democratic Party understand that deep human hunger for meaning, the religious right will continue its ascendancy.
“We have not yet built a movement that speaks to those human needs, and until we do, the right has cornered the market,” he said.
The organizers hope to create a “network of spiritual progressives” who will, over the course of the next three years, develop a spiritually based platform they hope to take to the 2008 presidential elections.
They also plan to call for various international initiatives, including a “Global Marshall Plan” in which the developed countries that are part of the G-8 group of nations would each donate 5 percent of their gross domestic product for the next 20 years to eradicate poverty and hunger and rebuild the infrastructure of Third World economies.
“We’ve created this gathering for people who want to challenge the misuse of God and religion by the religious right and build a new bottom line whereby institutions will be judged rational, productive and efficient not only to the extent that they maximize money and power, but also to the extent that they maximize love and caring, generosity and kindness, ethical and ecological sensitivity,” Lerner outlined.
Although the conference organizers insist they’re apolitical, they’re clearly aiming their words at the Democratic Party, which like the rest of the left is, they say, tainted by “religio-phobia.”
“It’s easier to come out as gay in Boston than as religious in the Democratic Party,” said the keynote speaker, Rev. Jim Wallis, a well-known progressive evangelical Christian and the author of the best-selling “God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It.”
Wallis, who has just wrapped up a 47-city book tour, told the crowd that many Americans consider themselves people of faith but don’t feel the religious right speaks in their name.
“The religious right think they own God,” he continued. “They think there are only two moral issues: abortion and gay marriage.”
Instead, he said, ending poverty should be the highest priority of a faith-based politics. “Now that’s a moral value,” he stated.
This isn’t the first faith-based progressive movement to champion social justice. Groups including the Clergy and Laity Network, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, and the Nevada Interfaith Council for Worker Justice also try to bring together representatives of various religious organizations in the name of specific social or economic issues.
But the Berkeley initiative, a project of the Tikkun community created by Lerner, reaches beyond synagogue, church or mosque walls to “people who are spiritual but not religious,” organizers said.
The sessions were set apart by musical interludes — from older peace anthems like John Lennon’s “Imagine” to New Age rhythms played on drums by men with dreadlocks — in keeping with the organizers’ emphasis on using the arts to inspire their politics.
Although the gathering’s theoretical underpinnings — merging traditional leftist ideas of social justice with spirituality — are very much Lerner’s, the conference itself featured speakers from Christian, Buddhist, Hindu and nonsectarian backgrounds, and its focus was clearly nondenominational.
In fact, Jewish attendance from outside the Bay Area was lower than one might expect for a conference carrying the Tikkun moniker; most out-of-town participants seemed to come through church groups or because of some involvement with community activism.
“I’ve spent most of my life in corporate America,” said Ann Manning, 57, a consultant from Minneapolis who came with two friends from her congregational church.
Explaining that she’d “like to transition into a social justice role,” Manning said that “when I heard about this conference I said, I want to be here.”
Lenard Molina, 24, of Tucson, Ariz., was one of the few men wearing a yarmulke at the conference — and one of the few attendees under 30.
An Earth First environmental activist, he said he’s “definitely” experienced a bias against religious faith in the leftist movements that he’s been involved with but added that the total picture is more complex.
“In the radical environmental movement there’s also an openness to spiritual language and spiritual motivation coexisting with that religio-phobia,” he said.
There was just a handful of rabbis and no leaders of major Jewish organizations in attendance. Some people who helped put the conference together admitted privately that they were “disappointed” at the lack of response from the organized Jewish world.
“We are definitely interested in reaching out to them,” said Lerner, adding that he expects that the network’s next conference, slated for February in Washington, “will attract much more of the Jewish establishment.”
Lerner, who is often chastised by mainstream Jewish leaders for his vocal opposition to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, said he is frustrated by the anti-Semitism he has seen lately in the peace movement, “the unfair singling out of Israel” as a pariah state.
He hopes that this new network and the movement it spawns “will provide a way for Jewish liberals and progressives to unite around issues of concern” to them.
Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Religious Action Center, the Washington office of the Union for Reform Judaism, said that although he did not attend the conference, he “welcomes this kind of effort,” which he sees manifesting itself in “several such groups across the country” whose cumulative effort “if successful, could reach elements of middle American swing voters who don’t always feel their values are expressed by liberal” politicians and political parties.
Throughout the conference, speakers urged participants to “go home and organize locally” and spoke of creating progressive, spiritually-friendly caucuses within the Democratic and Green parties “and maybe even the Republican Party,” Lerner said.
“We spiritual progressives have failed to identify ourselves to our elected officials,” said Jim Winkler, general-secretary of the social justice agency of the United Methodist Church. “That must change.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.