Real Pain may be driving people into the arms of the Religious Right
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Mon Feb 13, 2006 at 12:15:30 PM EST
Michael Lerner may well have put his finger on the cause of one of the most baffling and frightening phenomenon of our society: The draw of the Religious Right. Lerner argues that there are real problems in American culture that are causing people pain. While the Left abdicates any interest in that pain, the Religious Right claims to have the answer.
The rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synogogue and editor of TIKKUN magazine, Lerner has tackled the subject in his new book, "The Left Hand of God: Taking Our Country Back From the Religious Right." (HarperSF 2006).

I will admit that I have not had an opportunity to read the book yet. The few copies that showed up in Lawrence, Kan., were quickly sold out.  However, AlterNet printed a fascinating interview with Lerner, and the first chapter of his book, at Finding Spirit Among the Dems.

The writer at AlterNet called Lerner's new book a paradigm-shifting work that "doesn't just change the view so much as it changes our way of viewing." From what I can tell from the interview, I think that writer may well be right.

First, Lerner clearly identifies the chasm that separates the two sides in what I suspect is the real cultural struggle going on in the world right now. That war isn't necessarily between political ideologies, but between approaches to life. Lerner says:

The Left Hand of God means looking at the universe through the perception that love, kindness, generosity and caring for others are the central ontological realities of life, and that when they do not manifest in the world in which we live, the world is distorted and needs to be healed. The Right Hand of God, conversely, means looking at the universe through the perception that life is a struggle of all against all, and that the only path to security is through domination of others.

Personally, I find those words compelling because they match my spiritual approach to life. However, Lerner's ideas go beyond the spiritual. He argues that the real reason the Religious Right is drawing people is not because those folks are brainwashed or idiots. It's because they are in real pain, suffering from the flaws in our society, and the Religious Right is not only talking about that pain but claiming to have a cure.

This is the point I was fumbling to make in my piece, The Lesbian and the Fundamentalists, when I talked about a "hole" in society.

Lerner says it so much better and clearer than I did.

[M]any of the millions of people who get attracted to the Religious Right are not motivated by excitement for their political program, but by the experience of community, caring for others, and its ability to recognize and address the deep distortions in life that are caused by a societal ethos of materialism and selfishness.

Unless Democrats and the political Left understand this, they will never succeed at the ballot box again, Lerner argues.

By it's tone-deafness to the spiritual suffering of the American people, the Left continues to miss the fundamental crisis that demands a social transformation, and in so missing this reality, it clears the path for reactionary forces to enter the spiritual arena and manipulate that crisis in destructive and potentially fascistic directions.

Has Lerner defined the problem? If so, what are we going to do about it? I suspect the first step is to read his book.

Silver, thanks for writing about Lerner's new book. I think Lerner makes some good points.

by Carlos on Mon Feb 13, 2006 at 12:56:53 PM EST

On Michael Lerner's take.

I have some  extensive notes crabbed in the margins of one piece of Lerner's writing presenting a short version of his argument, and - first - I do agree on with his depiction of the "Hole" :

Lerner's ideas go beyond the spiritual. He argues that the real reason the Religious Right is drawing people is not because those folks are brainwashed or idiots. It's because they are in real pain, suffering from the flaws in our society, and the Religious Right is not only talking about that pain but claiming to have a cure.

Yes, I feel that is very true.

But, by the same token, I take strong issue with the assertion that the left has abdicated interest in that pain.

I tend to look at this through an odd lens - through the perspective of the rather extensive datasets of social statistics I've been poring over lately.

So, no - I don't completely agree with Mr. Lerner. To be fair, I haven't read his book ( yet, anyway ) , and the conversation is certainly - in my mind anyway - quite open.

Now, the Christian right movement has - in recent history - tended ( on average ) to grow most rapidly in areas plagued by highest levels of social and economic disruption, and so Lerner is on very solid ground, I'd say or at least he can make a good prima facie case, in his claims that pain ( or "anomie" ) drives the growth of the Christian right.

But the converse of that formula needs to be considered, especially in the context of religious and political affiliation, and social data :

New England is on the whole - along a very broad spectrum of social indices of wellbeing - divorce rates, unmarried and teen birth rates, murder rates, overall state health as calculated by the United health Foundation, rates of venereal disease, infant mortality rates, poverty rates, rates of children living in poverty, on and on - the healthiest region in the country.   Those factors also tend to be proxies for social cohesion.

Additionally, New England is the most consistently Democratic leaning region of the US.

So in terms of actual data, Lerner's claims don't fit the available facts :  now he could assert that the Democratic Party itself had abdicated interest in the suffering of average Americans, but if so the GOP has done so doubly.

If Lerner is referring to the population which comprises Democratic party voters, and the culture those voters share, suggesting those are somehow insensitive to human pain and human needs, he is on shaky ground indeed. In fact, what serves as a buffer - for Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and other states in the NE region - to stem the social disruptions that engender human suffering - is the rich tapestry of nonprofit groups and voluntary associations that tend to human needs. The density of that non-governmental communal fabric, as a social safety net, goes a long way towards explaining the almost anomalous health of the region as compared to most other areas of the US.

In short, people in NE are more responsive - at least in a structural and institutional sense - than in others parts of the US to those around them who are poor, suffering, and in need, and, they tend to elect government officials who share that sensibility and implement it in government programs, policy, and legislation.

That may also explain - in part ( and this would fit partially with Lerner's hypothesis ) the relative resistance of NE to penetration by the Christian right. New England has the nations's lowest density of megachurches, for example, and also those denominations and groups currently associated most heavily with the Christian right : Evangelicals, Southern Baptists, Pentacostalists, and so on. New Englanders are doing well, they are suffering less, and so the solutions offered up by Christian right leaders as solutions to social ills - solutions such as  "abstinence education", anti-gay marriage legislations and amendments,
legislation restricting access to abortion, the death penalty, and so on don't have the same sort of allure to New Englanders as they do to - say - Texans or Oklahomans. If they in fact seem like solutions at all : New Englander's approach to maintaining the social good would seem - to those paying attention anyway - to be outperforming those regions which opt for ideologically charged, "faith based" approaches.

Looking out from the Northeast, one would be justified in feeling that the crisis is elsewhere. Families here are doing fairly well, divorce rates are the lowest in the US - as are teen birth rates, venereal disease rates are lower, murder rates among the lowest - on and on and on - and so jeremiads on the impending collapse of the social order seem out of place or even bizarre.

So no - I don't completely agree with Mr. Lerner although I'm certainly sympathetic to parts of his argument. But I also feel that such conjectures far too easily go astray to the extent that they keep a close eye, or half an eye at least, trained on known facts.


by Bruce Wilson on Tue Feb 14, 2006 at 02:40:41 PM EST

I should have inserted a "not" there, in my last sentence.

by Bruce Wilson on Tue Feb 14, 2006 at 02:42:30 PM EST

There are distinct regional differences in the way spirituality is expressed, and I think the noisy external-focused way the RR makes a bigger impression.  I  grew up in a more self-reflective sort of religious environment, where church was a sanctuary, not a social event, where taking the Lord's name in vain was made uncomfortable and done only during silent prayer, religious events, or spiritual discussion, not continuous open praise and casual conversation, interjecting the sacred name of Jesus and His father in the mundane.

It's a different tradition, and now we are being made to defend it.  

I live in the deep South, and the focus of church, on the face is primarily social. There is little formal infrastructure (no surprise) and the churches provide everything from daycare, after school events, pot luck dinners, and a constant source of entertianment, client base, and networking.   People don't ask what you do, they ask where you go to church.   There is a strong distaste for government, and the church is considered the sole source of authority.  

In any case, even the public school is no refuge from the constant exposure to RR propaganda, as most of the teachers went to Christian colleges and are Southern Baptist anyway.  

by lilorphant on Fri Feb 17, 2006 at 07:26:49 PM EST

I will put Lerner on my must-read list. Thank you for posting the links here.

Your point, both here and in the earlier post, is worth far more attention than it is getting in this forum. I may disagree with the conservative extremists, but in order to engage effectively in this struggle I need to understand why so many people find them so persuasive.

I recently moved to Mississippi for a new job. I am baffled by the politics and the religeous beliefs of my new neighbors, but I assure you that these are not bad people. The overwhelming outporing of aid to the victims of Katrina this past year from local people here in Mississippi should put those notions to rest. These people may be mislead, but they are worthy of our respect. Only by understanding them better can we hope to craft a more persuasive argument that appeals to their legitimate concerns. I hope that Lerner can help us do that.

by paul on Mon Feb 20, 2006 at 11:13:58 PM EST

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