The Right Hand of Left ? : Michael Lerner's "First Amendment Fundamentalists"
Bruce Wilson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon Mar 06, 2006 at 06:01:09 PM EST
Rabbi Michael Lerner's The Left Hand of God [ link : excerpt of the book on Alternet ] has become a bestseller, and Lerner appeared last Sunday, March 5th 2006, on Interfaith Alliance head Reverend Dr. C. Welton Gaddy's "State of Belief" Air America radio show for a short interview. Reverend Gaddy asked Lerner :

"Speaking of faith, what is the proper role of faith in public life ?"

Lerner's response :

"....I believe there are spiritual values that need to be brought into the public sphere, kindness, generosity, ecological sensitivity, ethical sensitivity, awe and wonder and radical amazement at the grandeur of creation.....

Read on : Michael Lerner has some notable viewpoints, it would seem - on the First Amendment. [ you can listen to an Mp3 of the interview here. The Interview with Lerner occurs a little more than halfway into the show ]

[ Lerner quote continued ] These are not values, however, which connect to a particular  religion. They don't violate the First Amendment.  There are First Amendment fundamentalists. They believe that any values violate the separation of church and state and they're afraid it's a slippery slope towards the establishment of religion to talk about spiritual values in the public sphere. But, there is no neutral sphere, there's no possibility of there being a public sphere that is value neutral. It's only a question of who's values predominate. Right now much of the left has its hands tied behind its back because what it says is "we don't want values in the public sphere". And they haven't kept values out, they've only kept their values out, our values have been kept out of the public sphere. Meanwhile the right brings in its values, and it romps, it gets what it wants because it is articulating its vision in a more coherent way. Whereas we don't  do that on the theory that we would be polluting the public sphere. I think that's a deep intellectual mistake and a deep political mistake and that we need to come into the political sphere with a coherent vision of the good and fight for that vision."...."

To begin with, let me say that I am in agreement with much of Rabbi Lerner's political platform. Many on the American secular and Christian left are in agreement along a broad front of issues, and that is noteworthy.

The point of this critique is to head off a developing trend on the religious left by which terminology that originated on the far right has begun to seep into the discourse. Is that a bad thing ? Well, it is unfortunate for this reason : there's a very deep history to the vilification of secularism - an historical lineage predating the 20th Century and even the American Revolution - and so certain terminology comes freighted with that historical baggage. Beyond this, though, there's an additional aspect of the political landscape of the American secular left that is currently, perhaps, underappreciated :

Many Americans who had discounted the power religion brings to bear on politics and culture have for the last few years been confronted by a jarring realization : religion as a political and cultural force has reemerged with an abruptness that - to some on the left and, indeed, some also on the right - must have been unexpected. Those who had lost emotional or visceral connection with religious and spiritual traditions were left adrift to confront a strange and threatening new political and social calculus.

So, terms such as "secular fundamentalism" or "First Amendment Fundamentalists" could be counterproductive : militant advocates of secularism are rather few but, meanwhile, secular components of the American left were left reeling as American culture and politics suddenly came to diverge, in disturbing ways, from prior assumptions : the currency of faith, long discounted or simply forgotten, is suddenly at a premium.

How did this happen ? Michael Lerner, Jim Wallis, and others offer explanations - in the form of bestselling books - and those explanations serve a purpose insofar as they work towards effective political strategies. But - meanwhile - many on the American secular left and even some on the American religious left have to confront the new political landscape, and newly emergent leaders of the religious left must remember this :

The 'faithful' now hold the cards.

As the religious left arises to flex, perhaps, newfound political muscles it would do well to remember that many of the great social justice battles of the last century in America were advanced by a coalition between religious and secular forces. And, the secular left has fewer bearings in the new landscape. So, it may be incumbent upon Michael Lerner's spiritual progressives to reach out - difficult or perplexing though it may seem - to those on the secular left for whom the religious left might now appear to be in a position of relative power.

How quickly the tables do turn !


But, now to my critique :

Meanwhile the right brings in its values, and it romps, it gets what it wants because it is articulating its vision in a more coherent way
As a simple point of fact the American right currently gets its way because it dominates two and perhaps even all three branches of the Federal government : the raw political calculus, rather than the force of the Christian right's narrative, is the immediate source of power. There may exist a confusion here between vision and the means by which that vision gets projected into the public sphere. If the American left is to be lambasted for not projecting a forceful social-justice vision, that in turn is more likely rooted in a lack of focus on the need to construct and acquire television and radio stations and to build a dedicated audience.

Lerner's new book, "The Left Hand of God", is selling well, no doubt, because it touches a cord, or a raw spot in the psyche of many currently dismayed by the ascendance of the Christian right movement and in search of explanations. But, there is a certain fuzziness or detachment from ground level realities inherent in Lerner's proposals for a resurgence of the religious left and a succesful counterattack.  Spiritual progressives, advocates Lerner, should seek to bring values such as "ecological sensitivity"  to the public sphere : well, of course, and they've actually been trying to do that for at least a decade and probably much longer. They could do that more succesfully - yes, it's true. But how ? Such lines of questioning tend to lead away from ethereal realms of abstraction and towards practical, gritty, uncomfortable frontline battles. "Ecological sensitivity" is a fine value but many Americans believe - for example - that Global Warming is a hoax. How did that come to pass ?

In the end what keeps the proposals of would be leaders, visionaries or captains of a reborn or reinvigorated American religious left from drifting away into the aether,  like opium inspired dreams of victory that vanish with the morning light,  is empirical scrutiny, evidentiary analysis. Lerner's views seem compelling to many, but how do they bear up under scrutiny ? Let's take a look at one small - but perhaps key term - from Lerner's oeuvre : "First Amendment Fundamentalists"

As Jeffrey Feldman on Street Prophets noted, there's a rather obvious problem inherent in Lerner's advocacy of coalition politics. Chuck Curry, on Street Prophets, depicts the thrust of a recent speech by  Lerner : "the need for progressive religious people to work with secular progressive groups on issues of common concern." That is an admirable - if obvious - strategy. Strength in numbers. But, what of those Lerner calls "First Amendment Fundamentalists." - whoever they are, aren't they likely to be put off by such rhetoric ?

Without belabouring the point too much, let me say this :

If the secular and religious left have long ago parted ways - and that case can justifiably be made - it bears remembrance that one of the likely wedges driven between the two groups has been the decades long campaign, by the American and Christian right - that has vilified "secularism", "secularists" and "secular humansts" : often in the most vicious of tones, sometimes even with overtly eliminationist rhetoric.

Now, Michael Lerner is not the only prominent figure on the religious ( or anti theocratic ) left to employ such terms : in God's Politics, Jim Wallis of Sojourners repeatedly criticized "Secular Fundamentalists" for opposing religiously based values in the public sphere, so precedent had been set already prior to Lerner's book. Those sorts of charges, and the sort of terminology employed by Lerner amd Wallis echoes rhetoric that for decades has issued from Christian right, accusations that malevolent, indeed Satanic, forces incarnate as secularism or the ubiquitious "liberal humanism" had chased God from schools, courts, and indeed most of American public life. Long before abortion and gay rights had emerged as the salient flashpoints of conflict in the American culture wars, rhetoric vilifying an alleged plot, on the part of the American left, to denude public life of any and all vestiges of religious content was reliably inciting discontent and - more importantly - manufacturing a narrative, for the Americans who would coalesce into the emergent Christian right movement.

This is not to challenge Michael Lerner's - or, for that matter Jim Wallis' - credentials as legitimate spokespersons or leaders for the religious - and anti-theocratic - left. Lerner's Tikkun is widely admired, and   Jim Wallis' Sojourners organization has shown considerable leadership, bravery, and strategic acumen in it's outspoken opposition to the US invasion of Iraq, it's repudiation of ongoing attempts to cast the GOP as the party representing Christianity, and so on.

It is far more likely the case - rather than any intentional use of such terms - that Lerner and Wallis have simply not stopped to consider the import of these terms - which have become thoroughly ubiquitious but drag along in their wake an historical mess of ugly political rhetoric. But, words matter : are we are to grant Michale Lerner's assesment that the secular left is dismissive of those with overtly religious viewpoints, or that it feels superior, more intellectually mature ? Well, given the recent advance of theocratically inclined legislation in the US, it would certainly seem likely that the secular left - whatever other attitudes it may hold - is more than a little bit afraid, and if the secular left is alienated from its historic association with the social justice tradition of American Christianity, it is almost surely the case that rhetoric  issuing from the Christian right - that we see now mirrored by some leaders of the Christian left - has played a part in that.


But, back to the term itself :

"First Amendment fundamentalists". Could that serve as a sort of code for the ACLU ?  One really can't tell, but the choice of words is - in several ways - unfortunate.

To begin with, consider the sheer oxymoronic sillyness of terms such as "secular fundamentalist" or "First Amendment Fundamentalist" - Writes Frederick Clarkson, on Richard Land's recent use of the term "secular Fundamentalist" :

Richard Land, a honcho over at the Southern Baptist Convention has been a pivotal figure in the building of the theocratic movement in the United State for a generation. But in a recent speech....he has also made a significant contribution to the wider culture by his high-profile use of an oxymoron.

Dr. Land's distinct, albeit inadvertent, contribution to the culture is not entirely original. Dr. Bruce Prescott of Mainstream Baptist reports that several speakers used the term....Land's contribution joins the list of such classics as jumbo shrimp, final draft, saying nothing, hot chili, industrial park, junk food, plastic glasses, working vacation, computer jock, incomplete stop, natural additives and, of course, cheap gas.

Beyond that - and on a more serious note - Michael Lerner, Jim Wallis, and others who use such terms, such as Richard Land - described by Frederick Clarkson as "pivotal figure in the building of the theocratic movement" seem to suggest that there is something wrong with a spirited defense of the First Amendment.

That's unfortunate:

First of all, there are very important distinctions to be made between the imposition of state sponsored religion on religious minorities - think of the example of Christian prayer at school sponsored sports events or in public school classrooms - and the expression of religious and spiritual values in the wider public non-governmental sphere.

Politicians talk of religiously derived values all the time. Does the ACLU file lawsuits seeking to ban or restrict such speech ?

What's at hand - what's really at stake here - are questions concerning whether majorities can institute state sponsored religion, force religious minorities to submit to and endure such public underwriting of one or more specific faiths, and reduce minority groups to a status not unlike - suggests Salon editor Michelle Goldberg - to a sort of "dhimmitude", marginalized and suffered continued existence by a religious supremacist majority.  

The reality of the situation, currently, is that religious supremacist values are starting to be enshrined in federal and state law, and  - as was recently demonstrated by Indiana house speaker Brian Bosma - legislators are increasingly willing to assume a "winner takes all" mentality that would disregard the rights of  religious minorities.

If one wants to call groups like the ACLU "First Amendment fundamentalists" [ if Lerner was referring to this group ] for trying to prevent the enshrinement of the Ten Commandments in public courthouses or - generally - trying to defend minorities against various types of religious coercion, fine. It's a free country [ for the time being ]. But such attitudes, expressed as tortured and pejorative terminology, are not likely to promote the sort of cooperation between secular and religious groups that Mr. Lerner advocates. Indeed the very choice of the term "First Amendment Fundamentalist" seems odd :

I would have to guess that Mr. Lerner means "Establishment Clause Fundamentalists" rather than "First Amendmentment Fundamentalists", because if Lerner truly did mean the latter, the implication would be that he did not believe the rights of religious minorities to freely practice their faith should be protected.

Does Lerner believe that ? Probably not, and so I have to assume he means "Establishment Clause Fundamentalists" but - if so - the implication then would be that Lerner thinks at least a certain measure of government support for particular religions, or religions in general, is OK.

Well, let's turn once again turn to facts on the ground. The Federal government, under George W. Bush, already gives billions a year to Christian "faith based" religious groups, with little attempt made to account for or track how that money is actually spent, whether it is used for the intended projects,  or for that matter whether any given "faith based" program works better than its secular counterparts, even whether it works at all.

Now, the actual scope of federal funds flowing to religious groups under the rubric of George W. Bush's "Faith Based Initiative" is not even known. The pool of federal money available to applications from religious groups ranges upwards of, by some estimates, 100 billion dollars.  Further, the writer Esther Kaplan has stated that she was not able to find - among "Faith Based Initiative" tsar Jim Towey's granting records, a single case of "Faith Based Initiative" money going to non-Christian groups. To add to the mess, the US Supreme Court has recently ruled that religious groups receiving federal money under the "Faith Based" program can practice religious discrimination in their hiring practives.  

Given the current state of events, the apparent suggestion by some that the First Amendment's establishment clause is  currently too vigorously defended raises this question : well if so, what's next ? Requirements of professed Christian religious faith as precondition to American citizenship ? Witch trials ? The possibilities seem endless and endlessly dismal but somehow less than politically or spiritually progressive.

These are things I've been holding back from saying for quite a while now.

The American religious and secular left can cohere, sure, if they each make an effort towards doing so.

by Bruce Wilson on Mon Mar 06, 2006 at 11:21:03 PM EST

I'll put together an essay of statements, from Jim Wallis and then from various leaders and voices on the Christian right, that are comparable or similar to the following on from Michael Lerner :

source : Hostile Takeover: Theocracy in America"

"Although I totally support separation of state from the imposition of any particular religious tradition or belief in God, I also know that liberals have not only separated separated church from state but also separated spiritual wisdom, caring, and love from state."

Once again though - I agree with most of Lerner's positions. I want to emphasize that.

I'm pointing this out because claims along these and similar lines have been one of the most effective lines of rhetorical attack, by the Christian right, for creating a widespread perception - on the part of much of America - that the left is antagonistic to faith and religious belief and also to blame - somehow - for various social ills real and imagined ( or trumped up ).

by Bruce Wilson on Thu Mar 09, 2006 at 12:16:00 PM EST


Thanks so much for posting your thoughtful critique of Lerner. You've given me much to think about. I'm currently in the process of reading Lerner's book and hope, at some point, to post a detailed review.

I agree with you that we have to be extremely careful not to pick up and use the language of the religious right, and I find it jarring and counter productive when I see Lerner do it. Also from a communicators point of view, it's a somewhat stupid strategy, a bit like handing your head to the opposition.

However, from what I've seen so far in Lerner's actual book, it appears that Lerner is neither as politically naive nor as anti-secular as you made it seem here. I do have to reserve judgement on that topic, though, because I haven't finished the book yet.

What I do believe is extremely valuable in Lerner's critique is the idea that many people are running to the religious right for a logical reason. He argues that these people hurt, they're in the midst of a spiritual crisis, and the Left offers no spiritual alternative because it refuses to talk about its values in the public arena.

You said that secularists are upset, maybe even panicked (and oh my, I know that feeling) because the religious right controls so much of our government. I agree. But the key thing to ask is why has that happened? Why have these people gotten such power? As a political activist, I've seen the religious right draw many, willing foot soldiers (and donors) who are willing to do the work at the precinct level, to run for local school boards and city councils, to enter the state legislature and to run for higher office. The right has those foot soldiers because it's offering those people something they want.

If I'm understanding this correctly, Lerner is arguing that the Right is drawing many of these people because the Left has given people in spiritual crisis nowhere else to go. If Lerner is right about even just that one point, then his ideas are important for us all to discuss.

Again, many thanks!  

by Silver on Tue Mar 07, 2006 at 11:07:57 AM EST

Of your thoughts there :

The left needs to take a long hard look at why the Christian right gains converts, volunteers, financial donors.

I think I differ from Lerner's approach [ thought I haven't read his book, but I will soon do that ] is that I'm drawn to looking at specifics :  methods. What, specifically, might the Christian right be doing ?  And, I'm not talking about generalities that are impossible to study but, rather, through this lens :

If one of the draws of the Christian right is to provide purpose, community, and human contact, how can the religious left do the same. Further, the busiest segment of the Christian right, the most quickly growing, seems to be the charismatic tradition - so, what's so attractive ? Well, perhaps that form of spirituality serves a need that more staid approaches don't. I'm thinking of a sort of Levi-Straussian "Raw vs. Cooked" distinction. Maybe people need more raw experience, less cooked. Purely in terms of fun, I'd much rather hear a good Gospel choir than a stuffy old church organ, and  it seems to me from afar ( though this comparison would draw great howls of outrage from Pentacostalists ) that the ectstatic state of speaking in tongues is somewhat comparable to the trance posssesion rituals of Santeria. Both are consuming,  overwhelming, dramatic, spontaneous ( for the most part or - certainly - more spontaneous than most choreographed church worship services. )

So, I very much agree with Lerner in the sense that I think the religious left needs to give the methodology ( the ethical parts of that anyway ) of the Christian right a long, sober analysis - and even in business terms. From a marketing perpective, what's noteworthy ? I think the Christian right has put a tremendous amount of thought into marketing and PR, and I don't see anything even remotely comparable on the religious left.


Meanwhile - on secularism-bashing - I'll soon write on this - let me say this for now :

The vilification of secularism is part of an historical lineage that includes anti-communist rhetoric and can be traced back to the Enlightenment and the Anti-Philosophes who originally opposed the Enlightenment, and the birth of Democracy, and sought return to the age of kings and the preeminence of the Church.

Several hundred years later, now, the same basic issues, the same sorts of agendas, seem to be in play. Secularism still is vilified ( on the basis of little to no evidence usually ) and elements of the Christian right, especially those most under the sway of Reconstructionist ideology, are anywhere from leery of to openly contemptuous of, and antagonistic to, democracy.

Plus ca change.....

On that note, here's an interesting quote from Jim Wallis' book "God's Politics". Not the close similarity to Lerner's tone - although Lerner's is I'd say a bit gentler and more measured.


"Today there are new fundamentalists in the land. These are the "secular fundamentalists" many of whom attack all political figures who dare to speak from their religious convictions. From the Anti-Defamation League, to Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, to the ACLU and some of the political left's most religion-fearing publications, a cry of alarm has gone up in response to anyone who has the audacity to be religious in public. These secular skeptics often display an amazing lapse of historical memory when they suggest that religious language in politics is contrary to the American "ideal". The truth is just the opposite....

Secular fundamentalists make a fundamental mistake. They believe that the separation of church and state ought to mean the separation of faith from public life.....

The secular fundamentalists tell us that religion should be restricted to one's church and family. No talk of faith, they seem to be saying, ought to be allowed to seep into the public arena for fear of violating the First Amendment or alienating the nonreligious." [ "God'a Politics", pages 68-70 ]

Nowhere in the book - as I recall - does Wallis make any attempt to substantiate these allegations.

I'm unaware of Anti-Defamation League, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, or ACLU attacks on the use of religious rhetoric in poltical speech, and Wallis seems to be constructing a straw man there.

But - as I said earlier - there issues at stake other than the use of religious rhetoric in public speech that these groups mainly concern themselves with, and they are currently overmatched. If they were not, "Faith Based" groups reveiving federal money could not now legally practice religious discrimation in hiring, nor would billions of federal funds be flowing out under the "faith based" program, to underwrite Christian religious organizations in the first place.

In other words, Wallis paints a portrait that is nearly the inverse of that derived from facts on the ground. Far from driving religion from the public sphere, the Anti-Defamation League, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the ACLU, and similar groups are fighting a rear guard delaying action - through one pitched battle after another - against the political advance of Christian religious supremacy.

by Bruce Wilson on Tue Mar 07, 2006 at 12:12:03 PM EST

Ah, if only I could spend my day debating you, Bruce, rather then doing this ridiculous thing called "making a living." This is far more important than the other things I'm supposed to be doing today. but alas, I only have a short time to post, so I'll try to keep my comments short.

I haven't read Wallis, so I'll leave your comments about him alone.

I also suspect that we agree more than we disagree, and I look forward to the day when we can chat face to face.

What I do want to comment on is what it feels like to be a person of faith in this day and age. I suspect what Wallis and others may be responding to their own sense of being constantly attacked. Even my very leftist Buddhist/New Age/New Thought approach to religion feels like it leaves me open to some pretty strong attacks from secularists.

I never feel attached by the ACLU. I don't feel attacked by Americans United for Separation of Church and State or any of the other good organizations working so hard to keep that wall up between religion and government. What I feel is a personal attack that tends to blindside a person at dinner parties, on Internet forums and postings, and in a variety of other personal ways.

Some (not all) folks walking a secular path look down on and denigrate anyone of any sort of faith. The ridicule is real, and it can be pretty nasty. If I feel this as a very Leftist, very liberal person of faith, then anyone of a traditionally Christian and even a politically moderate bent might feel it even more. And if I am not just hallucinating this, then we in the anti-theocratic movement need to understand that this kind of anti-religion ridicule is hurting us politically.

by Silver on Tue Mar 07, 2006 at 01:45:50 PM EST

I've experienced some of this, and I know that it can be unpleasant - yes, indeed.

There's a paradox - the failure of secular liberals to engage, even at an intellectual level, with American religion, and its impact on culture and politics, has left an huge opening that the Christian right has been able to exploit. Many simply weren't engaged and paying attention.

Things are quickly changing though : I was one of the leaders in sounding the alarms at one particular large and influential left-leaning internet discussion site, back in mid 2004, and initially I did receive a lot of flack for warning of a mounting social and political movement - the Christian right - whose leaders ( a good number of them anyway ) sought to bring the United States under theocratic Christian rule - by their own particular interpretation of what Christianity is, of course.

The resistance I met was worse than I received for advancing other unpopular ideas ahead of the curve ( Peak Oil, for example ) but now - a year and a half or so later - the climate has changed quite markedly, and members on the site routinely track the latest events relevant to the battles both for and against the imposition of Christian supremacist rule.

That shift did not take very long, and I'm fairly sure that the sort of attitudes you're describing are very much in decline - especially now as a court challenge to Roe v. Wade is poised to ascend to the US Supreme Court.

by Bruce Wilson on Tue Mar 07, 2006 at 03:30:01 PM EST

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