Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany
“The Intersection of Liberal Politics and Religion”
by Rev. Samuel A Trumbore November 5, 2006
Let us turn inward
and witness the Spirit of Life and Love
moving in us.
A spirit sensible in our breath and heart beat.
A cohesive power defending our body from germs,
and regulating the nourishment, repair and replacement of our cells.
Always with us from the union of egg and sperm
till the dissolution of our consciousness at death.
Let us feel deep gratitude for what we cannot see, feel or touch
that supports the good order of our being.
Let us turn our attention now
to the outer body in which we participate.
Tuesday is Election Day.
The vying for our attention and support will come to an end.
Tuesday we celebrate a National Sabbath
and participate in our holy democratic ritual.
As faithful citizens,
We will use our gifts of intellect and reason;
We will study the issues and the positions of the candidates;
We will seek to support the candidates that we think best reflect our values;
Then, we will use the singular power of our vote.
May the hearts and minds of the electorate be inspired
To elect candidates who will lead with integrity.
May those elected be men and women of conviction
who are more concerned about doing what is right
than about securing a high approval rating.
May we elect candidates who are honest
in the midst of what is often a jaded political process.
May we elect candidates
who desire what is best for all Americans.
May these new leaders craft and pass laws
with knowledge and understanding.
May they grow in learning how to build consensus.
And when the elections are over,
May we pledge to support those elected,
and register with regular communication our positions and concerns.
Most of all,
May this election work to unite us as a nation
dedicated to making this world a better place for all beings.
from Georgist Thought And The
Theology Of Social Reform by Cliff Cobb
(Speech to the Torch Club, Sacramento, December 1997)
As a result of disowning the religious traditions that once served as the foundations of political philosophy, our society has been left with barren, mechanical metaphors.
It is possible that an economic revolution will occur purely on the basis of a rational acceptance of abstract principles of justice and efficiency, but I doubt it. Few of us are capable of letting go of patterns of behavior simply because they do not work. Instead, we are drawn into a new world by the yearnings of the heart and by the work of grace in our lives. The same is presumably true of entire societies. A deep transformation occurs only if we are drawn collectively toward specific reforms that are felt to be part of a larger drama.
Postmodernism to Postliberalism by Nathan Gardels and Leila Conners
published in New Perspectives Quarterly Spring 1995, Vol. 12, No. 2
America, the oldest modern society, is wrenching its way through a paradigm shift to a new social and moral order. Though the secular liberal ethos of modernity confidently demolished the most archaic barricades against human freedom, it has foundered in postmodernity's tabloidish display of moral chaos that comes from having all that freedom without boundaries. Americans know that the key problem in Western civilization now is not the absence of tolerance, as it was when the West emerged from its catastrophic religious wars, or the defense of free societies against the totalitarian threat, as it was during the Cold War. The central problem now is how to cope with so much freedom.
And, if images rule dreams and dreams rule actions, this makes it a whole other ballgame of societal self-subversion. The main meme, or ideological code, of the mass media seems to be to subvert any and all authority from mom to Imam, from Pope to president; to ridicule all, to trust no faith, to promote ironic detachment as the only sophisticated, self- knowing mode of being. This is the propaganda of postmodernism.
However these uncertainties unfold, what matters in the end, what is at the core of the paradigm shift, is a revival of the social instinct to set limits on freedom based on the acceptance of some moral authority. What makes the coming era postliberal is that the debate will no longer be over which limits to erase, but where to draw the boundaries.
Quote from Benjamin Disraeli : British statesman, prime minister & writer
A man who is not a liberal at
sixteen has no heart;
a man who is not a conservative at sixty has no head.
As the mid-term elections approach on Tuesday, predictions of at least the house swinging Democratic have liberals drooling in an excited state of anticipation. Some might even think the Republican agenda is being questioned and the tide is turning toward the Democrats.
If the tide is turning, I’m not sure it’s because the electorate likes the Democrats any better, more that they are voting against some of the blunders of the Bush administration. Whatever happens on Tuesday, the operatives of the Religious Right will continue to exert a lot of power and control in the Republican Party. It would be a grave mistake to underestimate the Religious Right’s ability to take back the national agenda in 2008.
Much has been written and said about the success and the power of the Religious Right to mobilize American voters to support their candidates often against their economic interests. They have been so effective that many legislators assume anyone who is religious is in their corner. That is a huge voting block given the large percentage of the population who say they believe in God.
This assessment oversimplifies the demographics of the American voter. I recently read a fascinating survey of, what the author called, the twelve tribes of American voters. Breaking up the population by religion, national origin, theology, politics and voting patterns, the survey gives a much more detailed picture of the American electorate than right and left.
On the one extreme are the Religious Right, Heartland Cultural Warriors and the Moderate Evangelicals comprising a little over a third of the electorate. Issues like abortion, marriage equality, and the war on terrorism light them up and drive their voting patterns. Four fifths of the Religious Right strongly support mixing religion and politics. Leaders who exemplify these values range from Jerry Falwell, James Dobson and Tom DeLay, George W Bush, William Bennett, Mitt Romney, and Bill Frist.
More in the middle of the spectrum are the White Bread Protestants and Convertible Catholics with about 15% of the vote. The White Bread Protestants lean Republican and the Convertible Catholics lean Democrat. These voters are not captured by social issues but are more interested in conservative economics. These people tend to separate their religious lives from their political lives. Examples of these leaders include George H.W. Bush, Dick Cheney, John Edwards, John Kerry and Arnold Schwartzenegger.
On the left you’ll find The Religious Left, the Spiritual But Not Religious, the Seculars, the Jews, the non-Judaic-Christian faiths, and Black Protestants who, together, add up to about 40% of the vote. These folks are strong on the separation between religion and politics but split up on social issues. A significant number of the Black Protestants and Muslims for example oppose marriage equality and reproductive choice. Each group has its own core issue. For Jews and Muslims, foreign policy and Israel. For the Black Protestants the economy.
The wild cards are the Latinos who lean Democratic but split ideologically right down the middle. Predominately Catholic they are conservative on cultural issues but strong on government social spending. They are about 5% of the voters.
What is remarkable about this analysis is the number of seculars who do not have any kind of religious identification, only about 11% of the population – lower than I expected. Or to put it another way, 89% of the population identify themselves as religious or spiritual. Less than half of those will be driven by the agenda of the Religious Right. Michael Lerner believes a larger majority will respond to a faith based vision of the Religious Left.
Michael Lerner, a well known leftist student organizer in the 1960’s, turned social psychologist in the 1970’s then turned Rabbi in the 1980’s. Caught up in what was called, “the Movement,” in the 60’s he has tried over the years to translate this into a mainstream political movement. His latest attempt to organize us progressive types is his recent book, “The Left Hand of God.” I’ll be examining this book for the next two Monday nights to see what Unitarian Universalists can learn from his analysis and proposals.
The sacred text 86% of the US population uses to shape their religious, ethical and moral values is, of course, the Bible. So it behooves non-religious progressives to open it up and look for the sources of the political thinking of those on the Right and on the Left. Given the wide value gap between the Religious Left and the Religious Right, (at almost the exact same percentage of the population, 12.6%) I wonder if they are revering the same book.
There are of course reasons for the differences. The Bible presents a lot of different images of God. Most people tend to read the Bible quite selectively. On Christmas and Easter, the attention goes to the beginning and end of the Gospels. For Passover, we examine stories from Exodus. But if you take the whole document as your revelation of God and try to reconcile it, what starts becoming clear is there are two distinct divine voices, often mixed together. Lerner labels them the Right Hand of God and the Left Hand of God.
One view of God presented in the Bible is as giver of laws and protector against evil. In return God demands individual restraint and sacrifice. God made a covenant with the Jews, led them out of Israel. God freed them from slavery in Egypt and gave them the 10 commandments to live by. In return, the Jews must worship no other gods, for the One God of the Jews is a jealous God. When some worshipped the Golden Calf, a pagan fertility image, God sent Moses out to smite them. This God sent the Jews into the promise land and told them to conquer it with the sword. This God is envisioned as a warrior: powerful, combative, and harsh in judgment. This, Lerner explains, is the Right Hand of God.
Many Unitarian Universalists reject this portrayal of God as a warrior image. For us, it speaks more of ancient times dominated by tribal warfare. Up until the Jewish creation of monotheism, most people populated the heavens with Gods and Goddesses like Zeus and Hera, Tiamat and Apsu who were always fighting with each other. The Right Hand of God is closer to the ancient vision of God as a supernatural tribal ruler.
For those whose lives are dominated by fear, material scarcity and violence, this vision of God can feel more accessible. Voices that preach resignation, the war of good against evil, the corruption of the human soul, the need to dominate before being dominated speaks to the basic human need for security and survival. Feeling powerless and tossed by forces beyond one’s control, seeing evil triumph over good on earth, one can yearn for a saving vision of a champion God who swoops down from the clouds and routs the evil doers – sort of like seeing God as a cruise missile.
Thankfully, this is not the only image of God in the Bible. There is another image that can be found throughout its text, sometimes side by side. The message of these passages is not fear and violence but rather hope and love.
While God is cursing the Egyptians with locusts, boils and droughts to get Pharaoh to let the Jewish people go and then drowning the Egyptian soldiers in the Red Sea, God is also delivering the Jews from slavery. This God offers a message of hope. This message of hope inspires the Jews to overcome their oppression and teaches the world can be transformed toward the good. This is the God that commands the Jews to “Love thy neighbor as oneself” and to never oppress the stranger.
What we read about God’s nature in the Torah, we see embodied in Jesus, according the Christian Scripture. Analyzing God made flesh in Jesus, we now have a very different vision of God. This God-man carries no sword. This God-man heals and mediates divine forgiveness. This God-man makes no divisions between those who are clean and unclean, Jew and gentile. First and foremost, Jesus embodies love, compassion, forgiveness, mercy, generosity and restoration. These Jewish and Christian images of love and hope are what Lerner calls, the Left Hand of God. Unitarian Universalists who draw their faith from the Bible find this image of the God of love attractive. And so do many others on the Liberal, Spiritual and Jewish Left.
The Religious Right is happy to anchor its politics in this fear centered, punitive image of the Right Hand of God. The Religious Left, however, refuses to make religious connections to the Left Hand of God. Honoring separation of church and state as liberals do, they move to secular support for the values of love, compassion, giving and generosity.
Lerner has done his homework here. Through his extensive sociological research talking to a wide spectrum of average Americans, he has discovered secular values don’t speak to the average American at a level that can inspire hope and can counter their fears. He argues the soul crushing power of greed stimulating materialism and impersonal self-denying capitalism must be countered by a deep value system with a religious grounding. Voting the pocketbook doesn’t cut it.
To step away from the fear mongering of the Religious Right, Lerner believes those values voters need a hopeful vision that has a transcendent dimension. So far the Democratic party hasn’t offered one as effective as the Religious right has offered to speak to people’s beliefs. Up to this election, fear based politics has captured the voters.
Lerner believes a liberal spiritual politics grounded in the transcendental values of love, compassion, giving and generosity can answer the politics of fear with a life giving politics of hope. With or without God having right or left hands, I believe we Unitarian Universalists can find those values embedded in our tradition and in our principles.
The bedrock of any Unitarian Universalist liberal spiritual politics of hope will be our first principle: the inherent worth and dignity of every person. In night language, to use Michael Dowd’s term from his lecture on Monday, we are all created in the image of God. Each one of us has the seed of goodness in us that cannot be removed. We can deny it our entire lives, reject it, act like trolls, banshees and goblins, but that seed remains planted in us, waiting for encouragement to sprout. Rather than dividing the world up into good guys and bad guys, the evil and the righteous, everyone must be approached with respect and treated with dignity. We can prevent others and ourselves from causing harm, not to vanquish a villain, but rather to redirect a misguided soul. The human scourges of lust, greed, fear, hatred and delusion are not the affliction of one race, class, or culture. We all need each other’s help to wake up from our delusions and find the path of love, compassion, giving and generosity – including me.
The foundation built on that bedrock of inherent worth and dignity will be respect for the interdependent web of existence. Life flourishes in diversity not in conformity or uniformity. There is no one path up the mountain of life. There is not just one way to point at the moon. In the Sufi tradition, there are 99 names for Allah. In the Hindu tradition there are many ways to worship Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. The Christians who orient their spiritual lives around an exclusive claim to divinity of Jesus need to get over it! Our capacity for love is much grander and more diverse than their wildest dreams … which includes Jesus as the son of God … along with all the rest of us who could be too. The unlimited potential for love to become real knows no denomination or sect.
The framework for this pluralistic liberal spiritual politics must be justice, equity and compassion in human relations. The key word here is relations. We must be in relations with each other as one world community. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the threat of global climate change cannot be contained or ignored. Both demand a worldwide response. Global security cannot be commanded unilaterally, it must be negotiated multilaterally. That security will never be found without insuring the food, clothing, housing and health security of the world’s people. The richest nations will never achieve the security they crave, spending billions upon billions for war and weapons, without being in a caring relationship with the poorest of the world, the breeding ground for tomorrow’s terrorists and revolutionaries.
We have within our religious tradition the bedrock, foundation, and framework for a liberal spiritual politics big enough to house people’s hopes and strong enough to withstand people’s fears. This forward looking politics focuses on encouraging the best in us rather than being limited by the worst in us. It seeks to connect the reality of people as they are today with the possibility of what they could be tomorrow if we open up our lives to these spiritual resources of love, compassion, giving and generosity.
As we go into the voting booths on Tuesday, I encourage you to cast your vote for the candidates who are forward thinking with a vision of hope rather than backward thinking fearfully trying to preserve an imagined past. Candidates with liberal spiritual values speak to the best of who we can be rather than the worst of what we are. These candidates can show up on any voting line, Democrat as well as Republican, Conservative as well as Working Family.
Whether you vote with your left hand or your right, may both hands come together around supporting a hopeful vision of everyone’s inherent worth and dignity, of respect for the interdependent web of all existence and of justice, equity and compassion in human relations.
Boston Globe Columnist James Carroll wrote,
Whatever else divides us, Americans go to the polls with one large thing in common -- the sure knowledge that our individual votes matter absolutely. To vote is to defy the pervasive sense of civic impotence that is the curse of contemporary life… Are we mere spectators to the flow of history, awaiting the outcome of mortal contests on which everything we value depends yet on which we can have no influence? The answer is: Not Tuesday. To vote in [this] election is to have an impact on how the past is understood, the present redeemed, and the future built.
Go forth knowing your vote on Tuesday is an affirmation of our faith in democracy and in the principles and purposes of Unitarian Universalism.
Copyright © 2006 by Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore. All Rights Reserved.