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Obama's Error--and What It Would Really Take to Rectify It

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Rabbi Michael Lerner
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A continuing irony of American politics is that the candidates of the ruling elites have been able to convince many Americans that the candidates who seek to redistribute wealth to the less fortunate, provide health care for all, and provide jobs and housing for the poor are the real elitists. They've been able to get away with that not only by demeaning the "Hollywood  limousine liberals" (never explaining why those wealthy who support tax increases on their own wealth to feed, house and care for the hungry are not deserving of more praise than those who horde their wealth for themselves), but also by portraying liberals as hostile to the religious concerns of the American people.

Unfortunately, on that latter point Right-wingers are often accurate. The religio-phobia Americans encounter in many sections of the liberal and progressive world often push them away and into the hands of the Right.  Deeply suspicious of the slippery slope from some right wing religious beliefs to religious coercion, homophobia, sexism, and racism, people on the Left have created a cultural assumption that anyone who is into religion or spiritual life is probably a little less intellectually or psychologically developed than the secularists, perhaps seeking mystery or a father-figure God to compensate for some lack in their lives.

The message that most Americans receive from the Left is an elitist and demeaning put-down: "We need your votes, so you are welcome into our ranks, but we hope that by hanging out with us secular leftists you will eventually give up your pathological need for religious beliefs and evolve to a higher level of rationality that us secularists have been developing as the only possible way to think clearly about the nature of reality."  Often unconscious, this religio-phobic message has done much to push away the majority of Americans whose religious beliefs are extremely important to them, even though on purely economic grounds they'd feel more aligned with the Left's agenda than that of the Right. 

Barack Obama understands this, and has done much in his career to avoid falling into that trap. His political worldview draws upon the spiritual and religious wisdom of the human race, without making explicit some of those connections. Others may shout about their religiosity to score points with particular religious constituencies, but Obama is the closest thing we've seen in American politics to a man who actually embodies spiritual depth.

All the more sad, then, to have witnessed his error in listing religion as one of the compensations people who are bitter about their economic situation embrace along with guns and anti-immigrant sentiments. Seeing religion as a substitute gratification grabbed on to by people who are otherwise oppressed is an insight that has been part of liberal and progressive culture for at least 150 years. Unfortunately, Senator Obama, like Karl Marx before him, got it wrong because he identified the needs that are being systematically denied as purely material, thereby falling into the deep "It's the economy, stupid" mistake of the Left. And so far, he has sought only to justify his description of people as "bitter" rather than to address his mistake in reducing their upsets to those that flow from the current economic downturn. The fact is that significant  growth in the religious right happened in the 1990s, during the Clinton Administration's years of growing prosperity, precisely when people were feeling most economically secure.

When I met with Senator Obama in his Senate office, I explained to him the ideas behind the newly formed Network of Spiritual Progressives. In the research my colleagues and I did for ten years at the Institute for Labor and Mental Health we found that it was not only material, but spiritual deprivation that was at the heart of much of the pain that Americans experience today. That's why even at the height of American prosperity in the Clinton years, a powerful resurgence of right-wing religious forms was providing an avenue of expression for people whose needs were being ignored by the liberals in the Clinton administration, the Democratic Party, and even in parts of the liberal churches.

Similarly, the revival of a religious Left has not gotten much traction to the extent that it adopts the liberal political and economic agenda and makes it "religious" by finding some useful Bible quotes to back up the peace and justice planks of the Democrats. Valuable as that may be, it too misses the deeper pain that has led people to embrace right-wing religions.

What we discovered in groups that we ran for over ten thousand middle income working people is that most people spend their days in a work world governed by the "bottom line" that judges institutions and social practices to be efficient, rational or productive to the extent that they maximize money and power. Day after day, people breathe in the message that to be rational in this society is to "look out for number one" and treat other people instrumentally - that is, as valuable to the extent that they help us achieve our own goals and desires. People learn how to treat each other as means to our own ends.

We were struck, however, by how bitter many people feel about this way of life. Over and over again, middle income working people told us that they felt they were wasting their lives because their economic survival required them to do work that in no way connected to their hunger for a higher meaning to their lives, what Rev. Rick Warren correctly described as a desire for a purpose-driven life.

Moreover, as people bring into their personal lives the values of "looking for number one" and believing that getting their own needs met is the highest possible good, they find that their families and friendships become increasingly unstable, as more and more people switch from one relationship or marriage to another, imagining that the next one might satisfy yet more of their needs. No wonder people feel lonely, afraid, and deeply troubled by a society in which the narcissism is bred not by some peculiarities of one generation or another, but by the fundamental notions of rationality that predominate in all of the major economic and social institutions.

For this very reason, we've been urging candidates in every political party to embrace a "new bottom line" in which corporations, social practices, government policies and individual behaviors are judged rational, efficient or productive not only if they maximize money or power, but also to the extent that they maximize love and caring, kindness and generosity, ethical and ecological sensitivity, enhance our capacity to treat others as embodiments of the sacred and to respond with awe, wonder and radical amazement at the grandeur of the universe.

It was this that I tried to express in the "politics of meaning" that I shared with Hillary Clinton in the mid 1990s when the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and much other media mis-described me as "the guru of the White House," and it was this that the Network of Spiritual Progressives now describes as a "spiritual politics" for the 21st century. In my contact with Senator Obama I've become convinced that he understands this, and that the reason he fell back into a materialist and reductionist account when speaking with supporters in San Francisco is that he knows how resistant many people in liberal and progressive circles have been in the past decades to anything resembling a religious or spiritual discourse.

Because of the almost allergic reaction many liberal and progressive insiders have to the concept of "spiritual" and the reality of religion as an explanatory category, the Senator fell back into the categories of thought that have made most liberals unable to understand the legitimate spiritual hungers that lead people to embrace religious and spiritual practices, and hence unable to connect in a deep way to many Americans whose economic circumstances could have been expected to embrace progressive politics but whose spiritual and religious yearnings make them feel unwelcome in many liberal contexts. That's why we created a Network of Spiritual Progressives to help bridge this gap, and a Spiritual Covenant with America to help progressives articulate a politics that addresses these spiritual needs. 

In substituting a reductive materialist explanation rather than articulating the real spiritual crisis, Senator Obama, who reassured me, as Hillary once did, that he understands and agrees with this spiritual politics, may have critically weakened his credibility among many who might otherwise embrace his candidacy. Yet if he does explicitly embrace a spiritual politics, he can transcend the left/right dichotomies that have torn our country apart. What remains to be seen is he can do that in the context of a Left whose religio-phobia is both intense and unconscious, and a media determined to make every mistake into a fatal error no matter who the candidate. If his supporters let him do so, Senator Obama has the understanding and capacity to become the first national figure to embrace a spiritual progressive agenda, and doing so may be the only way he will overcome the stigma of elitism with which the Republicans (with the aid of Hillary Clinton) now seek to mis-describe him. But making it safe for Obama to publicly embrace his own highest vision while acknowledging what was really mistaken in what he said will require a struggle by those of his supporters who are spiritual progressives--and they may remain too intimidated by the anti-religious culture of the Left to feel empowered to raise these issues with their standard-bearer. If they do not, the elitism charge may outweigh issues of war, race, and economics in the unconscious but powerful mass psychology that often determines the outcomes of American elections.

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Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun and national chair of the Tikkun Community/ Network of Spiritual Progressives. People are invited to subscribe to Tikkun magazine or join the interfaith organization the Network of Spiritual Progressives-- "both of which can be done by (more...)
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