Busted: Rabbi Michael Lerner

The author of Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right talks about America's spiritual crisis

FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover once called Michael Lerner the most dangerous man in America because of his anti-Vietnam war activities. A sixties radical and member of the Seattle Seven (radical anti-war protestors who were charged with “conspiracy to incite a riot” in 1970), Lerner went on to practice psychotherapy, edit a magazine and—perhaps most surprising of all—become a rabbi. He brings these multiple perspectives to bear in his new book on religion and politics, The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right.

The Left Hand of God begins with a lament for the spiritual crisis Rabbi Lerner sees in contemporary America. “We live in a world in which a technocratic rationality has replaced an awareness of spirit,” he tells us, a world where people are focused on power and money as the ultimate values, and where society is seen as a battleground divided between winners and losers. As a result, he believes, “People feel a near-desperate desire to reconnect to the sacred…in particular to that aspect of the sacred that is built upon the loving, kind, and generous energy in the universe that I describe as the ‘Left Hand of God.'” The left hand of God, as he explains it, is the empathetic, compassionate power that connects us to others. Americans yearn for this experience of connection, but are unable to find it at work, which is focused on the bottom line, or in their private lives, which are built around material consumption and vapid entertainment.

This yearning for connection, he believes, explains the rise of what is commonly called the religious right: religious groups that have managed to construct tight-knit spiritual communities while at the same time making common cause with political conservatives in an attempt to extend their beliefs outward into the public sphere—campaigning against gay marriage, for example, or promoting the teaching of creationism in the public schools. According to Rabbi Lerner:

“It is the search for meaning in a despiritualized world that lead many people to right-wing religious communities because those groups seem to be in touch with the sacred dimension of life. Unfortunately, too often those communities, while drawing on the Left Hand of God for their legitimacy…in fact offer a Right Hand of God teaching.”

“The tragedy, according to Rabbi Lerner, is that the religious right ends up exacerbating the very spiritual crisis that it claims to address.”

That teaching, the opposite of the left-hand outlook, “sees the universe as a fundamentally scary place filled with evil forces. In this view God is the avenger, the big man in heaven who can be invoked to use violence to overcome those evil forces.” Instead of viewing others with love and compassion, it sees them with suspicion, as potential threats that must be dominated and controlled.

The tragedy, according to Rabbi Lerner, is that the religious right ends up exacerbating the very spiritual crisis that it claims to address. On the one hand, by making common cause with political conservatives, it helps promote government policies that increase the gap between rich and poor and weaken American families. On the other hand, by seeking to push its values into the public sphere through legislation and the courts, it undermines the freedom and tolerance essential to American society. Both trends ultimately leave people feeling more isolated and embattled than ever before.

Is there a solution to America’s spiritual crisis? What are the alternatives? Busted Halo talked with Lerner about his Network of Spiritual Progressives, and why the left needs to get religion

BustedHalo: Your career has covered such enormous ground. You were active in the antiwar movement, became president of the Berkley chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, and served time as a member of the Seattle Seven. But you have two PhD.’s and you’re a rabbi. Do you see a clear line connecting these things?

Rabbi Michael Lerner: Around the age of ten I started to realize that there was something deeply wrong with this world, and around the age of eleven I connected with the God-energy of this universe and became an observant Jew, and from that age on decided I wanted to be a rabbi. In my undergraduate years at Columbia I took courses at the Jewish Theological Seminary but I came to understand that the seminary itself was a very conservative institution that wasn’t so much connected to God, or to the healing of the world that I thought needed to happen, so I got a PhD. in philosophy instead. At the same time, I became very active in the social change movement of the 1960’s, and that experience led me back to graduate school for a second degree in clinical psychology, because I felt that I needed to understand the psychodynamics of American society if I was going to help change things. I began to look at the question of why people were moving to the right when their economic interests would naturally push them to the left, and I started to learn about the spiritual crisis in America. It was then that I restarted my program of study for the rabbinate.

BH: Before we talk more about the spiritual crisis we should probably mention your magazine, Tikkun, because it obviously grows out of your interest in reconciling politics and religion. Tikkun is usually translated from Hebrew as repair or renewal, and in Judaism it signifies humanity’s obligation to help make the world a better place.

ML: We created Tikkun in the hope that it would become an intellectual center for people on the left. It would have a Jewish component, but for the most part would deal with America’s spiritual hunger and would not be particularly Jewish in that respect—it would be open to everyone. But it’s been an uphill battle because of the religio-phobia of the left.

BH: The left’s failure to get religion, so to speak, is one of the big themes in your book.

ML: After I began to realize that there was a spiritual crisis in America I tried to talk to people at the head of the liberal and progressive world. I met with the head of the AFL-CIO and the leaders of the Democratic Party. I explained what I was discovering, and nobody would believe it. They thought the spiritual stuff was crap and that all ordinary Americans cared about was money. Of course, I had experienced this before in the 60’s while I was involved with the social change movement—the disdain that many people on the left felt for religion. Back then I had to keep my religion in the closet.

BH: Why do you think the left has been hostile to religion?

ML: Many people on the left have experienced oppressive religious communities, and they have very legitimate reasons to be angry at the religious world. They say, “I know what religion is and I hate it.” But I think they are deeply mistaken to reject all forms of religion just because some of them are distorted.

BH: It’s surprising, because the civil rights movement had its roots in religion.

ML: True, but the civil rights movement came out of the experience of African-Americans, not the mainstream left, which was overwhelmingly white. Leftists who thought of themselves as sophisticated intellectuals believed that smart people don’t believe in God. Unfortunately, the civil rights movement didn’t open them up to the idea that there might be something inside religion that could deepen their understanding of the world.

BH: And you believe that this blind spot toward religion is the reason why the left has failed to address the spiritual crisis in America today—essentially abdicating this opportunity to the religious right. But if the left gets the bread-and-butter issues right, like healthcare and wages, why should we care if it understands our spiritual needs?

ML: Because the spiritual crisis is the central fact in people’s lives today: the pain of feeling that they’re surrounded by people who are just looking out for number one. There is a large section of American society where people feel as if they are alone, feel like they don’t know who they can count on, feel that their work doesn’t offer any opportunity to serve the common good or connect to a higher purpose—a higher purpose than making money. They feel disappointed because they don’t really want to be part of this world, but don’t believe they can change it, either.

BH: And that’s where the religious right comes in.

ML: Yes, the religious right says, “You do have an alternative. Come to our church, where people really do care about spiritual issues.” So people join these churches and find out that it’s true, that the members of these communities really are interested in other things beyond how much you make or how successful you are. The irony here is that the right is also the champion of selfishness and materialism in the workplace, because it says that society is best served when corporations maximize their own economic self-interest. So you’ve got a crazy situation: the right is the champion of selfishness at work, fighting attempts to raise workers’ pay to a living wage, for example, but when those same workers come home at night, the right is the champion of the pain they feel. It thus manages to attract to itself millions of people who actually agree with the left on many specific issues other than religion.

BH: But how does the left win those people back? It seems like an impossible challenge.

ML: We need to build a network of spiritual people who are also politically progressive, and we need to challenge the religio-phobia of the left. My book, The Left Hand of God, puts forward a spiritual covenant for America and talks about building a spiritual culture for the progressive movement.

BH: What can a BustedHalo reader do to get involved?

ML: First, take a look at the book. Second, go to the website at www.spiritualprogressives.org and join our organization, the Network of Spiritual Progressives. Among other things, you’ll get a free subscription to Tikkun. Third, come to our national conference in Washington, DC, May 17-20. At the conference we will present our spiritual covenant with America to the Democrats.