Rabbi Lerner spoke at length on what he believes to be a great spiritual crisis within America, a crisis that the left has completely failed to address, giving the religious right free reign, and unnecessary political victories. He outlined what has occurred in America, why this must be addressed, and how the religious right has used this crisis to take power and control the conversation. He also spoke about the beginnings of a movement within the left and centre to try to take back this discourse, address the spiritual crisis within America, and defeat the religious right.
Join me below the fold for my summary of Rabbi Lerner’s thoughts.
Rabbi Lerner identified one overriding problem that Americans are experiencing in their day-to-day lives. A way of living that is incredibly destructive and which most Americans realize is not how they want to live their lives. In the world of work, school, or whatever it is they do, Americans are finding that the only thing that is valued is what they can do. A job is entirely based upon how productive they can be, and as a job takes up such a large portion of their lives, that worldview is spilling over into the rest of their lives, and there is nothing else. When an individual is valued only by what they can do, and continue to do, by productivity and what advantage they bring to the company, to their boss, to the next person in line then this is incredibly destructive.
Rabbi Lerner took part in a large survey of Americans, asking them how they were living their lives, and what they felt was missing. The institutional selfishness he found, as detailed above, spilled over into the rest of their lives. Americans who were questioned said that they felt like the only thing that anyone valued them for was what they could do for that other individual, organization, company, even relationship. And so, relationships and marriages began to be defined as what each individual could bring to those unions. This leads to a feeling of insecurity, as all parties involved feel like their partner is looking at them for what they can bring, be it financial security, sex, or a shoulder to cry on. It’s all about what you are bringing to that relationship, and what you can get out of the other party. Of course, if a relationship is being assessed in terms of what your partner is giving you, this means that if someone better, someone more advantageous comes along, the most logical thing is to jump ship and move in with them. It’s corporate thinking brought to family life, and the most astonishing thing was that this even extended to how individuals were looking at children, and how children were looking at parents. Of course, it shouldn’t be a surprise that schools are teaching children to have the same sort of mindset, or parents, constantly living in this objective and value-driven life are passing it on to their kids, but this was, of course, yet another destructive aspect of people’s personal lives.
The same thing happened when Rabbi Lerner looked at friendships. Everything was assessed as a transaction – one person brings one thing to the friendship, the other brings something else, and always there was give and take, thoughts as to what people could get from their friendships (how often have you heard talk of “networking” in seminars – it’s about using your friends and acquaintances for your own advantage). Again, this led to insecurity. When we fall on hard times, we rely on our friends to help pull us through. But when our relationships are based upon what others get from us and what we can get from them, what happens when you no longer have something to bring? The basic trust and social fabric that we feel we need to rely on is not there.
All across America, this is what Rabbi Lerner found. A spiritual vacuum, where the individual was valued only in terms of what they could do, what they could bring, their productiveness to their friends, workplaces, husbands, wives, children. And if they were not productive enough, then they were cast off.
So what did people want? What were they yearning for? “It’s the economy, stupid,” personal advantage? No! This is not what people want at all. What they want is to be valued for who they are, for an affirmation of their individual humanity, their value not based upon what they can do, who they can serve, what they bring to the relationship but to be valued because they are human. Because they are one of us. Because each person has an inherent dignity and they have worth because of their personhood. No other reason is required.
But what were the Democrats, what was the left giving them? Precisely what I said. “It’s the economy, stupid.” Yet more money, worth, talk of benefit and getting by and what will you get from the government, what can it do for you? The left has completely failed to address this spiritual vacuum, we have failed to talk about the value that each individual has, instead focusing on institutions, programs, tangible benefits. Of course, these often are the politics of giving value to people, but we do not couch our policies in those terms, and often, Lerner said, attempts to address this spiritual crisis in spiritual terms, the terms in which Americans feel this problem, were met with outright hostility or derision. Religion and the talk of individuals as sacred human beings has been pushed out of the discourse on the left, and Lerner found many, many people who had tried to get involved in politics on the left but who had been pushed out because of their religious belief. As soon as one professed that they were Christian or believed in a higher being, immediately they were treated as inferior, as stupid, as unable to see the world as it was and, more often than not, that reaction was enough to send these people fleeing from the political sphere.
The void has been filled by the right. They have recognized this problem and exploited it ruthlessly. Primarily, this has been done by blame. The spiritual void has been filled by pointing fingers. If the problem is people working only for their own betterment, then who better to blame than, for instance, gays? After all, they’re having sex, selfishly, because they can’t have children (ignoring, of course, the fact that many do have children)? Women who dare to work and take their independence! After all, they’re selfishly working for themselves rather than sacrificing for their children. In recent years, the right has extended this blame to liberals, judges… anyone who dares oppose them.
The irony in all this is, of course, that it is the policies of the right that have been exacerbating the problem. Rather than affirming the worth of all, they have worked to funnel money towards the rich. Rather than regulate business to protect individuals from the cutthroatism that is consuming it, they have slashed regulations. Rather than taking the responsible position that our environment has worth to be celebrated for the benefit of all people, they have slashed environmental protections in the name of profit. Consistently and cynically, the Republicans have legislated a selfish, me-first program that has encouraged a culture where an individual’s productivity is the only thing that matters. And they’ve done it while selling a philosophy of blame to try and sate the very real spiritual yearning that the American people are feeling.
Rabbi Lerner’s solution is difficult, but simple. Begin to inject a politics of value. This should be a good fit to Democratic policies, but we need to begin to talk about it better. Preserving the environment because it is a good thing to do, affirming the rights and value of persons because they are persons rather than for what they can contribute. A compassionate set of social policies precisely because we believe that every person in this country is worth protecting and appreciating just because they are one of our fellow human beings.
This may seem like a long diary, but it’s really just the tip of the iceberg of what he was talking about. Rabbi Lerner moved on to the Network of Spiritual Progressives, a group of which he is a founder, who are dedicated to forming an opposing viewpoint to the religious right. They are having their first conference in Washington DC from May 17-20, and the aim is to begin to form a positive program and oppose the abuse of religion flowing from the right, lobby the politicians directly, and form cores for chapters of the Network throughout the country. While obviously all of us who are interested cannot take part directly in Washington, hopefully the seed will be planted throughout the country as participants return home from the conference.
Rabbi Lerner’s passion and drive was infectious. I’ve only touched on the topics that he covered, but already I can’t wait to hear more, and I earnestly hope that one chapter of his organization will be set up in Albuquerque, so I can begin to take part.
There are a lot of problems that we face, but I hope that with such vision and passion beginning to flow from the religious left, we can begin to address those problems.
Cross Posted to Street Prophets, Daily Kos, and my livejournal.