For years the Democrats have been telling themselves “it’s the economy, stupid.” Yet consistently, for dozens of years, millions of middle income Americans have voted against their economic interests to support Republicans who have tapped a deeper set of needs. Tens of millions of Americans feel betrayed by a society that seems to place materialism and selfishness above moral values. They know that “looking out for number one” has become the common sense of our society, but they want a life that is about something more—a framework of meaning and purpose to their lives that would transcend the grasping and narcissism that surrounds them. Sure, they will admit that they have material needs, and that they worry about adequate health care, stability in employment and having enough money to give their kids a college education. But even more deeply, they want their lives to have meaning; and they respond to candidates who seem to care about values and some sense of transcendent purpose.
Many of these voters have found a “politics of meaning” in the political right. In the right-wing churches and synagogues these voters are presented with a coherent worldview that speaks to their “meaning needs.” Most of these churches and synagogues demonstrate a high level of caring for their members, even if the flip side is a willingness to demean those on the outside. Yet what members experience directly is a level of mutual caring that they rarely find in the rest of the society and a sense of community that is offered them nowhere else, a community that has as its central theme that life has value because it is connected to some higher meaning than one’s success in the marketplace.
It is easy to see how this hunger gets manipulated in ways that liberals find offensive and contradictory. The frantic attempts to preserve family by denying gays the right to get married; the talk about being conservatives while meanwhile supporting Bush policies that accelerate the destruction of the environment and do nothing to encourage respect for God’s creation or an ethos of awe and wonder to replace the ethos of turning nature into a commodity; the intense focus on preserving the powerless fetus and a culture of life without a concomitant commitment to medical research, gun control and health care reform; the claim to care about others and then deny them a living wage and an ecologically sustainable environment—all this is rightly perceived by liberals as a level of inconsistency that makes them dismiss as hypocrites the voters who have been moving to the right.
Yet liberals, trapped in a longstanding disdain for religion and tone-deaf to the spiritual needs that underlie the move to the right, have been unable to engage these voters in a serious dialogue. Rightly angry over the way that some religious communities have been mired in authoritarianism, racism, sexism and homophobia, the liberal world has developed such a knee-jerk hostility to religion that it has both marginalized those many people on the left who actually do have spiritual yearnings and simultaneously refused to acknowledge that many who move to the right have legitimate complaints about the ethos of selfishness in American life.
Imagine if John Kerry had been able to counter George W. Bush by insisting that a serious religious person would never turn his back on the suffering of the poor, that the Bible’s injunction to love one’s neighbor required us to provide health care for all, and that the New Testament’s command to “turn the other cheek” should give us a predisposition against responding to violence with violence.
Imagine a Democratic Party that could talk about the strength that comes from love and generosity and applied that to foreign policy and homeland security.
Imagine a Democratic Party that could talk of a new bottom line, so that American institutions would be judged efficient, rational and productive not only to the extent that they maximize money and power, but also to the extent that they maximize people’s capacities to be loving and caring, ethically and ecologically sensitive and capable of responding to the universe with awe and wonder.
Imagine a Democratic Party that could call for schools to teach gratitude, generosity, caring for others and celebration of the wonders that daily surround us. Such a Democratic Party, continuing to embrace its agenda for economic fairness and multicultural inclusiveness, would have won in 2004 and can win in the future.
Please do not tell me that this is happening outside the Democratic Party in the Greens or in other leftie groups. Except for a few tiny exceptions, it is not. I remember how hard I tried to get Ralph Nader to think and talk in these terms in 2000, and how little response I got substantively from the Green Party when I suggested reformulating their excessively politically correct policy orientation in ways that would speak to this spiritual consciousness. The hostility of the left to spirituality is so deep, in fact, that when they hear us in Tikkun talking this way they often cannot even hear what we are saying—so they systematically mis-hear it and say that we are calling for the left to take up the politics of the right, which is exactly the opposite of our point. Speaking to spiritual needs actually leads to a more radical critique of the dynamics of corporate capitalism and corporate globalization, not to a mimicking of right-wing policies.
If the Democrats were to foster a religious/spiritual left, they would no longer pick candidates who support pre-emptive wars or who appease corporate power. They would reject the cynical realism that led them to pretend to be born-again militarists, a deception that fooled no one and only revealed their contempt for the intelligence of most Americans. Instead of assuming that most Americans are either stupid or reactionary, a religious left would understand that many Americans who are on the right actually share the same concern for a world based on love and generosity that underlies left politics, even though lefties often hide their value attachments.
Yet to move in this direction, many Democrats would have to give up their attachment to a core belief: that those who voted for Bush are fundamentally stupid or evil. It’s time they got over that elitist self-righteousness and developed strategies that could affirm their common humanity with those who voted for the right. Teaching themselves to see the good in the rest of the American public would be a critical first step by which liberals and progressives might learn how to teach the rest of American society how to see that same goodness in the rest of the people on this planet. It is this spiritual lesson—that our own well-being depends on the well-being of everyone else on the planet and on the well-being of the earth—a lesson rooted deeply in the spiritual wisdom of virtually every religion on the planet, that could be the center of a revived Democratic Party.
Yet to take that seriously, the Democrats are going to have to get over the false and demeaning perception that the Americans who voted for Bush could never be moved to care about the well-being of anyone but themselves. That transformation in the Democrats would make them into serious contenders.
The last time Democrats had real social power was when they linked their legislative agenda with a spiritual politics articulated by Martin Luther King Jr. We cannot wait for the reappearance of that kind of charismatic leader to begin the process of rebuilding a spiritual/religious left.