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Religion and the Left | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

Religion and the Left

Last month, Rabbi Michael Lerner--the founding editor of Tikkun magazine--convened a Conference on Spiritual Activism in Berkeley. It was there that he launched a new organization called the Network of Spiritual Progressives (NSP).

Lerner describes it as "the most significant inter-faith effort" to bring together "religious, secular and spiritual-but-not-religious progressives." Thirteen hundred people--Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and "spiritual but not religious people"--turned out for the conference to network and hear talks from Dave Robinson, the Executive Director of Pax Christi USA; Michael Nagler, founder of Berkeley's Peace and Conflict Studies Program; the Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine and Mahatma Gandhi's grandson.

The Network, Lerner explained in an interview last week, is seeking to transform our nation's institutions and culture by addressing the American people's "spiritual crisis." This crisis, he argues, stems from "an excess of selfishness and materialism" associated with American capitalism, and the fledgling organization wants to change society's bottom line by de-emphasizing "money and power" and reinforcing values like "love and caring, ethical and ecological sensitivity and behavior, kindness and generosity, non-violence and peace."

NSP's agenda includes proposals to add a constitutional amendment that would require corporations with more than $50 million in annual income to renew their charters every ten years by appearing before a jury of citizens and proving they had behaved in a socially responsible manner; to create a G-8 "Marshall Plan" whereby 5 percent of the richest nations' GDP would be donated to the most impoverished nations to fight poverty and guard against environmental degradation left over by decades of colonialism; and to refocus our nation's educational efforts around values like "caring," rather than "competition."

Critical to Lerner's agenda is to challenge what he calls "religio-phobia" on the left. Perhaps with that in mind, once the conference ended, he sent Tikkun's readers an e-mail blast that urged them to call The Nation and other progressive media outlets, which he said had failed to cover the Berkeley event, showed hostility to the religious left and had (once again) turned their backs on Tikkun and the politics of spirituality.

I traded e-mails with Lerner after receiving that letter. I pointed out that The Nation has, in fact, been committed to the inclusion of spiritual and religious perspectives since the magazine was founded by men (no women, sadly) devoted to a moral politics that sought the abolition of slavery. I reminded Lerner that leading religious left figures have appeared in our pages over the decades. Our civil rights correspondent in the early 1960s, for example, was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In the 1970s and '80s, Penny Lernoux wrote numerous pathbreaking articles relating Christ's teaching to the struggle of Latin America's people for justice in the face of powerful and corrupt elites and military juntas. More recently, in one of the first issues I edited in 1996, Harvey Cox--the eminent Harvard theology professor--argued that "to purge the public square of religion is to cut the roots of the values that nourish our fondest causes."

Just last summer, The Nation ran a cover story about the religious left to remind readers of the historic ties between the religious community and progressives. As our contributing writer Eyal Press argued, "if the emphasis on separating faith and politics alienates religious progressives and dampens their social activism, the left stands to lose a lot--both at the ballot box and in terms of social progress."

And, on a more personal note, I published an interview in this space in February in which the Rev. George Hunsinger--the McCord professor of theology at Princeton Theological Seminary and the coordinator of Church Folks for a Better America--argued that reviving the progressive movement "may well hinge on whether" the liberal left can be more "hospitable to religious people." (He also insisted that we need to reframe the "moral values" debate on issues of torture, pre-emption, unjust war and poverty.)

It's true that many on the left view religion as, at best, an obstacle to enlightenment and reason and, at worst, a source of bigotry and intolerance through the ages. And in these times, when as writer Philip Roth has noted, we are living in "the fourth year of the ministry of George W. Bush," when the separation of church and state is under assault, and with the pervasive influence of a fundamentalist, intolerant religious right, it is even harder for secularists to hear those religious voices that speak of peace, social justice and respectful interdependence.

But these are also times which try men's (and women's) souls, times of defeat and challenge, when even the most hard-core secularists are seeking deeper meaning and spiritual sustenance in their lives. I was struck by a recent correspondence on the Portside listserv--which is hosted by the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism. A reader, a self-identified Marxist, commenting on a favorable piece about Lerner's new network (by Van Jones, an extraordinary activist and preacher, and director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights) urged "Marxists to recognize the reality of human spirituality" as a political force that will underpin the rise of any progressive majority.

I believe that one of the key issues facing the left (and admittedly there are many) is whether all of us--secular, spiritual and religious alike--can treat one another with the humanity, honesty, respect and grace we all need and deserve. We also need to answer this question: Can we unite to challenge the religious right through a new politics of the religious left?

As Lerner wrote me last week, "...the need to overcome the potentially fascistic direction of American politics as the Religious Right and the secular right strengthen their alliance and their hold on American political institutions makes us want to transcend past upsets and focus on how to build the most effective social change movement for the future..."

We've done it before. Religious and secular progressives have a long history of working together, albeit in a dramatically different social and political climate. Almost every major social reform movement in America (and many around the world--think on this tweny-fifth anniversary summer of Solidarity's inception) has been fueled in part by faith.

As Reverend Hunsinger pointed out in his interview with me, the antiwar activists Father Robert Drinan and the Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr. were both inspirations to peace activists everywhere. In his recent book, A Stone of Hope, the historian David Chappell convincingly likened the civil rights movement to a religious revival, showing how black Southerners inspired by the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament spearheaded the drive to abolish "the sin of segregration." And in the 1980s, progressive religious congregations led the sanctuary movement, which opened up US cities to Latinos who were fleeing Reagan's covert interventions in Central America. They also played an important role in the massive grassroots drive to curtail the nuclear arms race.

Recent examples of religious left activism include the work of the National Council of Churches--last month, it sent President Bush a letter arguing that America's rationale for invading Iraq was "at best a tragic mistake"; it has also taken the lead in fighting for universal healthcare, affordable housing and full employment. There is also the work of Pastors for Peace, which delivers humanitarian aid to the Cuban people and works with the Cuban Council of Churches and other faith-based organizations to normalize ties with Cuba. And don't forget the stalwart American Friends Service Committee, which has been instrumental in establishing sister city programs with municipalities around the world.

Indeed, Van Jones may be on the mark when he argues that "the last time US progressives captured the national debate and transformed politics--people of faith were at the center of the movement, not stuck in its closet."

So, The Nation will be following the work of the Network of Spritual Progressives in the days to come, and we urge our readers to do the same. (The group's next conference will be held in the spring in Washington, DC. Click here for info.)

Just as important, and in what I hope is a spirit of generosity and tolerance, we intend to continue to air our differences in our pages and on our website without losing sight of the critical commonalities that will, let's hope, bring us together around our many shared goals.

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