If it were up to me, we’d keep religion and politics completely apart. I think one of the best things about America is the idea of the wall between church and state. But it’s not a perfect world and the religious right has become a potent political force over the last twenty years. So it makes sense for spiritual progressives to organize as a counter-weight.

Historically, elements of organized religion have been at the center of fights for social justice, and many contemporary progressives of faith are drawing from the rich and varied tapestry of faith-based activism. Think the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. Or Malcolm X’s embrace of Islam. Or the liberation theologians of Latin America. Or the large Quaker involvement in the nuclear freeze movement. Or the anti-poverty work of the Catholic Worker movement. In many social movements of the last 100 years, people of faith have played an important role.

So it was extremely encouraging to see more than 1,200 people signed up for the Spiritual Activism Conference in Washington, DC, where I spent some of last week. Held in the historic All Souls Church, founded in 1821 by John Quincy Adams and later used for meetings by Eleanor Roosevelt because it was one of the few places in the District which welcomed interracial gatherings, the event was organized by the Network of Spiritual Progressives, a group co-founded by Michael Lerner, Cornel West and Joan Chittister.

A coalition of people from many faiths, the NSP is trying to incorporate new values into daily decision-making; to challenge the misuse of faith by the Religious Right, and to address the anti-religious bias within parts of the progressive community. (The new Spiritual Covenant with America offers a broad outline of the new network’s goals and objectives.)

Conceived and organized by Lerner and his extremely efficient Tikkun magazine staff for the second time, the conference featured four charged days of passionate and engaged conversation about how to better the world (and ourselves) plus a morning of lobbying on the Hill and a raft of networking opportunities with people looking to forge links to a better world. The decent media coverage of the proceedings is a testament to the event organizers who put something together that simply could not be ignored. And it wasn’t! There were reports in the Washington Post, New York Times, the Seattle Times and Miami Herald, among other outlets.

Memorable speakers included the dynamic Jim Wallis, a fire-breathing liberal evangelical and founding editor of Sojourners magazine; the Rev. Lennox Yearwood, a powerful orator currently serving as the chairman of the Hip-Hop Caucus in Washington, DC; Matthew Fox, a member of the Dominican Order in good standing for 34 years until he was expelled by Pope Benedict XVI, who was a cardinal and the Vatican’s chief inquisitor at the time; Mohandas K. Gandhi’s grandson, Arun Gandhi, who is making every effort to spread the message of his grandfather; Rev. William Sinkford, the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, and Reps. Lynn Woolsey and Jim Moran.

One group that impressed me was Cross Left, which works to galvanize progressive activism among young Christians. The idea is to build social networks where young people can share ideas, information, and resources. The group trains student speakers, sends progressive Christian speakers to universities, schools, and political conferences nationwide, puts organizations in touch with possible funders and imparts good lessons aimed at doing a lot with a little.

I also checked out a workshop with some folks from Creating a Culture of Peace, a new training program that prepares people to respond nonviolently, but militantly, to instances of injustice and repression. Listening to their history of non-violent direct action made it clear that pacificists are some of the toughest people around.

Two of the best policy proposals came from Lerner:

1) A Global Marshall Plan, which calls for the US to lead all advanced industrial nations in making a 20-year commitment of five percent of GDP to end world poverty. The money would not be committed to governments, but to NGOs with solid records. Not a bad place to start.

2) A Social Responsibility Amendment to the Constitution that would mandate that any corporation that nets in excess of 50 billion dollars annually would be required to renew its tax charter each decade before a panel of citizens. This would, in theory, give civil society some leverage over massive corporations who were profiting from, say, activities harmful to the environment.

These two policy ideas help form the basis of the spiritual-progressive platform that was put forth by the conference. And there were many more. If you missed the proceedings but want to get in on the NSP, the best thing to do is to buy the DVDs of what you missed–they’ll be available on Tikkun‘s website shortly, read Lerner’s new book, which offers the best distillation of the ideas animating this incipient movement, and click here to get on the Network’s mailing list