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What’s the Right Course for the Religious Left?

The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right By Michael Lerner HarperSanFrancisco, 416 pages, $24.95.

Christian right thinkers often argue that secularism is itself a religion. Enlightenment rationalism, they’ll say, is based on the same kind of faith as biblical literalism. In their 2005 book “Lord of All: Developing a Christian World-and-Life View,” televangelist D. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe write that every worldview “is based on some kind of assumptions and presuppositions that we probably have never proved…. Scientists operate by faith. Some have had the candor to admit it; others would deny it vehemently.” Evolution, Kennedy and Newcombe insist, is a religion that “is based upon belief in the reality of the unseen — belief in fossils that cannot be produced, belief in embryological evidence that does not exist, and belief in breeding experiments that refuse to come off.” Purporting to defend absolute verities, Kennedy and his ilk push an odd kind of relativism that allows them to dismiss inconvenient truths as the tainted product of hostile ideologies. This epistemological trick has been at the heart of many a right-wing crusade against the reality-based community.

Which is why it’s disheartening to see the liberal rabbi Michael Lerner endorse

a similar way of thinking in his new book “The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country From the Religious Right.” To be sure, Lerner isn’t opposed to the teaching of evolution, and he shares few of the religious right’s policy goals. His book is, as the title suggests, in part a manual for combating conservatism by building a spiritual left, and he has some penetrating insights into the pull that the evangelical right exerts over so many Americans. Unfortunately, though, he shares that movement’s anti-rationalism, faulting liberals for their over reliance on facts at the expense of faith. “The Left believes in the power of empirical observation to determine truth and guide decisions,” he writes disapprovingly. “They are captivated by a belief that has been called scientism.” Unbound by empiricism, Lerner proceeds to make specific policy proposals that seem at times wildly unrealistic. Then he preemptively attacks what he calls the “reality police” who might point out that they won’t work.

Progressives, Lerner writes, “have their values, and those values are not on a higher level of rational foundation than those who root their values in religion or spiritual awareness.” Well, hold on. Sometimes reality does get a vote. Liberals, for example, favor gay rights at least in part because science has shown that homosexuality is not a choice or an illness. Contrary to the claims of some on the right, gay people are not predisposed to prey on children and deserve the same position in society as everyone else. This conviction is most certainly more rooted in empirical reality than the belief that society must condemn homosexuality because the Bible says it is a sin.

Lerner’s tacit acceptance of religious right premises is particularly disappointing given the importance of his larger project. Since his founding of Tikkun Magazine in 1988, Lerner has arguably done more than anyone else in America to win national attention for a type of Jewish liberalism that has been reduced everywhere else to just a blip on the landscape. His work matters.

He is absolutely correct that a successful political party has to stand for more than technocratic competence. He argues, persuasively, that the GOP, in concert with the religious right, has succeeded because it addresses Americans’ deep existential anxieties. The best parts of the book assess what Lerner sees as a spiritual crisis in the United States, one that Democrats have barely acknowledged.

A Ph.D in psychology, Lerner helped found the Institute for Labor and Mental Health in the late 1970s to study the “psychodynamics of American society.” Drawing on interviews conducted by the institute, he paints a convincing picture of American life as both aimless and frenetic. People find their work meaningless and worry that the mercenary values of the marketplace have intruded into private life. Many who turn to the religious right, writes Lerner, “are responding to something very real that is wrong in American society and using the only language that they have available to articulate to themselves what is out of joint — a spiritual language that the culture around the Republican Party supports and that the culture around the Democratic Party rejects.”

This is an important analysis. The religious right offers people a story to explain their despair, and it tells its supporters that they are part of a brave and virtuous vanguard that will save their nation. To be part of the movement is to have a meaningful place in the world. Liberalism doesn’t offer its adherents any comparable narrative arc or communal solidarity.

There are many reasons for this, including communism’s collapse, the decline of the cities and growth of the exurbs and the challenges of globalization. Lerner, though, prefers to blame the left’s ennui largely on a rejection of spirituality. “Many on the Left, to be blunt, hate and fear religion,” he writes. This is an outrageous statement, one reminiscent of Ann Coulter or Jerry Falwell, and Lerner’s only supporting evidence for it is a single meeting with a Ford Foundation funder. At the beginning of the book, Lerner defined “the Left” as the Democrats, the Greens, feminists, environmentalists, and an array of other activist groups and nongovernmental organizations. The group he calls “the Left” makes up a significant chunk of America, a country where upwards of 90% of the population believes in God. Most of the left, like most of the country, is composed of the faithful.

It’s certainly true that the right has succeeded in painting the left as anti-religion, and liberals need to battle this perception. A religious left is part of the solution. But the willfully naïve utopianism Lerner offers is not. One of his most well-developed ideas is a campaign for a “Social Responsibility Amendment” to the Constitution, which would require large corporations to apply for a new corporate charter ever decade. Such charters would be granted only if a jury finds that the corporation has been socially responsible. The jury would have subpoena power, and its members would be “paid at the level of the median average pay for corporate executives in the totality of firms being investigated.” Among many other things, a corporation would have to prove that it produces “socially valuable products, not merely products for which desire must be generated through mass advertising.” “The Left Hand of God,” then, seems to be seriously suggesting that progressives form a new electoral coalition by working to scrap consumer capitalism in the name of spiritual values.

Lerner dismisses scoffers as voices of “cynical realism,” and he even suggests that readers contact reporters deemed too skeptical about the possibility of a better world “to explain why their cynicism is neither justified nor ethically responsible.” (He helpfully urges readers to send such journalists a copy of his book.) After six catastrophic years of faith-based government, however, the last thing anyone needs is a left as untethered from concrete reality as the right.

Michelle Goldberg is the author of “Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism” (W.W. Norton).

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