For years the Democrats have been telling themselves, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Yet for years, millions of middle-income Americans have voted against their economic interests to support Republicans who tap 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 No. 1 has become the accepted wisdom of our society, but they want a life that involves more — a framework of meaning and purpose that would transcend the grasping and narcissism that surrounds them. Many of these voters have found this “politics of meaning” in the right. In the right-wing churches and synagogues, these voters are presented with a coherent worldview that speaks to their needs.
It’s easy to see how this hunger gets manipulated in ways that liberals find confusing and contradictory: the attempt to preserve family by denying gays the right to marry; the talk about being conservative while supporting policies that fail to conserve God’s fundamental creation, the environment; the intense focus on preserving the unborn fetus without a balanced commitment to the stem-cell research that could help preserve living adults; the claim to care about others and then denying them a living wage and adequate health care.
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 relevant to their yearnings for meaning. Rightly angry at the way that some religious groups have been mired in racism, sexism and homophobia, the liberal world has developed such a knee-jerk hostility to religion that it has marginalized many people on both the left and the right who have spiritual yearnings and legitimate complaints about the ethos of selfishness in American life.
Imagine if John Kerry had been able to counter George 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 of a New Bottom Line, so that American institutions are judged to be efficient and productive not only to the extent that they increase financial performance, but also to the extent that they increase 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. If the Democrats were to foster a religious or 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. Instead of assuming that most Americans are either stupid or reactionary, a religious left would understand that many Americans on the right share the same concern for a world based on love and generosity that underlies progressive politics.
Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun, a bimonthly Jewish critique of politics, culture and society, author of Spirit Matters: Global Healing and the Wisdom of the Soul and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun synagogue in San Francisco. This article originally appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org