I recently finished reading Michael Lerner’s intriguing book, The Left Hand of God, (2006, Harper Collins) in which he calls for the formation of a movement of spiritual progressives. The heart of the book is what he calls “The Spiritual Covenant With America,” a series of broad proposals for social reform which seek to wed generally progressive political values to a loosely defined spiritual foundation. His assumption is that the political left has ceded spirituality to the political right thereby losing touch with the broad base of the American public, who he believes share the political values but not the spiritual agnosticism. The purpose of the Covenant is to challenge the Christian Right’s exclusive claim to spiritually motivated political values.

At one point he makes a fascinating point in which he describes how the religious right decries materialism, selfishness, and greed, while allying itself with the forces of big business that aggressively market those values. However, because the liberals work so hard to keep religious values out of the public sphere, the right can blames the left for the secularism that is sweeping our society. It’s a neat little trick that reveals the complete vacuity of vision in the Democratic Party and the duplicity of the religious right.

Lerner seems to pin his hopes and direct his thoughts toward a spiritual openness in the Democratic Party; this is where he loses me. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m no Republican. Rather, I am more in sympathy with Jim Wallis (God’s Poltitics) when he writes “The Right is wrong and the Left doesn’t get it.” I am enthused overall with Lerner’s Covenant, and I am hopeful that spiritually-minded progressive folks can get together, but I must confess I have no faith in the future of the Democratic Party. Seeking to align ourselves with Democrats or revive that party seems to be a dead end. The Democrats are too busy trying to criticize the Republicans that they have no vision of their own.

Furthermore, labeling the spiritual progressive movement a leftist or liberal movement is not only a dead end, at least for me it is inaccurate. Personally, I think the Right is correct on some issues, such as a concern for the family and an opposition to abortion. Their views on family are too narrow, so as not to include single parents, the poor, and gays/lesbians, but they are right when they say the family is in need of support. They are right on abortion too; but again they see “pro-life” as only one issue rather than a theme running through a number of issues such as opposition to the death penalty, the need for gun control, and the need for a health care system that provides for all. By limiting his appeal to so-called “liberal causes,” Lerner makes the same mistake as the Democrats.

Spiritual progressives must do more than simply harp on the old liberal agenda; they must forge a new vision with a new set of alliances. Jim Wallis is closer to the issue when he calls for the creation of a “radical middle,” a group of spiritually minded people who will call both the Republicans and Democrats to task for their lack of values and life-giving vision.

Personally, I would love to see the formation of a third party. In a recent issue of Tikkun, (May/June 2006), a journal which Lerner edits, historian Howard Zinn, a favorite of many progressives was asked about his opinion about “The Spiritual Covenant with America.” He said,
“My differences with Lerner though, reside in the proportion of attention he pays to spiritual values. These are important, but they are not the critical issue. The issue is living and dying…For those who find a special inspiration in Judaism or Christianity or Buddhism or whatever, fine. If that inspiration leads them to work or justice, that is what matters.” (“An Interview with Howard Zinn”, Tikkun May/June 2006, p.28).

In other words, Zinn could care less about spiritual values, what matters to him is a commitment to progressive causes. Interestingly, his opinion of the Democrats is similar to mine. He says:
“The Democratic Party is pitiful. Not only are they not articulating a spiritual vision, as Lerner says, they don’t even have a political message.” (p. 27)

On this we agree. A new political movement outside the Democratic Party is needed.

The Left Hand of God is a provocative read. Lerner raises our consciousness about the relationship between our spiritual and political values. His proposals are bold. My concern is that he is barking up the wrong tree.