I reject the notion that religion, with its proclivity for dogma and superstition and its internal contradictions, is a desirable or necessary requirement for finding meaning in life or developing a strong sense of ethics. Enlightenment principles are sufficient to provide awe, moral codes, and a deep sense of purpose and fulfillment, and they have the benefit of being applicable without all the baggage that accompanies religion. I recognize, however, that for the majority of people in America religion is their primary source of meaning and ethics, and this is not going to change anytime soon .I also recognize that most religions deliver positive messages with which I can empathize, such as helping the poor, stewardship for the environment, and compassion.
Currently, there is a growing movement on the left that believes Democrats should tie their messages into these “progressive” spiritual or religious principles, instead of ceding the ground to right wing fundamentalists. (Rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun, author of the Left Hand of God: Taking Our Country Back From The Religious Right, is a prominent proponent of this movement. There is also a spin-off of the popular leftist blog Daily Kos, called Street Prophets, whose mission is to “change the moral values conversation” and inculcate it with progressive notions of religion.) With all the talk of how “cultural values” dominate many people’s voting patterns, as well as the fact that many people do vote for candidates based on whether they agree with voters’ own religious leanings, at first glance this seems that it might be an effective political strategy.
In fact, it is a recipe for political disaster. Here’s why:
1. Essentially, the strategy behind this movement is to shift attention towards the positive messages that are found throughout the religious traditions. In reality, however, this does little more than downplay the bad and zero in the good. There is no denying that both books of the the Bible and the Koran contain numerous passages that promote intolerance, hatred, and prejudice against not only women and gays, but all non-believers. As Sam Harris points out in The End of Faith, religious extremists are simply the ones who take their religious texts seriously. Even Jesus, considered a symbol of pacifism and caring, supposedly made many comments (can we ever be really sure what he said, especially in the English language?) that can be interpreted as inciting violence (“I have come to bring the sword”, “I have come to set father against son, brother against brother”, as well as statements that people must follow him or else). The point is that while progressives might be able to shift the focus slightly, there is no way to escape the fact that the “holy” books at religions’ core are hardly progressive documents. Basic liberties and democracy are nowhere found in the Bible or the Koran; in fact, the god of the Bible acts like a dictator throughout.
2. When it comes down to it, the people on the right who are most adamant about their religious beliefs are the people for whom the key issues are abortion and gay rights. Yes, they may very well care about the poor and the environment, and not like war, but they will never vote for a candidate who doesn’t unequivocally oppose abortion or who believes that gays should have equal rights. There is simply no way around this; there are probably 30 million voting Americans, mostly fundamentalists, who will never vote for a pro-choice, pro-gay rights candidate, no matter how much that candidate quotes the Bible and Jesus.
3. The people the left most needs to attract are the religious moderates and independents. The number one reason why these people voted for George Bush has little to do with their religious values, and everything to do with the left’s lack of credibility on national security (whether deserved or not). The thrust of the progressive spiritualists will only weaken this credibility further, in ways that must make Karl Rove salivate. Listening to Michael Lerner on NPR is like listening to a speaker at a socialist love-fest, exactly the type of talk that will make moderates in the middle believe that the left does not have a realistic and credible approach to dealing with terrorism (and terrorism is going to be the defining national security issue for a long time). Peace and love are great, but they will not win you the votes of people who are genuinely concerned about being blown up by suicide bombers or other religious fanatics (apart from how serious these threats really are, which is a topic for another day).
4. One of the key problems on the left is not being able to crystallize a message that Americans can identify with. Whether or not the GOP actually adheres to its message, there is no denying that “small government, low taxes, traditional values, and strong national defense” are amazingly effective one-liners that the GOP has wielded with huge success. The progressive spiritual movement wants to take the left in exactly the opposite direction: on Tikkun’s website their core vision is, drum roll please, more than 12,000 words! It’s a manifesto for saving everything, even things that aren’t in danger. It also includes the worst forms of populism, such as the outlandish suggestion that every 10 years citizen juries should decide whether corporations have been “good citizens”, and if not, revoke their corporate charters. Talk about a way to destroy American competitiveness and turn the pro-business crowd against you!
So while I agree that there are many Americans who yearn for a greater sense of meaning and community, it is not the job of government to provide this. The government’s role is to establish the rule of law, to keep us safe and secure, to promote a level playing field for businesses, and to protect our public environmental resources; government has no business in our private lives. With the majority of Americans agreeing with the left on just about every domestic issue, Democrats desperately need to develop a coherent and powerful national security platform (for great ideas on this front check out the blog democracyarsenal and this conversation with former Democratic senator Gary Hart). If they can do that, they will become the party that no one on the right, religious or otherwise, will be able to beat. Anything that detracts from this objective will only take the left backwards and render it a permanent minority.