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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Keeping the faith: The emergence of the religious left

    Damion LeeNatalicolumnist
    Damion LeeNatali

    Let’s get something straight – America is an overwhelmingly Christian nation. Sure, we can talk about diversity and tolerance and religious freedom, but the fact of the matter is that we’re remarkably spiritually homogenous. And it’s time for the religiously queasy Democrats to accept it.

    Let’s do the numbers. Upwards of 85 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christians (Israel, by the way, is only 77 percent Jewish), 75 percent pray to God on a daily basis and 33 percent go to church every week.

    Much was made about the “”values voters”” who supposedly bestowed a second term on President Bush in 2004. And sure, the religious right has long been hailed for its ability to mobilize voters with its agenda of “”God, guns and gays.””

    But there’s a new movement afoot, one that promises to offer a real alternative to the fire-and-brimstone tactics of religious conservatives. The religious left, as it’s called, is in a state of resurgence, and it’s up to the Democrats to keep from needlessly squandering its potential.

    Just last week, Rabbi Michael Lerner, one of the principal intellectual forces behind the religious left, visited Tucson’s First United Methodist Church to articulate the tenets of “”spiritual progressivism.””

    “”America is suffering a spiritual crisis,”” he explained to the sizable crowd Thursday. American workers, immersed in a free-market culture that emphasizes productivity over connectivity and the dollar over personal devotion, feel lost, alienated and alone in their relationships.

    Americans are spiritually hungry but they’re joining a movement (and a Republican party) whose dogged adherence to free-market policies do nothing more than foment that spiritual hunger.

    Tired of being nothing more than “”rational maximizers of self-interest,”” many Americans inevitably turn to the group that not only recognizes that spiritual bankruptcy but also offers a sense of belonging – the religious right.

    But, Lerner explains, there’s a catch. To create that sense of belonging, religious conservatives create a climate of exclusion as well, projecting fear and loneliness on “”some evil other”” (more specifically, homosexuals, “”career women”” and, most recently, liberals).

    The need to belong is powerful, argues Lerner, powerful enough to compel people to vote against their economic interests to remain a part of the group. Despite the fact that most Americans support the decidedly Democratic ideals of economic equality, environmental sensitivity and humanitarian aid, none of that matters if, say, gays might be allowed to marry.

    This has not gone unnoticed by Lerner. “”For many Americans, the issues are not the issue,”” the rabbi said emphatically. “”The issue is, ‘Am I being accepted?'””

    Lerner isn’t the only one to reveal this strange willingness to abandon economic interests for narrowly defined religious issues. Political commentator Thomas Frank also questioned the “”Republican paradox”” in his book “”What’s the Matter with Kansas?””

    Average Americans in average towns have “”followed the same trajectory,”” he writes. “”Even as Republican policies have laid waste to the city’s industries, unions and neighborhoods, the townsfolk responded by lashing out on cultural issues, eventually winding up with a hard-right Republican congressman, a born-again Christian who campaigned largely on an anti-abortion platform.””

    So two things are obvious: Americans are spiritually hungry but they’re joining a movement (and a Republican party) whose dogged adherence to free-market policies do nothing more than foment that spiritual hunger. It’s a vicious cycle, and one that Democrats (who are notoriously uneasy with religion) seem ill-equipped to address.

    And therein lies the importance of the religious left. It’s not an instrument to supplant the Democratic Party, but to supplement it. Secular Democrats who aren’t fond of religion shouldn’t suddenly try to “”out-Bible”” the Bible-thumpers. As Lerner said to uproarious applause, “”The crisis isn’t about too few Democrats voting Bible.””

    Rather, it’s time for secular liberals to realize that religion will probably always be mixed with American politics – the only question is what kind of religion. Will it be the religion of exclusion and derision and hate? Or will it be the kind of religion espoused by Lerner and his colleagues, one that aims to combat poverty at home and abroad, to foster ecological sensitivity and to oppose armed conflict?

    Democrats look to be in for a big victory in November even if they don’t address “”the religion issue.”” But whether they win or lose, it will continue to come up. They can try to outflank Republicans on the right, or they can recognize the religious left as valuable partners and give them a seat at the table.

    For the sake of the party (and the country), here’s to hoping the Democrats go with the latter.

    Damion LeeNatali is a senior majoring in political science and history. He can be reached at

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