Sign Up for Our Bi-Weekly Email

Expand your perspective with thought-provoking insights, quotes, and videos hand-picked by our editors—along with the occasional update about the world of EnlightenNext.

Privacy statement

Your email address is kept confidential, and will never be published, sold or given away without your explicit consent. Thank you for joining our mailing list!


Natural Selection

Reviews of books, film, and other media

Taking Our Country Back from the Religious Right
by Michael Lerner
(HarperSanFrancisco, 2006, hardcover $24.95)

There is something about idealism that is inherently attractive. It calls on the highest of our intentions, requires us to shed the layers of cynicism so common in our contemporary culture, and inspires us to believe that great things may be possible for ourselves and for the world. Indeed, where would we be without the great idealists of history who have acted not according to the rules of the world as it existed in the present but according to their own vision of how the world could be in the future? In his new book, The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right, Rabbi Michael Lerner, founder of Tikkun magazine and cofounder of the recently formed Network of Spiritual Progressives, shows unequivocally that he is a passionate and committed idealist. He presents his own vision of a spiritual and political life based on love, generosity, and reverence for a higher power. But idealism, even at its best, is a complicated muse. And Lerner’s book raises some important questions that must accompany any bold vision that asks to be taken seriously at the highest levels of power: What exactly are we idealistic about? How informed is our vision of the future? How realistic? How practical is our plan to get there? These are the difficult straits through which Lerner attempts to steer his vision for a new spiritual politics.


Spiritual politics is not new territory for this sixties activist turned spiritual leader. Indeed, for several decades now, Lerner has dedicated himself to the lonely belief (at least on the left) that while church and state may be separated in our institutions, they need not be separated in our hearts. And for him, it has always been a matter not only of personal passion but of good politics. In fact, Lerner has long argued that the Democratic Party must shed its long-term suspicion of spiritual values and find space within its secular heritage for a new kind of “politics of meaning.” Until recently, he was speaking to an unsympathetic audience. No longer. The 2004 election changed the playing field, and now Democrats of all shapes and sizes are trying to understand why voters told pollsters that “moral values” played such a crucial role in their choices.

One contributing factor to the vote, as Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham pointed out in a 2004 article “Tentacles of Rage,” is that the last three decades of American politics have witnessed a growing alliance between the religious right and the political right. Lerner refers to this partnership as an “unholy merger of corporate power and Christian fervor.” But he is not so proud as to ignore a successful strategy. Along with many others on the newly energized spiritual left, he has called for the same sort of alliance on the Democratic side. The Left Hand of God is Lerner’s strategic offering to a marginalized Democratic Party, a call to resuscitate the once-powerful idealism of the sixties, tap its spiritual energy, and bring it into the new millennium as a force for change within a newly fashioned liberalism.

Lerner’s basic message—and it’s a good one—is that the left’s suspicion of spiritual ideals has left it bereft of a higher vision around which to rally the American people. And therefore it is unable and unwilling to answer the deep yearning in the American soul to be part of a larger mission, a mission that gives deeper meaning and higher purpose to life. This yearning, Lerner believes, is exacerbated by an increasingly materialistic culture in which superficiality reigns, secular concerns dominate, and profit is king. Liberals are wrong, he declares, when they insist that the crisis in American society has been imagined by the religious right:

The point is that there is a real spiritual crisis in American society, and the Religious Right has managed to position itself as the articulator of the pain that crisis causes and as the caring force that will provide a spiritual solution. And then it takes the credibility it has won in this way and associates itself with a political Right that is actually championing the very institutions and social arrangements that caused this problem in the first place.

In other words, the right’s genius, according to Lerner, has been to recognize the authentic aspiration for higher meaning in millions of Americans and then to channel that energy into conservative theologies and conservative politics. Conservative politicians then turn around and promote policies and support business concerns that end up contributing to the materialism and selfishness that are causing the crisis rather than helping to alleviate it. Lerner sees this as a self-fulfilling vicious circle that feeds off the genuine aspiration for meaning in our sociopolitical culture. And the Democratic Party and progressive left, dramatically tone-deaf to these higher concerns, have stood by passively, blaming themselves or blaming their candidates, never facing up to the genuine crisis of meaning engulfing the country. In fact, one of the reasons why Lerner believes that the religious right has been so successful in this strategy is that, as he puts it, “most people have never even been exposed to a coherent spiritual-political alternative.” But as powerful as the thesis is, it’s also somewhat overdone. Lerner tends to make it seem as though millions of Americans are victims of regressive spiritual, economic, and political worldviews not of their choosing, and if you could just provide them with a better alternative, everything would quickly improve. The truth is likely much more complex.

The two groups mentioned here, religious conservatives and political conservatives, represent the twin forces in the American polity that Lerner despises. The former represents the darker side of religion, the latter the darker side of politics and business. Together they are aligned in a spiritual worldview that Lerner calls the Right Hand of God—a vision of the spiritual life that is based on fear, sees evil in the world, and imagines that evil can be wiped out or at least dominated, suppressed, and coerced into submission. Lerner sees the Right Hand of God as active across the political spectrum, from the cold calculations of corporations that care only about the bottom line to the militaristic policies of the Bush administration in the Middle East to the fears of Democrats who think they have to “act tough” and support military action to get elected. In each of these examples, Lerner sees people giving in to cynicism, to the voice of fear, to the view that other people are not trustworthy and that the world cannot be based on higher values—and therefore they feel that they must look out for number one. These motives he attributes to the influence of the Right Hand of God.

Lerner’s Left Hand of God, on the other hand, is a caring, loving, idealistic, nonviolent energy of spirit. It represents the “voice of hope” within us, the voice of idealism, the sacred beliefs that the world can be based on higher and deeper values, that other people can be trustworthy, and that there are ideals beyond self-interest. Lerner sees the Left Hand of God operating, not surprisingly, in movements such as civil rights, feminism, and antiwar activism. Both the Left Hand and Right Hand of God, he suggests, exist within each of us as universal qualities of spirit, and everything depends on the choices we make in relation to these fundamental energies.

Lerner cites scholar Riane Eisler, author of The Chalice and the Blade, in his acknowledgments, and it’s easy to see how she might have influenced his spiritual schema. Her work splits all of human history into a similar polarization of worldviews (the dominator model versus the partnership model of society). Eisler’s work, while groundbreaking in many ways, has come under fire for several reasons, including an oversimplified bifurcation of human psychology. Unfortunately for Lerner’s thesis, splitting the human condition up in this way doesn’t just make for questionable history; it makes for questionable politics. Indeed, Lerner’s highly dualistic vision of the two hands of God oversimplifies the way our own spiritual impulses are expressed in our worldly attitudes and actions. Yes, we all would like to live in a world of love and generosity, a world in which the Left Hand of God is ascendant. But we can’t simply jump into a world based entirely on values that the Left Hand of God holds dear. Working toward such an end will also require policies associated with Lerner’s Right Hand of God, like the occasional use of military force or the further expansion of material prosperity in the form of the Western economic system. Lerner might see such an admission as a capitulation to “cynical realism,” but that need not be the case. In fact, the true challenge before progressives, both spiritual and secular, is to articulate a platform that is big-minded and big-hearted enough to be idealistic but also realistic, one that avoids both naïve optimism and cynical realism. This will require a kind of radical forward-looking political viewpoint that refuses to be caught in the kind of spiritual and political polarities Lerner is wedded to.

The other unfortunate position that runs through The Left Hand of God is a strong anticorporate, antiglobalization agenda. Indeed, Lerner dedicates the better part of a chapter to criticizing the pro-globalization philosophy of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. There is nothing wrong with a robust critique of the materialism and selfishness encouraged by capitalism, and Lerner makes a lot of important points about how we must respond much more to the side effects and dislocations caused by globalization. But at times his anticapitalist tone takes on an ideological, reactionary tinge, and he sounds more like an old socialist lamenting the evils of the marketplace than a progressive thinker acknowledging the bad and good sides of our current economic system while recommending a path to a brighter future.

Despite these problems, there is a great deal to appreciate in Lerner’s work. His analysis of many of the left’s failings rings true, and his historical analysis of the Democratic Party from the New Deal through the sixties to the present makes for fascinating reading. Lerner is without question an astute observer of American political culture. He adroitly shies away from the extreme positions of some of his colleagues on the left and gives credit where credit is due. He gives appropriate kudos, for example, to the religious right for at least acknowledging that human needs extend beyond the pocketbook. He contrasts them with secular liberals, who often fail to understand why issues that revolve around “values” could trump material concerns at the ballot box, and tear their hair out wondering why red state voters often seem to vote against their own economic interests. Lerner also makes an impassioned call for the development of a “Global Marshall Plan,” which is desperately needed in this day and age, a plan that recognizes global poverty as a contributing factor to fundamentalism and terrorism.

The movement of spiritual progres sives started by Lerner and others represents a potential breakthrough in leftist politics, and hopefully it will force the Democratic Party to reconsider its antiquated hostility toward the spiritual dimension of life. As many commentators have pointed out, if the left is going to offer a vision of political engagement that truly inspires the American electorate, they desperately need an active discourse that explores what they deeply stand for, beyond the policy particulars. Such visions do not come easily, and they do not come without being willing to inquire into the nature of our fundamental beliefs about the world and ourselves, and to change them if necessary. With all of the anger currently generated over the war in Iraq, there is a danger that Democrats may put aside this inquiry in the hope that Bush’s failure will be enough to see them through to victory. At its best, The Left Hand of God provides an important reminder to liberals and progressives that they cannot escape the demands of this moment in history so easily. But Lerner’s bifurcation of the spiritual energy of the universe into left and right is oversimplified, and the oversimplification leads to a polarized—and polarizing—analysis. But the more one reads the fine print in Lerner’s book, the less one is convinced that his practical prescriptions are as innovative as his general thesis. He tends to state how he would like things to be rather than how we can get from here to there. But if we are going to bridge the gap between the world as it is today and the world that we imagine is possible in our best moments, we must find a way to make a new kind of realism our friend.

Carter Phipps


[ continue ]


Subscribe to What Is Enlightenment? magazine today and get 40% off the cover price.

Subscribe Give a gift Renew

This article is from
Our Mystery of Evolution Issue


January–March 2007