Vetting God’s Politics

Michael Lerner, The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006).
Jim Wallis, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005).

Dearly beloved leftists and friends.  It’s 2006 and we’re gathered here together uncomfortably discussing why so few of us are gathered here together.  The “End of History” — which began in ’89 with the collapse of Communism — looms as the most popular reason for Leftist decline.  The demise of the Soviet Union meant capitalism was the only game in town, stripping the Left of its “agency” — something to fight for.

More recently, though, TINA (“there is no alternative”) has gained a formidable rival.  The Left is in decline, it’s said, because we live in times when concern about moral values trumps material concerns.  Millions still support the Left’s economic agenda, but policy issues — health insurance coverage, rising job insecurity, falling wages, overwork, disappearing pensions — don’t cut as deeply as they used to.  Nowadays, it’s the hunger for transcendent values that counts, explaining why the Religious Right drives the national agenda and why the Left can’t compete.  We’ve neglected God, spirituality, and prophetic religion.

We’re primed to pay attention to this diagnosis because it’s widely believed that America represents an exception to the secularization thesis.  The pews may have emptied out long ago in Europe, but Americans, it’s claimed, need to see God through those high windows every week.

Where do these impressions come from?  Not from any rigorous opinion research.  Recent Harris, Pew, Barna and CUNY’s ARIS and NSRI studies all report pretty much the same story: although it started later and has further to go, secularization is spreading here too.  In simple numerical terms (as a share of the population) the two largest Protestant denominations — the Baptists and the Methodists — are actually shrinking.  Jews have shrunk to only 1%.  The Catholics — the largest single block of Christians — who greatly benefit from immigration are growing at a rate slower than the population.  And there’s little evidence of a spurt by evangelicals: their share of the population has remained pretty constant over the last decade — at about 7%.

The real mushroom growth of unbelievers has taken place: between 1990 and 2001, professed atheists and agnostics have more than doubled from 14.3 million to 29.4 million.  If they were ranked as a denomination, U.S. unbelievers would rank fourth — after Catholics, Baptists, and Methodists, but ahead of Lutherans and Presbyterians.

But merely asking people to put a label on their religious beliefs vastly understates the shift that’s taken place.  According to a 2001 poll by the Barna Group, most church-going adults reject the accuracy of the Bible, reject the existence of Satan, claim that Jesus sinned, see no need to evangelize, believe that good works are one of the keys to persuading God to forgive their sins, and describe their commitment to Christianity as moderate or even less firm.  The results, observed Professor of Religion Gerald McDermott, illustrate an “epochal change in popular theology — a loss of faith in the divinity of Christ and a large segment of the U.S. population reverting to Deism.”1

This evidence was almost totally ignored in the aftermath of a now notorious exit poll suggesting that 22% of the American people determined their selection of the 2004 Presidential candidate on the basis of “values.”  Of these, 80% voted for Bush.  And there was more.  If you went more than once a week to church, the chances were 2 to 1, you’d voted for Bush.  Soon repentance was nigh.  Within days, just as the Israelites blamed the Babylonian conquest on their loss of faith, so too did the Democrats for their beating by the Republicans.

Among the best-known voices urging Leftists in the Democratic Party to make a sharp spiritual turn is Rabbi Michael Lerner.  He’s a former revolutionary philosophy professor, who became a psycho-therapist in the late 70s and then studied to be a rabbi in the mid-80s.  Notwithstanding the demands of his rabbinical training, in 1986, Lerner founded Tikkun, one of the largest circulation Jewish magazines in America.  For the last decade, Lerner has served as the rabbi of Beyt Tikkun, a Jewish Renewal congregation in the San Francisco Bay area.

Along the path of his successive callings, Lerner has made large and highly visible footprints.  Born in ’43, to non-observant Jewish parents, Michael P. Lerner became prominent in the 70s as both an activist and as the uncompromisingly Marxist author of The New Socialist Revolution.  I remember the impact he made on the Berkeley campus.  A bunch of us grad students were sitting around the Bear’s Lair’s, an outdoor café, in Sproul Hall Plaza when Lerner burst in complaining bitterly.  “Michael Harrington just gave me a terrible review,” he said waiving a copy of the New York Times Book Review.  In fact, Harrington had given him a mixed review.  And certainly nothing to be devastated by.  How many first-time grad student authors, espousing revolutionary Marxism, get reviewed in the New York Times by the pope of American socialism?  In fact, the review was beyond good and evil — it was a divine miracle.

Nearly as marvelous was the offer he got about the same time, to teach at Trinity College as a tenure track professor of philosophy.  He’d gotten a second chance after a tumultuous experience at the University of Washington in Seattle.  With his activist training at the Berkeley mothership and his youthful good looks and persuasive oratory, Lerner may have been the biggest thing to hit Seattle between Boeing and Paul Allen.  Within a short time of his arrival, he’d founded something called the Seattle Liberation Front.  Not long afterwards, Lerner was arrested on conspiracy to riot charges.  Although he was eventually exonerated in a jury trial, Lerner still served several months in a federal penitentiary as a member of the “Seattle 7.”  J. Edgar Hoover described him as “one of the most dangerous criminals in America.”

It was despite these formidable trouble-making credentials that Lerner got the job at Trinity.  So he was off to Hartford.  But not before he entered into a classical Berkeley wedding with a beautiful teenage shiksa, Thierry Cook.  The ceremony was held in a backyard where the celebrants shared a “smash monogamy” wedding cake.  Everyone got up and made a tribute to the two partners.  But afterwards, in the spirit of the cake, no one was legally married.

In the last thirty years, Lerner’s views on marriage have changed considerably, as have his opinions on many other vital subjects.  Gandhi was once his bete noire, now Lerner is an avatar of non-violence.  And whereas the Marxist class struggle once pretty much defined his politics, he now insists that all such antagonistic forms of social action be replaced by individual spiritual transformation.

And it would be as an apostle of political centrism that Lerner reached the peak of his influence — in the mid-90’s when he was a sometime visitor to the Clinton White House as the inventor of “The Politics of Meaning.”  Instead of seeing politics as a clash of class interests or even as an effort to find common interests, Lerner advocated the elevation of spiritual interests over material ones.  So conceived, the Politics of Meaning seemed to be just the kind of theology to give spiritual depth to the Clintonian agenda of the Third Way.  Briefly, Lerner’s “meaning” discourse surfaced as a prominent theme in the speeches of Hillary Clinton.  But Lerner and the Clintons had a notable falling out over the meaning of “meaning.”  Asked once what she regarded as her single biggest political mistake, Ms. Clinton is said to have replied, “Inviting Michael Lerner to the White House.”

The Sound of One Hand Clapping

In the decade since, Lerner has written a series of books, including Jewish Renewal, The Politics of Meaning, Spirit Matters, and now The Left Hand of God.  The metaphors and the political foreground change.  But the underlying aims, concepts, and much of the sermon tends to run together.  On the one hand, Lerner’s trying to convince the spiritually committed of the need for political engagement.  And on the other, he’s seeking to rouse the politically engaged to become more spiritual.

In The Left Hand of God, Lerner revisits these themes, insisting that the spiritualization of politics is more necessary than ever.  The Left is too materialistic.  Too concerned with self-interest and individual rights, leftists ignore the human need for deep connection, dialog, and community.  The Religious Right — Pat Robertson & Co — threatens to step into the meaning gap left by the secular Left and take over the country.  To prevent a theocratic coup, activists much reach out and clasp the truly spiritual — the Left Hand of God.

God’s Left Hand can be easily distinguished from His/Her Right: it’s the softer of the two.  The Right hand tends to be patriarchal, war-like, and retributive.  Lerner downplays it, but the Pentateuchal God seems overwhelmingly Right-handed.  Recall God’s destruction of the Earth including nearly all the animals.  What was his problem?  Then, there was Yahweh’s Covenant with the Chosen: the exchange of land and fertility for eternal obedience marked by circumcision; the punishment of Israelite children for their parents’ sins even to the third and fourth generation.  And above all, the Lord’s murderous insistence on genocidal campaigns against the Canaanites.  Under Joshua, Moses’ successor, the Israelites destroyed dozens of Canaanite cities, murdered the men, women and children, impaled the rulers, and carried off the cattle and the virgins.  When the Israelites briefly relented, showing tolerance to the Canaanites, God appeared, saying:

I said, I will never break My covenant with you.  And you, for your part, must make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you must tear down their altars.  But you have not obeyed Me — look what you have done!

Yahweh promises to visit terrible vengeance on the Israelites for their transgressive tolerance.  And he does.  Tellingly, it’s not until God begins to rain down his punishments on the Israelites that He ever speaks of his love for them.

Lerner thinks he can uphold God’s Left Hand by re-interpreting the Bible.  He seeks to lift the Biblical curse on gays, noting: “What the Torah says is that it is forbidden for a man to lie with a man as he lies with a woman.”  What the text really means, Lerner explains, is that “gay relationships shouldn’t seek to imitate the behavior appropriate for heterosexual relationships.”  Evidently, men don’t have the same genital equipment as women, so they’re going to copulate differently with a man than a woman.   The Bible is just making this helpful anatomical point.

Perhaps.  But it’s hard to forget the fate of the Sodomites.  Abraham begs the Lord not to kill them all because some are homosexual.  “Far be it from You!  Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”  Not it turns out, when he’s in a homophobic rage.  God kills all the people of Sodom, destroying all the cities “and the entire Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities and the vegetation of the ground.”

Against this traditional Right hand, Lerner still insists that he can discern a relevant Left in the Jewish spiritual tradition, one more Mom-like: a hand that comforts us, shows unfailing concern, and connect us in loving encounters with all our brothers and sisters around the planet.  It can also be found in the Bible — later on in the Prophets, in the mystical experiences and insights of the Hasidic adepts, and in the writings of Jewish scholars like Abraham Joshua Heschel.

The ingredients mixed by Lerner can make for a crazy spiritual salad.  Basically, it’s a dualistic world dominated by Hope and Fear.  Left and Right.  Spiritual and material.  But sometimes, the binary logic fails.  On the one hand, Lerner portrays the world as a cosmos that should fill us with “awe and wonder.”  On the other hand, he insists that our fundamental task is the Gnostic tikkun olam — to heal the world — which implies not a cosmos, but a sick or broken planet.

The connection between Jewish tradition and contemporary Jewish spirituality seems forced.  On the one hand, Lerner invokes the Prophets, the Lurianic Kabbalah, and the Ghetto populism of the 17th-century Jewish mystics.  On the other hand, he pours in gestalt therapy, self-esteem, and the accents of New Age theology.  Old Yahweh now gets defined by Lerner as “the force,” echoing Obi wan Kenobi (“May the force be with you”).

Lerner’s theology starts to resemble Bokononism — the religious creed portrayed in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle.  Made up of harmless foma — untruths — Bokononism had been devised by a British Episcopalian black from the Island of Tobago who conceived it as a way to distract the West Indians from the lack of meaning in their lives.

But such a derisive reading would be a double mistake.  Although Lerner has added some trendy themes, he still raises questions of the highest significance.  To what extent should politics be determined by ethics?  And if the content of politics is primarily ethical, to what extent must ethics be based on religion?  And even more fundamentally, should political action be driven primarily by our heads or by our hearts?

Nor are Lerner’s answers woven out of his own spiritual cloth.  Mostly, he’s working within a definite center-left Jewish tradition — one pioneered by early 20th-century German-Jewish thinkers like Martin Buber and Gustav Landauer.  There are also affinities between Lerner’s development and the paths of many French ’68ers who’ve moved “from Mao to Moses.”  Perhaps today’s most influential thinker in France today is the Lithuanian-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1996).  Like Buber, Levinas emphasizes the importance of Encounter with the Other as the foundation of philosophical experience.  He counterposes Athens and Jerusalem, arguing that the West took the wrong path by emphasizing knowledge and reason over love.

Lerner’s Jewish spiritualism represents a conscious revolt against Modernity.  For modernity, political consciousness begins with disenchantment: the understanding that religion is a form of alienation.  Man makes God, not vice versa.  No true political dialog is possible with people who engage in ventriloqual routines with burning bushes, magic mountains, or enchanted clouds.  For those influenced by the Enlightenment, the claim of being on God’s side is not simply unconvincing.  It’s a coercive, authoritarian form of discourse.  Don’t tell me what God says.  Tell me what you know.  Don’t tell me what the Lord did.  Tell me why it’s good to do.

Evidently, some on the Left fear they can’t win arguments without religious authority.  But the back-to-the-Bible movement represents a sad regression: back to the childhood of civilization when ordinary people were expected to do what they were told by inspired seers who heard voices, performed magical routines, and issued divinely inspired warnings.  The idea that, through debate and political participation, citizens can learn to think for themselves and act autonomously is strictly a product of the Enlightenment. (“Sapere aude!” urged Kant, “Have the courage to use your reason.”)

Lerner, however, seems to find the Enlightenment distasteful.  His every reference is slighting.  And despite his youthful engagement with Marxism, he insists it is the alienation from religion that constitutes the crisis of modern politics.  It’s an approach that was pioneered by Martin Buber.  The author of the 1923 classic I and Thou simply invented Lerner’s entire post-80s position: all the major elements are there.  The effort to replace materialistic politics with an historically grounded Jewish spiritual tradition that fed communitarian socialism; left Zionism as a product of the communitarian tradition, demanding a bi-national State of Arabs and Jews in Palestine.

It was Buber who first resurrected Hasidic mysticism as a matrix of progressivism.  His translations of the 17th-century Hasidic masters brought them to the attention of the German Left.  It was he who interpreted the tales of the Hasidic adepts as a populist revolt against the legalistic and coercive Jewish elites and therefore won the attention of German Jewish left intellectuals who sided with the despised eastern European Jewish immigrants.

Even more fundamentally, Buber distinguished between I-Thou and I-It encounters — an epochal distinction that would become the basis for a new theology, then a new psychotherapy, and ultimately a new form of communitarian politics.  I-Thou encounters treated people as ends in themselves. They expressed God’s concern and love for us.  I-It encounters were pseudo-encounters — those which treated people merely as means as things to be manipulated.  A spiritual renewal could be carried out by replacing the second type of encounter by the first.

Buber’s insistence that “all life is encounter” would produce a profoundly new departure in psychotherapy: instead of Freud’s materialistic division of the self between ego-id and super-ego, Buber’s dialogic principle emerged to become the foundation of Gestalt therapy, which his German disciple Fritz Perls brought to Berkeley.

The loving dialog — whose model was heavenly love — could be multiplied two by two, Buber believed, until the loving community was achieved.  He insisted that the non-antagonistic growth of this community — not inner conflict or class struggle within society — constituted the true path to the reformation of society.  Thus Buber could argue that religion needed socialism for its realization; but that socialism without religion was spiritually vacuous.  Lerner says much the same thing without specifically mentioning socialism, although some of his own proposals — like a Jubilee Year for the entire planet — are meant to evoke respect for the dignity of labor.  (And would keep the shabbas goy quite busy!)

The reason for insisting on the priority of Buber’s discovery of God’s Left Hand, is not merely academic.  Recalling the post-WWI experience of Buber and his circle challenges Lerner’s claim that the American political Left needs inspiration from the Jewish spiritual-communal tradition, lest we repeat the mistakes of the German left.

According to Lerner, it was the unfilled longings of the German people for gemeinschaft, that brought Hitler to power.  The Left of the Weimar Republic spoke only to people’s material needs.  Starved of gemeinschaft, the German people turned to Hitler’s völkisch appeal.

Lerner’s account of the Nazi rise to power leaves out some critical material and political factors — like the Great Depression and the suicidal division of the Left between Social Democrats and Communists. But even more significantly, Lerner blots out the not inconsiderable role of the communitarian Jewish Left in producing the convulsive reaction that Hitler exploited.

At a certain point in the upheaval that followed the German defeat by the Allies, members of Buber’s Neue Gemeinschaft group — like Gustav Landauer and Erich Mühsam — were high-level participants in the regime which seized power in Bavaria.  To understand the terrible repercussion of the 1919 anarchist coup, imagine if Vietnam not only won the war but invaded the U.S. in the 60s and, in the chaos that followed, a handful of long-bearded Jewish radicals from Berkeley seized power in California and declared the state a Republic.  Then, although a tiny anarchist minority of a left revolutionary minority, the government proceeded to decree a new social order; handing out a worthless currency as free money; establishing agrarian communes; and declaring war on Mexico.  (Bavaria declared war on Switzerland after its refusal to lend the new government 60 locomotives.)  It’s likely that California would have experienced a reaction far worse than the election of Ronald Reagan.

As it was, the gentle but indomitable Gustav Landauer, Minister of Education, died trying to preach love to Frei Korps thugs who beat him to death with their rifle butts.  His last words to his murderers were “To think that you are human.”  Buber wrote: “Landauer fell like a prophet and a martyr of the human community to come.”  Other leading figures like Eric Mühsam would be singled out for special tortures in the concentration camps when the Nazis came to power.  And Bavaria, which had temporarily swung left in WWI’s aftermath, would become Adolph Hitler’s rockbound base.

The German post-WWI experience shows how misleading it is to argue that the populist Right and the communitarian Left are responding to the same needs for meaning and community.  Yes, the Right wanted community — a reich based on communal values, traditions, boundaries, rules, i.e., without Jews and gays.  To the extent Right communitarians seek to ground their communitarian preferences either in the commands of an omniscient God or an infallible Fuhrer, it creates even greater potential for conflict.  Not common ground with the Left.

In his prolog to Martin Buber’s I and Thou, the atheist philosopher Walter Kauffman observed that, while the world was irredeemably manifold, human beings tend to shrink from the terrors of a truly plural world: “They like to be told that there are two worlds and two ways.  This is comforting because it is so tidy.  Almost always one way turns out to be common and the other one is celebrated as superior.”

Lerner has raised this “keep-it-spiritually-simple” dualism to the level of an ontology: it rests on the idea of an elementary loving encounter between two people as the basis of personal ethics and personal ethics as the basis of politics.  But politics can’t be based on inter-personal love.  If for no other reason than it’s not based on two people.

In political action, we find ourselves involved an infinitely more complex web of human relationships.  The actors are institutional persons, not individual persons.  Corporations, labor unions, and political parties have rights and responsibilities.  They can act for reasons, just like individual persons.  And we can make moral judgments about them.  But we can’t feel about them the same way we do about individual persons.  Ideally, what we feel is a thoroughly modern feeling — something never mentioned or conceived of by the prophets or the Hasidic rabbis — solidarity.

Because it’s a product of the Enlightenment and without Biblical foundation, does labor solidarity — identification with the concerns and conditions of other workers — occupy a lower plane than Buberian one-on-one love?  In terms of altruism, it would seem to stand at least as high.  Recall the old Knights of Labor slogan: “An injury to one is an injury to all.”  Solidarity requires you to feel that what has been done to a fellow worker has been done to you.

In some ways, you could even argue solidarity stands higher.  Buberian love is reciprocal: God loves us; we naturally love god.  The members of Buberian community are all united in face-to-face intimacies and affection.  But solidarity is more strictly a product of moral duty.  You’re required to feel and act in concert whether or not you’’e bathed in communal love or divine love.  Solidarity is the quasi-Kantian product of a universal ethical judgment, demanding the same rights and conditions for often anonymous others that you’ve won for yourself.

In this light, Lerner’s insistence that the modern Left is irredeemably sunk in self-interest and the crudest forms of materialism ignores the highest values of the modern labor movement.

As long as we are on the subject, just how advanced, comparatively speaking, are the Bible’s ethics?  In terms of personal morality, the Ten Commandments are unmatched — apt, comprehensive and concise.  But in the broader, socio-political dimension — which provides a context for personal ethics — the Judeo-Christian tradition is weak.

Understandably, the Bible has nothing to say about solidarity.  There were no wage workers back then.  But there were slaves.  What does it have to say about slavery?  Quite a bit.  And overwhelmingly accepting of the institution itself, notwithstanding the Israelites’ bitter objections to having themselves been enslaved by the Egyptians.  The New Testament in particular can be understood as a treasury of pro-slavery advice to slaves to obey their masters no matter how cruelly they may be treated.

Consider, by contrast, the humane and iconoclastic thinking of Stoic philosophers Dion Chrysostom who was contemporary with the Jesus and His Disciples.  And his master, Zeno, the 4th-century BC founder of Stoicism.  “Whether the slave has become so by conquest or by purchase,” wrote Zeno, “the master’s title is bad” (Zeno, quoted in Denis’ Histoire des Theories Morales, vol. i, p. 346).  Dion insisted on the necessity of free labor.  “Let us not charge anyone with baseness of birth.  Let us have free laborers, and think their labors useful and noble” (Dion Chrysostom, quoted in Champigny’s Les Antonins, vol. i, p. 428.).

Epictetus, a later Stoic asks, ”Will you remember that your servants are by nature your brothers, the children of God?  Saying that you have bought them, you look down on the earth, and into the pit, on the wretched laws of men long since dead, but you see not the laws of the gods” (Epictetus’ Discourses, book i, chap. xiii, secs. 4 and 5).

It was the pagan gods of the Greeks and Romans, not the God of the Jews or the Christians, who condemned slavery.  It was the pagans who first contrasted autonomy with despotism and who invented isegoria — equal right to speak in public assemblies — and isonomia — equal rights under the law.  And of course it was the idol worshipping pagans who also invented democracy.  All were concepts unknown to the pious Israelites who found the right course of political action not through free and equal debate in public assembly but only after listening to heavenly inspired seers.

The Third Way as God’s Way

But don’t try to tell Rev. Jim Wallis that sweet Jesus can’t drive modern progressive politics.  Wallis is that rarest of creatures — a Protestant fundamentalist minister who pounds the New Testament while preaching against the Iraq war, defending homosexual rights, and insisting that white people should apologize to blacks for slavery.  Perhaps even more unusual, Wallis is a lucid writer, a master of telling anecdotes, the talent he exploits as the author of a best-selling book, God’s Politics.  Wallis came of age politically about the same time as Lerner.  But after brief stint as community organizer, he became a theology student and chose a career with an evangelical instead of a mainline liberal church.

Wallis shares some basic theses with Lerner.  The Left is losing today because it doesn’t know how to get spirituality right; most of all, it needs a values makeover.  Wallis too offers himself as a political consultant: the Democrats should take the opportunity of their 2004 presidential defeat to “really reassess their language and style, the way they morally frame public policy issues, and their cultural disconnect with too many Americans including many people of faith,” so “they could transform the political discourse.”

Like Lerner, Wallis presents himself as an apostle of the Third Way.  But his analysis of the two party game is much sharper than usual.  Unflinchingly, he describes the position of African Americans: “One party uses them as a wedge issue to draw working-class whites, while the other depends on their support without offering substantial policy proposals to redress their grievances.”

But Wallis doesn’t offer Blacks any substantial policy proposals either.  Whites would merely say they’re sorry for slavery (“Reconciliation”).  But meanwhile, the Democrats don’t have to do anything to remedy housing discrimination, which surely has something to do with substandard, segregated schools and poor job prospects.  Instead of suggesting a new public policy agenda or a way out of the institutional deadlock that is American politics, Wallis asks us to imagine politics reframed by the example of Jesus and the prophets.

As far as the Republicans are concerned, Wallis doesn’t intend to deliver ice cubes to the Eskimos.  He knows the GOP excels at bringing a religious sensibility to their agenda.  Wallis’ point is that Republicans’ religious approach is one-dimensional: “preferring to focus only on sexual and cultural issues (i.e., abortion and gay marriage) while ignoring the weightier matters of justice.”

It’s not that the Republicans are wrong to spiritualize issues of personal responsibility.  Wallis says they’re right.  It’s just not enough.  The entire political spectrum has to be filled with God’s light.  Not just personal morality.  Religious feeling and religious modes of thought must also motivate issues of race, world peace, the environment, and especially American poverty.

Wallis is scathing on Christians who think they’re being fundamentalist but who ignore the fundamental emphasis in New Testament on Jesus’ love for the poor.  Much as Lerner is anxious to show that the Old Testament is really gay-friendly, Jim Wallis wants to demonstrate that the Christian Bible only seems to relegate poverty to second spiritual place in that most famous parable at Bethany.  After a woman pours expensive ointment on his head, Jesus’ disciples criticize her for wasting resources that could go to the poor.  Jesus says lighten up, “For you always have the poor with you.”

After Wallis pours out his own exegetical gifts, the reader is convinced Jesus has been misinterpreted.  Context is everything.  There is no subject that fills up more space in the Christian Bible than poverty.  Wallis calculates that, proportionately, about one seventh of the New Testament is about poverty.

Evidently, Jesus deeply loved the poor.  So if we love Jesus we should love them too.  But how do we translate our love into political terms?

Republicans and Democrats, argues Wallis, should stop arguing about poverty and simply merge their poverty proposals.  The Republicans are right to say that family values will help the poor.  The Democrats are right to say well-designed public programs will help the poor.  We need both.

It’s a compromise that’s been tried before.  Clinton ended welfare as we knew it, building individual work requirements into traditional welfare programs; he also created the Earned Income Tax Credit.  Yet most observers agree that Clinton’s proposals brought down welfare rolls but not poverty.  At 12.7% in 2004, official poverty isn’t substantially lower than it was before his Third Way reform began (13.5% in 1990).

How would greater reliance on Jesus and the New Testament improve these figures?  The problem with today’s poor is not that they lack love.  It’s that they lack effective organizations capable of combating those controlled by the corporate rich who seek to keep wages low.

All those who see politics as primarily a two-person game driven by individual feelings fail to capture who is doing what to whom.  The reality is a game between institutional persons, not between individual persons.  And the way these institutional persons relate to each other is not on the basis of personal feelings but by means of competition and “class struggle.”

Unfortunately, neither Judaism nor Christianity has much to offer in value terms to the poor and exploited of modernity.  Christianity is forever stamped by its birth in the days of the collapse of the Roman Republic, which brought the end of genuine class struggle and competing political parties.  While Old Testament society never knew republican forms of government at all.  Aspirations for social justice in pre-exilic times fed not on the energies of solidarity and self-organization but on prophecies from heaven.  Republican values remain completely foreign to Biblical mentalities, either Christian or Jewish.

But to recognize the inadequacy of the New Religious Left writers’ neo-spiritual message is not to deny they’ve exposed a substantial grain of truth.  The Left — as a movement capable of expressing the highest energies and aspirations of ordinary people — is rapidly becoming extinct.  In these days of single issue groups, foundation funders, and academic horizons, it’s hard for poor or working-class people to grasp what the Left aims at, what it stands for, or who it stands with.  The question is when we got off history’s main highway and headed towards Jurassic Park?  The New Religious Left says about the time of the Enlightenment.  And you must agree if you think autonomy, equality, and solidarity must be superceded by values of faith, hope, and charity.


1  Uwe Siemon-Netto, “Barna Poll on U.S. Religious Belief Shows Protestant Collapse,” UPI, 28 June 2001.

Robert Fitch Robert Fitch joined the Laborer’s Union, Local 5 in Chicago Heights, Illinois when he was fifteen years old. He eventually traded his shovel for a briefcase and has since taught at Cornell and New York University, organized for the unions, and written for The Baffler, Newsday, Village Voice, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and The Nation. Still a union member, he lives in New York City. His latest book is Solidarity for Sale: How Corruption Destroyed the Labor Movement and Undermined America’s Promise (Public Affairs, 2006). Read Michael D. Yates’ interview with Fitch about the book: “What’s the Matter with U.S. Organized Labor?
An Interview with Robert Fitch”
(MRZine, 30 March 2006).