Washington, DC, is where America goes to make deals with itself, to argue over its path and its destiny, and to try to discover who it really is. It’s a place of grand gestures—rallies, conventions, speeches, conferences, and protests—where heated debate is the stock in trade. Had you been riding the Metro there on May 17, 2006, you would have heard announcements instructing you on what stop to take for the immigration rally, where advocates from all over the country would plead their case for liberalized treatment of would-be Americans. Had you gone to one of the many hearing rooms on Capitol Hill, you would have heard pro-choice advocate Nancy Keenan defending the use of the early-abortion drug RU-486. In the Starbucks and salons near K Street, you would have heard lots of talk about whether America was ready to elect a woman—Hillary Clinton, to be exact—as president. And if you were a fly on the wall in the high-ceilinged office of Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), the only openly lesbian member of congress, you would have heard her tell a clutch of her constituents that she has been composing a statement of values, because values are more important than issues and politicians ought to “care about our collective well-being rather than simply the well-being of each person. We share a destiny.”
It was clear to those sitting in the congresswoman’s office that we—all Americans, and perhaps all people in the world—share a destiny. But it was not clear that we share a “we.” The eagle on America’s great seal holds a banner reading E Pluribus Unum—“Out of the Many, One”—but increasingly people are more sure of the pluribus than the unum. Whereas once people might have thought that God, or at least faith, was something that transcended political divisions and united people, it has now become clear that faith and partisan politics are intimately intertwined. Not only that, but God and faith have become aligned, as one person in Tammy Baldwin’s office said, with a “radical right-wing agenda.” The people in her office had come to Washington to try to do something about that—to become more a part of the “we the people”—by taking part in something called the Spiritual Activism Conference.
People from forty different states gathered at the conference to show Americans that just as those in the faith-based radical Right have an agenda—expressed, as one person put it, in “a language of meaning, of caring, concern, and faith”—so too those with a more “progressive” agenda—embracing concerns about poverty, environment, peace, gender equality, and nondiscrimination—want to express their political aims in terms of spiritual values. These progressives’ natural home is the Democratic Party, but historically that party is strongly committed to secularism as a preventive against extremism. While there is some indication that leading lights of the party like Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Howard Dean are willing to use the language of spiritual values from time to time, there is every indication that their main weapon to unseat Republicans will be a safe and centrist retail politics (that will tread lightly, for example, in critiquing the war in Iraq and the “war on terrorism”).
From the point of view of spiritual progressives, secularism and cynical politics aimed at satisfying the parochial needs of individuals and their interest groups are a very thin gruel. It is time, they say, not only to revivify the visionary spirit of progressive politics but to acknowledge that a political animal is also a spiritual animal. While the conference was sponsored by the fledgling Network of Spiritual Progressives, not everyone who took part was willing to wear that label. But everyone I met there felt that politics and spirituality belong together, even though church and state should remain separated.
Some, like Doc Miller, an educator from Boston who works on history curricula that teach about racism and genocide, spoke about what politics means from a spiritual perspective. “If you feel that all life is sacred,” he told me, “then politics deals with the sacred. We are all called to care for each other, and that’s what politics is all about. People need a platform with a heart. They are hungry for spiritual vision.” Pat Casey, a former aide to the governor of Michigan who has worked on every Democratic presidential campaign from Jimmy Carter on, spoke about spirituality from a political perspective. “God-talk,” he said, “has been interjected into politics by the Right in a narrow, divisive way that confuses a lot of good people. Republicans on the right are cynically exploiting church-going people, while Democrats are often dismissive of churchgoers, no matter how progressive their views. Democrats need to articulate a vision of social progress that has heart and meaning, that connects with the best ideas and values of many religions while insisting that organized religions be kept out of the public sphere.”
The conference, attended by 1,200 people and held at All Souls Church (Unitarian) in the inner-city neighborhood of Adams–Morgan–Mt. Pleasant, provided an opportunity to meet dozens of people like Miller and Casey, with a variety of political positions but united in their opposition to the religious Right. It also provided the chance to meet and talk with four strong spokespeople who espouse a spiritually motivated approach to political issues and who are not political conservatives: Rabbi Michael Lerner, of the Beyt Tikkun congregation in San Francisco and the editor-in-chief of Tikkun magazine; Sister Joan Chittister, an activist Benedictine nun who is a popular speaker for the progressive spiritual agenda and a regular columnist for the National Catholic Reporter; Reverend Jim Wallis, an evangelical Christian, founder of Sojourners: Christians for Justice and Peace, and author of the best-seller, God’s Politics; and Reverend Deborah Johnson, founder of the Inner Light Ministries, near Monterey, California, and a civil-rights activist and diversity advocate.
They are clergy with political vision. Each of them said their piece with great passion and conviction, and not in the abstract but as people who want to speak directly to people’s needs. It is impossible to gauge the impact of the left-leaning spiritual world of today, but listening to some of its leaders makes you wonder whether spirituality and politics are as far apart as you thought.
Although Rabbi Michael Lerner is standing one story higher than you in the soaring pulpit at All Souls, it feels as if he is going to grasp you by the lapel. His hair disheveled, his suit rumpled, he is reaching out to you, thrusting his hands forward, wanting you to meld with his mind. “Do you get what I’m talking about here?” he asks rhetorically. What he is talking about is a lot of things. He is overflowing with ideas and visions and stories, but for the most part they center on the themes he’s presented in his latest book, The Left Hand of God: Taking Back our Country from the Religious Right.
“The Right Hand of God,” writes Lerner, “is the hand of power and domination… And that view of God fits neatly with a politics of militarism, xenophobic nationalism, and support for U.S. domination over other countries.” That approach to spirituality has so many supporters, Lerner believes, because “most people have never been exposed to a coherent spiritual–political alternative. They’ve never encountered people who take seriously the path of love, generosity, and compassion as a realistic strategy for building a different kind of world.” In fact, Lerner says, the moment Democrats, many of them “militant secularists,” are challenged on their views about peace and justice, they protect their credibility by “locating themselves in the discourse of the Right Hand of God.”
Lerner wrote the book, and co-founded the Network of Spiritual Progressives (along with Sister Chittister and Princeton religion professor Cornel West, who was unable to take part in the conference because of an illness in the family), to help to bring about a “new foundational philosophical framework for all those seeking progressive social change.” He hopes that “militantly secular leftists,” “spiritual but not religious people,” and “progressive people in the religious world” can forge a new alliance. Admittedly, he says, it will be difficult for these groups to get over the differences that keep them apart. The alternative, however, is that “the political Right and its allies in the religious Right continue to have the power to make war, escalate militarism, weaken the First Amendment separation of church and state, reduce taxes for the rich while eliminating social programs for the poor, dismantle environmental protections, lead campaigns against gays and lesbians, and pack the Supreme Court so that it could place new restrictions on women’s right to choice.”
Lerner bases his campaign to unite the secular and the sacred on a detailed philosophical and historical analysis, which he delivers in his book and which he repeated with fervor and at length from the pulpit of All Souls Church. At its core is the notion of an anti-religion scientism (not to be confused with science, a valid enterprise for studying the phenomenal world), that has dominated the public sphere for most of the modern era. Scientism postulates that “anything that cannot be subject to empirical verification through sense data or measurement is fundamentally not real. It’s nonsense, something beyond the senses.” What this leads to is not merely a separation of church and state, whereby no institutional church can govern the country and which he believes is valid, but a situation where people feel their religious values, which cannot be validated empirically, are private and personal and have no place in the public sphere.
Warming to his topic, he tells the assembled, “You can have a religion that quiets you down and satisfies you, but keep it out of the public sphere, because in the public sphere you have no right to your values. They are private and personal. So, all day long you can be asked to build atom bombs or create products that destroy the environment, and then you can go home and join a peace group or send money to an environmental organization. But it would be wrong for you to articulate your values and impose them on somebody else. I don’t know how many liberals tell me that, as an excuse for not acting according to their values.”
When values based on faith and religious experience are kept out of the public sphere, the result are policies, approaches, and “mild reforms” that are based merely on pleasing people’s narrow self-interest. In the conclusion to his book, Lerner calls for a “new bottom line,” which is the rallying cry for the Network of Spiritual Progressives. The traditional bottom line is about fear and need; the new bottom line is based on hope, and it “fosters generosity and caring.” While the “progressive social change movement” that grows out of such a new bottom line can “draw upon the cultural resources of existing religious and spiritual traditions,” it is dominated by no religion and in fact must appeal to the needs of “secular people.”
Taking a page from Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America, Lerner developed a Covenant with America that establishes a policy platform for critical areas such as education, health, environment, safety and security, and so on, and bases it on the new bottom line. The health care covenant, for example, “is not only about the fairness of distribution,” Lerner says, “but also about a way of doing medicine in a way that recognizes human beings as not just material beings, but also psychological and spiritual beings. We need health care that deals with the whole being.” In foreign policy, Lerner says, “We recognize the unity of all being, and that the well-being of every American depends on the well-being of everyone else on the planet. Politicians ought to be saying not simply, ‘God bless America,’ but rather, ‘God bless America and all people on earth.’” What motivates environmental policy, Lerner says, is awe and respect for “the wonder of all creation.”
Lerner boldly proclaims the covenant is “unrealistic.” But he wants that word highlighted and bracketed, he told me, because “When I say unrealistic, I mean not buying into the frame of realism that governs the current debate between Republicans and Democrats, because that realism does not take into account people’s highest ideals, and is therefore extremely unrealistic, in the negative sense. We are unrealistic in the way that the early women’s movement was unrealistic. People thought nothing would come of it, but those in the movement refused to be defined in those terms—and look at the effect that movement has had.”
In fact, Lerner wants to create a political movement—moving from principles to policies to practice—without hitching the movement’s wagon to immediate ballot-box results. So, he says, the next step for the Network of Spiritual Progressives is “leadership training, training people in the vision of a spiritual politics and how to communicate that effectively while also learning from others. We are trying to draw on thousands of years of wisdom and spiritual practice to build a structure for societal transformation. It would be a big mistake to measure the importance of what we’re doing in terms of its impact on the next election.”
Sister Joan Chittister beautifully blends gentle and tough. She seems the sort of person who could dismantle your edifice brick by brick in a proper debate, but also just the kind of person you would want to comfort you in a crisis. When Chittister starts to speak, publicly or in person, it feels like you’re just hanging out with her, in a kitchen, or a neighborhood tavern near the factory, or maybe a school cafeteria. She is down, to, earth.
What accounts for much of Chittister’s appeal is that she is a Catholic who likes to asks questions rather than provide answers or edicts. She is a walking Vatican III, a breath of fresh air in a strikingly conservative and closed-minded period for the church. In the chapter on religion in her latest book, Called to Question: A Spiritual Memoir, she presents the book’s central question, which turns the notion of “faith” on its head: “Is openness to other ideas infidelity, or is it the beginning of spiritual maturity?”
Chittister is not content merely to inquire. She is a very big doer. Her CV lists dozens of organizations and efforts she has been part of or spearheaded, having to do with equality for women (especially in religious contexts), monasticism, education, and peace. She has written thirty books and is the founder and executive director of Benetvision, in Erie, Pennsylvania, a national research center for contemporary spirituality.
Contemporary spirituality, the way Chittister approaches it, has a lot to do with how spirituality is embodied in culture, not simply practiced as an adjunct. Private spirituality works best when it supports a culture and is supported by a culture. She believes we are deep into a cultural crisis, which is not a bad thing per se, but something that must be acknowledged. “It’s tough enough to talk about culture in this country right now,” she tells the conference, “it’s even harder to talk about spirituality. But if somebody doesn’t put the two of them together with some sanity pretty soon, we’re going to lose both.”
Chittister is adamant that spiritual practice must evolve; otherwise, its practitioners fall into the greatest of sins, false piety, the self-serving and judgmental religiosity that often clings to past trappings of spiritual practice and institutional power. “Piety is cultural,” she says. “So, true holiness depends on our choosing the pieties proper to our time. The pieties of the past were not wrong, but the pieties of the past are past. We need new, holy, spiritual responses to the world around us. As Moses knew, spirituality does not exist to protect us from our times but to enable us to leaven it, to stretch it, to bless it, and to break it open to the present will of God.”
The new piety that Chittister champions is what she calls “contemplative co-creation,” a bridging of private spiritual practice and public action. She believes this is a form of spirituality suited to the modern era. It goes beyond—and here she reveals her background as a social psychologist—the three historical spiritual responses to culture: the intellectual, which is creed-centered and good at drawing lines of orthodoxy and heresy; the relational, which is all about love, but which “may comfort the oppressed but do little to stop the oppression”; and the performative, which is action-centered and reformist, and “tries to create a bright new world in the shell of the old, whether it wants it or not.”
Contemplative co-creation goes beyond these three in that it does not attempt to impose something; it attempts to expose something by bringing the fruits of inner reflection to bear on the uncertainties of the outer situation. It takes the form of probing and honest questioning so people can find their way together—so they can “co-create.” This process is needed now, she says, because in the last fifty years, the “Western belief–value system” has been subject to tectonic shifts: “Family patterns and sex roles have changed. Governments that had been the standard-bearers of freedom, justice, and human rights have been riven with one corruption after another, and so have become less and less credible to the people at large. Scientific and technological progress have now become more of a threat than a help, changing the nature of life and death, changing human creation from critically unique to cloned, changing war from struggle to annihilation. Military security has became our highest priority—both our greatest expenditure and our scarcest commodity. We live now with great poverty in the midst of great affluence, challenging all the American myths about fair play, the Protestant ethic, freedom, and justice. Ten percent of the world controls 75 percent of the world’s resources. No wonder the 10 percent buys so many guns.”
Chittister sees the conditions of our world as the seven deadly sins writ large. She asks, “Isn’t the national passion for instantaneous gratification simply lust, which has sinfully led in the undeveloped world to the feminization of poverty and the practice of economic pedophilia on children between six and twelve who work seventy hours a week for seven cents an hour?” Yet, she also feels that the breakdown of old consensus values and norms has paved the way for “a spiritual–cultural revitalization.” This will need to come from a new generation of leaders, who have known nothing but a period of radical transformation and will need mentorship and counsel from an older generation who can provide a link to traditional moral principles.
In our own conversation, Chittister stressed the need for a spiritual approach to power, which takes others into account and is not addicted to superiority, as opposed to a secular approach to power, which says that whoever can gain control has a right to it. It is not easy to find ways to bring spiritual power to bear on the world, she admitted. “Everybody wants instant answers,” she says, “but at this juncture, when things are very unstable, you’re going to have a lot of confusion and ambiguity.” This confusion can be healthy, she suggests, because it is indicative of a learning process and the possibility of transformation. “After having been the largest political island on the globe, America is coming lately to be more conscious of its place in the universe, and it may finally be losing its messianic image. Now we know there are people in the world who hate us. President Bush says they hate us for our freedom, but maybe what they hate is that so much of the wealth and power is centered here, and has often come at their expense. In our entire history, Americans have not been truly confronted with the rest of this planet, and now we are. It’s part of a broadening of our worldview that began in 1962 when John Glenn took his snapshot of the earth. We saw that we are not the universe. We are a dot out in space.”
Reverend Jim Wallis is a superstar of the spiritual progressive movement—except that he would never call himself a “spiritual progressive.” He also bristles at the label “religious Left.” The only label he is proud to wear is “evangelical Christian.”
He is a superstar nonetheless. His latest book, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, spent fifteen weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. He teaches a course on faith, politics, and society at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and his columns have appeared in all the major newspapers. He’s done the Sunday morning talk show circuit and even braved seven minutes toe-to-toe with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, alien territory for most evangelicals. That’s not surprising for Wallis. He is affable and folksy, and it’s quite evident that he loves people more than he judges them. Evangelicals are named for the Greek word for “good news,” or “gospel” in English, so they like to quote scripture. But when Wallis quotes scripture, you feel he is trying to teach rather than frighten.
Wallis is the poster boy for redefining what it means to be an evangelical. As such, he is fond of the work of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which recently showed that as evangelism has grown and evolved from its roots in the Billy Graham days, it has become much more diverse. Pew estimates that about a quarter of all Americans are white evangelical Protestants. Of those, it labels a little under half as traditionalists (holding orthodox beliefs and showing little interest in adapting them) and a little over half as centrists and modernists (many still pretty conservative but all more diverse in their interests). Broadly speaking, while traditionalists, represented by clergy such as Jerry Falwell or Focus on the Family’s James Dobson, maintain a narrow focus on personal morality, evangelism’s other half embraces public morality as well. So they include poverty, environment, peace, and other concerns in their theology. From an electoral perspective, Wallis says, they are “up for grabs.”
Fresh from putting out his provocative book last year, Wallis made more waves when he started his “Budgets Are Moral Documents” campaign to oppose the Bush budget and promulgate what he called “compassionate priorities.” Rep. Tammy Baldwin vividly remembered Wallis’ address to the Democratic caucus on that subject and how it helped spur her to write her statement of values. It was about that time that Wallis appeared on The Daily Show and told Jon Stewart, “It’s hard for me to believe that Jesus’ first priority would have been a capital gains tax cut and an invasion of Iraq. You wonder how Jesus has become pro-rich, pro-war, and only pro-American.”
Wallis wants “a better conversation in America” about moral values. For the Right, he says, there seem to be only two moral values, abortion and gay marriage, but there are “three thousand verses in the Bible about fighting poverty.” That’s a major moral value, he says, along with taking care of the environment, deciding when it makes sense to go to war, and whether it’s moral to torture someone.
This is what he means when he talks about “God’s politics”: what God’s priorities for the world would be, as we understand them from scripture. In the book he writes, “God is not partisan… When either party tries to politicize God, or co-opt religious communities for their political agenda, they make a terrible mistake. The best contribution of religion is not to be ideologically predictable nor loyally partisan. Both parties, and the nation, must let the prophetic voice of religion be heard. Faith must be free to challenge both Right and Left from a consistent moral ground.” He gives an example of what he means by thinking that goes beyond right and left: “Someday, a smart Democrat will figure out how both pro-life and pro-choice people could join together in concrete measures to dramatically reduce the abortion rate by focusing on teen pregnancy, adoption reform, and real support for low-income women.” Although he eschews secularism, Wallis is also at pains to emphasize that the moral values he espouses must also appeal to those who are “agnostic or spiritual but not religious.”
Addressing the conference, Wallis excoriated bad religion, which “pulls out our worst stuff—divisions, fears, hostilities, angers, hatreds.” He went on to say that “the answer to bad religion can’t just be secularism; it has got to be better religion.” He is daring in taking on the religious Right. While some spiritual progressives would like to avoid any of the sexuality issues and focus only on economics, justice, and peace, Wallis wants to take the Right head-on about their bread-and-butter issues: “For example, they say they’re pro-life. Well, if I am an unborn child in America, and I want the support of the religious Right, I better stay unborn as long as possible, because once I’m born, I’m off the agenda. No health care. No child care. No nothing. You can’t just be pro-birth; you have got to be pro-life too.”
These attacks on the Right garner the most enthusiastic applause and whoops from the spiritual progressives crowd, but when he says that “Neither party in this country has a pro-family agenda,” the response is much, much lower on the applause-meter. In a conversation right after his speech, Wallis indicates that the people he was just speaking to are largely the old Left, moved by their own spiritual convictions, but that he himself is not a leftist. His own constituency is larger; it includes the spiritual progressives, but a much larger component comes from “young people on Christian college campuses who would never self-identify as religious Left.” He says, “The Right has lost control of the agenda on these campuses. I’ve been to thirty evangelical Christian campuses in the past year, and I can tell you, the agenda has moved. It is HIV/AIDS, Darfur, human trafficking, the environment.”
He is also making headway among the megachurches. “One young pastor in Grand Rapids with 10,000 people in his congregation talks to me all the time now,” he says. “You would never say he was on the Left, but the frame he fits in is much larger now. I went on TV with Rick Warren, author of The Purpose-Driven Life, right after the last election, and poverty was not on his list of ‘non-negotiable’ moral issues. At the World Economic Forum in Davos a year later, all he talked about with me was poverty, and he never once asked me what I thought about gay marriage. The monologue is over. More people are ready to come together now about what they have in common and leave other things at the door, and work on them more slowly over time.”
Reverend Deborah Johnson, or Rev D as she is sometimes known, can work a room. She is all about finding out how people are ready to come together and leave things at the door for a while. When I first saw her she was conducting one of the more popular break-out sessions at the conference, “Moving the Movable Middle: Compassion for the Challenges of Change.” She bobbed and weaved and moved about the crowd as she led a conversation about getting past the polarities that divide us and “creating a sense of oneness.” Her message: if you are willing to change you can see how others are willing to change. We are all in the movable middle.
An MBA consultant to Fortune 500 companies, a civil rights activist, and pastor of a church, she is equally at home in the intricate thinking of the “social change agent” and the robust spirit of her Pentecostal upbringing. In fact, they can’t be separated. When I go up to meet her, she hugs me right off. Maybe it’s a California thing, but it feels genuine. Her whole ethos is that we need to break down “our illusion of separation—not a real separation as the fundamentalists believe—but an illusion that we are separated from God, our sense of our own goodness, other people, or even our own selves.”
At a certain point, Johnson gets a little tired of all the sitting and talking. She tells me, “You know, we black folks like to move.” Her traveling companion is Valerie Joi Fiddmont, whose title at Inner Light Ministries is “music minister.” The audio version of Johnson’s book, The Sacred Yes, opens with a funky tune about love overcoming hatred. It’s a reminder that in many churches “gospel” is a type of music. The spiritual progressives conference offers many opportunities for movement and song, such as singing John Lennon’s Imagine while embracing and swaying with those nearby, but Johnson feels that next time the conferees could do better on that aspect, which some of the participants felt was contrived and forced. Johnson was a key participant in the preparations for the conference, and during the conference she freely offered her views on things the spiritual progressives needed to work on. For example, both she and Michael Lerner were disappointed when a Pray-in for Peace in Lafayette Park across from the White House transformed into an old-fashioned anti-war rally, with throbbing “stop-the-war-now” cries and a storming of the gates at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Despite a few qualms, however, Johnson thinks this gathering of spiritual progressives was a success: “It was a galvanizing point and it created a critical mass of energy and of bringing people together across a wide array of backgrounds and interests.”
But now Johnson, like Lerner, wants to look at the frontiers that lie beyond a couple of days of consciousness-raising in Washington, DC, a place where rallies are a dime a dozen. And she wants to do it in the terms of her ministry, which is best summed up in The Sacred Yes, a work of revealed spirituality presented as a series of letters from the Divine that “help us to see ourselves first and foremost as spiritual beings and to live our lives and conduct all of our affairs from this vantage point.” In the book, God speaks through her and tells her that “prayer is action,” which is different from “mere activity” because one can “engage in many activities that produce no action. Activity for the sake of activity gets you nowhere.” Activity must be combined with deep intent, a “determination beyond all reason and understanding for your desire to manifest.” Once that happens, one gives up the sense of being solely responsible for bringing about whatever needs to happen, and one experiences God’s “inexhaustible supply” of means and possibilities, and “no is simply not an option.”
The attitude of saying yes is behind Johnson’s concern that the spiritual progressive movement not be engulfed by an “anti-” orientation. When we talked, she cautioned that the “push that comes from pain, from being hurt or excluded, will burn out.” What’s needed in greater measure is “the pull of vision.” She says, “Movements like antiwar and environment are so often expressed in response to what others are doing, whereas the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the gay and lesbian movement, are about being empowered to realize who you are.” She’s looking for the kind of spiritual power Chittister talked about.
In her closing remarks to the conference, she challenged people to go beyond their preconceived ideas about who belongs and who doesn’t, to “be big enough to embrace all of the nation,” to ask why there were raucous rounds of applause for “anything that had to do with the Right being awful people,” but “when we were being asked to consider how we need to change, what we need to become, there was silence. We need to go back to the places where we were deeply silent.”
The country didn’t just suddenly end up in the condition