Skip to main content

Yesterday, I attended a service at The First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque, where Rabbi Michael Lerner was giving a sermon.

Rabbi Lerner spoke at length on what he believes to be a great spiritual crisis within America, a crisis that the left has completely failed to address, giving the religious right free reign, and unnecessary political victories. He outlined what has occurred in America, why this must be addressed, and how the religious right has used this crisis to take power and control the conversation. He also spoke about the beginnings of a movement within the left and centre to try to take back this discourse, address the spiritual crisis within America, and defeat the religious right.

Join me below the fold for my summary of Rabbi Lerner's thoughts.

Rabbi Lerner identified one overriding problem that Americans are experiencing in their day-to-day lives. A way of living that is incredibly destructive and which most Americans realize is not how they want to live their lives. In the world of work, school, or whatever it is they do, Americans are finding that the only thing that is valued is what they can do. A job is entirely based upon how productive they can be, and as a job takes up such a large portion of their lives, that worldview is spilling over into the rest of their lives, and there is nothing else. When an individual is valued only by what they can do, and continue to do, by productivity and what advantage they bring to the company, to their boss, to the next person in line then this is incredibly destructive.

Rabbi Lerner took part in a large survey of Americans, asking them how they were living their lives, and what they felt was missing. The institutional selfishness he found, as detailed above, spilled over into the rest of their lives. Americans who were questioned said that they felt like the only thing that anyone valued them for was what they could do for that other individual, organization, company, even relationship. And so, relationships and marriages began to be defined as what each individual could bring to those unions. This leads to a feeling of insecurity, as all parties involved feel like their partner is looking at them for what they can bring, be it financial security, sex, or a shoulder to cry on. It's all about what you are bringing to that relationship, and what you can get out of the other party. Of course, if a relationship is being assessed in terms of what your partner is giving you, this means that if someone better, someone more advantageous comes along, the most logical thing is to jump ship and move in with them. It's corporate thinking brought to family life, and the most astonishing thing was that this even extended to how individuals were looking at children, and how children were looking at parents. Of course, it shouldn't be a surprise that schools are teaching children to have the same sort of mindset, or parents, constantly living in this objective and value-driven life are passing it on to their kids, but this was, of course, yet another destructive aspect of people's personal lives.

The same thing happened when Rabbi Lerner looked at friendships. Everything was assessed as a transaction - one person brings one thing to the friendship, the other brings something else, and always there was give and take, thoughts as to what people could get from their friendships (how often have you heard talk of "networking" in seminars - it's about using your friends and acquaintances for your own advantage). Again, this led to insecurity. When we fall on hard times, we rely on our friends to help pull us through. But when our relationships are based upon what others get from us and what we can get from them, what happens when you no longer have something to bring? The basic trust and social fabric that we feel we need to rely on is not there.

All across America, this is what Rabbi Lerner found. A spiritual vacuum, where the individual was valued only in terms of what they could do, what they could bring, their productiveness to their friends, workplaces, husbands, wives, children. And if they were not productive enough, then they were cast off.

So what did people want? What were they yearning for? "It's the economy, stupid," personal advantage? No! This is not what people want at all. What they want is to be valued for who they are, for an affirmation of their individual humanity, their value not based upon what they can do, who they can serve, what they bring to the relationship but to be valued because they are human. Because they are one of us. Because each person has an inherent dignity and they have worth because of their personhood. No other reason is required.

But what were the Democrats, what was the left giving them? Precisely what I said. "It's the economy, stupid." Yet more money, worth, talk of benefit and getting by and what will you get from the government, what can it do for you? The left has completely failed to address this spiritual vacuum, we have failed to talk about the value that each individual has, instead focusing on institutions, programs, tangible benefits. Of course, these often are the politics of giving value to people, but we do not couch our policies in those terms, and often, Lerner said, attempts to address this spiritual crisis in spiritual terms, the terms in which Americans feel this problem, were met with outright hostility or derision. Religion and the talk of individuals as sacred human beings has been pushed out of the discourse on the left, and Lerner found many, many people who had tried to get involved in politics on the left but who had been pushed out because of their religious belief. As soon as one professed that they were Christian or believed in a higher being, immediately they were treated as inferior, as stupid, as unable to see the world as it was and, more often than not, that reaction was enough to send these people fleeing from the political sphere.

The void has been filled by the right. They have recognized this problem and exploited it ruthlessly. Primarily, this has been done by blame. The spiritual void has been filled by pointing fingers. If the problem is people working only for their own betterment, then who better to blame than, for instance, gays? After all, they're having sex, selfishly, because they can't have children (ignoring, of course, the fact that many do have children)? Women who dare to work and take their independence! After all, they're selfishly working for themselves rather than sacrificing for their children. In recent years, the right has extended this blame to liberals, judges... anyone who dares oppose them.

The irony in all this is, of course, that it is the policies of the right that have been exacerbating the problem. Rather than affirming the worth of all, they have worked to funnel money towards the rich. Rather than regulate business to protect individuals from the cutthroatism that is consuming it, they have slashed regulations. Rather than taking the responsible position that our environment has worth to be celebrated for the benefit of all people, they have slashed environmental protections in the name of profit. Consistently and cynically, the Republicans have legislated a selfish, me-first program that has encouraged a culture where an individual's productivity is the only thing that matters. And they've done it while selling a philosophy of blame to try and sate the very real spiritual yearning that the American people are feeling.

Rabbi Lerner's solution is difficult, but simple. Begin to inject a politics of value. This should be a good fit to Democratic policies, but we need to begin to talk about it better. Preserving the environment because it is a good thing to do, affirming the rights and value of persons because they are persons rather than for what they can contribute. A compassionate set of social policies precisely because we believe that every person in this country is worth protecting and appreciating just because they are one of our fellow human beings.


This may seem like a long diary, but it's really just the tip of the iceberg of what he was talking about. Rabbi Lerner moved on to the Network of Spiritual Progressives, a group of which he is a founder, who are dedicated to forming an opposing viewpoint to the religious right. They are having their first conference in Washington DC from May 17-20, and the aim is to begin to form a positive program and oppose the abuse of religion flowing from the right, lobby the politicians directly, and form cores for chapters of the Network throughout the country. While obviously all of us who are interested cannot take part directly in Washington, hopefully the seed will be planted throughout the country as participants return home from the conference.

Rabbi Lerner's passion and drive was infectious. I've only touched on the topics that he covered, but already I can't wait to hear more, and I earnestly hope that one chapter of his organization will be set up in Albuquerque, so I can begin to take part.

There are a lot of problems that we face, but I hope that with such vision and passion beginning to flow from the religious left, we can begin to address those problems.

Cross Posted to Street Prophets, Liberal Worship, and Taxation without Representation.

Originally posted to Expat Briton on Mon Apr 03, 2006 at 08:21 PM PDT.

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (16+ / 0-)

    I hope y'all will stop by Street Prophets, and maybe even considering joining us in our reading project for April; Rabbi Lerner's new book, The Left Hand of God.

    •  Thank you for posting this diary (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Cambridgemac, Expat Briton

      I am very hopeful that the work of people like Rabbi Lerner and Jim Wallis may help to transform the way we view our politics.  

      I'd like to see the dialogue on this site move past anger at the Bush Administration, Republicans, and less-than-pure Democrats, and move towards finding ways to inspire this country to be the one it is supposed to be.  A focus on the intrinsic value of each person is a great place to start.      

  •  Great diary (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    bronte17, Expat Briton, IUDemocrat

    but maybe ill-timed.  All of Kossackville is celebrating the removal of
    Tom Delay.

    Perhaps you could post a similar version at a time when the site isn't engaged in mass celebration?

    "Pro-life" really means "pro-criminalization"

    by Radiowalla on Mon Apr 03, 2006 at 08:33:42 PM PDT

    •  We'll see. (0+ / 0-)

      I'm holding out hope for a mass-recommend from the gang at Street Prophets.

    •  I agree (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Expat Briton, blueoasis

      and it wouldn't hurt to edit this a bit.  Lots of good stuff here.

      It seems to me that the view that everything can be boiled down to contracts - which started with Hobbes and then Locke - has reached its fullest and most vulgar manifestation in modern American life.  WIIFM.  What's in it for me.

      People are not valued for being.  It's all about transactions and exchange.  NOTHING is valued for being in Merka.  Take the National Endowment of the Arts slogan you hear on NPR - "A great people deserves great art."  Well, no.  That's what the Romans thought when they pillaged the Greek cities of southern Italy.  The fact is, a great people PRODUCES great art.  And that requires an appreciation for what is - for "being" as opposed to "getting."

  •  The Rabbi is a wise man (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Expat Briton, illinifan17

    and I hope that his message carries some weight with the Dems..

    Do you think that he would consider supporting "electable" candidates who opposed basic human rights a sign of abandonment of basic values ?

    I know that I do - I'm with him all the way.

    If Dems don't stand for values, they continue to lose.

  •  Great Rabbi (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Expat Briton

    Nice to hear the truth being spoken.

    Thanks for the diary

  •  A Democratic candidate who gets it... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Expat Briton, lenski

    Now, I understand that faith is an easy word to misunderstand. Faith doesn’t simply mean to factually believe in a particular occurrence. It means to live and breathe the reality of one’s personal and or religious convictions. According to my personal understanding of the Christian faith, it means to follow the example of Jesus into a life of service to others.

    It is a moral necessity for me to make this teaching the central organizing principle of what I do.

    Does this mean that I’m always successful? No. But I want this to be the direction of my heart, and as a public official my vision for Ohio will be rooted in my conviction—my deep-abiding faithful conviction—that we are all part of the same human family with shared responsibilities, and that the government’s relationship to its citizens is always best when it is rooted in servanthood.

    This is not to say that the government has a proper role in taking sides in religious disputes. Nor does it mean that divisive social disagreements can be settled in the public square. There are complex issues and competing points of view which exist even among churches, mosques and synagogues. Part of the glory of a free society is the ability to look beyond our disagreements and embrace the values and recognize the needs that bind us together as one people.

    For me, the goal is not to be a liberal Democrat or a conservative Democrat. For me, the goal is to be a Golden Rule Democrat.

    Being a Golden Rule Democrat means you do your best to treat other people the way you yourself would want to be treated. In a political context, it means working for a government rooted in sound judgment, having a thirst for justice and committed to serving its people.

    Values define us. Values sustain us. Values nurture us. But the next time some politician, including me, starts preaching to you a sermon on values, look us in the eye and ask us point blank: Do your values include doing everything in your power to make sure that my hard work translates into a decent living for my family, that we have access to affordable health care, that I can offer my kids a solid, affordable education as far as their abilities will take them? Or are you, in fact, selling me, my family and my community out to give your big contributors special breaks and are you turning our hard-earned tax dollars over to people who lose or steal them?

    Let me be clear: Any so-called called value system that does not reward hard work and help families face the challenges of today’s life has no real value.

    Ted Strickland, candidate for Governor of Ohio

    Economic -4.13, Social -3.59. Does this make me a right-winger by Kos standards?

    by KTinOhio on Mon Apr 03, 2006 at 08:43:04 PM PDT

    •  I really like this quote.... (3+ / 0-)

      For me, the goal is not to be a liberal Democrat or a conservative Democrat. For me, the goal is to be a Golden Rule Democrat.

      Being a Golden Rule Democrat means you do your best to treat other people the way you yourself would want to be treated. In a political context, it means working for a government rooted in sound judgment, having a thirst for justice and committed to serving its people.

      It's simple, straightforward, appeals to people who consider themselves Christians.  I think deep down this is what makes liberals different.  We see a person who is down and ask: Why is he down?  How can we help build him back up?  The right doesn't ask, it says: If he were a better person/ more dilligent/ more faithful etc, he would be as successful/ good/ faithful as I am.  

  •  'Left Hand of God' (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Expat Briton

    His latest book - expanding on the ideas he gave in his passionate talk (which I heard at First Unitarian Church in Portland, OR - those UUs are fighting the good fight!!).

    The May conference for Spiritual Progressives has just about everyone that's anyone speaking. Should be amazing.

    -7.38, -4.72 Progressive Voices Toastmasters - Learning to speak persuasively about things that matter [Here]

    by JoieDe on Mon Apr 03, 2006 at 08:44:02 PM PDT

  •  Great diary (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Expat Briton, blueoasis

    I keep trying to sell existensialism, but Americans are not buying.  Look at the "Purpose Driven Life" phenomenon.  I keep trying to tell people that Rick Warren has it all backwards.  It should be "life driven purpose."  Identity comes before activity.  But that book sold 25 million copies, or something like that, so it is hard to battle against it.  I will keep trying though.  Thanks for the encouragement.

    So I see only tatters of clearness through a pervading obscurity - Annie Dillard -6.88, -5.33

    by illinifan17 on Mon Apr 03, 2006 at 09:11:01 PM PDT

  •  I'm shocked (0+ / 0-)

    That this appeared at a Unitarian church. The UUs I met value people based on thier incomes.

  •  Left versus Libs/Dems (2+ / 1-)
    Recommended by:
    Cambridgemac, Expat Briton
    Hidden by:

    The rabbi should make a distinction between Libs/Dems and Leftists/Marxists. Leftists have been describing these phenomena - the commodification of friendship and family, the alienation of labor - for centuries. Doesn't "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs" sound a lot like the Rabbi's solution?

    The rabbi has a tough road ahead of him -  laissez-faire pseudo-capitalism has successfully been equated with Judeo-Christian values.

  •  Filling a spiritual void? (0+ / 0-)

    Isn't that what progressive churches are supposed to do? Seriously, this doesn't make you guys look good. If you need political support to get your message out, something is wrong with your church.

  •  Selfishness (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Expat Briton, lenski, WMiller

    Selfishness is the only sin.

  •  That's not the place for them. (0+ / 0-)

    Get it to the people, not the politicians. Politics is a deathtrap for religion.

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site