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Is the American soul sick? Differing perspectives in 'The Left Hand of God' and 'Tempting Faith'

Originally blogged on 10 December 2006 for JVoices.com, a site that is going offline. I compared two books on politics and culture published that year, Michael Lerner's The Left Hand of God and David Kuo's Tempting Faith.

The Left Hand of God

God's "left hand" and "right hand," as Lerner defines them in his book The Left Hand of God, describe worldviews based on generosity and compassion (on the Left) and on competition and vengeance (on the Right). These two worldviews help explain the differences in politics and in religion associated with the Left and Right.

Lerner, a rabbi with Ph.Ds in philosophy and psychology who edits Tikkun Magazine, writes:

“...although the right may talk about love or invoke God, what they have in mind is the Right Hand of God. The Right Hand of God is the hand of power and domination, the vision of God in which love is presented as consistent with celebrating the pain inflicted on those who are perceived as evil. ... It’s this vision of a muscular religion, backed by a God of power, that ensures that no one will ever call them naïve, because in their actual politics they are not siding with the powerless but cheerleading for the powerful." (pp. 20-21)

The voices of fear and hope, the Right Hand and the Left Hand of God, “tend to operate below the surface of consciousness, [and] people often are not fully aware of which voice they are responding to at any given moment. Often they act in ways that seem on the surface contradictory... (p. 51) He explains that right-wing religious institutions manage to preach love while encouraging their followers to “align with a harsh, militaristic, and self-interested politics that is based on the (unstated) assumption that all that “love, kindness, and generosity" talk has no real world application outside of that church or religious institution." (p. 110)

I would quibble with Lerner on some points. First, the metaphor of God having two hands seems to imply that these two worldviews are different sides of the same coin and that they balance each other out, yet Lerner favors the Left and doesn’t advocate anyone running to the ship’s other deck, thereby creating a visual image of a one-handed god. Second, while solidly in favor of a woman’s right to have an abortion, he implies that the only truly spiritual emotional response to abortion is grief. Telling people how to feel generally does not work, and giving people permission to broach a taboo while encouraging them to feel guilty about it is, ironically, a classic Right Hand of God technique to gain power over them. Third, Lerner suggests that the question of same-sex marriage be solved by having the government refer only to “unions" while leaving the word “marriage" for religious institutions. He needs to consider how the ordinary inquiry “Are you married?" would translate into the invasive question “Are you religious?" Only the most determined atheists would delight in providing a negative answer, while millions of others in interfaith, spiritual-but-not-religious partnerships might feel “married" even though no clergyperson pronounced them so. But these opinions, which are slight missteps in my view, do not greatly mar the book, as Lerner does not claim to have all the right answers to these questions. He prefers to focus on the larger picture of a philosophy motivated by compassion, and this he achieves well. While acknowledging that people have shown meanness since time immemorial, he critiques the influence of a godless capitalism that has helped promote the anti-ethic of a “rip-off consciousness" — the idea that it is normal and acceptable to cheat one’s employees, customers, and government — leading to an all-encompassing “cynical realist" approach to life that replaces idealist, hopeful, generous intentions. Lerner believes that mixing spiritual values with left-leaning politics has the potential to bring about an ethical revival in the United States.

Tempting Faith

David Kuo’s Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction makes an interesting companion read because Kuo, like Lerner, diagnoses the political Right as being more interested in its own power than in healing the world. However, he speaks as a conservative political insider rather than as a progressive critic. Kuo was President Bush’s former Special Assistant and former director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Disenchanted after the faith-based charity initiative he helped to launch was stripped of most of its funding (he was promised he would be able to offer $8 billion in grants to faith-based charities, but ultimately only $30 million became available and it was controlled by another department [p. 211]) and applied in a discriminatory fashion (non-Christian groups were dropped from the application piles in at least one instance [p.215]), Republican speechwriter and politician David Kuo decided to reveal these inside power struggles.

As Kuo puts it, “Christian leaders are supposed to be putting Jesus above and before all things, enabling them to recognize and resist this seductive [political] power. Instead, it looks like they believe a political agenda is the most important thing." (p. xiii) If that is so, what drew him to the Republicans? “It is easy to say that I became a Republican because I went through a religious conversion, felt guilty about an abortion, or just needed a job. Those things are all true," he admits. “But if the Democratic Party had displayed a similar interest in addressing these cultural problems, I would have run to them. Instead, they embodied a hostility toward these issues and toward Christian involvement in the political world that was increasingly known as the last acceptable form of bigotry." (p. 52)

He gives some practical advice to those spiritually-inclined Leftists who would like to begin dialogue with spiritually-inclined Rightists: be curious about right-wing, right-hand-of-God celebrities and cultural influences. Demonstrating awareness of their existence is a form of respect. Ignorance harms well-intentioned diplomacy, as demonstrated by this blunder:

“They [Democratic aides for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid] asked me who to talk to. I started giving them names–like Tony Perkins at the Family Research Council. 'Who?' 'What’s that?' I mentioned the support for environmentalism at the National Association of Evangelicals and again they said, 'What’s that?' ... That Terry McAuliffe [leader of the Democratic National Committee’s faith-based outreach] didn’t even know the author of The Purpose Driven Life showed a staggering ignorance. Was it any wonder evangelicals preferred hanging out with Republicans?" (p. 256)

Lerner and Kuo arrive at different conclusions. Kuo recommends that Christians take a two-year “fast" from national political campaigns (from the 2006 publication of his book until the 2008 presidential election) to reconnect with their faith and values on a more personal level. (Kuo, newly diagnosed with a brain tumor, retired from the White House and became a fisherman, so that helps explain why he perceived the contemporary moment as a convenient and necessary time to take a break.) Lerner, by contrast, begins by asserting that “there is a real spiritual crisis in American society" that needs to be addressed (p. 14) and recommends that readers join his Network of Spiritual Progressives to begin infusing spiritual values into politics immediately; he does not suggest there is any greater insight to be gained by waiting. By contrast, Kuo says he once thought America had a spiritual crisis and that it was his job in the White House faith-based charity office to help fix it, but, after seeing the spontaneous outpouring of spiritual activity immediately following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he concluded that “[t]he American soul wasn’t sick." (p. 188)

Books

Michael Lerner. The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right. HarperSanFrancisco, 2006.

David Kuo. Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction. New York: Free Press, 2006.

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