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At Berkeley

Michael Lerner assembles the "Religious Left."

12:00 AM, Oct 11, 2005 • By MARK D. TOOLEY
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MICHAEL LERNER was back on campus at Berkeley. But this time he is a portly Jewish rabbi leading 1,200 mostly middle-aged "spiritual progressives," and not the young Students for a Democratic Society agitator targeted by J. Edgar Hoover in the 1960s.

The "Politics of Meaning," Lerner's label for his spiritual liberalism, peaked in the early 1990s, when his supposed fans, Bill and Hillary Clinton, ascended to power. But Hillary disavowed Lerner when his quirky views attracted fire, and the old Berkeley activist, though still publishing Tikkun, seemingly faded.

Now Lerner is back. And his "Conference on Spiritual Activism," held at Berkeley this summer, tried to present a left-wing alternative to the dreaded Religious Right. Amid opening "visualizations" directed to Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, and the "goddess Divine Mother," Lerner hosted a fairly prominent array of Religious Left luminaries.

Although professing to transcend political labels, Lerner seemed pretty un-transcendent: "In Europe they [the right] turned against the Jews," he declared. "In the U.S. they demeaned African Americans and Native Americans. Increasingly that role [targets of the right] is played today by gays and lesbians, feminists, liberals, and secular humanists."

Conservatives get away with this because liberals "don't get it" about religion, Lerner explained. His message dovetailed with the bestselling Why the Right is Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get it, by evangelical left activist Jim Wallis, who shared the podium with Lerner. A former SDS himself, Wallis founded Sojourners, a journal of liberal Christian activism, over 30 years ago. Although ostensibly more moderate now, Wallis inevitably resorts to nostalgic talk of arrests and demonstrations. "This is how you do interfaith work," Wallis joked. "You all get arrested for your faith and talk theology in jail."

Millions of evangelicals and Catholics don't feel represented by Jerry Falwell or "right-wing bishops," Wallis insisted, describing a battle in "all of our great traditions between fundamentalism and prophetic faith." The trouble, Wallis and Lerner agreed, is that too many liberals don't appreciate religion. Wallis recalled a young homosexual saying it was easier to "come out gay" than be "religious" in the Democratic party.

Central to Lerner's and Wallis's "spiritual activist platform" was opposing the war in Iraq. Berkeley professor Michael Nagler noted that the same U.S. Congress that tried to keep Terri Schiavo alive "cheerfully voted to kill 100,000 Iraqis without batting an eye." David Robinson of Pax Christi said of the Bush administration: "They're lying our kids to death in Iraq." More succinctly, Rev Osagyefu Uhuru Sekou of Clergy and Laity Concerned opined that "Arabs have become the new niggers" and Iraq is the new "white man's burden."

After war, sex was a favorite theme. "My grandmother believes God has a penis," Rev. Sekou reported, warning activists to sublimate their "feminist arrogance" and not attack traditional religious teachings directly. Unitarian minister and sexologist Debra Haffner complained, "Too many of us learned [as children] that some sexual acts are sinful." But she told a supportive audience that she favors "sexual and relational justice for all." Churches, synagogues, mosques, and ashrams need to be claimed in the name of sexual freedom, Haffner urged.

United Church of Christ pastor Ama Zenya thanked Hafner for her insights but then criticized liberal religious activists. "Is human life sacred only after birth?" she asked a surprised audience. "Can we expand our loving concern beyond our own lives?" Describing regret over her own abortion, Zenya complained, "The Left has bought the capitalist paradigm" and its "individualist materialism."

SUCH SELF-CRITICISM of the left was rare. Almost all vitriol was aimed rightward. Berkeley linguist George Lakoff, a frequent advisor to religion-perplexed Democrats, explained that the left worships a "nurturing" God, while the right adores a "punitive" deity. Conservatives believe in a "strict" God who requires good behavior for getting into heaven, according to Lakoff, while progressives emphasize "unconditional love." United Methodist lobbyist Jim Winkler was less analytical: "Angry white men [which describes almost all religious conservatives] are like a wounded bear striking out in desperation," he observed.