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.
Defrocked Catholic priest Matthew Fox, now an Episcopalian, blamed war and economic injustice on "those who want to worship a dominating punitive Father God which includes the put down of women, nature, [and] gays." In soothing contrast, Fox offered a unisex, pantheistic "mother/father God who is embedded in nature, creativity, our bodies and all our art forms." Fox lambasted the Pope for defeating liberation theology and faulted Protestants for succumbing to a "kooky Christianity" of "domination and not of justice."
Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong lashed out at this "domination" religion. "It's time to name evil as evil when sounded in pious accents of biblical religion," Spong declared. Conservative Catholicism and "evangelical fundamentalists" are growing because "hysterical people are seeking security," Spong fretted. Referring to the rise of religious conservatives based in the South, Spong claimed, to the audience's delight, "The old [segregationist] George Wallace vote simply applied perfume and call themselves the Religious Right."
Not able to match Spong's rhetoric, Congresswoman Lynne Woolsey of California still tried to talk about religion. "If you measure progressive goals against conservative goals there is no question which comes closer to meeting the tenets we associate with faith," Woolsey stammered. "I don't know about you, but I missed the part of the Sermon on the Mount that mentioned tax cuts and an ownership society."
Mindful of such progressive spiritual goals, an opening "visualization" exercise summoned a wide range of spirits, including the archangels, Adam and Eve, Hindu deities, Socrates and Aristotle, Moses and Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, Confucius, Leonardo Da Vinci, White Buffalo Woman (from Sioux mythology), anthropologist Jane Goodall, environmentalist Rachel Carson, Gandhi, Anne Frank, Mother Theresa, and the Dalai Lama.
"Breathe, remember to breathe," the visualizer instructed the unusually quiet activists.
Such religion provides "existential weaponry" for fighting political injustice, Rev. Sekou stressed. "Not enough Democrats are willing to tell the truth," he said. "So we're depending on you." Rabbi Lerner, seemingly no less enthusiastic than when agitating on Berkeley's campus nearly four decades ago, smiled and smoothly moved back and forth from podium to audience. It was like old times again.
Mark D. Tooley directs the United Methodist committee at the Institute on Religion and Democracy.
Correction appended, 10/12/2005: The article originally included the quote: "Describing regret over her own abortion, Hafner complained, "The Left has bought the capitalist paradigm" and its "individualist materialism." That quote was said by Ama Zenya, not by Debra Haffner. We regret the error.