Fear of the Lord, the good book assures us, is the beginning of wisdom. And on the American Left faint murmurs of wisdom are indeed sounding, most notably in attempts since the 2004 elections to reconcile practicing believers with progressive politics. To that end, a number of latter-day evangelists have taken to preaching the gospel of a born-again Religious Left. Their efforts have borne fruit in several new books, including Jimmy Carter's Our Endangered Values, Michael Lerner's The Left Hand of God, Robin Meyers's Why the Christian Right is Wrong, Dan Wakefield's The Hijacking of Jesus, and Jim Wallis's God's Politics.
The authors hail from disparate backgrounds. Jimmy Carter is a former president whose humanitarian efforts since leaving office have been highly regarded, not least by himself. Michael Lerner, the inspiration behind Hillary Clinton's "politics of meaning," is a rabbi at Berkeley's Beyt Tikkun Synagogue, as well as the editor of the leftist journal Tikkun. Robin Meyers teaches rhetoric at Oklahoma City University while ministering to a congregation in the United Church of Christ. Dan Wakefield has worked as a professor, journalist, novelist, and screenwriter. Jim Wallis, a mellowing one-time radical, is the founding editor of Sojourners and a leader in the effort to create a national network of Christian center-leftists.
Despite the differences, however, these authors have much in common. Each has experience in print and broadcast journalism, and several regularly contribute to the country's most influential periodicals. Lerner, Meyers, and Wallis are active ministers; Carter has been a missionary and continues to teach Sunday School. All of them have taught within the academy. Three of the five are familiar names in the highest echelons of Washington politics. Altogether, they have published over 50 volumes. For all their work in the world of words, however, these authors are uniformly terrible writers, with prose that ranges from tedious to tendentious. But they are united by more than the mere absence of style. Their projects draw upon a common set of assumptions, employ similar methods, and arrive at the same conclusions.
Theologians ground their systems in some specific aspect of divine revelation. Thomas Aquinas centered the Summa on the perfection of nature by grace; Calvin based his Institutes on the doctrine of the absolute sovereignty of God. For their part, these representatives of the new Religious Left adopt three different points of departure.
Carter, Meyers, and Wakefield offer a deeply problematic ethic that accounts for evil through its total externalization. Sin, these authors suggest, exists because of the Religious Right. Meyers regards his opponents as "Christian fascists" who "peddle a theology of hatred, condemnation, and cruelty." Wakefield considers them "the new Taliban of America," which renounces the Beatitudes and "twist[s] the basic message of Christianity from love to hate." Carter keeps a more genteel tone but levels equally egregious charges. American fundamentalism, he writes, is characterized by "rigidity, domination, and exclusion." Along with neoconservatism, fundamentalism is responsible for "the deep and increasingly disturbing divisions among our own people." These authors know themselves to be righteous; their opponents, therefore, must be unrighteous. These books evince little charity, less contrition, and no sense whatsoever that their authors, too, stand in need of divine forgiveness. No doubt each liberal would counter that the Religious Right displays similar, or worse, tendencies toward Manichaeism. Even if true, this response is theologically irrelevant. To identify oneself with light and one's adversaries with darkness is to exhibit that pride which ever goeth before a fall.
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Wallis begins from a different perspective, heralding instead the charism of prophecy. Prophecy in this sense does not mean divining the future so much as bringing the words of Isaiah, Amos, and Micah to bear on the present. A prophetic politics would, Wallis claims, "offer genuine political vision that arises out of biblical passages from the prophetic texts." It would concentrate on "fundamental moral issues like children, diversity, family, community, citizenship, and ethics," taking little note of conventional partisan categories, thirsting instead for a more perfect political order.
Wallis's plea for a prophetic politics unfortunately disregards the profound tensions within the prophetic tradition itself. Biblical prophecy is episodic rather than continuous; the scriptures balance the great prophetic books with the wisdom literature of Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. Salvation history sometimes requires passion and sometimes prudence. Indeed, a greater regard for prudence might have led Wallis to consider the difficulty of distinguishing between true and false prophecy. He shows little concern for the Evangelists' repeated admonitions that false prophets shall rise and deceive many.
Lerner bases his argument on a theological proposition. He contends that mankind can best understand God through the metaphor of two hands. The Right Hand of God is vengeful, militaristic, and punishing; it inspires fear in His disciples, who seek to please the Almighty through precise doctrine and virtuous behavior. The Left Hand of God, however, is loving, forgiving, and healing; it fills disciples with a yearning for kindness, humility, and peace. Lerner argues that both models are consistent with Jewish and Christian orthodoxy, but he fears the ascendancy of those who worship the Right Hand. If American liberalism ever hopes to flourish, he writes, it will need to incorporate a spiritual understanding of the Left Hand.
This proposition raises as many questions as it answers. For one thing, the neat symmetry of the left-right dichotomy masks the deep complexity of American religion. "Left-Handed" evangelicals like Rick Warren generally lean conservative; "Right-Handed" African-American Protestants are overwhelmingly liberal. Worse, Lerner uses his own metaphor improperly. Though the image of two hands suggests a certain shared purpose and mutual compatibility, Lerner depicts one hand as superior to the other. "The Right Hand of God," he writes, represents those "who have not yet become healthy and are therefore filled with an irrational fear." In contrast, the Left Hand "represents the healthy, hope-filled position of human beings."
Theological assumptions inevitably have implications for theological method. Lerner, for example, starts with a description of the nature of God, but, crucially, his account does not derive from any particular faith. He hopes his readership will include "secular, religious, and ‘spiritual but not religious' people." This broad audience requires a variety of sources, and Lerner obliges by invoking the Torah, the gospels, Buddhism, Gandhi, and modern psychotherapy. What he ultimately offers is theology divorced from religion, a creed without a cult, in which faith is a human creation rather than a divine revelation.
The other authors generally avoid Lerner's syncretistic approach in favor of simple proof-text methods. Parenthetical scriptural references follow sweeping political statements with scant regard for relevance or context. Thus Meyers finds in Matthew 25:36 ("I was sick, and ye visited me") a straightforward biblical mandate for universal health care. Wallis turns to John 8:32 ("Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free") to discern whether the invasion of Iraq violates the specific command of Christ. This naïve literalism makes the Religious Left sound precisely like the fundamentalists they deplore.
Both syncretistic and fundamentalist methods betray a common tendency, a fine illustration of which can be found in Our Endangered Values. Carter's argument consists of three basic components. He begins with a brief exposition of his "traditional Christian faith," then offers a lengthy disquisition on his preferred political policies, and concludes that disagreement with these prescriptions amounts to "a direct attack on American moral values, either in the political or the religious realm of life." The logic conforms to a relatively straightforward syllogism: God demands justice; this policy is just; therefore God demands this policy. Carter says little of the quality of competing claims to justice, the character of the justice in question, or of the compromises inevitable within democratic politics.
Rather tellingly, he and the other authors focus far less on personal moral behavior than on collective political action. Social policy eclipses individual conduct as the locus of Christian ethics. The inadvertent but inevitable consequence is the collapse of religion into politics. This conflation of the personal and the political helps explain why the Religious Left is, other things being equal, more political than the Religious Right.
A common set of assumptions and methods lends itself to a shared body of conclusions. Although these five authors concern themselves with political matters great and small, three issues seem central to the new Religious Left's agenda: poverty, environmentalism, and peace.
The Bible pulses with concern for the poor, and all of these books demand that Americans take greater heed of this clear scriptural imperative. Because of "God's compassion for the poor and victimized," writes Carter, "[i]t is clear that proper treatment of the poor should be an extremely high priority among those who shape American policies." Outraged by the tragedy of persistent global poverty, all five authors call upon their government and fellow citizens to help alleviate the plight of the impoverished everywhere. But charity begins at home, and the Religious Left is equally incensed at the national scandal of want amidst plenty. America's economic priorities strike them as terribly misbegotten. Meyers complains that the Bush Administration "came to the aid of those who needed it least while cutting aid for those who needed it most." "Budgets are moral documents," contends Wallis, and "the federal budgets now being passed [are] unbiblical." For Lerner, the rot runs much deeper; free enterprise itself is suspect. "Love of money," he proposes, "needs to be replaced by love of life, love of the earth, love of God, and love of each other at the center of our economic lives."
Lerner's plea for a renewed "love of the earth" points to the second defining issue of the new Religious Left. Carter proclaims that "proper stewardship of God's world is a personal and political moral commitment." Genesis, after all, teaches that mankind enjoys dominion over the earth and all that lives upon it—but it also suggests that this great privilege ought to be paired with a greater responsibility. "There is something sacred about the planet," writes Lerner, which ought to compel believers to "approach it with reverence." He insists that Native American traditions have been, and will continue to be, especially helpful in developing this new spirituality. Meyers agrees, positing that a well-formed environmental conscience will necessitate a "new theology." "Theism," he explains, manifests itself in a "truncated, anthropocentric ‘personal savior Christianity,'" which is "as meaningless as it is illogical."
The third issue animating the new Religious Left concerns matters of war and peace. Each of these authors vigorously contests the moral reasoning that led to the American invasion of Iraq. (Concerning the invasion of Afghanistan, they maintain a collective silence; whether that silence indicates agreement or ambivalence is unclear.) Although several of them skirt the issue, none explicitly rejects the just-war tradition; instead, they allege that the Iraq war failed to meet the tradition's ad bellum criteria. But the authors have larger ambitions, which stretch towards redefining the very idea of the use of force. In the future, Wallis argues, efforts to battle Islamic terrorism should instead involve "explor[ing] a theology for global police forces." For his part, Lerner proposes "an international peace force of tens of millions of people who will be funded by the countries of the world and whose work will consist in bringing massive numbers of nonviolent people to places on the globe where violence is threatened."
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In truth, the entire enterprise differs from the standard liberal boilerplate only insofar as it invokes divine sanction. Nonetheless, these books contain elements that should be considered theologically troublesome to all Christians, regardless of their political persuasion.
Take the Religious Left's approach to poverty. To their great credit, these writers are dead serious about feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. Unfortunately, however, they perceive this obligation as primarily and properly the work of government. Carter speaks for the group when he alleges that "[i]n efforts to reach out to the poor, alleviate suffering, provide homes for the homeless...government office-holders and not church members were more likely to assume responsibility and be able to fulfill the benevolent missions." Little acknowledgment is made of the private sector's role in creating affluence, or of the fact that a zealous redistribution of present assets will inhibit the creation of future wealth. Yet these errors of practical economics are of less consequence than the grave theological misapprehension beneath them. The challenge and the burden of almsgiving are and ought to be personal. Christian charity does not consist of petitioning the state to redress economic grievances. Rather, it calls upon the individual believer to comfort the afflicted. An ethic geared primarily toward government undermines the crucial sense of personal responsibility for the least of one's brethren. True charity, like true faith, must be voluntary if it is to be efficacious.
The Religious Left's embrace of environmentalism is likewise theologically troublesome. Conserving the earth's natural majesty is, of course, a worthy calling. But, as in their treatment of poverty, these authors gloss over many practical considerations—for instance, the possibility that material development in poor nations may lead to environmental degradation. Besides, profound theological difficulties lurk within the proposed marriage of environmentalism and Christianity. As Lerner and Meyers illustrate, the environmental conscience can easily segue into pantheism, wherein reverence for the Creator is confused with reverence for creation. More subtly, environmentalism tends to misrepresent man's place within the cosmos, placing him closer to the beasts than the angels. Made in the image and likeness of God, human beings are privileged among the animals; we belong not merely to the circle of life, but at the pinnacle of creation.
With respect to war and peace, the Religious Left does not fare much better. Again, their intentions are admirable; the peacemakers shall be blessed, after all, and called the children of God. But Christianity has never equated peacemaking with pacifism, for the simple reason that, in this fallen world, the love of neighbor may require using force on that neighbor's behalf. The Christian duty of loving one's neighbor as oneself may well entail forsaking peace in pursuit of justice. Violence is thus not perceived as evil in itself, but acquires its moral significance only in relation to the ends it serves. Though none of these authors explicitly repudiates the axioms of just-war theory, they all attempt to redefine the substance of that tradition. The ad bellum criteria have historically centered on deontological considerations, demanding that combat be undertaken by a legitimate authority, for a just cause, with right intent, and towards the restoration of peace. These authors, however, want to shift the focus to more prudential concerns, such as whether the moral benefits outweigh the costs, or whether all non-violent options have yet been pursued. But, crucially, this focus on prudential criteria allows endless room for doubt, debate, and delay. It permits its advocates to act like functional pacifists, admitting the theoretical possibility of a just war, but in practice denying its existence. It relieves these writers of real-world responsibility and gives rise to fanciful illusions of global police and international non-violent forces.
The new Religious Left appears unlikely to gain many converts, preaching an old-time progressive gospel to an aging choir. Dubious assumptions, unsatisfactory methods, and theologically problematic conclusions render much of the project intellectually inadequate and (speaking for myself) spiritually unfulfilling. Of course, this need not be so. One hopes that a return to tradition will inspire these five authors and other likeminded thinkers to sentire cum ecclesia, to think and feel with the church universal, its saints, sages, artists, and martyrs throughout the centuries. Perhaps such reflection will remind them that we are pilgrims more than prophets, that we pass through this City of Man as strangers in a strange land, longing for and ultimately arriving, we pray, in the City of God. And until we achieve that distant Kingdom, we will do best to recognize each other's good intentions, offer one another patient correction, and pray for our mutual betterment, and withal follow the counsel of Micah, to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.