Progressive vs Conservative
Many Americas are in a spiritual crisis in the most church-going nation in the world. Many people are longing for meaning in their lives, and are concerned with eroding values, unstable families, cheapened sexuality, and a culture that is dominated by money and selfishness. But the selfishness, greed, materialism, and competition rewarded by the marketplace seem to be required for survival. Most people are afraid not to join in, but they hate it and want something more. As my favorite comic guru Swami Beyondanada says, “we have been inundated with so much toxic B.S., that our skeptic system has overflowed, and people end up swallowing huge ironies whole.”
When people turn to religion for answers, they find two very different aspects to the Judaic-Christian-Islamic God. They find what Rabbi Michael Lerner calls the left and right hand of God. The Right Hand of God speaks to our fear and emphasizes laws and rules, judgement, punishment, competition, domination, violence, and obedience. The Left Hand of God represents hope and emphasizes love, compassion, generosity, kindness, forgiveness, cooperation, and peace. Both are found in the Bible. And we can easily find denominations and religious groups that emphasize one or the other.
Let me give you one example of how these two facets of religion look at the issue of abortion. The Right Hand defines the issue in simplistic, black and white terms. Those on the right say life begins at conception (ignoring the fact that the sperm and egg have to be alive before conception can happen). They say abortion is murder, and they focus on punishment of everyone involved. In fact, some even oppose contraception and comprehensive sex education showing that the real agenda is not to reduce abortions but to punish the “sin” of sexual behaviors they consider unacceptable.
Contrast that with the Left Hand of God that sees abortion as a tragic option for a desperate woman. This view considers the complex issue of unwanted pregnancies, long-range consequences of unplanned children and the historical evolution of moral views regarding personhood – it begins with the first breath [Genesis 2:7]; it begins 40 to 90 days after conception at “ensoulment,” [St. Augustine]; it begins at quickening [Pope Innocent III], or it begins with fetal brain and nervous system development and survivability [neonatology]. Left Hand morality emphasizes compassion and support for the woman, and looks at rational ways to minimize the need for abortions. The lowest abortion rates in the world are in Western Europe where people have easy access to contraceptives, comprehensive sex education and adequate health care for themselves and their babies; and rates are highest in South America, Africa, and Eastern Europe, where most abortions are illegal, few social services are available and religious sanctions are severe.
Even in the U.S., young women are seven times more likely to have an abortion than young women in the Netherlands. Nearly half (45%) of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended. More than half (54%) of unintended pregnancies are women who did not use contraception at all, and another 41% used contraception inconsistently or incorrectly. Comprehensive sex education and easily available, affordable long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs) would eliminate about 2.7 million unplanned pregnancies and more than 1 million abortions. Fewer unwanted pregnancies would also reduce family poverty, child abuse and neglect, divorces, and other social ills. Those on the left find prevention much more effective than punishment.
People who subscribe to the ideology of the Right Hand of God have managed to hijack public discussions of morality and values. Today when we hear that someone is voting on the basis of morals or values, we probably assume the person is politically or religiously conservative. How did that happen? Liberals, progressives and mainline churches have emphasized inclusion by challenging racism, sexism, homophobia, and other human rights violations. In our strong commitment to respecting diverse opinions and keeping religion out of politics and government, we have failed to articulate our progressive values. We have sometimes acted as if public policy can be morally neutral and value free. All public decisions have moral implications. It’s not just abortion, same-sex marriage, sex education, prayer in schools, and evolution that are moral issues. The Federal budget is a moral document. Tax cuts for the wealthy at the expense of services for the needy are immoral. Poverty, homelessness, the environment, healthcare, and war are all moral issues.
When progressives have remained neutral on spiritual and moral topics in public discourse, conservatives have filled the vacuum. Fundamentalist mega-churches have grown by leaps and bounds. Prosperity theology is frighteningly popular. This ideology preaches that wealth and prosperity is God’s reward to the chosen few and that poverty and disaster are deserved punishments for the unsaved. Some even believe that unregulated capitalism is an economic system ordained by God. End times theologies are even more dangerous because they interpret world disasters as signs of the end times, rapture, etc. Based on those beliefs, they welcome world destruction and see progressive social action as not only a waste of time but, for Christians, as the work of the Antichrist. Why be concerned about conserving the environment if the world is about to end anyway. Why strive for peace in the middle east if war is the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy and is necessary for Christ’s return?
I have to admit it’s very easy for me to be cynical and dismissive of fundamentalism and even hostile to religion in general because fundamentalism and Biblical literalism seem so irrational. However, that attitude ignores the spiritual void in America and the importance of meaning and purpose in people’s lives. That attitude ignores the emotional appeal of conservative theology, especially to frightened people who value certainty above all else. Fundamentalist theology definitely preaches certainty – they claim to have the absolute and eternal truth and guaranteed salvation. They claim that only they are right and everyone else is wrong and doomed to everlasting damnation. They have all the answers and don’t need (or even tolerate) any questions or doubt.
But most people who embrace conservative ideology are not religious fundamentalists. They are simply people who are seeking emotional reassurance and certainty and don’t see anyone except the religious and political right addressing moral issues. They will even vote against their own economic well-being and ignore significant personality flaws in candidates just to support people they think are fighting for their values. We need people describing progressive values and standing up for an alternative moral agenda in America.
Part 2 will describe what a progressive world would be like.
The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right by Michael Lerner
Swami Beyondanada http://www.wakeuplaughing.com