'Spiritual Left' Must Resolve Cultural Crisis

Among the many post-mortems analyzing the Democratic Party's 2004 defeat, Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of the progressive Tikkun magazine, provides one of the most challenging and compelling in "The Democrats Need a Spiritual Left" [, 11/04/04]:

"Tens of millions of Americans feel betrayed by a society that seems to place materialism and selfishness above moral values. They know that 'looking out for number one' has become the common sense of our society, but they want a life that is about something more -- a framework of meaning and purpose to their lives that would transcend the grasping and narcissism that surrounds them. Sure, they will admit that they have material needs, and that they worry about adequate health care, stability in employment and enough money to give their kids a college education. But even more deeply they want their lives to have meaning -- and they respond to candidates who seem to care about values and some sense of transcendent purpose."

Lerner is right, and it is not just the Democratic Party that needs a "spiritual left." The nation is in the midst of a cultural transition that is already becoming a crisis. Lerner's diagnosis mirrors what Emory University professor James Fowler wrote about in Faithful Change: The Personal and Public Challenges of Postmodern Life. Fowler sees western culture losing its "faith" in modernity, science and progress, and faced with a choice between moving backward to a pre-Enlightenment mindset in which Reason is trumped by religion or forward to a new, postmodern worldview in which Reason and Faith are in harmony.

Fowler's hypothesis goes a long way toward explaining US politics since 1968. Racial strife, rapid cultural changes and the Vietnam War shook Americans' confidence in an ever-advancing progress fueled by science that would always leave the next generation better off than the preceding one. Into this angst-laden vacuum yearning for reassurance stepped Protestant fundamentalism that had been politically dormant since its humiliating defeat by the forces of modernity in the Scopes trial at the beginning of the century. Appealing to the "Moral Majority," the revitalized Christian Right first utilized television to spread its message, but its media resources now include cable and radio stations, publishing houses and recording studios. All offer the same message of reaction against modernity mixed with a dose of spiritual comfort.

The Left still communicates almost exclusively in the language of Reason and the Enlightenment. Former labor secretary and The American Prospect co-founder Robert Reich describes the problem:

"When politicians talk about having a plan for this or a policy for that, many eyes glaze over."

His solution is to put more conviction into it, but such "conviction" does not naturally arise from the cool, detached, rational, modernist mindset. It is inevitably unconvincing to a populace looking for someone to shepherd them through a painful cultural crisis.

Fowler offers more, though, than just another perspective on why things aren't working. His analysis points the way toward a resolution of the crippling division that currently plagues America. His reputation as a psychologist was built by his writings on faith maturation that applied the work of Piaget, Kohlberg and Erikson to "faith" development in human beings. By "faith," Fowler does not mean belief in a particular religion but instead the set of conceptual skills and axioms that underlie moral thinking. By such a definition, even the most ardent atheist has "faith."

This "faith" passes through as many as six stages in individuals, but most people spend adulthood in one of three: "synthetic-conventional," "individuative-reflective" or "conjunctive." These categories are relevant to Fowler's broader cultural hypothesis because he draws an analogy between these three stages and western cultural history. The "synthetic-conventional" stage, characterized in the individual both by reliance upon trusted family and peers to provide moral presuppositions and also an inability to question those core beliefs, is akin to a pre-Enlightenment state. The "individuative-reflective" stage, characterized in the individual by the deconstruction of received myths and symbols, corresponds to modernity. Finally, the "conjunctive" phase, in which individuals re-appropriate once-discarded myths and symbols with an appreciation for paradox and mystery, is analogous to the postmodern era into which we are currently struggling to emerge as a society.

Applied to our current cultural dilemma, Fowler's theory explains our lack of success and offers us a way not only of improving the fortunes of a political party but also assisting our culture in successfully making the transition to a new and promising cultural paradigm. We now live in a circumstance dominated by two seemingly irresolvable antitheses. This concept of cultural maturation sees the way forward to a new synthesis that will replace both the reactionary retreat to the past offered by the Christian Right and the arid, incomplete worldview of modernity that fewer and fewer people find persuasive. This cultural maturation will be a "stage" that will satisfy humanity's need for a spiritual dimension without rejecting modernity's contributions.

This is a world in which the norm is to accept evolution as the best explanation of Earth's development while still appreciating the moral insights of the creation myths that the world's cultures have produced. It's an environment in which it's possible to sift through ancient texts to discern basic truths about the value of fidelity in human sexual relationships while discarding condemnations of homosexuality as discredited and outmoded. It's a context where the Torah's treatment of the value of community and equality can be compared and contrasted with how the Muslim or Hindu traditions handle those concepts.

Many of us already live in such a world. But most of Thomas Frank's Kansans or Howard Dean's southern pickup truck drivers do not. In fact, many middle class, well-educated Americans do not. They are searching for a cultural vision that will allow them to live in a 21st-century world, but there are a very limited number of forums through which this new paradigm can be presented to them. The Christian Right has used mass media very successfully to spread their dark hopes for America. A "spiritual left" must develop similar resources in broadcast radio and television, cable, publishing and recording. Existing mass media may eventually serve as a conduit for this vision, but initially, new outlets will have to be created to present "alternative" faith programs, music and books.

This approach offers not only a positive course of action to progressives who want to see their views and policies prevail but also hope to a nation paralyzed by cultural conflict and a world frightened by the confusion and division that dominates the most powerful nation on Earth. It refuses to accept the Right's false alternatives of a "Christian nation" or moral degeneration and offers a new vision for an America that will be at peace with itself and thus able to help lead the world to peace.

Rev. Allen H. Brill is a Lutheran pastor (ELCA) and co-founder of "Why Not, South Carolina?", an organization supporting the work of South Carolina progressives. Email

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