The Covenant with America

Michael Lerner wants liberals to talk to the nation about God. If only they spoke the language.

From Texas, Indiana, Pennsylvania — from every corner of the country — hundreds came to Berkeley, that all-purpose utopian caricature. In a world that honors the beliefs of conservative Christians but still scorns the liberal who wears his heart on his sleeve, hundreds of ministers and laypersons gathered in a campus conference hall to proclaim their belief in God, compassion, and yes, social justice. They came to create a new morality that synthesized progressive and spiritual values, at a time when “culture wars” supposedly compel Americans to choose between one or the other. They came to hear Rabbi Michael Lerner, the founder of Tikkun magazine and earnest prophet of “the politics of meaning,” and the man who called them here to change the world.

Lerner has a way of channeling the Old Testament prophets, with his shambling gait and the way clothes hang loosely on his frame. On the evening of July 20, the first day of his four-day conference, he stepped to the podium at UC Berkeley’s Pauley Ballroom to deliver the keynote speech. The audience had spent the day hard at work, splitting into small groups and trying to figure out just what progressive spirituality looks like in the 21st century. Now, Lerner would share a vision honed through years of refinement, argument, and frustration with watching the Christian right secure a monopoly on moral language in American politics.

“There has been, for the past at least several thousand years, a struggle going on between two fundamental different worldviews,” he said. “One such worldview tells us that the world is composed of human beings who are fundamentally out for themselves, aggressive, and hurtful. … On the other hand, there’s been another worldview that has been largely sustained by and developed by the spiritual traditions of human history. Not just by Christianity or Judaism, but by the vast number of different spiritual traditions. And this view says, no, human beings have the fundamental capacity to be loving and caring. … The fundamental truth of our being is we come into the world in connection with another.”

But the selfish Hobbesian paradigm dominates the world, at a terrible cost to our souls. Lerner told his audience about the quiet desperation he encountered as he traveled the country talking with ordinary folks. “They were telling us that there is a spiritual crisis in their lives,” he said. “In the world of work, they are learning over and over again, hour after hour, day after day, that there is … a bottom line of money and power for somebody. … People are unlearning how to see other human beings as created in the image of God, and learning how to see them in a narrow, utilitarian, manipulative way. … They feel lonely. They don’t know who they can count on anymore. They don’t know who they can trust.”

That’s why his audience was here, Lerner said, to relearn that morality cannot be found on a ledger, but in God and in our hearts. “What is needed is a spiritual progressive voice that can acknowledge that there is a real spiritual crisis — in fact, insist that, that crisis has to be the central issue of politics,” he urged. “Today, institutions are judged efficient, rational, or productive to the extent that they maximize money and power. We are saying that the institutions should be judged efficient, rational, and productive not only to the extent that they maximize money and power, but also to the extent that they maximize love and caring, kindness and generosity.”

Three days later, Lerner himself was feeling considerably less generous. He may have expected to be ridiculed, but being ignored proved too much for him. The national media took a pass on his grand project, and the local papers threw him just a few column inches. During his final address to the conference, he invited his audience to do what disappointed utopians do best: bitch at the media.

“There are hundreds of people here from the Bay Area,” Lerner snapped. “If every one of those hundreds of people wrote a letter of protest to the Chronicle for the superficial way in which it covered this conference … and say, ‘This is not acceptable! This is not acceptable to us! We are serious, spiritual people. We don’t want our vision to be marginalized and not taken seriously.’ … I want to invite you to do that to the editor of The New York Times. Why wasn’t the Times covering this?”

The thing is, Lerner was right. When he began organizing his conference, he figured he’d be lucky if four hundred people showed up. In fact, roughly 1,300 people — ministers and theologians, lawyers and Benedictine monks — flew in from all over the country, and hundreds more had to be turned away. George Lakoff and Jim Wallis, the two reigning gurus of the Democratic Party, each spoke for an hour about values, God, faith, and the future of the left. As a collection of talent and resolve, Lerner’s conference was considerably more noteworthy than the media allowed for.

But perhaps he should count his blessings. Had the media stuck around, it would have found a crude work in progress, whose participants were less inclined toward engaging in transcendent soul-searching than regurgitating predictable cant and displaying moral blind spots and a dismaying pessimism about the country’s sense of possibility. Next spring, Lerner will reconvene his followers in Washington, DC, where they will take a stab at refining the ideas birthed in Berkeley, this time under the scrutiny of the national press. If this was off-Broadway, the production had better rework its script before the real curtain rises next year.


Lerner’s vision has long been both compelling and abstruse. He imagines progressive human beings who manifest their values at work, among friends and family, and in silent prayer. But he also sees these values operating in the world of politics, where these same people enter the public sphere and demand their leaders apply a spiritual vision to health care, international trade, and foreign policy. Somehow, these public and private spheres are supposed to fall along a seamless continuum of how we live moral lives under the eye of God. Most people at the conference were clearly more interested in the activism, and Lerner himself, by setting his next event in the nation’s capital, signaled how overtly political this campaign was going to be. He and his followers have set out to draft a new version of the Contract with America, replacing Newt Gingrich’s Toffleresque futurism, Jeffersonian Democracy, and “citizen legislators” with a community of the spirit, psalm-singing populism, and cradle-to-grave socialism. Call it the Covenant with America.

Ever since the 2004 election planted the myth of a triumphant religious conservatism in the mouths of pundits, a false dichotomy between a secular left and a religious right has increasingly served as the narrative of political conflict. From Terri Schiavo to evolution to the next Supreme Court justice, almost every social conflict of the last nine months has pitted a godless leftist elite against a spiritual right-wing proletariat. Religious liberals have been left out of the conversation.

But as Lerner never tires of pointing out, the religious impulse is far too broad and deep to be confined to one narrow set of ideas. Millions of Americans yearn for something more than work, commuting, and shopping. Their social and spiritual lives have been withered by years of suburban isolation, soulless office work, and impersonal telecommunications, and they want something they can’t quite define. Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians have done a wonderful job of speaking to this angst. When lonely seekers arrive at church, they are given a big hug, introduced to other people like themselves, and welcomed into the fellowship of Christ. That their politics are grafted onto this message is incidental; what counts is the unconditional love, grace in the Lord, and moral compass they offer.

Lerner organized this conference because he thinks liberals can offer this as well. “Spiritual progressives” can nurture, as he wrote in a recent Tikkun article, “the deepest human desires — the desires for loving connection, for transcendent meaning to life, and for justice and peace.” But they have to speak directly to these desires, not flinch from them in deference to rational thought. For too long, he says, liberals have thought of social and economic policy as a bloodless, wonkish exercise, ceding the language of values and morality to their opponents. Religious progressives, he argues, shouldn’t think of universal health care as a matter of HMOs and PPOs, but as God’s love for his children made manifest in the world. It’s a familiar theme for those who have followed Lerner’s thinking through the years, but the conference he put on in July represents his most ambitious attempt yet to change the language of modern liberalism.

Based on the demeanor of conference participants, that language is likely to be polite but reserved. Hundreds of mostly middle-aged white men and women filed past the free massage bench and information tables in the ballroom lobby, chatting quietly among themselves and being careful to listen. The sandal quotient was surprisingly low, but here and there a woman walked by in a turban, and one man wore a T-shirt that read “Every time a Republican dies, a queer angel gets their wings.” Representatives from New College and Code Pink handed out brochures while an older man in an olive-green corduroy suit coaxed folk tunes out of a guitar. Up on the main stage, another folkie belted out his song, “Who Would Jesus Bomb?”

Of course, Lerner himself was the main attraction. After spending the 1960s working on his doctorate at UC Berkeley and hanging out with Students for a Democratic Society, he cofounded the New College Graduate School of Psychology in San Francisco. There, he spent years treating middle-class spiritual alienation, applying these notions to leftist politics in a school of thought he dubbed the “politics of meaning.” Bill and Hillary Clinton grew infatuated with Lerner’s ideas, but once the poison pens of the Eastern media savaged him as a New Age flake, they quickly backed away. In the 1990s, Lerner became a rabbi and established the Beyt Tikkun synagogue, where he applied his fusion of leftist values and joyful spirituality to the everyday lives of his congregation.

Over the years, he seemed consigned to dwell among a discredited leftist fringe, but as Democrats grew angrier with George W. Bush and embraced Howard Dean’s confrontational style, his stock has dramatically risen. No one was more surprised by the conference’s turnout than Lerner.

And the hundreds who flocked to Berkeley came ready to work. “I came because it’s something that’s exciting to me, the possibility of basing our political activism on our spiritual beliefs,” said Josh Brody, a thirtysomething with long black hair, a goatee, and a Paul Wellstone T-shirt. “We should be talking about compassion; we should be talking about sustainability. … It’s coming from an idea of justice and social justice, and valuing every other life as much as you value your own.”

Over the course of four days, people such as Brody tried to give the politics of meaning concrete form. Dividing into small groups, they argued about everything from nonviolence to changing the values of the modern economy. The workgroups and workshops could be broadly categorized into those emphasizing therapy and personal morality — transcending materialism, for example, or “building a dignitarian society to overcome rankism” — and those that stressed politics and public morality, such as dealing with Islamic fundamentalism, applying spiritual values to the environmental movement, or reconciling faith and science in the public arena.

By the end of the fourth day, attendees assembled their thoughts in a platform, but the conference meant more than that. What distinguished Lerner’s event was that grappling with issues of faith and politics was an end unto itself. Attendees were assigned to small groups based on where they lived, and charged to return home, discuss these issues in greater detail, and introduce them to the world around them. They weren’t just supposed to collect signatures or write letters to the editor — they were to speak to Americans’ spiritual longings and endeavor to transform the world one soulful exchange at a time.

“This is very different from the advice the Democrats are getting right now,” Lerner said in his opening address. “Their advice is, throw in the word ‘God’ every few sentences, or throw in the word ‘values’ every few sentences, and you’ll beat the right. But our goal is not to beat the right or beat anyone. Our goal is to build a different kind of world … a world in which love and kindness and generosity are the center of our world, rather than pushed to the side as some impossible, unrealistic vision that can never be real. …

“When I went to give a talk like this to a group of four hundred Methodists in Kansas, there was a tremendous response. But then they came up to me and said, ‘It’s great, Rabbi Lerner, but it’ll never work.’ So I said, ‘Well, why will it never work?’ They said, ‘Because the only people who would believe these kinds of ideas are Methodists in Kansas. … We watch television, we read newspapers, we know what people are like on the coasts. They’re all so into themselves and selfishness and materialism.’

“On the other hand, when we talk about this in New York or Washington or San Francisco or Los Angeles, people say to us, ‘Yeah, that’s great, but Middle America?’ This is the key, folks. We all keep insisting that it’s only us and people in our group that want a different kind of world. … The power of this movement is that we will say publicly what so many people privately want but dare not say for fear that they will be ridiculed.”

But reconciling heartland Methodists and coastal intellectuals may be harder than Lerner made it sound. If his project is to work, Lerner’s message must resonate not just with the choir in Berkeley, but with the people outside his church, in tract homes and fast-food restaurants all across the nation. And that’s where the trouble starts.


It’s not Lerner who must reach these everyday Americans — it’s the rank-and-file spiritual soldiers who attended his conference. They are the shock troops charged with bringing an affirmative message into their everyday lives, to touch strangers and incrementally transform society. If they are to succeed, the culture of leftist spirituality on display at the conference must resonate with Middle America. And judging from those who attended, the new spiritual left has some serious problems talking about God.

Take Sue Griffin, a Los Angeles immigration attorney. “I consider myself a spiritual person, and I’m also a political person,” she said. “So this was an opportunity to find out how I could marry the two parts of my life.” But Griffin doesn’t go to church, and when asked to define her spirituality, she fumbled, “Well, I believe in — I think that when Rabbi Lerner talks about a life of compassion and love and caring about other people, that’s how I would put it. And I also have a spiritual practice. I meditate. In my everyday relationships, my clients, my family, I try to think about them, I try to do what’s right.”

That was about as specific as this conference could get. Lerner’s organizers were so intent upon creating an interfaith atmosphere that they stripped religion of its specificity, reducing it to a pantheistic mush of how we’re all connected in some ethereal, deep ecology matrix. People respond to tangible creation myths and narratives — of Yahweh delivering his people out of bondage in Egypt, of Jesus Christ suffering on the cross to wash your sins clean. In the name of interfaith harmony, Tikkun’s conference bled the divine of all its narrative power.

Face it, most Americans love Jesus. According to a 2004 study from the University of Chicago, at least 78 percent identify themselves as Christian. But judging by the conference, Christianity is just one of a rainbow of different American faiths, and not a particularly prominent one at that. On the last day of the conference, Lerner set aside two hours in the morning for “simultaneous spiritual practices,” including Shabbat services, meditation, Sufi worship, a Quaker ritual, and a “Universal” service. What were the Baptists and Catholics and Lutherans and Methodists and Pentecostals supposed to do? No one appears to have given that much thought.

Lerner says mainline Christian services weren’t scheduled because they worship on Sunday, and the conference ended the day before. “That was not a decision to not do that; it’s just Sunday is a day that they do that thing,” he says. “We wouldn’t have done Shabbas if it had been Sunday through Wednesday. I don’t think it’s fair to conclude that because we didn’t have any service, we weren’t going to pay attention to their spiritual traditions.” But Quakers also worship on Sunday, and they got their Saturday service like everyone else.

Scheduling issues were also blamed for why no black gospel choir performed at a conference that featured a numbing plethora of crunchy folk singers. If Lerner and his colleagues hadn’t been so busy accommodating Buddhists, Muslims, and Unitarians, they might have noticed that the country’s dominant faiths were strangely underrepresented.

In fact, conference attendees openly sneered at one of the country’s most important Christian movements. At a workshop entitled “Understanding the Theology of Christian Fundamentalists,” session leader Jim Garrison spent a few minutes exploring the apocalyptic strain in fundamentalist doctrine. This tradition, he then explained, is why George W. Bush and his fundamentalist allies are “lunatics coming from a very deep place of theological authority” and have the “mentality of the suicide bomber.” Garrison even claimed that our entire foreign policy has been subordinated to the interests of Israel because the neoconservative fundamentalists running this country believe that nation is the catalyst for the onset of the end time foretold in the Book of Revelation.


Iven if they could set aside their reflexive contempt for sincere fundamentalists, Lerner’s legions face another serious obstacle: the state of contemporary American religiosity. They hope to sell Americans on the transcendence of charity and selflessness, but the fastest-growing wing of modern Christianity is largely indifferent to the notion of helping the downtrodden and seemingly hostile to most forms of engagement with the outside world.

The Protestant majority, whose Calvinist notions of social obligation have so profoundly influenced the American character, is in free fall. According to the University of Chicago study, the proportion of Americans who identified as Protestant has dropped from around 63 percent in 1993 to just over 52 percent in 2002, with the most prominent decline occurring among young people. Meanwhile, the proportion of Americans who identify their religion as other than Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish rose from 2.8 percent in 1993 to 6.9 percent in 2002. This group consists mostly of nondenominational Christians, whose numbers have increased by 146 percent in the last twelve years.

Where do you find these nondenominational Christians? The suburban megachurch, which is fast becoming the most vibrant and diverse center of religious life in America. According to John Vaughan of the Center for the Study of Growing Churches, the number of non-Catholic megachurches has grown from ten in 1970 to more than one thousand today. At the current rate of expansion, a new megachurch opens every two days. Lakewood Church in Houston, whose thirty thousand members make it the largest church in America, recently moved its services into the former home of the Houston Rockets basketball team. The East Bay’s megachurches include Concord’s two-thousand-member Calvary Temple, Dublin’s two-thousand-strong CrossWinds Church, and East Oakland’s six-thousand-member Acts Full Gospel.

It’s no coincidence that these churches most often flourish in Sun Belt suburbs and exurbs, where communities are consciously planned to minimize places where people spontaneously meet. As exurbs dispense with front porches, parks, downtowns, and other types of public space, the megachurch joins the office as virtually the only place where people can befriend strangers. Megachurch pioneers who have conducted consumer research among the “unchurched” found that many were turned off by traditional litanies and music, as well as preachiness, judgment, and the sense that God is demanding something from you. So they stripped crosses and traditional Christian architecture from their sanctuaries, replaced hymns with contemporary Christian rock bands, and downplayed those elements of the Gospel that emphasized sin, judgment, and obligation. The pastor of Radiant Church in Surprise, Arizona, which recently was profiled in The New York Times magazine, offers Krispy Kreme doughnuts during services and Xbox video-game consoles for the kids — whatever it takes to get them in the door.

Sermons in these churches focus on personal growth and self-affirmation. Gone are the guilt trips and demands; pastors instead offer practical, down-to-earth lessons about how Jesus can transform your finances, your self-esteem, your weight problem, or your relationship with your spouse. According to a report by Scott Thumma, a researcher at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, one Phoenix megachurch described itself as “a forgiveness center, and not a guilt center.” Most churches offer a staggering array of “small group fellowships” tailored to narrow demographic groups such as college students, young parents, and adult singles, and organized around twelve-step programs, counseling sessions, and divorce recovery groups. “These large churches may even provide roller rinks, pools, gymnasiums, racquetball courts, weight rooms, and, as Second Baptist in Houston does, a movie theater,” Thumma writes.

There’s a phrase for this kind of ministry — spiritual narcissism. It’s rapidly becoming the dominant strain in American religion. “The religions that are growing are the ones that don’t carry a strong sense of obligation, except in an indirect way, if by obligation you mean any commitment to social justice,” says Alan Wolfe, the director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life. “It really is focused on the self.”

Wolfe believes Michael Lerner’s notions of humanitarian work and universal brotherhood would sound alien and discomfiting to such congregations. While Lerner himself acknowledges the phenomenon, he maintains that his grand campaign still has a shot at bringing people back to church for a different set of reasons. “In some elements of the megachurches, it’s also true that the growing edge of the religious right has a focus on service to others,” he says. “That service is in my view tainted by its deep insistence that those who get served also buy into their religious worldview. But these people send tens of thousands of people into the world to teach their truth and provide education and health-care services to tens of thousands of people around the world. … People who are engaged in that kind of activity are not just spiritual narcissists.”

But Wolfe has his doubts. He says most megachurch charity focuses on its own members, who regard their church as a refuge from a hostile world. “Their image is they’re constantly proselytizing, but that’s not what they do,” he says. “They’re very homogenizing. It’s like identity politics; like African Americans who want their own dormitory, Christians want their own world.”

If Lerner truly wants to speak to the religious impulses of Americans, Wolfe says, he must find the right message. It’s not liberalism that’s problematic — it’s any kind of politics, and the prospect of engagement with strangers outside the church. “A lot of these ministers are tied to the Republican Party, but everyday people, there’s this deep antipolitical strain in American culture,” Wolfe says. “They don’t like conflict, they don’t like argument. So when I talk to some of these evangelical believers, they say the church should be a healing process. They say Jesus is about love, and politics is about conflict and anger. So they’re worried about anything that moves too close to politics and too far away from faith.”


Lerner may have an even more profound problem: his colleagues were all worked up about what a bad guy George W. Bush is, but seemed incapable of recognizing any evil beyond the capitalist variety. If Garrison’s seminar on evangelical Christians was merely annoying, the following day’s workshop on “The Challenge of Islamic Fundamentalism” was nauseating. The session leader, Sufi mystic Kabir Helminski, pointed out that Islamic fundamentalism arose as a fusion of an aberrant interpretation of traditional Islam with the totalitarian, utopian ideologies of the 20th century — a point the writer Paul Berman has made before, and it’s true enough. But in a seminar titled for the fanaticism that would exterminate Enlightenment liberalism at the point of the sword, Helminski praised the “grievances” of its mujahideen when he wasn’t busy instructing his listeners that traditional Islam stood for environmentalism, animal rights, and the separation of “mosque and state.”

“I’m not defending Osama,” Helminski said in his eerily placid voice — and then he proceeded to do exactly that. “If you were to meet him, he’s a mild, humble, refined human being, who could have spent, you know, his life having his, you know, toenails pedicured in Saudi Arabia if he wanted to. But he joined the struggle in Afghanistan.”

For more than an hour, Helminski’s lesson fouled the air. “One of the things about the jihadists, and terrorists worldwide, according to academic studies, is that on the whole, their grievances are real,” he said. “On the whole, their grievances are just. … Other extremist groups, whether in Algeria, Indonesia, Pakistan, and elsewhere, are fighting the collusion of their own governments with the forces of corrupt global capitalism that results in weakened morals, social disintegration, and increased poverty,” he continued — undoubtedly enlightening the parents of the Bali nightclub bombing victims. “Fundamentalism was on the verge of being reduced to mere dying embers in much of the Islamic world, because it had for the most part demonstrated that it had no real answers to the needs of our time. … 9/11 and the so-called War on Terror changed all that, spilling gasoline on those dying embers.”

Each time he claimed that true Muslims think puppies are cute and that responsibility for the rise in Islamic fundamentalism lies entirely with American foreign policy, everyone in the room murmured soft, cloying affirmations. The only time anyone asked a seriously critical question — what about the murder of Theo van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker who made a movie about the oppression of women under Islam? — Helminski stiffened and said, “I would say that probably some people were very offended by the degree of distortion that was in that documentary. And it pushed somebody beyond his limits.”

Suddenly, a man in the front row interrupted — but not to condemn van Gogh’s killer. Rather, he thought it important to point out that the misogyny dramatized in van Gogh’s film stemmed from local Arab culture, not Islam. “Thank you!” a woman exclaimed. “That’s an important point!”

This impulse to defend Islam’s treatment of women and rationalize the murder of an artist underscores a lethal flaw in Lerner’s movement. Lerner himself is highly critical of Islamic extremism, and a second lecturer who shared some of his critiques was supposed to address the group, but couldn’t make it. But what Lerner thinks is not important when everyone else is listening to Helminski rationalize evil and swooning together in Kumbaya groupthink. The showdown between modernity and jihadist fascism is the central conflict of our age, and yes, the United States shares some blame for this state of affairs, but Helminski’s listeners simply walked away mewling relativist platitudes. Such an attitude doesn’t just alienate Americans who are turned off by politics — it disgusts anyone who recognizes moral cowardice.


On the last day of the conference, a group of people ascended the stage to point out the obvious: almost everyone in the room was white. The “diversity workgroup” had spontaneously assembled to figure out how to spread the conference’s message to other ethnic communities. Their recommendations sounded dismally familiar:

“We challenge the network of spiritual progressives to commit ourselves to a public and ongoing acknowledgment that the United States was birthed in the twin tragedies of genocide and slavery,” said a woman as the audience dutifully applauded. “We also challenge the network of spiritual progressives to commit ourselves as individuals and as an organization to do the nitty-gritty, uncomfortable work of becoming conscious of and healing our personal and institutional problems of racism.” Another woman called for the establishment of “truth and reconciliation commissions” charged with investigating oppressions from homophobia to discrimination against the disabled.

But if the diversity group’s members had examined genuinely diverse religious congregations, they would have noticed that people don’t walk around reminding themselves of our blood-soaked past every day. Four thousand Latino parishioners attend the Spanish services at Houston’s Lakewood Church, rubbing shoulders once a week with their white counterparts. The same message of joyful worship and small-group social services drew them all in, according to a report by the Houston Chronicle. Even Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral, the ultimate redoubt of whitebread America, has a more diverse membership than Lerner’s conference. How’d they pull it off? By shouting their joy in the Lord to the rafters.

If you want to reach ordinary Americans, you have to accentuate the positive. If this isn’t a maxim already, it ought to be. But conference attendees seemed preoccupied with oppression and exploitation. That they’re right hardly matters; no one likes a Gloomy Gus. Lerner himself is renowned for the sense of joy he brings to his worship style, but his followers seemed too preoccupied with the nation’s failings to recall their mission to create an affirmative vision.

During a series of talks that were supposed to address “spiritual and religious values in the public sphere,” the executive director of Pax Christi, the national Catholic peace movement, quickly detoured into a joke about corrupt Floridian politics. “We went to Tallahassee and, on the steps of the capitol, we announced that our intent was to bring international monitors to the United States to ensure free, fair, and transparent elections in the state of Florida,” David Robinson said to rapt applause. “There were, like, five reporters at this press conference. But one of them was a Reuters guy. And he loved it. So he goes right upstairs and finds Jeb Bush. And he hits Jeb with this, right? And Jeb wigs out.” As people began to laugh, Robinson continued, “One thing that he said that I had to absolutely agree with was that he said that it was an insult to compare Florida to a Third World nation. And so we compiled as many e-mail addresses as we could for the leaders of developing nations and we sent an apology.”

Robinson didn’t just slam Jeb Bush — he used a panel dedicated to spiritual affirmation to make a joke about how Florida sucks. Everyone was so busy cheering and feeling superior that no one noticed they had just insulted an entire state.


Lerner’s idea is truly profound, but his followers let him down. If they want to win souls for the left, they have to learn how to love their country, figure out that evil exists, and become comfortable talking about Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, that clashes with so much of the contemporary progressive temperament.

At least they weren’t afraid to say what they stand for, which is more than the spineless Democrats can say after two decades of focus-group mush. When the conference concluded, Lerner’s workgroups took the stage and called for a new America, item by item. The environmental group vowed to create a “just, sustainable, regenerative world” by confronting climate change, nuclear proliferation, and the dependence on oil. The workgroup on women demanded that all children have access to shelter, nutrition, education, and health care, and that women be free to choose abortion — which they delicately termed “reproductive choices.” The “Science and Spirit” group — the most interesting people in the conference — called for progressive theologians and spiritually inclined biologists to craft a vision of evolution as compatible with a divine presence in the world, and to use such an alliance as the basis for future action on global warming, overpopulation, and the development of alternative energy sources.

Still, much of the Tikkun platform amounts to a wish list, and wish lists tend to cost money. Lerner’s proposals to implement his followers’ vision are so absurd you might as well start laughing now. He calls for a “Global Marshall Plan,” in which the industrialized nations dedicate 5 percent of their annual gross domestic product to eliminating poverty and hunger and building the “economic infrastructure” of the Third World. And he proposes a “Social Responsibility Amendment” that would require every corporation with income exceeding $50 million to submit its charter for renewal every ten years. A jury of “ordinary citizens” would then evaluate the company’s performance and renew only the charters of those firms that “can prove a satisfactory history of social responsibility.” It’s safe to say that this will happen about five minutes before the Messiah returns.

But no one really cares about these crackpot prescriptions anyway; what mattered was that hundreds of people, however flawed, seriously considered how to renew God’s place in leftist politics. When they gather again in Washington, DC, next spring, they’ll have a chance to do a better job. The left has been invigorated by a fairly novel sense of purpose. And as improbable as it sounds, the city of Berkeley, which has defined the margins of liberal politics for the last four decades, has suddenly emerged as its epicenter. From MoveOn.org to DailyKos, George Lakoff, and now Michael Lerner, this town suddenly matters.

Of course, so far that purpose has been restricted to loathing George W. Bush and everything he stands for. If it’s ever going to mature into a coherent, affirmative social contract, eventually Berkeley will have to get out of the way.

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