America’s New Spiritual Pioneers
An Unfolding Political Story About Emotions Lost and Found
We are at the dawn of a new era in progressive faith and politics in America.
This new era has not yet emerged because most of its members – millions strong – are spiritually leaderless and do not have a shared identity. Moreover, they lack the institutional gravitas of sanctuaries networked together to create a force field in American politics.
Presently, these folk simply get tallied in religion surveys and in the media as a subset of the “Nones,” namely, as the 17 million self-identified spiritual folk among the 46 million Americans without religious affiliation. But they are more than this.
They are America’s new spiritual pioneers. And 80% of them are politically moderate or liberal.
So if the predicted shellacking of the Democrats in November’s midterm elections does indeed occur, progressive faith and politics in America will not have been defeated. Millions of Americans already have what liberal faith and politics lost: the emotional foundation for a moral vision that guides progressive policy making in America.
Consider the stats. A third of Americans under 30 don’t go to church or to other religious institutions. Moreover, Millennial spiritual but not religious Americans and mainline churchgoers tend to share a similar liberal political bent of mind. Mainline Christian churchgoers tend to affirm the big government principles of American liberalism. So, too, do a great many Millennials. They “tilt left” (New York Times, February 10, 2013, “Young, Liberal and Open to Big Government”).
These liberal Millennials, however, lack the sanctuaries required to turn their political bent of mind into a new spiritual center for liberal politics in America. Mainline churchgoing liberals, on the other hand, have the sanctuaries. What they don’t have are very many people in them.
Each group thus has what the other needs: sanctuaries for churchless folk to create their own spiritual services on the one hand, and transformative spiritual experiences to make mainline churches warm and thus inhabitable.
Today, mainline Protestant churches like the Methodists, United Church of Christ and the American Baptist still have the most buildings. But they have the fewest people in them: about 75 on a typical Sunday. Nearly 50 percent of America’s churchgoers, as the National Congregation 2006-7 study discovered, attend the largest 10% of America’s churches. And these churches, for the most part, are Southern Baptist, Catholic, or nondenominational Christian. Catholic attendance to Sunday services is down by 11% and there’s a 10% drop in attendance in the mainline churches since the 1950s, but evangelical attendance is down by only 1% in America.
Liberals often explain this steady decline in America’s mainline church attendance as the fallout from the loss of belief in American progress as a God-given “manifest destiny.” Or as the lost of faith because of what Christians did to the Jews during World War II. Or it’s explained as what Christians do to the “other” today.
My explanation of the demise of mainline churches in America begins in the nineteenth-century and tracks what happened when liberals backed away from their own “Enlightenment” moral values. They became a people with a shattered moral core, housed in “corpse cold” sanctuaries – as Ralph Waldo Emerson noted two centuries ago –
and they produced and supported politicians with a “vision thing” that lacked emotional heat.
Two extended examples of the “vision thing” problem are set ups for my master narrative. I start with these stories because they spotlight what keeps on getting lost in the master narratives of progressive American faith and politics today: the emotion thing.
First example. The trouncing of Democrats in the 2004 election.
No Emotional Capital
When John Kerry lost the 2004 presidential election, his campaign advisor and speechwriter Andrei Cherny chalked up the heavy Democratic losses to “what President George H. W. Bush so famously called `the vision thing’ – a worldview that makes a thematic argument about where America is headed and where we want to take it.”
Cherny tallied the results in his November 5, 2004, New York Times post-mortem: “We are now, without a doubt, America’s minority party…. We are outnumbered in the Senate, the House, governorships and legislatures. And the conservative majority on the Supreme Court seems likely to be locked in place for a generation.”
And then came the confession. “I don’t pretend to know exactly what the party should do now…. What is our economic vision in a globalized world? How do we respond to the desire of many Americans to have choices and decision-making power of their own? How can we speak to Americans’ moral and spiritual yearnings?”
Cherny and Kerry hadn’t followed my advice. Six month earlier – in an essay published by Tikkun Magazine – I laid out what Kerry must do to prevent this election disaster: create emotional capital, invest in it and then use it. Unless Kerry made human emotion rather than political platforms the center of his campaign, I argued, George Bush would win the presidential election by the end of June and Kerry wouldn’t even what hit him until it was too late. Unfortunately, I was right.
I laid out why Kerry would lose the election in particular detail. When Kerry clinched the democratic nomination of March 2, most voters did not know much of anything about him. A window of opportunity opened up for voter education. However, the factual information the Kerry campaign tried to shove through this window would not shape voters’ political judgment, I argued, their emotional responses would. As political scientists Richard Nadeau, Richard G. Niemi and Timothy Amato trenchantly argued in their essay “Emotions, Issue Importance, and Political Learning,” voters may forget the information they initially learned about the candidate, but they will hold onto their emotional attitudes.
Bush’s team studied this new science of political emotion. In fact, one of Bush’s advisors, W. Russell Neuman, worked on information and security technology policy at the White House, literally wrote the book on this kind of political maneuvering (Affective Intelligence and Political Judgment, co-authored by George E. Marcus and Michael MacKuen). So while Kerry went on a much-deserved but poorly-timed vacation, Bush’s team got busy shaping voters’ affective responses to the candidates, pouring over $20 million into anti-Kerry ads in March alone.
The Bush campaign was based on what Nadeau et al call the anxiety/hope model. In this model, the politician who promises voters (or creates the expectation) that a threat to voter well-being will end wins emotional capital. In short, if a politician can replace voters’ anxiety with hope, that politician will come out ahead. It was a political confidence game. Here’s how it works:
(1) Takes an issue that causes anxiety among some voters
(2) Turns it into a high anxiety issue for most voters
(3) Offers up guaranteed hope and thus an expectation that the threat will be removed
(4) Gains new emotional capital from voters because of new confidence in the leadership ability of the politician to end the threat
(5) Becomes their confidence man
Bush used this strategy and became America’s confidence man.
Here’s just one example of Bush’s mastery of this political strategy: Gay and Lesbian marriages.
(1) Anxiety noted. Bush is told by “several prominent evangelical Protestants in Washington” that voter turn out by evangelicals is directly linked to his support of a constitutional amendment to ban homosexual marriage (New York Times, March 12, 2004). Thus Bush, when introducing his proposal for a constitutional amendment of marriage, first mentions the anxiety: the “uncertainty” caused among the American people by “arbitrary court decisions” and “defiance of the law by local officials” who have sanctioned gay and lesbian marriages at the state and local level.
(2) Anxiety Heightened. Bush escalates the anxiety into a universal, all-encompassing threat: a “few judges and local authorities are presuming to change the most fundamental institution of civilization,” one “honored by all cultures and by every religious faith.”
(3) Guaranteed Hope Through Universal Salvation. Bush promises a guaranteed salvation: he declares his intention to “prevent the meaning of marriage to be changed forever,” by calling for the enactment of “a constitutional amendment to protect marriage in America. Decisive and democratic action is needed, because attempts to redefine marriage in a single state or city could have serious consequences throughout the country.”
(4) The Feeling of Political Salvation on Earth is Achieved. Bush now speaks of God. This time via a teleconference at the National Association of Evangelicals annual conference on March 11 held in Colorado Springs, which represents 30,000,000 members. Bush tells them they “are doing God’s work” and he thanks them “on behalf of our country.”
(5) Bush Becomes The Confidence Man. Bush now reveals the actual content of his political hand: confidence. Here’s how he put it during a fund-raising event on Long Island the following day: The American voters have a choice, “a choice between an American that leads the world with strength and confidence or an American that is uncertain in the face of danger” (New York Times, March 12, 2004). The issue, in short, is confidence. Bush is the confidence man.
Every major policy statement by Bush or his top administrators could be reduced to these five political steps. Read Bush’s statements on the Iraq War, its aftermath, his stance toward the United Nations, his tax cuts, I said. He’s even used the formula on his opponent, creating voter anxiety about Kerry by insisting that Kerry lacks conviction and is indecisive (New York Times, March 20, 2004). Once this negative association was made, Bush moved in with the message that he has conviction, and offers the hope that he will be the decisive president voters need. The formula never changed.
Bush’s focused use of this anxiety/hope strategy explains why most Americans believed, despite all the hard evidence, that he was a moral man, a defender of the faith, a Christian leader, and an American savior, In short, an elect man of God chosen to rule over others.
And thus the main take away point of my first example. Cherny thought Kerry lost the 2004 election because of the vision thing. He lost it because of the emotion thing. The Republicans created emotional heat in voters, while the Democrats flooded them with good ideas.
Clinical and political psychologist Drew Westen laid out case studies of this emotional deficit disorder among Democrats in his 2007 book The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion Deciding the Fate of the Nation. This cerebral disorder, Westen tells us, makes Democrats “place their stock in the market place of ideas.” The Democratic Party – in their entrenched warfare with the Republican Party – thereby turned itself into “the party of the profane.” It, staked “its claims on policies, bread-and-butter issues, rationality, expertise, and expected utility.” In contrast, the Republican Party, by consistently casting its appeals “in the language of the sacred,” became the party promoting America’s religious and moral values.
Writes Westen: “I have it on good authority (i.e., off the record) that leading conservatives have chortled with joy (usually accompanied by astonishment) as they watched their Democratic counterparts campaign by reciting the best facts and figures, as if they were trying to prevail in a high school debate tournament.” Democrats won debater points.
And thus the set up for my second example. No drama Obama.
Obama’s Mojo: Great Ideas
The predicted losses of Democrats in November’s 2014 midterm elections won’t close the book on President Obama’s “vision thing” problem. Obama, after all, knew what he was supposed to do, thanks to a throng of critics. He must be less ideological and more pragmatic; less the “dreamer in chief” and more the “Mr. Fix-it man;” less workmanlike and more of a big vision man. But nothing took.
And now, thanks to the former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s scathing criticism of the president in Worthy Warrior as someone who too often “relies on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader,” Obama has been christened an unworthy warrior once again. Presidents need the heart of a warrior, Panetta insists, but this hasn’t happened with Obama because he lacks the ability to engage. Most Americans seem to agree.
The heavy irony here, of course, is that George W. Bush, who as president had the heart of a warrior, the ability to engage, and a global vision of America’s destiny linked to the defeat of the axis of evil – invaded a country to destroy the weapons of mass destruction that weren’t there with a fallout cost of $10 trillion dollars over the next four decades, the loss of life of more than 134,000 Iraqi civilians (with contributions to four times more), over 4500 U.S. soldiers killed, more than 32,000 wounded (Reuters, March 14, 2013), and an untold number of Iraqis and Americans psychologically traumatized for the rest of their lies. To say nothing of the Great Recession that began on Bush’s watch.
But Panetta’s advice doesn’t fall apart when placed in this George W. Bush presidential context because what’s really being talked about is what Bush has and Obama lacks: the emotional heat of a born again Christian.
Obama, we must remember, felt some of this kind of heat for a nanosecond when he was a community organizer in Chicago. Obama realized, as he explains in The Audacity of Hope, that without a vessel, an unequivocal commitment to a particular community of faith, he would be “consigned at some level to always remain apart, free in the way that my [nonreligious] mother was free, but also alone in the same ways she was ultimately alone.”
He made these personal discoveries in African American religious communities because they were steeped in the black church tradition: “Out of necessity, the black church rarely had the luxury of separating individual salvation from collective salvation.” This tradition created within its individual members a collective feeling of community that sustained them in the starkest of times and the direst of circumstance. This vessel consisted of feelings of loyalty, family, love, embrace, care, nurture, endurance, and also heightened experiences of salvation while still on earth – every Sunday morning during the worship service. These religious communities born of hard times created individuals who were sustained by these communities in hard times. Obama felt religious emotions for the first time in his life.
But when the senior minister of his church, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., almost turned Obama’s presidential 2008 campaign into a race war against whites, did Wright also spin around and crush Obama’s religious feelings? Wright, as Obama put it, had become like family to him. So when he stepped back from Wright’s church, did he also lose access to the immediacy of religious emotions created within him by Wright’s religious community, Trinity United Church of Christ? We don’t know the answers to these personal questions about Obama’s interior religious feelings.
We do know what Obama did next. He “quietly cultivated a handful of evangelical pastors for private prayer sessions on the telephone and for discussions on the role of religion in politics” (New York Times, March 14, 2009). But such prayer sessions do not generate the same emotional heat created within congregants in Sunday services that focuses – in Obama’s own words – on collective rather than individual salvation.
We also know that he held fast to his understanding of liberal Christian moral roots as a protocol for his own political vision thing. Consider the public record.
Four years before he became America’s 44th president, Obama sounded like he had solved the vision thing problem for liberal Democrats. The December 19, 2004 Newsweek cover story on this new U.S. Senator from Illinois laid out his case for a new liberal vision thing. It was time for the Democratic Party “to reconnect to…its roots in a moral imperative.”
Although he stopped short of “calling for a `religious left’ [that would] counter the political power of the religious right,” his manifest destiny for the Democratic Party was clear. Dig deep into liberalism’s religious roots, Obama preached, and you will reach its moral vision. This work won’t be hard to do, Obama insisted, because its been done before – by Martin Luther King, Jr., the abolitionists, Catholic Worker Dorothy Day. “Most of the reform movements that have changed this country,” Obama said, “have been grounded in religious models. We don’t have to start from scratch.”
Three years later, Senator Obama was still on track with his liberal vision thing and its Christian moral roots. New York Times columnist David Brooks discovered this pathway when looking around for something to jump-start a lifeless interview – as Brooks put it – with a fatigued, political stomp-wearied presidential candidate. Desperate, he asked Obama if he’d ever read one of the master theologians of the twentieth century. Here’s what happened next.
Out of the blue I asked, “Have you ever read Reinhold Niebuhr?”
Obama’s tone changed. “I love him. He’s one of my favorite philosophers.”
So I asked, What do you take away from him?
“I take away,” Obama answered in a rush of words, “the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away … the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.”
My first impression was that for a guy who’s spent the last few months fund-raising, and who was walking off the Senate floor as he spoke, that’s a pretty good off-the-cuff summary of Niebuhr’s “The Irony of American History.” My second impression is that his campaign is an attempt to thread the Niebuhrian needle, and it’s really interesting to watch.
But something significant went unmentioned in Brooks’ April 26, 2007, account of their exchange. Neither Brooks nor Obama talked about Niebuhr’s intense focus on human emotions in American politics. This oversight foreshadowed why Obama and the Democratic Party might get wacked in the November 2014 midterm elections: Obama ignored Niebuhr’s advice.
Niebuhr argues in The Irony of American History that the highest and most esteemed realms of reason can motivate human actions. But these ideals are also linked to emotional dispositions, personal needs and motivations, and are thus biased interests. These emotional factors, in effect, turn reason’s rule into personal agendas that limit our ability to act reasonably, morally, and forthrightly. Niebuhr calls these limits our original sin. We can’t see how our own actions compromise our own ideals. Evil, from this standpoint, becomes the fiendish things humans can do with reason because rational interests have been blindsided by their own vested emotional needs and desires.
For Niebuhr, evil, in sum, is not an independent force that fights against God. Rather, it is a human limitation that can’t be seen by the light of human judgment but only by using the standard of God’s grace. At the base of Niebuhr’s theological system are human emotions. Niebuhr does not lay hold of them; he simply exposes them. Their transformation, says Niebuhr, is God’s terrain.
But Obama did not track or talk about human emotions as God’s turf. Such talk, after all, is still a conservative domain. So when a politician came along who preached change – just like Obama, backed health care (in Massachusetts, anyway) just like Obama, but unlike Obama also called upon the raw rage and anger and frustration of voters in the name of God to act (to water board terrorists, for example), he got elected in the heartland of Democratic American politics: Massachusetts.
The January 19, 2010, election by Republican Scott Brown to the U.S. Senate seat held by Ted Kennedy for 45 years was a “vote heard round the world.” This little-known State Senator won because he cornered the market on the feelings of frustrated, frightened, job-hungry, angry voters. He grabbed hold of their raw feelings preaching torture (water boarding) for terrorists, jobs for the jobless, and rage against Wall Street by Main Street from the back of his pick up truck.
Obama and other liberals, as Brown’s election made evident, had not transformed the raw emotions of outraged Americans into feelings of emotional uplift linked to liberal policy platforms. Brown “simply” took over what Obama started – the call for change – and added to it what Obama could not sustain: conservative religious values that divide the world into sinners and saints, the damned and the saved, the evil blokes and the good Christian folk.
Obama hadn’t lost his vision thing, but rather its emotional edge with the voters was blunted, as Carol E. Lee and John F. Harris explained in their January 22, 2010 online Politico essay “Obama’s first year: What went wrong.”
He mistakenly assumed his election flagged a shift in American emotions away from “George W. Bush’s brash conservatism [and] Bill Clinton’s tepid and defensive-minded progressivism.” It didn’t. Most Americans remained distrustful of government activism (on things like bailouts, health care, and global warming).
Moreover, the internecine wars he set off within his own party while unemployment went up “meant that Obama spent the year bleeding momentum rather than steadily increasing public confidence in his larger governing vision.”
But something more systemic was amiss. Obama’s belief in his ability to inspire folks through well-reasoned ideas and well-crafted words prevented him from seeing the emotional shift in America from 2008 to 2010. He was their hope in 2008. He was part of their problem two years later. In classic Niebuhrian terms, Obama failed to recognize how his own emotions, vested interests and loyalties had compromised his political reasoning.
His “emotional thermostat” as Frank Rich put it in his June 5, 2010 New York Times column, was too low. The source of this problem, Rich argued, is Obama’s “unshakable confidence in the collective management brilliance of the best and the brightest he selected for his White House team” and also his default assumption that his peers are as well-intentioned as he.
Obama, like most liberal Democrats, undervalued the role of human emotions in making policy decisions. But he also asked for help in finding the emotional roots for his liberal moral vision thing, in his February 5, 2009, speech at the National Prayer Breakfast. He wanted a common ground free of religious indoctrination. So he focused on love and the Golden Rule, which – as he explained it – means “to love one another; to understand one another; to treat with dignity and respect those with whom we share a brief moment on this Earth.”
He reached out “to leaders and scholars around the world to foster a more productive and peaceful dialogue on faith.” Obama had acknowledged the need for a common emotional ground for this dialogue: love. But he could only go so far. The theological work required was not his task. Obama’s call for a fully developed, ecumenical, emotional ground of love for religious and moral discourse on public policy issues didn’t happen.
If religious scholars and theologians had indeed identified and explained how love is a common ground for their disparate moral and religious visions, could Obama have given American liberalism an emotional foundation for a vision thing? The emotional ground of Obama’s own vision thing was left undeveloped. And with it, his emotional intelligence was not enhanced. His emotional intelligence quotient, simply put, tanked.
Evangelical Christians cornered the market on human emotions as the foundation of the vision thing in American politics.
A December 14, 2008, New York Times article headlined “An Evangelical Article of Faith: Bad Times Draw Big Crowds” explains why evangelicals are so good with the emotion thing. Reporter Paul Vitello interviews with clergy bring home the point.
Monsignor Thomas McSweeney, a columnist for Catholic publications and a religion consultant on MSNBC, offers advice to ministers about how distraught emotions must be handled: “Today a pastor must set aside the prescribed liturgical calendar and directly address the anxiety in the air [saying] `I know a lot of you are feeling pain today…. And we’re going to do something about that.”
Seventh Day Adventist televangelist Don MacKintosh tells Vitello why evangelists can do this kind of emotional transformative work so well: “every Christian revival in this country’s history has come off a period of rampant greed and fear. That’s what we’re in today – the time of greed and fear.”
David Beckworth, an assistant professor of economics at Texas State University, laid out the most telling fact. Beckworth, citing results from his own 2007 study, “Praying for Recession: The Business Cycle and Protestant Religiosity in the United States,” disclosed a hidden fact about bad economic times in contemporary America. “During each recession cycle between 1968 and 2004,” he told Vitello, “the rate of growth in evangelical churches jumped by 50 percent. By comparison, mainline Protestant churches continued their decline during recessions, though a bit more slowly.”
Part of this decline is linked to a liberal oversight. Liberals and conservatives in America still share a common set of “Judeo-Christian moral values.” Conservatives use these values to create public policy strategies. A case in point.
The Ethics and Public Policy Center – a pre-eminent conservative think tank in Washington – is “dedicated to applying the Judeo-Christian moral tradition to critical issues of public policy.”
And Yuval Levin – the Hertog Fellow at EPPC and editor of its journal The New Atlantis – is regaled as “a one-man Republican brain-trust” (David Frum), and called “the pre-eminent conservative intellectual of the Obama era” (Jonathan Chait).
Levin, a former policy adviser to George W. Bush as well as founder and editor of National Affairs quarterly, has set out to craft a new vision thing for conservative policy makers. Levin, with a small band of reform conservatives –the reformicons – as Sam Tanenhaus notes in his July 6, 2014 New York Times Magazine cover story, wants to create programs that will attract the loyalty of middle class and low income voters. In sum, the bread and butter issues of Main Street America: poor-paying jobs, rising health care costs, and budget-breaking college tuitions. Conservatives, Levin insists, must stop acting like the foil for Wall Street.
Success in the coming era, Levin argues, “will increasingly involve effectively navigating a profusion of smaller networks, and a government that wants to help people flourish will need to retool – focusing more on enabling bottom-up, incremental improvements and less on managing top-down, centralized systems.”
This means that conservatives must back away from a “blinding nostalgia” for times long gone. “What’s needed now is work on forming a thriving and appealing subculture, or network of subcultures.” Christianity has a great deal of experience in this work, Levin says. But it’s just not being practiced right now. Levin wants to clean up this act by putting traditional religious values back into practice using three basic principles of the Edmund Burke tradition of American conservatism:
- A reliance upon God (traditional religious values)
- Strict allegiance to the U.S. Constitution.
- A resolute commitment to a moral vision of human nature that explains human emotions and keeps them in check through universal rules and values. In short, the emotion thing. These rules are first established by God and then articulated – incrementally – by the traditions of America’s religious, cultural and political founders and their moral heirs.
Liberals rejected the emotion thing.
Best to begin with an example of this rejected feeling. It is, after all, the emotion deficient problem writ small. Consider Garry Wills’ 2004 post-election essay, “The Day the Enlightenment Went Out” (November 5, 2004, New York Times).
The Day the Lights Went Out
Bemoaning Senator John Kerry’s loss of the presidential election to George W. Bush, Garry Wills asked rhetorically: “Can a people that believes more fervently in the Virgin Birth than in evolution still be called an Enlightened nation?” His answer was a resounding “No.”
Wills’ own list of “Enlightenment values” left out one of them: religious feelings. Daniel E. Ritchie, director of the humanities program at Bethel University, pointed out this oversight in his letter-to-the-editor (New York Times, November 9, 2004). The actual American Enlightenment, Ritchie argued, “was neither antireligious nor anticlerical.” Nor was it “a triumph of conservative religious belief over reason and facts.” Political liberty and religious practice were inseparable, Ritchie insisted.
After correcting Will’s record of Enlightenment values, Ritchie then offered liberals advice from the heart – “the heart of an evangelical university with a strongly pro-Bush student body.” Liberals, Ritchie said, need to take religion to heart. In Ritchie’s words: “America’s elites must . . . come to understand American religion, past and present, more deeply. Until they do, they will continue to create the polarization they lament.”
Conservatives love to recount this social history because it reveals liberalism’s “shattered moral order” – as William J. Bennett puts it. Or in William Kristol’s words, what gets seen is liberalism’s hollow moral core
I tell this story now for three basic reasons. It spotlights what’s so often goes missing in liberal narratives about politics: emotional intelligence. It highlights who’s presently got it: Christian conservatives. And, most importantly, it cast light on the group of moderate and liberal Americans – millions strong – who have found what the liberal’s lost: the emotion thing.
Conservative historian Gertrude Himmelfarb jumps starts our story in
her 2004 book The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenment. Himmelfarb urges her fellow conservatives not to turn away from values espoused by liberals, but simply to add what the liberals leave out, namely, the “social virtues” and the “social affections.” In short, the emotion thing. These added factors, Himmelfarb assures her readers, will make conservatives change their minds about liberal cant, namely, “the usual litany of traits associated with the Enlightenment – reason, rights, nature, liberty, equality, tolerance, science progress – [with] reason invariably [heading] the list.”
The real ground of liberal moral values and religious belief, Himmelfarb insists, has always been conservative terrain and always will be because the values found there are conservative moral feelings and values. So Himmelfarb tells her readers to take heed of the “moral philosophers” who taught moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow in Scotland – men like Frances Hutcheson, Thomas Reid, Dugald Stewart, the third Earl of Shaftesbury. The work of these Glasgow professors, known collectively as formulators of the Scottish Enlightenment, became the common ground of both conservative and liberal politics and faith in America.
This new school of moral philosophy, known at Harvard as the Common Sense school of philosophy, was moored in the work of Scottish Reformer Thomas Reid (1710-1796). Unlike the Protestant Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin, who both condemned humans as fallen and lacking innate moral worth and value, Reid reaffirmed the sanctity of human nature, which had, he said, an innate moral human faculty.
Liberals and conservatives, Unitarians and Calvinists, traditionalists and post-traditionalists, Federalists and anti-Federalists converged here on this common moral ground of the American Enlightenment. Thomas Jefferson admired the Scottish philosophers even though he dismissed their attempt to preserve organized Christianity, as David Walker Howe rightly notes in The Unitarian Conscience. As Howe puts it, John Witherspoon, the president of Princeton, championed a Calvinist “common sense realism.” Alexander Madison, James Hamilton and John Jay, as authors of the Federalist Papers, understood and affirmed the dignity and values of human faculties from the standpoint of the Scottish philosophers. These men with their disparate and conflicting political stands and religious interests were strange bedfellows here because Common Sense realism was the bedrock claim for one and all. Human nature was no longer deemed helpless, savage, and totally at the mercy of a vengeful God. Rather, men and women now had moral agency because human nature was considered naturally and potently moral.
This is the shared common ground of the vision thing in both liberal and conservative America today: the emotion thing. The new moral standpoint taught Americans how to use, assess, and judge human feelings. It framed the heart and soul of the American Enlightenment as a strategy for handling human emotions. Human emotions were no longer viewed by these Enlightenment Protestants minds as fallen from grace and damned as irreparable because of Adam’s (original) sin in the biblical Garden of Eden. His lustful, disobedient act with Eve was no longer passed down to his progeny as our corrupted humanity. There was, however, a catch.
Not all people, so it was now deemed, had innate moral capacities to harness their emotional impulses and desires. Some people lacked these qualities not because of Adam’s bad deeds or God’s consequent wrath, but because they were bad seeds.
Moral worth, Reid insisted, “is the true worth and glory of a man.” So knowledge of our moral responsibilities, Reid insisted, is a duty. Of what does this duty consist? If you have to ask, Reid insisted, you don’t have it. Why? Either you have a moral faculty that shows you what you ought to do and be – or you don’t have it because duty is self-evident common sense for those who have it. Writes Reid: “To reason about justice with a man who sees nothing to be just or unjust, or about benevolence with a man who sees nothing in benevolence preferable to malice, is like reasoning with a blind man about colour, or with a deaf man about sound.”
To make certain he was clear, Reid offered a thought experiment. Imagine meeting a man who believes in polygamy. You now reason with the polygamist, Reid continues, showing him the negative consequences for humanity. But if the man persists in his belief, and “does not perceive that he ought to regard the good of society, and the good of his wife and children, the reasoning can have no effect upon him, because he denies the first principle upon which it is grounded,” namely, our human moral faculty.
So you redouble your effort, Reid tells his readers. This time you “reason for monogamy from the intention of nature, discovered by the proportion of males and of females that are born – a proportion which corresponds perfectly with monogamy, but by no means with polygamy – this argument can have no weight with a man who does not perceive that [he] ought to have regard to the intention of nature.” You do not prevail.
Go no farther, Reid now counsels his readers, because the polygamist lacks a moral capacity. His moral character is innately flawed. The man is constrained by his very nature, Reid argues, from doing the right emotional thing.
Throughout his work, he repeatedly lifted up claims from his own Northern European Christian values, such as monogamy, to a universal status. Reid, in effect, still divided individuals into the damned and the saved – as Protestants are wont to do based on their own traditional theological histories. But now, the rationale for this division was no longer a human nature brought down by Adam’s fall, but rather the individual’s own innately fallen nature. Now, the exigencies of our own biology determined our moral fate. We are, by nature, born innately moral or not. Period.
The Back Away Move
Liberal Christians began to back away from these “Enlightened” religious beliefs and formative moral values about human emotions. These liberal Christians became the social justice advocates and activists to protect the poor, the downtrodden and the racial and gender oppressed. They mounted scathing attacks against the domestic policies, social institutions and business practices that ravaged American workers and then discarded them like useless, threadbare rags.
Walter Rauschenbush, a late nineteenth-century progenitor of the Social Gospel Movement or “New Christianity” explained why: “when I began to apply my previous religious ideas to the conditions I found, I discovered that they didn’t fit.”
By the end of the nineteenth century, as social theorist James Davison Hunter points out in American Evangelicalism, a secular rather than a religious worldview began to frame the internal life of liberal Christians and shape their public work.
The basis for social reform for liberal Christians like Rauschenbush, as Hunter wisely observes, was no longer revivals to purge men’s hearts of sin – the emotion thing, if you will. Rather, it was now the social thing. Social reform movements must modify the institutional structures that ravaged human emotions and spawned societal ills. The focal point of liberal faith was now “the social and economic problems associated with industrialization and urbanization (e.g., crowded and inadequate housing, conditions of labor in the factory system, a changing family structure, increasing crime and suicide rates and so on) . . . and the religious and cultural pluralism brought by the unprecedented influx of Irish and Italian (Roman Catholic) and Eastern European (Jewish) immigrants.”
This movement of liberal Christians into the secular domain to explain the emotional sins of compromised moral souls gutted liberalism of its original moral and religious affective core. People, in short, were no longer deemed to be born bad. They were made bad by bad human institutions that plundered and pillared emotional souls. So human nature could be improved, which is a core value of American liberalism.
The recap. When liberals backed away from their own American Enlightenment religious values, they disestablished American Protestantism –so social theorist James Davison Hunter puts it – as the foundation of their own liberal faith. They rejected, in effect, the Christian values and claims about human emotions they had previously affirmed.
Thus the telling result: liberal Protestants moved beyond the emotional heart of their own formative moral values and theological tradition.
This is not just an academic point. In the retelling, it becomes the story of how liberals lost touch with Christ and set aside talk about human lust, anger, rage, jealousy, greed, and other emotional states that prompt “man” to sin.
A case in point. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (who was part of a failed cabal to assassinate Hitler that cost Bonhoeffer his life) reached this conclusion in 1930-31 when he studied at the liberal bastion of modern Protestant theology in America, Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan. Bonhoeffer was brutally frank in a letter to a friend about the state of liberal religion: “There is no theology here…. The students…are unfamiliar with even the most basic [theological] questions. They become intoxicated with liberal and humanistic phrases,” as Eric Metaxas’ notes in his book Bonhoeffer.
Bonhoeffer reached a similar conclusion when attending the liberals’ churches. “The sermon,” Bonhoeffer moaned, “has been reduced to parenthetical church remarks about newspaper events.” Bonhoeffer now wondered “whether one here really can still speak about Christianity…. In New York they preach about virtually everything; only one thing is not addressed or is addressed so rarely that I have as yet been unable to hear it, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life.”
Liberal Christianity, Bonhoeffer concluded, was no longer religious. It had cannibalized itself and lost Christ.
One of the great theologians of our era, John B. Cobb, Jr., tracked the remains in his book Spiritual Bankruptcy. According to Cobb, the mainline Protestant churches that have gone the farthest in critiquing America’s inequitable economic and social systems “have had the largest losses in membership and resources. Prospects for reversal of these trends are poor, and morale is poor.” Why? Writes Cobb: “People like to feel good about the character and accomplishments of the groups with which they identity. For many people, it has been demoralizing to participate in a community that is emphasizing the evils for which it has been responsible.” Thus Cobb’s basic point: when you conclude that your own religious institution is racially and economically compromised to the core by its own historic traditions and practices, you create a body of people who condemn their own religious institutions as racist, elitist, sexist, and more.
Two examples bring home my point.
First. President George W. Bush as America’s Common Sense King. When Bush proclaimed in his West Point Address on June 3, 2002, that he knows – as does everyone else – the absolute difference between right and wrong, he was applauded. Here’s part of his speech with the applause interruptions included:
Some worry that it is somehow undiplomatic or impolite to speak the language of right and wrong. I disagree. (Applause). Different circumstances require different methods, but not different moralities. (Applause.) Moral truth is the same in every culture, in every time, and in every place. Targeting innocent civilians for murder is always and everywhere wrong. (Applause.) Brutality against women is always and everywhere wrong. (Applause.) There can be no neutrality between justice and cruelty, between the innocent and the guilty. We are in a conflict between good and evil, and America will call evil by its name. (Applause). By confronting evil and lawless regimes, we do not create a problem, we reveal a problem. And we will lead the world in opposing it. (Applause)
Bush’s judgment calls were not based on logic. Their staying power was his religious DNA as a born again Christian. Bush was using American Common Sense Philosophy to affirm the invincibility of his own moral judgments and religious intuitions.
Bush, of course, also drew on another mainline Protestant formula. As I demonstrated in my May 2004, Tikkun article, the fundamental structure of his political strategy mirrored the anxiety/hope formula for Christian faith created by sixteenth-century Protestant Reformer Martin Luther in his 1535 Lectures on Galatians. Luther’s formula can be divided into the same five steps:
(1) Anxiety. The believer tries to please God on his own (without Christ or the Holy Spirit) and fails miserably because he is a sinner.
(2) Anxiety Heightened. Each repeated attempt by the believer to please God through works increases God’s wrath. God is enraged because He is being offered the man’s sin (unfulfilled Divine Commandments or “Law”) as if it were good works (fulfilled Law). The believer thus experiences an ever-deepening terror and humiliation in the sight of God. He comes to the realization that he is all flesh and not spirit.
(3) Universal Salvation Guaranteed: Christ. The believer now sees himself as God sees him (he’s a sinner). Being in complete accord with God’s vision and will is the human experience of faith. This experience of faith is the experience of the presence of Christ, Who is present in the faith itself.
(4) The Human Feeling of Salvation While on Earth: Christ as Divine Mediator takes the sins of man upon himself. With this act by Christ, the man is justified in the sight of God and no longer feels guilty.
(5) Confidence. Luther now proclaims that “[Any]one who teaches something different or something contrary — we confidently declare that he was sent from the devil….” By equating inner, personal certainty (a conscience at peace because it is united with Christ) with so-called objective truth (“Christians constituted as judges over all kinds of doctrine and become lords over all the laws of the entire world”), Luther made the emotional experience of extreme personal confidence the central religious experience of faith for many Protestants.
What liberals kept missing was that when Bush used the anxiety/hope strategy politically, he was being religious, too. So it didn’t matter if the economy’s depressed, jobs continue to disappear, the U.S. deficit’s still rising, and Bush was still calling for more tax cuts and free trade. While liberals spoke policy-talk, much of Protestant America resonated to the affective force of Bush’s Christian anxiety/hope strategy.
Here’s the second example. General Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, used this common sense moral logic to dismiss accusations by the International Committee of the Red Cross that the tactics used by the American military’s treatment of detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, was “tantamount to torture” (New York Times, December 1, 2004). Myers said he didn’t think it was torture. He continued: “Let’s not forget the kind of people we have down there.” And he concluded: “These are people that don’t know any moral values.”
The reduction of America’s enemies to humans without moral capacities is the first step toward a justification for torture. By definition, reasoning with them is meaningless, a waste of time. So the only thing that can alter their behavior, such reasoning goes, is pain.
I call this nineteenth-century common sense logic of Bush and Myers the shared common ground of both liberals and conservatives in America for one basic reason. Conservatives still affirm it, while liberals have yet to replace it with a liberal moral vision that has deep emotional roots.
The Tea Party is a political party that – at heart – is a nineteenth-century Common Sense Christian movement writ large in twenty-first century terms. Eighty-five per cent of its members – as the chief political correspondent for CBN news David Brody notes in The Teavangelicals: The Inside Story of How The Evangelicals and the Tea Party are Taking Back America – are “Bible-believing Christians [who want] a strict interpretation of the Constitution [and] focus on a crucial additional layer: all of these founding documents are rooted in a belief in Almighty God.”
Consider some of the rallying cries of these nineteenth-century troops in their twenty-first century garb, as chronicled by Jonathan Weisman in his September 29, 2014, front page New York Times article headlined “House Hopefuls in G.O.P. Seek Rightward Shift.”
- Ryan Zinke, a former Navy SEAL team member who seeks the House being vacated by its incumbent, called Hillary Rodham Clinton the Antichrist.
- Jody Hice, the radio host and Southern Baptist preacher who went after the House seat of Georgia’s Paul Broun, believes that evolution is a lie from “the pit of hell” and he believes its ok for a woman to enter politics today “If the woman’s within the authority of her husband, I don’t see a problem.”
Reporter Weisman kicks off this story by chronicling more of these beliefs: “One nominee proposed reclassifying single parenthood as child abuse. Another … said Islam was not a religion but a ‘complete geopolitical structure’ unworthy of tax exemption.” This candidate also suggested that four “blood moons” would herald “world changing, shaking-type events.”
Evangelical churches, as Brody so carefully documents, now constitute a network of coordinated religious communities that are a political force field in an otherwise vacant religious lot. There’s no competition there because liberal religious communities – to quote Rick Santorum – are “in shambles.” Teavangelicals keep gaining a chokehold on American politics because they’ve got the staying power of interlinked conservative religious, nonprofit and for profit groups and megachurches and media. They politically harness human emotions – the emotions thing – in the name of Christ.
This dense evangelical force field makes even the bully pulpit master Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey pander to the religious right. He boasted at a confidential evangelical meeting of its leaders over the summer (October 13, 2014, The New York Times) that “he was the state’s ‘first pro-life governor since Roe v. Wade,’ reminded them that he had vetoed legislation allowing gays to wed and, in a knowing reference to the Gospel of Matthew, spoke of his moral obligation to help the ‘least of us’.” These evangelical leaders forced Christie to his knees in order to examine his prayer life. Christie, a most reluctant penitent, then prostrated himself to grab hold of the 2016 presidential ring.
No one will get nominated as the 2016 Republican presidential candidate who does not follow suit. And their candidate might win that presidential election.
And this is why the Democratic Party is in trouble. Mainline churches are not strong enough and networked enough to serve as a force field to counter the emotional heat of the religious right in America.
But this is also why liberal political issues will not die. Millions of spiritual but not religious Americans will become a spiritual powerhouse in American politics because they have what conservative evangelicals also have: emotional heat.
America’s Spiritual Pioneers
Evelyn Underhill in her classic work on mysticism calls mystics spiritual pioneers. The mystic’s mind, she argues, is free of all religious thoughts, ideas, beliefs and doctrines about God. But this mental act of clearing the mind of all religious beliefs and creeds is just the first step. To become a spiritual pioneer, a person must persist and enter a terrain beyond the reach of religious creeds.
Consider the people who gather together in Northern Baja California for services in their “Not Church” sanctuary. The words of Erin Dunigan, an ordained Presbyterian evangelist who serves as the spiritual leader and chaplain for these “Not Church” folk, caught my attention:
[W]e…realize that there are many, like ourselves, who are seeking something more–whether we call that God, love, or that in which we live and breathe and have our being. We realize that language and dogma have often gotten in the way of being able to encounter that ‘something more.’ So, we are an experiment, in a sense, to see what happens when a very diverse group of people is able to enter into this journey together.”
These “Not Church” folk talk about a “something more” to describe an encounter that exceeds religious beliefs. This “something more,” by their own account, is a power source they feel without relying on religious ideas. They have cleared their minds of all religious ideas. And their minds, thanks to their communal service, become a “gateway” to something beyond the reach of religious ideas, something that exalts their feelings and transforms the emotional fiber of their lives. They are now spiritual pioneers in a religiously unchartered terrain.
The twentieth-century Trappist monk and mystic Thomas Merton described the source of such feelings as encounters with the “Hidden and Living One,” namely, “the God no one can think.” Or as the master twentieth-century theologian Paul Tillich simply put it, “the God beyond God.”
Many of these folk are indeed people without religious affiliation or identity. And it’s technically correct to call these folk “nones.” But a better label might be “mystics” for three basic reasons.
First, church membership and mystical experiences have an inverse relationship in America today. The relationship is not one of cause and effect. Rather it’s about personal freedom. Spiritual ventures into uncharted terrain, as noted above, require a mind free of all religious thoughts, ideas, beliefs and doctrines about God. So the sharp decline in church membership today greatly increases the number of persons whose minds are free of religious notions and beliefs about God. Accordingly, as church affiliation falls, personal reports of mystical experiences rise.
This freedom from religious beliefs makes it possible for atheists and others without religious affiliation to have more mystical experiences today than the general public did half a century ago [“Many Americans Mix Multiple Faiths,” PewResearch Religion & Public Life Project, October 9, 2012:
http://www.pewforum.org/2009/12/09/many-americans-mix-multiple-faiths/]. Their minds – like the minds of traditional mystics – now empty of religious ideas about God, become the “gateway” to a luminous darkness where something more is felt. This is why14% of America’s atheists say they believe in God or a universal spirit [“5 Facts About Atheists,” by Michael Lipka, Pew Research Center, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/10/23/5-facts-about-atheists/]. They have ventured beyond the mental confines of the religious God and entered into the heart of the mystics God, the God without a religious profile. The God, simply put, beyond religion’s reach.
Second, today’s mystics are being mis-categorized. Presently, most of America’s mystics are classified in religion surveys according to what they’re not: religious. So they are called the “spiritual” group (37%) of America’s 46 million adults without religious affiliation” [“Nones” on the Rise, PewResearch Religion & Public Policy Project: http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/]. They become, in sum, part of the religious no ones: “Nones.” Many of them are mystics, persons who feel the infinite expanse of life in a finite moment of their life and are filled with wonder and awe.
Third, Americans who change their self-definition from “spiritual-but-religiously-unaffiliated to “mystic” will have an identity around which to find each other and gather together in sanctuaries. These services will generate the emotional heat of a gathered spiritual community. The words that are spoken will give the individuals the conceptual space to fill in their experiences with ideas about what they have felt – and to leave space for others to simply say they have felt “something more” and like it.
These spiritual pioneers – even before they gather together – already have what liberal faith and politics in America lost: emotional heat. When they describe experiences of “the uplifting of the human spirit . . . without [referring to] a god,” and affirm prayer as “the equivalent of a highly versatile, always reliable, perfectly legal, free, nonphysical addictive or intoxicating drug” (Greg M. Epstein, Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe), they’re talking about exalted human emotions. Emotional heat. The emotion thing.
Now all they need are sanctuaries in which their emotional heat binds them together liturgically and creates a new force field in American politics. The rhythmic back and forth movement between music (feelings) and the spoken word will create a sustained emotional heat within the gathered community. And this heat is the Higgs Boson of faith, if you will, that gives human feelings the mass, power, and weight to bind folks together, personally and collectively, as an ingathered community of spiritual pioneers.
As these gatherings increase around the country and get socially networked for political action, America will finally have an uplifting emotional ground for creating progressive public policy agendas. We will have communities that hold the feet of liberal politicians to the fire of progressive mystics. And the moderate and liberal politicians that emerge from or get linked to this spiritual network of political progressives will have the emotional intelligence required to reach the American heartland. And if these politicians who start out as transformative leaders become transactional leaders this new force field in American will call them back.
Organizing America – Again
Two years ago, I met with Marshall Ganz – the son of a rabbi, a 16-year veteran organizer and staff member for the United Farm Workers and now a senior lecturer in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
Ganz organized America’s locally based communities for Obama in 2008. More precisely, he created the campaign, trained the troops and then launched a grassroots strategy so successful that even self-defined “rednecks” declared voter loyalty to “the nigger.”
Ganz then watched Obama shut down these local community bases as soon as he turned on the lights at the White House. Obama seemed “afraid of people getting out of control,” Ganz told Sasha Abramsky during a 2011 interview for The Nation. Obama and his inner circle, Ganz continued, “wanted to control the terms of the debate rather than be pushed from below by a chaotic, empowered, activist community.” Loyalty to Obama and his inner circle replaced loyalty to the hopes and dreams of the people, Ganz concluded.
I talked with Ganz in his Harvard office, wanting to know more about what Ganz was up to now – and if new work with churches and other religious organizations made sense to him. Ganz, after all, had watched a progressive and inspirational leader lose touch with his base once before. He even wrote a book about it. Or more precisely, an extended epilogue to his book – Why David Sometimes Wins: Leadership, Organization, and Strategy in the California Farm Worker Movement – to explain one way grassroots leaders lose their grassroots followers. The formula Ganz laid out was pretty straightforward. Loyalty to the leader replaced loyalty to the grassroots dreams and aspirations of the troops.
In the epilogue to his book, Ganz gives readers a blow-by-blow account of how Caesar Chavez undermined his own farm workers movement by focusing an ever-increasing amount of time, energy, and money on keeping his own organization alive and in control of their early successes with farm owners. Fundraising through gifts and grants replaced fundraising from his own farm workers’ base with a telling result. Forty years ago, the UFW had 60,000 members. Now it has 5000.
The real title of his book, I suggested to Ganz, should be Why David Sometimes Loses After He Wins. Obama and his administration, I went on, seemed to have done the same thing: lost after winning.
Ganz, so I discovered, doesn’t seem defeated. I learned of Ganz’s church work with the United Church of Christ. And I was greatly encouraged by this unexpected good news. Ganz now works with churches and other religious organizations to organize America – again.
The religious middle is indeed “in shambles” (Rick Santorum). And liberal congregational life in America is in decline. Or as Ross Douthat put it in his April 8, 2012, New York Times essay: “mainline congregations [are] too institutionally weak, too fragmented and internally divided to bring people from different political persuasions together.”
We must now keep in mind the dawning truth. Spiritual progressives can gather together and create a new sanctuary movement in America millions strong. They will give America back what its lost: a thriving constituency that cannot be shuttered or neglected once their political candidates win office. Mainline congregations (Christian, Judaic, Unitarian Universalists, and more) will become sites for these transformational communities.
The Network of Spiritual Progressives – the interfaith advocacy arm of Tikkun magazine, founded in 2005 by Tikkun Editor Michael Lerner, Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister, and Cornel West – is also working to give birth to this new era. The NSP, after all, is also “for people who do not believe in God or do not associate with any religion but do realize the need for a New Bottom Line in our world today.”
There are countless other organizing efforts and organizers doing this work. My own work as a congregational consultant and organizer is dedicated to helping this new era begin and thrive. All of us together will help the head and the emotional heart of progressive America flourish in the twenty-first century.
Thandeka – an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, congregational consultant, journalist, and an Emmy award-winning television producer – is founder and president of Love Beyond Belief, a spiritual renewal program for progressive faith [www.revthandeka.org]. Polebridge Press will publish her new book, Love Beyond Belief: Recovering the Lost Emotional Foundation of Liberal Christian Faith – An Affect Theology Project, next year. She was given the !Xhosa name Thandeka, which means “beloved,” by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 1984.