America's New Spiritual Pioneers


Below is a snippet from an article we’ve presented to you here on Because of its quality and importance in these times, we wanted to include a piece of it here on Tikkun Daily as well.

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. Almost 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 Timespost-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 byTikkunMagazine – 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 Nadeauet alcall 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:
A politician
(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. Bushisthe 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 bookThe 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. . .
For more information on Emotional Capital and Obama’s Mojo, continue reading Thandeka’s piece here on
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 []. 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.

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