Tikkun Rabbi Michael Lerner, the one-time “politics of meaning” guru to the pre-presidential Clintons until he became politically inexpedient, is now blasting away at the Obama Administration. Lerner recently convened his Network of Spiritual Progressives in Washington, D.C. for a Religious Left gabfest. And much of it was gripping about President Obama’s spiritual failure to remain ideologically pure, in the eyes of leftist clerics and activists.
Lerner’s D.C. visitation included a protest in Lafayette Park imploring the President “To Be the Obama Americans Thought They Were Voting For.” Whatever enthusiasm the Religious Left rally may have cherished for Obama seems to be dissolving into anxiety, disappointment and betrayal.
“One thing Obama has not done: tell the truth. Tell us what’s going on!” a “shattered” Lerner demanded to presumably nodding heads at the rally, according to an on-site report by my assistant Connor Ewing. Lerner’s Washington jamboree for about 500 followers was called “Strategies for Liberals and Progressives in the Obama Years,” and subtitled “Creating ‘The Caring Society’: A Progressive Alternative to Tea Party Extremism and Corporate Domination of American Politics and Culture.”
Lacking neither color nor verbosity, Lerner’s angry and politically dense convention purposed to
explore strategies appropriate for the complexities of a period in which the failures of the Democrats to present a coherent progressive vision and program has created the space for the rise of a quasi-fascist and racist movement on the Right that threatens to move all of American political discourse in violent and destructive ways, and simultaneously to strengthen corporate dominance.
Lerner fondly recalled better, more hopeful days several years ago when a then still idealistic Senator Obama remained “connected very deeply to spiritual progressive things. He told me when I met with him in 2006 that he was regularly reading Tikkun magazine…that he had come to meetings of Tikkun in Chicago…[and] that he had come to a conference in 1996 and asked to speak.”
Perhaps not willing to abandon hope in Obama altogether, Lerner seemed to blame much of the administration’s lack of progressive fidelity on a Svengali-like Rahm Emanuel, whose Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee pushed congressional Democrats towards displeasing ideological compromises. “These people were chosen by Rahm Emanuel,” Lerner complained about a Congress unable to approve a health care public option or to ratify cap and trade, while giving the okay to bank bailouts and military escalation in Afghanistan.“These are the people that Rahm Emanuel recruited in 2006 to run when there were more liberal and anti-corporation people,” he bemoaned. In the wake of failure and disappointment, Lerner insisted it was up to spiritual progressives “to articulate for the president and for the Democrats a clear vision.”
Besides Lafayette Park, Lerner’s activists rallied in a Lutheran church and in the United Methodist lobby office on Capitol Hill, where they were joined by the United Methodist Church’s chief lobbyist, Jim Winkler. Although Lerner himself is a somewhat faded star since the Clintons dissed him in the early 90s, his rally was graced by a somewhat more ascendant Brian McLaren, chief poobah of the Emerging Church, the amorphous community for left-leaning, post-modern evangelicals. A more therapeutic antidote to Lerner’s polemics, McLaren touted his New Kind of Christianity and platitudinously appealed for common ground and new narratives while not so indirectly lobbing condemnation at the supposed “visions for social suicide” of conservative evangelicals who have not yet bent the knee to global warming activism or, presumably, McLaren’s own latest crusade against Israeli occupation.
More acidly targeted rhetoric came from Tikkun associate editor Peter Gabel, who derided religious conservatives as “an angry vigilante group.” Left-wing Catholic nun-activist Joan Chittister bemoaned the “big bombs and big profits for a few.” Lerner’s network portrays itself as besieged light in a dark universe:
Our mission as spiritual progressives is to help those people separate the decent and legitimate needs that they have from the illegitimate racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, pro-militarist politics in which these needs find inappropriate expression.
In its various activist workshops while in D.C, Lerner’s spiritual progressives plotted how to prevent a “corporate take over” of America, how to combat the “the Tea Party Movement and the growth of an indigenous American Fascism,” “overcoming Islamophobia” through “dialogue between Muslims and others in the progressive community,” organizing for “marriage equality” and “reproductive rights,” plus addressing “Israel/Palestine: The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Debate,” and urging a “global Marshall Plan” to redistribute American wealth to the countless victims of U.S. imperialism. J Street Founder Ben Ami also joined Lerner to deliberate over “progressive” opposition to a militaristic Israel.
Unsurprisingly, Sayyid Syeed of the Islamic Society of North America likewise comfortably fit in with the network about Israel and opposing conservative Christians, if not about same-sex unions and abortion rights. An ostensibly non-political memorial service for Israel’s victims in the Gaza flotilla was solemnly convened.
Congressman Dennis Kucinich even took the stage to tout an Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which Lerner straight-facedly insists is politically plausible and not utopian.
So Lerner’s spiritual progressives grieved and celebrated simultaneously, nursing disappointments over Obama, while also channeling the departed spirits of 1960s radical activism, perhaps with a little help from Marianne Williamson. Fighting American fascism is hard work, but apparently it can also be fun, and invigorating.