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Lions Roar : September 2006
SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2006 51 crats, many of them “militant secularists,” are challenged on their views about peace and justice, they protect their credibility by “lo- cating themselves in the discourse of the Right Hand of God.” Lerner wrote the book, and co-founded the Network of Spiri- tual Progressives (along with Sister Chittister and Princeton re- ligion professor Cornel West, who was unable to take part in the conference because of an illness in the family), to help to bring about a “new foundational philosophical framework for all those seeking progressive social change.” He hopes that “militantly sec- ular leftists,” “spiritual but not religious people,” and “progressive people in the religious world” can forge a new alliance. Admit- tedly, he says, it will be difficult for these groups to get over the differences that keep them apart. The alternative, however, is that “the political Right and its allies in the religious Right continue to have the power to make war, escalate militarism, weaken the First Amendment separation of church and state, reduce taxes for the rich while eliminating social programs for the poor, dismantle environmental protections, lead campaigns against gays and lesbians, and pack the Supreme Court so that it could place new restrictions on women’s right to choice.” Lerner bases his campaign to unite the secular and the sa- cred on a detailed philosophical and historical analysis, which he delivers in his book and which he repeated with fervor and at length from the pulpit of All Souls Church. At its core is the notion of an anti-religion scientism (not to be confused with science, a valid enterprise for studying the phenomenal world), that has dominated the public sphere for most of the modern era. Scientism postulates that “anything that cannot be subject to empirical verification through sense data or measurement is fundamentally not real. It’s nonsense, something beyond the senses.” What this leads to is not merely a separation of church and state, whereby no institutional church can govern the coun- try and which he believes is valid, but a situation where people feel their religious values, which cannot be validated empirically, are private and personal and have no place in the public sphere. Warming to his topic, he tells the assembled, “You can have a religion that quiets you down and satisfies you, but keep it out of the public sphere, because in the public sphere you have no right to your values. They are private and personal. So, all day long you can be asked to build atom bombs or create products that destroy the environment, and then you can go home and join a peace group or send money to an environmental organization. But it would be wrong for you to articulate your values and impose them on somebody else. I don’t know how many liberals tell me that, as an excuse for not acting according to their values.” When values based on faith and religious experience are kept out of the public sphere, the result are policies, approach- es, and “mild reforms” that are based merely on pleasing peo- ple’s narrow self-interest. In the conclusion to his book, Lerner calls for a “new bottom line,” which is the rallying cry for the Network of Spiritual Progressives. The traditional bottom line is about fear and need; the new bottom line is based on hope, and it “fosters generosity and caring.” While the “progressive social change movement” that grows out of such a new bottom line can “draw upon the cultural resources of existing religious and spiritual traditions,” it is dominated by no religion and in fact must appeal to the needs of “secular people.” Taking a page from Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America, Lerner developed a Covenant with America that establishes a policy platform for critical areas such as education, health, envi- ronment, safety and security, and so on, and bases it on the new bottom line. The health care covenant, for example, “is not only about the fairness of distribution,” Lerner says, “but also about a way of doing medicine in a way that recognizes human beings as not just material beings, but also psychological and spiritual beings. We need health care that deals with the whole being.” In “The pieties of the past were not wrong, but the pieties of the past are past. We need new spiritual responses to the world around us.” SISTER JOAN CHITTISTER EDBERNIK