Whatever happened to the quaint idea that people are drawn to religion because of God, not gelt, and not guilt either?
In a campaign where there’s been so much talk about “smears,” more than a few religious people have felt smeared in recent weeks by left-wing leaders who consider themselves religious, let alone smeared by one leader’s fiery pastor.
In early April, not long after his personal religious choice of a pastor came under fire, Sen. Barack Obama told a San Francisco audience that when jobs are lost in small towns, people “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment … as a way to explain their frustrations.”
In fairness, Rabbi Sharon Brous, 34, a Conservative rabbi in Los Angeles who was named to Newsweek’s (April 11) “Top 50 Influential Rabbis” list (at No. 30) and “Top 25 Pulpit Rabbis (at No. 9), recently offered an elitist explanation for religious choice that was based on economics and exclusion, as well.
Rabbi Brous said Jews in the 1950s went to synagogue because “Jews were not allowed to join country clubs.”
Speaking to the New Jersey Jewish News (April 24), Rabbi Brous explained that today, “We don’t need a Jewish country club. We can go to film screenings … We have no need to be in an exclusively Jewish community,” and so synagogues now have to offer meaning, competition being what it is from the world beyond.
Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun, a leftist journal, and himself number 50 on the “most influential list,” and chair of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, said he recently sent a policy statement to the Network’s e-mail list of 150,000, warning that elitism and the “religiophobia” encountered “in many sections of the liberal and progressive world often push [Americans] away and into the hands of the right.” On the left, he said, religion is too often seen “as a substitute gratification,” not a primary need.
Lerner, author of “The Left Hand of God: Taking Our Country Back from the Religious Right,” pointed out that it was during “the height of American prosperity” in the 1990s that we witnessed “a powerful resurgence of right-wing religious forms [that] was providing an avenue of expression for people whose needs were being ignored by the liberals in the Clinton administration, the Democratic Party, and even in parts of the liberal churches.”
Speaking by telephone from Tikkun offices in Berkeley, Calif., Lerner admitted, “Unfortunately, there was very little in the way of spiritual nourishment in the Reform and Conservative synagogues of the 1950s. In the Orthodox world, I thought there was a very strong presence of God and concern with the spiritual dimension. Not all Orthodox shuls were all that serious, but they were qualitatively different. [Rabbi Abraham Joshua] Heschel knew it and he’d tell the cantors, don’t face the congregation, turn around and face God, because when you face the congregation it becomes an audience instead of a kahal,” a spiritual assembly. What happened in liberal synagogues was no different than what happened to many mainstream Protestant denominations, said Lerner. There was a move to passion, to “meaning” a move too often dismissed as “the right.” The reason, said Lerner, so many people were moving to born-again, Pentecostal and Evangelical churches “is — they’re alive!”
The problem with what Obama said, according to Lerner, was not so much the word “bitter” but Obama’s classification of religion “in a list of detestable things, alongside loving guns and hating immigrants. Imagine,” asked Lerner, “a liberal audience hearing what Obama said and not concluding that religion is as bad as guns and xenophobia, things we struggle against. To put religion on that list was prima facie a condemnation of religion.”
Lerner said Obama has to “address religiophobia head-on. He needs to address his own backers. There are too many liberals who believe in tolerance but it does not extend to people who believe in God. The left’s implicit message is, “We need your votes, but leave your religious baggage at the door. We think you religious people are on a lower level of intellectual and psychological development than the rest of us, but by hanging out with those of us who are rational, you can rise to our level of development and enlightenment.” It is a message, warns Lerner, which is driving people away from liberal and progressive forces even though they might agree with almost every other part of the progressive message.
Ironically, it was only a few weeks ago, that Nicholas Kristof wrote in The New York Times (March 9) that “the most monstrous bigotry in this election isn’t about either race or sex. It’s about religion,” with that religion, wrote Kristof, being Islam, the religion of Obama’s father but not Obama.
A leaf of the calendar later, Obama’s religious problem is not Islam but Christianity and the “monstrous bigotry” belongs to his longtime pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright — denounced by Obama twice in the last week now that Wright has moved from the pulpit into an odd national tour that seems more intent on sinking Obama than rehabilitating Wright.
Lerner doesn’t blame Obama for Wright, but on April 29, the Network of Spiritual Progressives sent out another major statement, this time by Eli Zaretsky, a veteran member of Tikkun’s advisory board.
Zaretsky writes, “It’s all over for Obama unless he pulls off another miracle in the next few days.”
The “Wright eruption,” according to Zaretsky, “speaks to the core issue that Obama placed at the center of the primaries,” his “judgment.” After all, Wright is the man “Obama chose as his ‘spiritual advisor.’ [Obama trusted] a grandiose narcissist who believes that his own idiotic ravings are more important than the election of the first black president. He risked his campaign to defend Wright, saying he could no more renounce him than renounce his own grandmother. Wright then stabbed in the back. How can anyone now trust Obama to deal one-to-one with such figures as Ahmadinejad? Obama admittedly lacks experience, but this episode proves that he lacks judgment even more keenly.”
That this is what Jewish leftists — not Republicans — are saying only hints at what conversations Americans will be having in the weeks ahead; conversations about race, conversations about religion, conversations about how Obama chose a “monstrous bigot” to be his religious shepherd.