The Covenant with America 

Michael Lerner wants liberals to talk to the nation about God. If only they spoke the language.

From Texas, Indiana, Pennsylvania -- from every corner of the country -- hundreds came to Berkeley, that all-purpose utopian caricature. In a world that honors the beliefs of conservative Christians but still scorns the liberal who wears his heart on his sleeve, hundreds of ministers and laypersons gathered in a campus conference hall to proclaim their belief in God, compassion, and yes, social justice. They came to create a new morality that synthesized progressive and spiritual values, at a time when "culture wars" supposedly compel Americans to choose between one or the other. They came to hear Rabbi Michael Lerner, the founder of Tikkun magazine and earnest prophet of "the politics of meaning," and the man who called them here to change the world.

Lerner has a way of channeling the Old Testament prophets, with his shambling gait and the way clothes hang loosely on his frame. On the evening of July 20, the first day of his four-day conference, he stepped to the podium at UC Berkeley's Pauley Ballroom to deliver the keynote speech. The audience had spent the day hard at work, splitting into small groups and trying to figure out just what progressive spirituality looks like in the 21st century. Now, Lerner would share a vision honed through years of refinement, argument, and frustration with watching the Christian right secure a monopoly on moral language in American politics.

"There has been, for the past at least several thousand years, a struggle going on between two fundamental different worldviews," he said. "One such worldview tells us that the world is composed of human beings who are fundamentally out for themselves, aggressive, and hurtful. ... On the other hand, there's been another worldview that has been largely sustained by and developed by the spiritual traditions of human history. Not just by Christianity or Judaism, but by the vast number of different spiritual traditions. And this view says, no, human beings have the fundamental capacity to be loving and caring. ... The fundamental truth of our being is we come into the world in connection with another."

But the selfish Hobbesian paradigm dominates the world, at a terrible cost to our souls. Lerner told his audience about the quiet desperation he encountered as he traveled the country talking with ordinary folks. "They were telling us that there is a spiritual crisis in their lives," he said. "In the world of work, they are learning over and over again, hour after hour, day after day, that there is ... a bottom line of money and power for somebody. ... People are unlearning how to see other human beings as created in the image of God, and learning how to see them in a narrow, utilitarian, manipulative way. ... They feel lonely. They don't know who they can count on anymore. They don't know who they can trust."

That's why his audience was here, Lerner said, to relearn that morality cannot be found on a ledger, but in God and in our hearts. "What is needed is a spiritual progressive voice that can acknowledge that there is a real spiritual crisis -- in fact, insist that, that crisis has to be the central issue of politics," he urged. "Today, institutions are judged efficient, rational, or productive to the extent that they maximize money and power. We are saying that the institutions should be judged efficient, rational, and productive not only to the extent that they maximize money and power, but also to the extent that they maximize love and caring, kindness and generosity."

Three days later, Lerner himself was feeling considerably less generous. He may have expected to be ridiculed, but being ignored proved too much for him. The national media took a pass on his grand project, and the local papers threw him just a few column inches. During his final address to the conference, he invited his audience to do what disappointed utopians do best: bitch at the media.

"There are hundreds of people here from the Bay Area," Lerner snapped. "If every one of those hundreds of people wrote a letter of protest to the Chronicle for the superficial way in which it covered this conference ... and say, 'This is not acceptable! This is not acceptable to us! We are serious, spiritual people. We don't want our vision to be marginalized and not taken seriously.' ... I want to invite you to do that to the editor of The New York Times. Why wasn't the Times covering this?"

The thing is, Lerner was right. When he began organizing his conference, he figured he'd be lucky if four hundred people showed up. In fact, roughly 1,300 people -- ministers and theologians, lawyers and Benedictine monks -- flew in from all over the country, and hundreds more had to be turned away. George Lakoff and Jim Wallis, the two reigning gurus of the Democratic Party, each spoke for an hour about values, God, faith, and the future of the left. As a collection of talent and resolve, Lerner's conference was considerably more noteworthy than the media allowed for.

But perhaps he should count his blessings. Had the media stuck around, it would have found a crude work in progress, whose participants were less inclined toward engaging in transcendent soul-searching than regurgitating predictable cant and displaying moral blind spots and a dismaying pessimism about the country's sense of possibility. Next spring, Lerner will reconvene his followers in Washington, DC, where they will take a stab at refining the ideas birthed in Berkeley, this time under the scrutiny of the national press. If this was off-Broadway, the production had better rework its script before the real curtain rises next year.


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