I’ve always thought of Marxism as secular, in part because of Marx’s own statement about religion being the opiate of the masses. Or at most that Liberalism or Socialism is kind of like a religion, with certain beliefs and rituals — religion was a useful metaphor, but that was all. I was wrong. The secular Left isn’t really secular at all. They simply worship a different god — the one they look at in the mirror in the morning. They — this New Elite, in David Lebedoff’s term — set themselves up as the arbiters of every standard in the universe. Like gods, they can fly in private planes but tell you your SUV is immoral, own 30,000 square foot houses but lecture you on energy conservation, etc, etc.
Most everyone believes in a God or gods: for many on the Left, the narcissistic god they believe in is themselves. Understanding that the secular Left is not secular at all, that they think of themselves as gods, beyond the judgment of others, while judging all below them helps us understand the rage of the Left against Christians, President Bush, and others who would judge them. They can’t stand the thought that they built a Golden Calf and it looks just like them.
The religious left understands the depth of the problem too
Lefty rabbi Michael Lerner has some very revealing commentary in a recent article on the 2004 election. He describes a deep problem with religion by many on the Left. While the Left is “[r]ightly angry at the way that some religious communities have been mired in authoritarianism, racism, sexism and homophobia,” and in Lerner’s opinion religious conservatives refuse to admit that “the Bible’s injunction to love one’s neighbor required us to provide health care for all,” he points to even deeper problems on the Left with religious talk:
Please don’t tell me that this is happening outside the Democratic Party in the Greens or in other leftie groups–because except for a few tiny exceptions it is not! I remember how hard I tried to get Ralph Nader to think and talk in these terms in 2000, and how little response I got substantively from the Green Party when I suggested reformulating their excessively politically correct policy orientation in ways that would speak to this spiritual consciousness. The hostility of the Left to spirituality is so deep, in fact, that when they hear us in Tikkun talking this way they often can’t even hear what we are saying–so they systematically mis-hear it and say that we are calling for the Left to take up the politics of the Right, which is exactly the opposite of our point–speaking to spiritual needs actually leads to a more radical critique of the dynamics of corporate capitalism and corporate globalization, not to a mimicking of right-wing policies.
“The hostility of the Left to spirituality” is precisely the key to understanding their vehemence and intractability.
The religious left splintered in the 1970’s
It wasn’t always this way, as described in an Orlando Sentinel piece by Mark Pinsky:
Though preachers don’t pick presidents in America, for at least 150 years they have helped set the political agenda. Thundering from pulpits, mobilizing congregants, religious activists in the 19th and early 20th centuries helped end slavery, supported women’s suffrage, brought about Prohibition, and supported the rights of workers to form trade unions. More modern inheritors of this social gospel were also vigorous agents of change and resistance, propelling the civil-rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. As recently as the 1960s and 1970s, left-wing religion was a force to be reckoned with.
“We had the feeling that we were getting somewhere,” recalls the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, former chaplain at Yale University and a patron saint of mainline Protestant activism. “We criticized American practice in the name of American ideals.” Today, liberal religion is seen as a spent force, said Mark Tooley, a researcher for the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative Washington think tank….”The religious left was mobilized and excited by the civil-rights movement and by the anti-Vietnam War movement, and has had difficulty finding equally passionate causes to replace those,” Tooley said. “The religious right has abortion, homosexuality and church-state issues that have energized them over the past 25 years. There’s no sign that any of these issues are going to go away anytime soon.”
A Washington Post piece by Alan Cooperman described a mid-year 2004 conference of liberal religious professionals trying to figure out what to do next:
[T]here was no lack of hand-wringing among the conferees about what the religious left has done wrong. “Part of it is our fault. We should take back the Bible, take back the theological principles and not just cede them to the religious right,” said the Rev. Susan B. Thistlethwaite, a minister in the United Church of Christ and president of the Chicago Theological Seminary. “It’s not good enough to talk in vague terms about values. We can do better than that. We can make the theological arguments.”
Historian Taylor Branch said that in the 1970s, the abortion issue split the progressive religious alliance that had formed in the civil rights movement. Since then, the left has done no better than the right in “moving beyond polemics,” he said. “Not many people who call themselves pro-choice actually want to celebrate abortion, and not many of those who call themselves pro-life want to put women in jail for having abortions,” he said.
On the contrary, this space argues. Today’s secular Left does celebrate the standing of morality on its head, the greater the diversity of perversity, the better. They are gods, damn it, and they will not be judged by narrow minded Americans or their narrow minded God. Of course, their project is ultimately very unsatisfying; man makes a pretty pathetic God, after all. We’ve all taken a bite from that apple.
Originally, I thought this piece would be about trying to understand better the 60/40 splits on churchgoing or not among Republican versus Democrat voters. As I thought about the issue and read the Lerner article, the more my attention was drawn to the white-hot anger on the Left: how central to one’s belief system must an issue be to inspire such rage? If Michael Lerner is getting the same treatment as Jerry Falwell, how violent must be the Left’s rejection of God? It was then that I understood that these people have religious beliefs every bit as deep as the Pope’s, but grounded in a profound narcissism.
The danger to the Democratic Party from the so-called secular Left is great. Most of the Democrats’ old New Deal mission has been long accomplished, as Peggy Noonan wrote in her classic 11/02 WSJ piece. Much of the Democrats’ new mission has come from the federalization in the courts of social issues such as abortion, gay rights, and ACLU-type issues, as Michael Lind has written. Being closely identified with the religious zealotry of the secular Left on such matters bodes ill for Democrats in a country trending GOP at every level of government for well over a decade now.