For me, one of the few bright spots of the 2004 election was an attack ad whose target was ... Jesus Christ.
The ad, a parody circulated on the Internet, quoted Jesus' famous injunction to turn the other cheek. Such language, the narrator sneered, proved that Jesus was "soft on terror, soft on crime."
On one level, the ad pointed out how the Christian right -- for all its professed piety -- often supports policies at odds with its own Bible. But perhaps the bigger joke is this: No matter how noisily Christian our politicians claim to be, none of them would dare campaign on Jesus' teachings in the first place.
Rabbi Michael Lerner, founder of Tikkun magazine, hopes to change that with his new book, The Left Hand of God.
Lerner, who visits Pittsburgh on Mon., March 27, argues that the left has pursued a misguided secularism that has utterly failed to keep religion out of the public sphere. All the attempt has accomplished, he says, is to alienate many people of faith - and ensure that the religious right has monopolized the discussion of spiritual values.
Thus, when God is cited in a political context, it is almost always to invoke what Lerner calls "the right hand of God," the vengeful hand that smites Sodom and floods the Earth. Absent from the discussion is God's "left hand," the love and compassion shown by Jesus and prophets who urge charity, forgiveness and forbearance.
Why are liberals so wary of religious faith -- even when it confirms their political agenda, and even when church leaders have led so many liberal causes? Lerner's book situates the left's hostility to religion in centuries-old philosophical debates, and in political battles of more recent decades. At some point, Lerner suggests, leftists forgot to celebrate both their own achievements and their country's virtues.
Today, Lerner writes, Americans of all faiths are alienated from a crass society that puts material gain above everything else. But Democrats fear to challenge that system from their hearts, Lerner writes, because "they deeply believe that if they were to present their vision of a good world ... the American people would never buy it." Dems lament that politics is "the art of the possible," but forget that "You don't actually know what is possible until you struggle for it."
It's hard to argue with this diagnosis, partly because it's not exactly new: Jim Wallis covered some of the same ground last year in God's Politics. And in a phone interview, Lerner says that -- for better and worse -- Democrats are getting the message. In the next few election seasons, he predicts, "You will see Democratic candidates quoting from the Bible, and talking about what a moving experience they had in church. But it won't work. It will be seen as the manipulation that it is. It will be seen as an attempt to use religion in precisely the way it outrages us to see the Right use it."
The second half of Lerner's book tries to head off that outcome. It outlines what Lerner calls a "Spiritual Covenant with America," a manifesto urging the left to embrace its spiritual underpinnings ... and for people of faith to embrace the left.
Lerner's case for health-care reform, for example, is politically astute and morally strident: "Only a society whose sense of morals is deeply distorted would allocate health care on the basis of how much money the ill person has," he contends. Essentially, he proposes a single-payer system that would expand Medicare to cover everyone. But cultural barriers must be addressed, too. Most of us will rack up huge medical costs just to prolong our deaths by a few hospital-ridden days: Partly for that reason, Lerner advises that society do "spiritual work ... to accept the inevitability of death" as part of God's plan.
As a political manifesto, however, The Left Hand of God has some weaknesses -- which are often tied to its strengths. Spiritualists on the left "need to be less focused on immediate outcomes," Lerner writes, "and more focused on maintaining the integrity of our vision and the lives we live." That's necessary to avoid hypocrisy. But it's not always clear how the personal and the political overlap.
Take abortion. Lerner shares the Clintonesque goal of keeping abortion "safe, legal, and rare." But he also espouses creating post-abortion "mourning rituals," so women can "grieve the loss, and ... affirm a shared vision of the sanctity of life."
I'm not sure what the point is, beyond offering solace to women who can already seek spiritual counseling. It's hard to see how a funeral rite would assuage anyone with qualms about abortion -- and not all women who have abortions regard them as tragedies. Some might resent a movement that suggests they should feel otherwise.
Given the political climate, Lerner told me, "It's understandable why women would react that way." But "[a] spiritual movement has to take issues that were considered private and bring them into the public consciousness." Spousal abuse, for example, wasn't taken seriously "until the women's movement came forward. Until then, people said, 'That's a private issue.'"
I doubt feminists will welcome their history being cited this way. But at least Lerner, unlike many Democrats, is grappling with these issues openly. Soul-searching of any kind must involve questions that make us uncomfortable. Otherwise, it's not soul-searching: It's merely the attempt to find an excuse.
Like the Old Testament Job - with whom many liberals can empathize -- Lerner doesn't have all the answers. But he asks hard questions, and that's a start.