Liberal and Conservative Myths
The overwhelming response I received – over 1000 e-mails to date – to last week’s article took me quite by surprise.
Not surprised by the opinions themselves, but by the raw nerve that faith and politics expose. This election, perhaps like never before, was a catalyst to what I believe could be a very positive development.
The passionate outrage and support that people voiced taught me many things. Perhaps above all, it crystallized the power of a certain Jacob, representing the man of spirit, who learns to confront, battle and then make peace with the aggressive, warrior-like forces of materialism in this week’s Bible chapter.
One thing that is very clear is the extent of polarization in this country and around the world for that matter (London’s Daily Mirror: “How Can 52,000,000 People Be So Dumb?” It’s actually closer to 60 million, as if we asked them). This demonstrates even more the absolute need to have us communicate with each other. Some retreat in face of confrontation; I was trained to face it head on, and see in it an opportunity for real growth and exposing deeper truths.
So, due to the importance of these issues and the many passionate and intelligent responses we have received, we are creating on our website a special America Speaks forum posting all the responses – both critical and supportive. It should be up later today or on Sunday.
I encourage you to read them all. They make for a fascinating read, and give us a good portrait of the diversity of feelings on the topic, as well as important insights into the underlying issues at hand. Above all, please feel free to add your thoughts, by clicking on the “post your comment” icon.
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Before we get into the meat of the issue, I would like to reiterate for the record that which I wrote to many of you personally in response to many of your queries:
I apologize if I offended anyone. By no means did I mean to suggest, that the 56 million voters who voted against Bush or for Kerry voted against G-d in our lives. Absolutely not! Millions of people of faith — including the majority of Jews — voted for Kerry for good reasons (and many people with no faith voted for Bush). Indeed, some may even have seen in Kerry a deeper commitment to religious freedom. On the contrary, I specifically stated that I am not endorsing Bush or his policies, nor do I think that he is the man to advance the cause of faith. The ONE and ONLY point I was making was the importance of faith in our lives. And by faith I mean not Bush’s type of faith, nor the faith of the Christian Right, nor the faith of any individual or group. I mean the universal G-d that transcends all denominations and man-made institutions, the One Who created us all, Americans, Arabs, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Secularists, every one. If Bush or anyone were trying to impose their type of religion on others, I would vehemently oppose it. Indeed, one objective of my writing was to emphasize how we must NOT allow anyone to hijack faith, but allow faith to play it’s true and healthy role in our lives.
It’s true that I was dismissive of the “liberal establishment” force and I overgeneralized and stereotyped. That was not my intention, and I am sorry for that implication. I know that there are millions of “liberals” with deep faith, and many of them voted for Kerry for excellent reasons. I for one deeply believe in many of the liberal principles that this country stands for. It is critical that this nation have a strong liberal voice, especially when it is needed to balance out the other extreme. An election like this — where 60 million vote for one candidate and 56 million for the other — is a healthy sign that we are quite even. Had Kerry won I would have said the same, and would not have been upset at all. But I still believe, no matter who is elected, that G-d is a critical part of the picture, albeit a non-denominational one. And that “liberals” have been done an injustice by many Bush opponents who openly loathe faith.
But read on, and perhaps we will come away with a new definition of “liberal” and “conservative.”
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The first obvious question is: Why the rage? Have we all become so brainwashed that we cannot have a civil conversation?
One person angrily wrote to me, that he “highly respects my intelligence and has grown much through my writings. Now you have completely disappointed and shocked me. Please take me off your list. I have learned all that I can from you.”
I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I responded: “If you learned much from me, perhaps you can learn something from this article as well? Or do you learn things from me only when they fit into your framework? Even if you absolutely disagree or even if I’m wrong, why cut off the possibility for constructive dialogue.”
I realized that regardless of my intentions, certain ideas and phrases infuriate and alienate people. One woman wrote to me that my vote for Bush made her so angry, she could no longer objectively read what I wrote. She later apologized, and actually thought that my article had “extremely important” things to say to her.
As I continued to read and reply to a myriad of responses I was receiving, a fascinating pattern began to emerge, that has indeed enlightened me.
Why were some people heated up and others not? Isn’t this after all just politics? It seems that we should realize not to take the candidates and the political process that seriously. Political campaigns today are after all marketing drives. Both candidates are connected with well-funded marketing machines with one goal: To manipulate our emotions, feed into our deepest fears and hopes and persuade us to choose their man. The battle for President is driven by political, financial and egocentric forces, not by visionary or spiritual ones. The true visionaries aren’t running for election.
Yet, we find that people forge passionate and personal affiliations with the candidates and their campaigns. It seems simplistic when people personally love or hate individual candidates: they are politicians, and each of them has some good qualities and some bad ones. But I guess Americans love heroes and villains.
Is it possible that perhaps many people are lacking an inner compass, so they search for it outside of themselves? Some find it in conservative values and the Christian Right absolutist type of faith, others find it in liberal values, the “enlightenment” and “progressive” candidates. Other frankly find it in their identification (dare I say transference) with sports stars, Hollywood figures and even comic heroes. This is not meant to be dismissive or judgmental, simply observation. It is a result of the mass media and marketing inundation that we are all subject to, which feeds into our vulnerabilities and lack of inner focus. Each of us must have an inner compass called your soul, and a life blueprint, which serves as context to navigate the seductive messages of the media and the modern world.
Superficially one can argue that this campaign, using the latest IT (information technology for those that have not yet experienced this revolution), has been able to instantaneously rile up emotions to the point of critical mass. Throw in the fact that we are still in the shadow of 9/11, the battle in Iraq and Michael Moore’s scathing attack on Bush in Fahrenheit 11, and you have all the ingredients for a full blown boiling pot.
However, it’s hard to believe that all the emotions are merely a reflection of a mass brainwashing campaign on both sides of the aisle – convincing/manipulating the religious right to vote for Bush as if he and not Kerry is the man of faith, and convincing/manipulating millions of others that Bush is a born again Christian dogmatist, and their vote should go to Kerry. Obviously, the campaign was not just cast in religious terms, but it also used stereotypes of Kerry as a flip-flopping liberal and Bush as oil connected, hardheaded, unrepentant exploiter.
There clearly is much more to these raging forces than just emotional manipulation. The cynical, marketing campaigns of both political machines were successful in touching a deep nerve of this county, and arouse the deepest fears and hopes of millions of people, causing an unprecedented election turnout of 116 million people.
However you explain it, people have clearly identified with the candidates of this last election and see the battle as a watershed for bigger issues.
And passion – even when it causes anguish – is better than complacency. So there must be a blessing in this debate.
What are these bigger issues? What really lies at the heart of the debate raging today in the country? A debate that has aroused a level of passion almost unprecedented in recent elections and for that matter, in recent times? A debate that is placing tension on relationships – see the NYT article about the surge of people seeking therapy to deal with their bitterness over the elections.
When I asked some people whether they see this election as a fight for life and death, some of them made it very clear that it was exactly that. Quite a few people wrote to me bluntly, that what disturbs them about Bush is that he will vote in a new Supreme Court Justice that will overturn Roe and illegalize abortion. Delegitimizing Gay marriage was next on many lists. More generally, that Bush would reverse all the progressive forces of the 60’s.
The opposition to Bush’s war in Iraq – though it evokes much anger from people – doesn’t come close to the passions aroused in the personal rights and liberal values arena.
On the end of the spectrum you have the religious right who have grown to become a formidable political force. Many of them perhaps are responding to what they see as a progressive assault on their core family values, and as such, have forged into an alliance to oppose this deterioration and reclaim America what is, in their minds, its true heritage.
Who is right and how will this play itself out in the future are the two big questions. Are we doomed to an ever-increasing polarization, splitting this country into two factions, that some call “two Americas”?
What emerges from the dialogue that I have been engaged in cuts to the heart of the very nature of faith itself.
What really drove the point home for me was the passionate and persuasive argument of many so-called “liberals” standing up for the deep liberal values of compassion and virtue that are as much part of the fabric of this country as faith itself. I wondered to myself, am I a conservative or a liberal? On one hand I strongly believe that generosity is the foundation of a healthy society. Indeed, tzedakah (which is much more than charity) is the cornerstone of Judaism. On the other hand, equally vital is the absolute faith in an absolute G-d that dictates the rights and wrongs of human behavior. Indeed it is the faith that demands the unwavering commitment to a just and giving society.
The realization then dawned upon me that perhaps the terms “conservative” and “liberal” were also hijacked by the media and marketing campaigns, and turned into simplistic empty meanings. Depending who you ask, “conservative” is either the “fascist, bigoted, anti 60’s religious right” or the “faithful, patriotic, family oriented, core values driven” people of faith. “Liberal” is either “left wing, faithless, hedonists,” or “progressive, forward thinking, emancipationists”, ready to free us of our primitive views.
In truth, the healthiest combination is being both “liberal” and “conservative.” Look at any healthy organism and you’ll see that it thrives when it has both a solid, “conservative,” unwavering foundation, and free-flowing expression. A tree, for instance, must have deep roots and a firm trunk, and only then can it grow outward and bear perpetual fruit. Music has a rigid structure, but when you use this structure you can create magic that transcends all structure.
Now let’s see how this plays itself out in the faith/G-d debate.
One of the big questions people are arguing about is this: Is it is good or bad to mix G-d and politics?
In general two schools of thought have emerged:
1/ Faith and politics should not be mixed. Separation of Church and State came to avoid all the pitfalls and risks of political authority based on religious considerations. Faith should be kept private.
This opinion of course can cite the centuries-old abuse of religion in oppressing the masses with the authoritative views of religious dogma. The Enlightenment came to free man of these shackles.
2/ Faith is a necessary component in government. This opinion cites the fact that America was founded on the principles of religious freedom, driven by the principle “In G-d we Trust.” According to this school of thought more displays of religion should be supported by the government, and the responsibility of leaders is to introduce certain faith based values into society.
This group feels that America has wandered away from its core values system, and must return there. For instance, abortion and gay rights are travesties that must be curbed.
At the heart of this debate lies the biggest question of them all: Can individuality co-exist with G-d? It appears not. If one lives a life based on Divine laws, those laws dictate how you behave, with no room for your individual expression. Individuality – and its twin sister, freedom of expression – would seem to imply a life outside of G-d.
It’s either or: Either G-d is the dominant force or the individual is. If G-d dominates the individual is compromised; if the individual dominates G-d is compromised.
When put in these terms it seems like stalemate, with no way out. Either you surrender to G-d or G-d surrenders to you.
Of course when we are aware of the liabilities of vanity and the narcissistic tendencies of a material world it only exacerbates the tension between G-d and the universe. How could the two possibly coexist without one being compromised.
Thus, we have the polarization of two extremes, with many variations along the spectrum: To what extent should G-d play a role in our lives, if at all,
However, I submit that there is a third way. And it’s this third way that has eluded history for so long. But it is the natural way – the way life was always meant to be lived.
That third way is the way of Jacob. In mystical terms it’s the way of Tiferet. Lit. beauty, a perfect harmony between free flowing love and contained discipline.
The last two millennia have been dominated by the severe (gevurah) forces of religion. The Church had absolute authority and imposed it on the masses. The Crusades were a harsh example of this approach. The justification was that man must submit to G-d’s will.
With the Enlightenment in the last few centuries came a new wave of thought, which ultimately challenged the very premise of a G-d driven life. Science was seen by some to replace religion. For many this became the new religion.
Drawing its strength from the power of the church – and the bitterness and anger it left in people’s souls – the new progressive view gained momentum, and in direct proportion to the church’s dominance, it went to the other extreme, of a G-dless society, driven by the virtues of human possibility. The age of permissiveness was born (unbridled chesed).
“God is dead” Nietzsche declared, referring of course to the centuries-old God of Europe. After all that was the only God he and his peers knew.
History has its own mysterious, mischievous tricks up its sleeve. The twist of irony is that some of the radical atheists (or not such radical ones), including Marx, were the ones that exposed the fallacies of a flawed (or plain out false) system. In their denial of the metaphysical, they too became tools of the Divine in baring the “emperor” who had no clothes in the first place.
I for one am a big believer in the “market correction” view on history, that time is the most powerful reality check. In time truth always emerges, especially in collective situations, despite the strange twists and turns it often endures. (“You can fool all of the people some of the time; some of the people all of the time; but not all of the people all of the time”).
Like a maturing child secular history began with many distortions. The Bible lays it out. First, people rejected G-d. Abraham then, after a long soul search, embraced G-d but was faced with a resistant, pagan world. Seven generations later Abraham’s progeny stood at Sinai and received the Divine mandate, which dictates the fundamental humane and liberal principles of charity and virtue – principles that would not become mainstream for close to three thousand years, but then would revolutionize the world and become the basis of modern civilization.
The nations of the world, namely the children of Esau and Ishmael, reject the Torah at the time. A millennia later they began to embrace it as well. But as in any serious process, the growing pains were quite severe. At first religion was practiced as a weapon against the temptations of the flesh and the material.
Under the circumstances this of course is quite natural. After all, G-dless paganism, which was so dominant for so long, can only be suppressed with severe discipline and force. The two are incompatible. Like an addict, man addicted to the material must completely withdraw from the source of his addiction.
For centuries – first by the Christians and then the Muslims – religion become a tyrannical force, meant to conquer the “evil” of the world and subjugate it toG-d.
Whether it was a true G-d or partially true one was no one’s concern. Indeed, one can even say that G-d was taken hostage by religious authorities. As time passed, one could hardly distinguish between what G-d really wants and what the establishment said He wants. The only G-d that most people of the world knew was the one imposed and dictated to them by authorities.
The damage was done. The only way to extricate the human race from this distortion was to completely rebel against this type of distorted God. This God had to “die” (in the mind of the people) before being “reborn” (not such a good word for this), or re-emerging in His true glory.
So from one extreme it went to the other. From absolute faith it went to absolute faithlessness. Faith in G-d was replace by faith in science, or the broader euphemism: human progress.
Deep tension began to develop between the two “realities.” Man could not quite let go of G-d, despite all the attempts. Some of the French Enlightenment dismissed that to the inferiority of the canaille (as cited last week). G-d kept surfacing His head and not “go away.”
The battle between science and religion slowly turned first into a “cold war,” and then into a thawing acceptance of each, as two complementary dimensions. Tension still remains, but a more sophisticated understanding of both science and faith has emerged, allowing them to support each other.
Support each other in the center, that is. The two extremes, left and right, still remain today powerful voices, each claiming dominance.
This, I submit, is the heart of our polarized struggle today. The extreme voices of right and left – right wing religious extremists and left wing anti-religious extremists – keep responding to each other, in effect balancing each other out in a way, but also creating much damage.
Most of us (the silent majority?) are left somewhere in the middle – in middle of this wreckage, and in idle of the spectrum – confused by all the voices, only aggravated by the political marketing machines exploiting everyone in every which way, left and right, above and below.
Can one even say what really has shaped our perceptions today? How much of it is influenced by our years in college, innocently listening to professors professing their subjective views, gullibly shaping our minds? What effect did our parents and early schooling have in us? And now, how do the current political campaigns manipulate our hopes and fears do gain their intended objective? And let’s not forget about peer pressure. One person wrote to me, that I can post his words only anonymously, because he’s afraid of being witch-hunted by the “McCarthy-like liberalism” that has consumed the Upper West Side.
The question for all of us is this: Can we transcend all the rhetoric and find an honest and decent position that speaks from OUR conscience, not the one projected (even imposed) upon us from others?
I believe the answer is absolutely yes (I know: If it’s my belief how can it be absolute? OK, you got me there). And that’s the premise of this article and last.
We need a new understanding and appreciation of G-d. Not one defined by human institutions, in which either the boss is control or he’s not. Either G-d runs the show or we do. That is an incorrect view of G-d. G-d was secure enough in His own reality to take the ultimate gamble and give us free will. We are partners with G-d, with real power to sway destiny.
Older versions of understanding G-d pitted the sacred against the secular, the spiritual vs. the material. While it’s true that these forces battle each other, their conflict is only in the initial stages. A deeper understanding of G-d reveals that within the material lies profound spiritual energy. Ultimately the objective is integration. By sanctifying the secular and revealing its true nature, we relieve the tension between them.
G-d is neither material nor spiritual, therefore both can be integrated. G-d is neither exclusively authoritative nor permissive. As Creator of life He (She, It) gave us guidelines how to live out life to its fullest potential. When we recognize these truths they are not superimposed from the outside, but ones that resonate within. When we live by the laws of G-d we are actually expressing – and living up to – our deepest individuality.
You see, because above all, G-d is not a force imposed upon us by others or from without; it is a force within – within each of us, and within all of existence. We were given life. Our side of the partnership is to recognize the forces that shape us within, and live up to in day-to-day action.
The founders of this country understood this quite well. That’s why they did not shy away from stating that the foundation of all our free rights is the fact that we were all “created equal” endowed with unalienable rights. They could have easily written “all people are equal” or “are born equal.” Why emphasize “created” and a “Creator” which can allow for confusion with the separation of church and state?
Because the G-d they recognized was not the one embraced by the religious right or rejected by some of the left, not the one embraced or rejected by any individual or group – but the real G-d, the non-denominational, non-bureaucratic, non-man-made Creator of us all, Who endowed us with our lives and inherent liberties. That type of G-d belongs in politics and is etched into our currency, hopefully also into our hearts.
This, I believe, is also the root of another passionate argument. Many people fear that if stays on its present course, dominated by the religious right, America will become a fascist regime. This fear is supported of course by the history of religious oppression.
However it too is based on the G-d that has been taken hostage by the past. If one were to see G-d as an active force today, as the Founding Fathers did, not a G-d controlled by men (another form of idolatry) but one controlled by G-d Himself, then this force would not allow for fear or paranoia, but for profound hope in the future.
“The more things change the more they stay the same” is another manifestation of the steel trap created by “religious fatigue.” Our arduous history of fascists of all sorts imposing their tyranny has worn us down, and many feel that the only option is to relieve ourselves of faith and any other absolute system, at least on the governing level.
But the God you are rejecting may not be the real God.
Same is true regarding liberal values. Many reject them because certain individuals on the left hijacked these values and made them part of their faithless philosophy.
We in the center have to reclaim both faith and true liberal values from those that have kidnapped them from their rightful owners.
We must learn to access our inner compass, and not allow others to define that compass for us. Whether it be the religious right, liberal values, Hollywood dreams, political campaigns – do not replace G-d with any man-made values.
9/11, war, even politics have brought many of these issues which have always been simmering below to the boiling surface. Emotions are raging. Can we learn their true message?
Key of course to realizing any truth is humility. Being able to get beyond your own perspective and experience – no matter how emotionally jarring – and allowing in fresh energy.
Toward this end, I want to thank all of you who wrote to me, and especially those that disagreed and pointed out vital I have learned much from this exchange, and am sure will learn more with time. I hope you have and will to.
Check out the opinions posted on our website. You’ll be fascinated. And please add you voice. We all need it.
It’s been a long and winding road from an absolutist view on G-d to a relative one to a non-existing one and finally now to a confrontation of all these perspectives.
Perhaps we are on the threshold of a new beginning: Of discovering a G-d that has until now been obscured by our man-made institutions and convoluted revelations.
Perhaps all this controversy can lead us to recognize that the individual with all his/her aspirations is entirely compatible with G-d.
And that we have a bright future ahead of us. Not one run by fascists – either from the right or the left.
I wonder how they see things from above: After all the thousands of years they’re still talking about Him. They’re still debating His existence and His presence in their lives.
After all they have gone through, after all the religious distortions, the wars of faith, the endless blood spilled, the human race is still struggling with the role of G-d in their lives.
There must be a G-d in here somewhere.