On the other hand ….
The Left Hand of God analyses the socio-political conditions that have led to the religious right’s rise to prominence in the US and the way the Republicans have manipulated a culture of fear to serve the interests of corporate America. Braver still, it tries to envisage an alternative left wing politics that embraces the deeply-felt spiritual needs of the American people, rather than deriding them.
Lerner convincingly portrays an America in a spiritual crisis instigated by cuthroat market economics and me-first materialism. He argues that the religious right has been successful in responding to this crisis by offering a sense of community and purpose to those craving a higher meaning in life. However, he suggests that these religious groups espouse the unmerciful notion of god realised in the Day of Judgement (or, Right Hand of God), unleashing an avenging holy war against evil. Lerner argues that although this belief is at odds with religious traditions of love and compassion, it is not evil but simply misguided, and that the Left alienates potential voters by dismissing spirituality as a founding priniciple behind its politics.
Lerner explains that the religious right has gained power by funding from an administration that seeks to legitimise its manifesto of world domination and continuous conflict. Meanwhile the right has cleverly succeeded in blaming the left for promoting immoral secularist social values, which the Left is unable to effectively counter because of their perceived antipathy towards religion. The dark irony of this is that it is the Republicans who give corporate America the freedom to create a culture of greed and materialism that make people feel disenfranchised in the first place. From cutting taxes to the rich to slashing social security programs for the poor, the Republicans have contributed greatly to the deterioration of the community that the religious right claims to be fighting for. Lerner argues that Americans vote not only against their economic interests but also their spiritual interests as well.
Lerner takes great pains to argue that a leftist politics based on a compassionate spiritualist framework is the only credible alternative to a government that allies itself with religious groups claiming a monopoly on good values. A spiritually-minded left should not be derided as utopic or idealistic, he argues, while recognising the challenge faced in changing deep-rooted collective greed. He uses pschological case studies to demonstrate the ways in which people have been brainwashed by an extreme brand of capitalism that worships individual selfishness while perpetuating an illusion of meritocracy.
Where I feel Lerner doesn’t properly account for himself is his belief in the inate goodness of people. He gives the example of the infant need for love and nurturing to survive as proof of the fundamental goodness of man. I am not convinced. Although he suggests that politics should be spiritually (not religiously) motivated, is it realistic to suggest that notions of goodness can be universalised? As he says, people on the right believe that they are acting in the interests of kindness and that they only need to be shown the true path of compassion. I agree that it is wrong for the left to dismiss the religious right as deluded fanatics, but I also think that Lerner underestimates humanity’s innate capacity for greed and to use religion to legitimise it and cause acts of evil: whether is to be to curtail women’s rights to choose, deny the degradation of the environment, promote hatred of homosexuals or support unnecessary military conflict. He also fails to draw a relevant parallel between America and other secular nations. What is it in the US that creates the conditions for such agressive antipathy towards abortion or gay-rights, for example, that doesn’t occur elsewhere?
Nevertheless this is a compelling and convincing book, and brave in its suggestion of an alternative politics where others would only seek to criticise.