Joining Hands: Politics and Religion Together for Social Change

By Wapner, Paul | Tikkun, January/February 2004 | Go to article overview

Joining Hands: Politics and Religion Together for Social Change


Wapner, Paul, Tikkun


Spiritual Politics Joining Hands: Politics and Religion Together for Social Change, by Roger S. Gottlieb. Westview Press, 2002.

One of the ironies of modern life is that, despite decades of scientific advancement, technological innovation, and more rational understandings of life, religious sentiment persists and, in many quarters, continues to grow. Ninety percent of Americans say they believe in God; religious fundamentalism both within and outside the U.S. wins new converts every day, and there is an explosion of new-age or otherwise nontraditional spiritual movements emerging all over the world. God is far from dead. In fact, as Roger Gottlieb tells us in his latest book, God isn't even sick. Does this matter for politics? Does it matter for the Left?

The Left has consistently ignored or underplayed religion and spirituality-often for good reasons. Religion can be nasty stuff. To the degree that it presents itself as having true insight into the nature of the universe, it taps into a dangerous type of power that has been used throughout history to fan hatred, injustice, exclusion, and violence. One need only think about the medieval Crusades or the religious justifications for 9/11 to appreciate the toxic mix religion and politics can concoct. Additionally, religion has been used to blunt criticism of, and apologize for, illegitimate regimes and social orders. Its other-worldliness has served, as Marx warned, as an opiate of the people. For these reasons and others, the Left has long struggled to separate religion and politics and there is much to be proud of in this effort.

The Left has waged this struggle not by denying faith or religious sentiment but by arguing that these things simply don't belong in the public realm. Religion is a private matter-best left to individuals and their chosen religious communities. The Left has always protected the right to private religious practice and stands firmly behind religious freedom (including the freedom to be an atheist). The Left gets concerned, however, when people try to impose a particular form of worship or practice on others. This happens most coercively when the state gets involved.

The separation between church and state is essential to liberal polities. But what happens when political problems are not simply matters of economic, social, and governmental engineering, but involve deeper challenges related to our inner lives? What happens when we recognize that achieving peace, justice, and environmental well-being requires not only changing public policies, but also our sense of self, the quality of our relationships, the depth of our generosity, and our capacity to respond to nature and the human condition with awe and wonderment-areas long examined by religious and spiritual traditions? TIKKUN has been arguing for years that these latter aspects are integral to political life, and that healing and transforming the world involves both external and internal changes. As Michael Lerner continually tells us, our collective problems are crises of the spirit as much as they are of the polity.

Roger Gottlieb's extraordinarily thoughtful book, Joining Hands, explores how the Left might take up spiritual matters without upsetting its dedication to religious freedom and the separation between church and state. Gottlieb demonstrates that Leftist social change movements have always relied upon religious and spiritual inspiration, and argues that the future success of such movements depends upon maintaining a productive synergy between religion and politics. For Gottlieb, social change and personal, spiritual growth arc two sides of one coin. We cannot hope to errect genuine social change without gaining a greater sense of personal purpose and well-being. Likewise, we will fail to develop personally if we shut ourselves off from the wider political world of which we are fundamentally a part and which offers multiple opportunities for personal growth. …

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