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April 22, 2011 08:58 PM UTC

Proud Member of the Religious Left

  • by: nancycronk

Recently, one of my facebook friends acknowledged me for helping her realize she could be religious and also be politically on the left. I was floored. Has the Republican party co-opted religion so completely that generations of Americans believe you can either by spiritual, or be a Democrat (or worse — gasp — a “Green” pary member!)? What is their definition of religion that would cause them to think such a thing?

I asked a few of my younger progressive friends what religion means to them. All of them said essentially the same thing, “Religion is a belief in a supernatural being”. None of them had ever considered there might be religions where belief in the supernatural is optional, or a religion that is centered around ethics.  (Coincidentally, all of these young people did not consider themselves religious, and did identify themselves as being politically on the left.)

Clearly, if a young person’s association with religion is almost entirely based on branches of it which have been enmeshed in political debate for the past thirty years, it is understandable where they would get that idea. According to Republican groups that have married themselves to the religious right in America, largely for political gain, if you are a Christian, you must care more about the rights of an embryo than a living, breating child. You must be willing to believe in male dominance over women, and  believe G*d wants Americans to be financially wealthy because of their elevated status in the world — screw everyone else. The same groups are usually tolerant of Jews, as long as they are working to prepare Israel for future Biblical prophecy. (In other words, G*d wants us to steal all the oil.)

Young people of Colorado — consider another possibility.

One of my favorite definitions of religion is this one, which reflects the breadth and width and complexity of religious traditions around the world:

Religion is a cultural system that creates powerful and long-lasting meaning by establishing symbols that relate humanity to beliefs and values.[Clifford Geertz, Religion as a Cultural System, 1973]

When a person studies world religions, he or she soon finds there are many spiritual traditions in the world that are not obsessed with damning people to eternal Hell-fire because they are gay, because they are divorced, because they have premarital sex (horror!), or because they voted for Barack Obama. There are many spiritual traditions out there — and a number who fiercely identify as Christian — who welcome your liberal, left-leaning self with open arms. A few, like the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian-Universalists (and so many others!), even consider such things as fighting for gay rights and the environment, or being pro-choice, as an expression of your personal, unique faith — the very expression of that which makes you holy.

I grew up in a Christian household. My grandmother was the epitomy of spiritual love. She gave to the poor, taught children, forgave everyone for everything, turned the other cheek, was generous to a fault, and said loving, empowering things to people she met everyday. I do not recall a single word of gay-bashing, being judgmental, or casting a proverbial stone at anyone. Unwed mothers, alcoholics, drug addicts — Grandma found something kind to say about everyone, and often reminded us, “Do not judge until you have walked a mile in their shoes”.

I left Christianity when I met “the other Christians”. You know the ones I am talking about — the ones who care more about what you believe than how you live your life. The ones who judge, who persecute, who are “holier than thou”. The ones who “pray for you” if you don’t believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible. The ones who do not see the Bible as one of many sources of profound wisdom. The ones who do not see the Jewish and Christian Scriptures as historical documents — documents which have been passed down through many generations, changed and interpreted and translated and altered like a child’s game of “Telephone”. The ones who see being a homosexual as an abomination because they read it in a book, rather than looked inside their own hearts, never questioning if the book could be interpreted in different ways by different people.

I converted to liberal Judaism many years ago, and after that, studied Unitarian-Universalism. I’ll spare you the details, but I will say I found many tolerant, compassionate, incredibly generous people in both of those communities (and still do). Each of those faiths encouraged me to keep learning about other faiths. Ironically, it wasn’t until I left Christianity and studied many other faiths I could go back and really understand the teachings of Rabbi Jesus of Nazareth — in cultural context. His teachings to feed the poor, provide free health care to those who are sick, take care of the elderly and widows and orphans, and to forgive those who are seen as sinners… really moved me.

What I’ve found in my search for dharma (a Hindu word most commonly translated as religion, truth or law) along my upayah (spiritual path), is there are many spiritual traditions in the world, all of which can be used for good, or used for evil (yes, kind of like Spiderman’s powers, if you will). The key is, “If you jump into any spiritual community, will you adhere to the sides of the pool in fear of being sucked down into the drain (the rules, the dogma, the beliefs, the mandates, the political b.s., etc.), or will you trust yourself to let go of the sides, and really allow yourself to learn to swim and enjoy the water?”

There are many spiritual traditions which will allow you to believe whatever it is you believe about G*d (or gods), or about the creation or existence of the universe. There are many faiths which frankly don’t give an Easter egg about what you believe — they are there to inspire you to follow the lessons of Jesus the Teacher — or the Buddha, or Confucious, or Maimonides, or the Dalai Lama, or whoever’s wise teachings you choose to study. They care more what kind of person you are — do you help your neighbor, do you lift up the child of the single mother, do you volunteer at your neighborhood school or food bank? Are you making a difference in the world, or merely leaving a gigantic carbon footprint for others to have to clean up?

As a rule of thumb, I’ve found one more thing to be true — if the teacher is/was great, he/she probably doesn’t care much who gets the credit, or where you send your donations. Mother Theresa of Calcutta was once asked to teach a wealthy person how to be saintly. She replied (I’m paraphrasing), “Take the money you would spend to fly to Calcutta to watch me work. Instead, find someone poor and give it to them.”

So, young political progressives. Please do not throw the religious baby out with the hypocritical, radical, fundamentalist, bathwater. Consider finding a community that affirms and celebrates YOU for who you already are, and what you already know in your heart. Find one that encourages you to be your best self — giving, generous, compassionate, selfless, understanding, loving and grateful — grateful for your family and friends, whoever they may be. Find one that gives you true freedom — yes, freedom — not the country-song, flag-waving kind that gets us into costly international wars to line the pockets of billionaires in the military-industrial complex — but the kind that allows you to express your feelings, your beliefs, and your opinions openly (like I just did).

Happy Passover/Easter/Spring/Earth Day/Solitude or whatever you may celebrate this time of year. May it inspire you to renew yourself, and to find your passion to make a difference in this world. Blessings upon your own journey.

What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the Torah. The rest is commentary, now go and study.” (Talmud Shabbat 31A.)


40 thoughts on “Proud Member of the Religious Left

    1. If so, post a reply with the hyperlink, and tell me if you want it at the top, bottom, or somewhere else in your diary, and I can do the rest.  

  1. I’ve mentioned here before that my grandmother was once a Planned Parenthood President for her state, and one of their clinics was opened specifically at the request of a Catholic priest who desperately wanted family planning help for the farmers’ wives in his diocese. This was before PP offered abortion, but even contraception was controversial then.

    As a casualty of the (legitimate and noble) battle for the separation of church and state, the left has given up the power of faith and the voice that religion gives to our best impulses: Love thy neighbor, be your brother’s keeper, turn the other cheek, and so on and so forth. For every “women shall keep silent in the temples” that causes secularists to heap scorn on religion, there’s a “let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” Religion itself even warns against the dangers over oversimplified, highly public, attention-grabbing religious practice–as the Jewish saying goes, “If your neighbor prays loudly in the temple, go home and lock your smokehouse.”

    As for me–I’m still on the journey. I don’t know where it leads, but I do know that the left must once again begin embracing religion, not for its role in dividing people, but for the way it can uplift communities and sustain us through hard times. The singing of a hymnal or the blessing of a newborn child is stunningly beautiful and poignantly human, whether or not one believes in God, organized religion, or a particular religious text. The role of faith and ritual in human civilization is as old as that civilization. Recognizing a higher power–and I include science and the Universe in that statement–connects us with thousands or millions of years of ancestors who looked up at the stars and asked the same questions we ask today.

    The religious left may have “left the building” for the most part, but I don’t think they’re gone for good, and I don’t think it’s too late to reclaim the empowering aspects of the words “I believe in God” or “I am a person of faith” as genuinely healing and enlightening, not just part of the political script followed to reach office. I, for one, look forward to the journey, and I hope that my peers will join me in stepping back from the secularism vs. religion dichotomy and simply appreciating the way humans relate to each other, to their communities, and to their chosen higher powers.

    1. Priests are known to defy the Vatican in various ways, from espousing truly liberal social policies to having life partners in spite of their celibacy vows. Since John Paul II, however, Rome has done its damnest to get everyone in line. A priest who diddles boys will be spirited away from the reaches of secular justice, but one who dares promote contraception would be defrocked faster than you can say “Rick Santorum For President.”

      Officially, the Church has always considered contraception to be out of line with what God wants. That goes all the way back to the invention of condoms. Interestingly, the guy who invented The Pill was a Catholic, and the whole reason every fourth week of taking The Pill is taking a placebo or skipping it entirely, is because he was hoping to get the Church’s approval of this method. He was bitterly disappointed when he didn’t get it, and ended up an atheist.

      As for when the Left by and large abandoned religion, I don’t know exactly when or how that happened. I wish parsingreality was around; he knew a lot about that stuff.

      1. I was always given to believe that the placebo week was because women wouldn’t believe they really weren’t pregnant without a monthly cycle to confirm it. It’s a shame the Church didn’t approve even after that. I’ve always figured if God really wants someone on the Pill to have a baby that bad, He can cause them to forget a pill or two, right? I mean, all powerful Creator, no? Seems a bit silly to think that that the omniscient, omnipotent, almighty God would be foiled by a little estrogen.

    2. perhaps, but I don’t see how they relate to the real world.

      I have trouble connecting the dots between muttering magic words to an invisible policeman and

      … the voice that religion gives to our best impulses …

      Behavior that is induced by the fear of eternal punishment or by shame of our biological natures or by ignorance of the relationship between cause and effect can not be a “best impulse” by any definition I can conceive.

      Maybe I lack imagination. On the other hand, I can see the attraction in having an “adult” figure who has prescribed right and wrong. I was caught up in that attraction once.

      In my experience, there is no correlation between a morally-driven life and religious practice.

      1. For some people, discovering freedom from religion is immensely liberating; I find often those people are those who, like you, were “caught up in that attraction once,” i.e., those whose personal histories involve a religious practice that is indeed based on fear and shame.

        I don’t practice a particular religion or attend church. I don’t believe that a loving God would bar me from Heaven because I lived my life according to my own principles and thus chose time with my family over time in church, and chose thoughtful observation and contemplation of the world above Biblical literalism (or literal interpretations of any faith). However, for me it has been liberating to allow myself to observe the good in religion recently, having spent much time in my upbringing observing its bad side. In fact, Barack Obama’s book “The Audacity of Hope” was the thing that made me begin giving thought to the way religion can build communities and nourish the human soul–even if one doesn’t believe, in a literal sense, that we have immortal souls.

        My only discernible religious heritage is Jewish, and there’s a long tradition of Jewish practice by atheists who place value on ritual and community even if they don’t believe in a parental God figure. I think the same could be said of many great philosophers over time–they say “God” not to mean “a bearded white man in the sky,” but instead “that which is intangible and greater than myself.”

        I don’t think that religious practice is necessary for a morally driven life–if I did, I’d be calling myself immoral at this point–but I do think that feeling humbled and awed by the greatness of the Universe is enormously beneficial to the quest to live according to one’s noblest principles. For some people the greater power they recognize is God. For others, it’s science–Carl Sagan’s “fragile blue dot” essay moves me to tears every time I read it. For some it’s just the experience of looking at the stars. Oftentimes for me, it’s a particular on-ramp to I-25 that offers a breathtaking view of the mountains; those seconds of awe as I come up the incline always remind me to balance my thoughts and let go of petty complaints.

        Like I said, I’m still on the journey of discovering what I believe, and I don’t want to talk too much about that until I’ve figured it out a little more. What I don’t believe, however: I don’t believe that it is pious to shame others; I don’t believe that faith can be exclusive to any class or group; I don’t believe that the private power quests of religious leaders have a damn thing to do with God’s wishes; and I don’t believe that it is any more virtuous to shame the religious or paint them as dimwitted and simple than to shame the irreligious as immoral heathens. I have been guilty of that last in the past–only recently have I begun to admire and appreciate religion.

        But that admiration and appreciation has been an experience that has inspired me to grow as a person, and for that I’m grateful. I’m not new to scorning religion and I can mock Leviticus with the best of them. I am, however, new to observing the feeling of having a heart full of faith and a true “church family.” This, I admire and I feel more and more drawn to help however I can to build that spirit of genuine community, particularly among those of us on the left who have often felt excluded from religious experiences because they have been  claimed fiercely as the domain of the divisive, vituperative right wing.  

        1. Well, Cowgirl, I like that and, while I’m a mainly secular Jew, the description of God in the earliest book of the bible is one of my favorite things about my ancestral religion. The obsession with women being unclean, not so much but it is an ancient patriarchal religion, after all.

          The Jewish God is described as being infinite, eternal, unknowable and without form.  Infinity itself, which strikes me as the central mystery of existence. The chicken and egg riddle with no answer because there is no beginning.

          Because of the nature of infinity, I don’t believe science will ever arrive at the that illusive single unified theory of everything, free from anomalies.  Because of it, I find ridiculous the idea that any religion has ever or will ever manage to come up with the single definitive instruction book to explain what cannot be contained in any finite set of explanations or forms.  I just can’t believe that the great mystery is just like a toaster oven that comes with a handy manual that has been discovered by religious writers or will ever be fully revealed by science. Which doesn’t mean the search isn’t  worthwhile.  On the contrary, the search is all we’ve got and what makes us human.

          If some of us want to call that mystery God; infinite, unknowable, eternal and unrestricted by physical, conceptual or any other manner of form,  that seems a convenient shorthand. That all the religions extol the same transcendent aspects of the human condition, the ability to love, to be kind, to be sometimes selfless, heroic, to be generous, to help those in need, etc. tells me that we do have access, but never full access.

          I think those who cling to the kind of religious fundamentalism that insists that their way is the only escape from a nightmare they call hell, are those who find the unknowable, the infinite, too terrifying.  They must have that one very specific instruction manual and they must believe it’s absolutely right and all others are, therefore, wrong in order to live without being terrified all the time.  

          It’s that same old fear thing that keeps popping up in studies of conservatives and liberals and probably accounts for why fewer liberals are “religious” in that particular, rigid way.

          Here’s to all that’s transcendent in humanity, like what made my Russian Jewish grandmother’s Christian landlord risk his family to hide hers in the last great pogrom in the early 1900s.  Happy Easter.

            1. Beautiful post, BlueCat. Your point about “access, but never full access,” is the most concise and accurate description I’ve found so far of how I feel about that mysterious, transcendent, intangible universal force conveniently referred to as “God” by some.

              And Diogenes–thank you for lending that emphasis, and for the signature that completely cracked me up just as I was gettin’ all misty-eyed over this Pols love-fest for non specific, leftist-friendly spirituality/religion/worship.

              Still, though, I will close this Easter with a prayer in my heart for the spirit of Resurrection.

          1. Where you branch off from what’s becoming 6th Avenue West. Helluva view, especially at sunset, even though it’s brief since one must keep one’s attention on the road.

        2. with a sense of awe and humbleness is something I do. I try to do it every day. I would even argue that it is part of my job description!

          What I have a low tolerance for is any insistence that our current inability to understand this or that phenomenon requires some devolution into mysticism.

          The natural world is sufficiently awesome on its own. I don’t gain any satisfaction from the invention of additional undetectable beings and forces.  

          1. It’s all human curiosity. Personally, quantum theory makes my head spin so fast that if they could just harness that energy to power a particle accelerator the LHC would be irrelevant, but I love to read the little I can about it before I have to lie down and try to process what I’ve just learned.  

            1. Much of contemporary physics is pretty trippy and mystic and requiring of faith in the unseen. The border between science and mysticism gets pretty thin in spots and neither require belief in any magical being or beings. Being is, in itself, pretty profoundly magical.

              What is the difference between accepting the implications of energy being neither created nor destroyed and the spiritual concept that there are no destinations, no beginning, no end, only the journey? Both are expressions of the recognition of the mystery of infinity.  

              1. What is the difference between accepting the implications of energy being neither created nor destroyed and …

                The proposal that energy can be neither created nor destroyed (well, except for that matter can be split to release energy!) makes precise predictions that can be tested. All of the possible phenomena included in these predictions have, as their causes, other NATURAL forces and matter. And, we can propose devices that can be used to detect the forces and matter that are predicted (we may not be able to build the devices with today’s technology, but we can describe what their capabilities need to be). And, we can ultimately determine whether the proposal is correct. Or not.

                The stuff I excised from your quote above make no predictions and offer no means of testing. They often require forces and objects and beings that are, by definition, undetectable and unknowable. One can never determine whether one is correct. Or not.

                These are HUGE differences. And, thus, the latter are wholly uninteresting to me.

                1. Yes, the world of science is the world of those things that can be tested but think about it.  That doesn’t change the essential mystery, put in the simplest terms, of where did everything come from, if everything that is always was and always will be.  That is, in itself, every bit as much a mystic as a scientific concept.  And, as much fun as this thread is, I’m going to have to quit checking back in because it’s just too tempting to keep spending too much time here! Well, maybe just one more time…

            2. Quantum particles do nothing for you? Dark energy theory? Black holes? Theories of life on other planets?

              These things, as well as the rest of the natural world, are truly awesome. I agree. I agree. I agree.

              Trying to tease out bits of understanding about the natural world is truly exciting, awe-inspiring, and humbling work.

              But, no mystical chantings or undetectable undefined beings or forces are necessary for entering into a state of being honestly and wholly awestruck. Agreed?

              (Regardless of your answer, I am going to continue to be impressed by you and your writing (both style and content).)  

              1. but even science can’t get entirely around the undetectable and undefinable. String vs particle, macro vs micro, science is always getting oh so close to that one unifying theory of everything with no loose ends but never all the way there. But where is there in the context of infinity?  And of course, what the hell would scientists do if they actually managed to solve everything? Science, mysticism, either way it’s all journey and no destination because infinity precludes terminus as well as origin.

                No question science produces a lot more useful stuff along the way.  I’m no naval gazer.  Don’t see the point. But I think everyone, if they are honest with themselves, feels the tug of something.  

              2. It’s just really sophisticated guesswork. It drives me nuts when people equivocate on a 1:1 basis science and religion, so I won’t do that here, but I think that the traits which motivate us to seek mystical experiences are identical or near-identical to those that drive us to seek meaning in the mysterious and currently unprovable forces floating around out in the Universe way, way, way past our fragile little blue dot.

                We also shouldn’t dismiss the entire field of theology out of hand just because it operates within the framework of religion. Most theologists I’ve known do believe in God, but they have also spent far more time examining the paradoxes of religion than most laymen. They choose to continue to believe, but many theologians do think critically and apply many frameworks similar to science to their study of human religions.

                But, like BlueCat, I agree with you on the necessity (or lack thereof) of chantings; however, I am fascinated by the role of ritual in how the human mind relates to its surroundings.

                I was powerfully affected a few years ago by an article about a woman grieving the loss of her son. She had a simple bedtime ritual since his death: Every night, she cried and collected her tears in a glass vial. The article was online, with several comments posted mocking the bereaved mother’s ritual as “emo.” Another comment farther down the page chastised the earlier commenters and pointed out that even non-human animals participate in social rituals that appear to have a function in maintaining the social group’s cohesiveness in the face of tragedy. That’s fascinating to me. The way elephants mourn their dead, and how it compares to the many complex rituals we use to allow ourselves to survive loss without losing the ability to form social bonds… that’s powerful stuff, right there.

                Thank you for your compliments, and for this discussion. I’m really glad Nancy brought the topic up. I feel my mind has “grown two sizes this day” (a la Seuss’s Grinch’s heart) from reading all the posts here. We have an incredibly educated and eloquent group here, it seems.

      2. There are many religions that do not include a belief in a supernatural being. Thinking of religion as belief-oriented or focused is a very western invention. There are also some western religions that consider belief optional.  

        1. if there are no prescribed magic words, no invisible or otherwise fantastic beings, and no requirement for believing that detectable natural phenomena have undetectable supernatural causes, then … cool, but … what’s the point? And how does this differ from a service club or therapy group?

          I’ll admit I’ve never heard of such religions. (This is not to say such a thing doesn’t or can’t exist. Just that I have not yet ever felt a need to look for such a thing.) (Before you take the effort to try to educate me on this, please take into account that I’m really not interested. I’m not trying to be superior, snarky or pissy, just suggesting that if you don’t have an abundance of time available, you might want to channel it elsewhere, rather than towards someone who would find it completely unhelpful.)

          So it goes … 🙂

          1. Most religions have a mystical end and a fundamentalist, dogmatic end, on either ends of the spiritual spectrum. On the fundeamentalist side, they take everything literally (G-d is male, G-d is a thing, there is one G-d separate from everything else, belief in Heaven and Hell, etc., constitute most western versions). On the mystical end, things are NEVER taken literally. It is all a process of self-discovery, trying on and discarding concepts that do not raise one’s awareness to a higher level of responsibility, etc.). The mystical end tends to be less judgmental about social issues, and more interested in learning and growing within COMMUNITY. Community is the key — a sense that together, there is something inspiring, powerful, and beautiful to reach for.

            There are thousands of religions in this world. Many of the eastern religions, unlike the western religions, are not obsessed with Creation, nor having a powerful supernatural figure to solve the problems of life. Many of the eastern faiths are more like philosophy. It is only the western religious people who keep insisting religion has to be defined by belief.

            I don’t have the time, and CO Pols does not have the bandwidth to give a survey of all of the thousands of the world’s religions. I strongly encourage all who are interested in the subject to check out “World Religions” at a local community college. Start with Hinduism and Taoism — you will never see religion the same way, I promise.  

    1. I have some pretty amazing writers here to learn from… there’s this one lady with the initials NC who’s not only a darn powerful prose writer, but can actually do POETRY!!! You may have seen her around 😉

  2. and I agree with you about PCG. Damn, cowgirl, you are really a good writer. Blush, as you will.

    Your (both of you) words, above, speak to a terrible injustice that has been done, in our cfulture, to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. They were corporatized. In my view,it has always been the tax-sheltered giving of money to an institution (the apple in the garden, if you will) that has caused the “church” to abandon the very savior they claim as their own. The Pharisees took over long ago.

    I grew up in a Christian home. I was an atheist or an agnostic most of my life, until a personal experience changed that. I follow the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. I am not a “Christian”. I make a distinction there. The rest is no ones’ business but mine.

    Thank both of you ladies for being here. Pols is lucky to have you coming around.

    Full disclosure: I am a charter member of “the Church of the Groovy Blue Chrysler.”   🙂      

    1. Y’all are threatening to exhaust my vocabulary of homespun, charming ways to accept a compliment while indicating slight embarrassment at receiving it in the presence of much better and more seasoned writers. (scuffs boot toe in the dirt, looks around sheepishly)

      I might just attend your Chrysler based church one day, in my newfound quest to understand religious traditions and groovy cars. And, as to your own beliefs–one could do a lot worse than Jesus of Nazareth as a personal guide and role model. I respect that, I’m getting pretty fond of J-o-N myself, and I think I see the distinction (though I can’t, of course, claim to know where you draw that line).  

      1. the Church of the Groovy Blue Chrysler has no buildings…or meetings…or books…none of that.

        Oh, and we don’t take donations (but you can buy me a beer).  🙂

        Someday, perhaps at a meet-up, I would be happy to explain that distinction I mentioned above. Until then, I will tell you that your words are captivating and I have seldom seen my philosophies so aptly described by another.

        p.s. try…”gol’ darned”. One of the favorite expressions of “Gabby” Hayes. It is almost as effective as “consarned” ( another “Gabbyism”), for which, I have no definition.    

        1. It consarns me that you let my chickens in the vegetable patch after I tole you they eat my t’maters.

          Gabby Hayes sounds like my kind of gal, and I’ll gladly buy you a beer, ’cause that gives me a chance to tip the bartender since I’ll be taking up a seat and just ordering water myself. Next meetup I might get brave and show up. You never know.

            1. See my signature for assumption that Gabbies are female 😉 also I grew up with no TV, but a collection of hand-me-down Little House on the Prairie books, which explains a lot in general.

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