Tikkun's Michael Lerner has weighed in about Barack Obama's much-critiqued comments concerning working-class bitterness in places like small-town Pennsylvania. Personally, I don't think Obama has as much to apologize for as others -- particularly, it goes without saying, those who support the Clinton campaign -- have argued, though it troubles me that he spoke so freely without considering the political consequences. Nor do I fully agree with Lerner on this subject. But his argument certainly merits careful scrutiny:
Obama's Error--and What It Would Really Take to Rectify It
By Rabbi Michael Lerner
A continuing irony of American politics is that the candidates of the ruling elites have been able to convince many Americans that the candidates who seek to redistribute wealth to the less fortunate, provide health care for all, and provide jobs and housing for the poor are the real elitists. They've been able to get away with that not only by demeaning the "Hollywood limousine liberals" (never explaining why those wealthy who support tax increases on their own wealth to feed, house and care for the hungry are not deserving of more praise than those who horde their wealth for themselves), but also by portraying liberals as hostile to the religious concerns of the American people.
Unfortunately, on that latter point Right-wingers are often accurate. The relgio-phobia Americans encounter in many sections of the liberal and progressive world often push them away and into the hands of the Right. Deeply suspicious of the slippery slope from some right wing religious beliefs to religious coercion, homophobia, sexism, and racism, people on the Left have created a cultural assumption that anyone who is into religion or spiritual life is probably a little less intellectually or psychologically developed than the secularists, perhaps seeking mystery or a father-figure God to compensate for some lack in their lives.
The message that most Americans receive from the Left is an elitist and demeaning put-down: "We need your votes, so you are welcome into our ranks, but we hope that by hanging out with us secular leftists you will eventually give up your pathological need for religious beliefs and evolve to a higher level of rationality that us secularists have been developing as the only possible way to think clearly about the nature of reality." Often unconscious, this religio-phobic message has done much to push away the majority of Americans whose religious beliefs are extremely important to them, even though on purely economic grounds they'd feel more aligned with the Left's agenda than that of the Right.
Barack Obama understands this, and has done much in his career to avoid failing into that trap. His political worldview draws upon the spiritual and religious wisdom of the human race, without making explicit some of those connections. Others may shout about their religiosity to score points with particular religious constituencies, but Obama is the closest thing we've seen in American politics to a man who actually embodies spiritual depth.
All the more sad, then, to have witnessed his error in listing religion as one of the compensations people who are bitter about their economic situation embrace along with guns and anti-immigrant sentiments. Seeing religion as a substitute gratification grabbed on to by people who are otherwise oppressed is an insight that has been part of liberal and progressive culture for at least 150 years. Unfortunately, Senator Obama, like Karl Marx before him, got it wrong because he identified the needs that are being systematically denied as purely material, thereby failing into the deep "It's the economy, stupid" mistake of the Left. And so far, he has sought only to justify his description of people as "bitter" rather than to address his mistake in reducing their upsets to those that flow from the current economic downturn. The fact is that significant growth in the religious right happened in the 1990s, during the Clinton Administration's years of growing prosperity, precisely when people were feeling most economically secure.
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