JUNE 6, 1996
The first of a two-part look at the role of religion in politics. David Gergen, editor at large of "U.S. News & World Report," engages Michael Lerner, editor and publisher at "Tikkun" Magazine and author of The Politics of Meaning, a treatise for a counter movement to the religious right.
DAVID GERGEN: Rabbi Lerner, this past April, you organized a summit here in Washington on ethics and meaning, and some 1800 people, activists from churches, synagogues, unions, ecological groups, liberal groups, other kinds of liberal groups, came. Now you've just published a book on The Politics of Meaning. It's clear that, is it not, that you're trying to do more than send a message? You're also trying to organize a new social movement, a political movement in this country.
MICHAEL LERNER, Author, The Politics of Meaning: Right. This is a whole different kind of political movement. It's really not left or right. It's an attempt to transcend the old categories. Perhaps really the critical distinctions are between cynicism and optimism. And this is a movement that aims to challenge the dominant cynicism, the dominant materialism, the dominant selfishness in American society and to argue that really we need a new ethos in a society, an ethos of love and caring, an ethos of spiritual and ethical sensitivity.
DAVID GERGEN: But you also see this as a counterweight to the religious right.
MICHAEL LERNER: Yes. You see, the right has spoken to the very real ethical and spiritual crisis in American society. It recognizes that there is an ethos of selfishness that permeates this society. But unfortunately, the right often ends up blaming the traditional demeaned others of society, African-Americans, gays and lesbians, feminists, Jews, immigrants, and it says that liberals use big government to take from ordinary people to give to these "special interests." But the truth from my perspective is that the ethos of selfishness is really rooted in the economy and in the structures of the work world in which the bottom line of materialism and selfishness is rewarded every day, in which people learn the ethos of looking out for No. 1.
DAVID GERGEN: Ralph Reed, the executive director of the Christian Coalition, is publishing a book right at this same time called Active Faith, and I think he would share your analysis that over the last 30 years the conservative movement has been given an enormous boost because it has seized the high ground on issues of morality and on spirituality. As you say in your own book, it has spoken, the religious right has spoken to the hunger that many Americans feel for some sort of meaning or spirituality, it's spoken to the breakdown of families, to the rise of crime, and that sort of thing, whereas, the left, which once spoke out so forcefully on moral issues, has been basically silent and has even taken those kind of values out of public policy.
MICHAEL LERNER: Well, yes, the left has, umm, really missed the boat here because liberals and the progressives in the society don't have a clue about what's going on in the psycho dynamics of American society. They focus almost exclusively on economic entitlements and political rights. And on those issues, I often support them, but I think that they don't understand the deeper set of human needs that affects so many people in this society and leaves so many middle income people in a great deal of pain, pain that they often end up blaming themselves for, and the liberals often turn around and say, pain, well, go to a psychotherapist without understanding, as the right does understand, that it's rooted in a social reality.
DAVID GERGEN: Mr. Reed and other conservatives, I think, would argue that the real cause of, of the feeling of alienation and the hunger that people feel for meaning has not come out of the capitalistic system. After all, capitalism in American society held together pretty well for most of our history, but they would argue that it was the people on the left who in the 60's created a counter culture that put individuals first, the "me first ism" and denigrated the traditional family, denigrated the traditions that had held together for so long, and, and opened the way to a breakdown of the family. They would put much of the blame on the left, whereas, you put it on the capitalistic system. How do you respond to their kind of argument, wait a minute, didn't the 60's have a lot to do with this?
MICHAEL LERNER: Well, the first thing is I want to recognize the element of truth in what they're saying. I think it's always a mistake to just blame social structures without taking personal responsibility, and there was a way in which we talked about self realization and sometimes that self realization was simply a cover for selfishness, for doing whatever felt good at the moment without regard to the consequences for others. And there were elements of the 60's that did that. On the other hand, a great part of the efforts of the 60's came from a moral sensibility, a caring about African-Americans, a caring about women, a caring about gays, a caring about ending that senseless struggle in Vietnam. These were not movements that were generated out of selfishness. They were generated out of a higher moral idealism. But the problem is, is that in the thinking of liberals and progressives, they don't have a framework to understand the ethical and spiritual issues. Instead, their categories are primarily based around the notion that economic needs and political rights needs are fundamental. And that's what I have begun to do with the movement that we've been building, politics of meaning movement, is to articulate a progressive way to address these issues.
DAVID GERGEN: The major emphasis in your book on reforms that you would call for would be reforms of the economy, reforms of the health care system, reforms of the educational system, those were the most fundamental reforms that you spoke to. You, you fundamentally in your book argue that it's the capitalistic system that's creating materialism, selfishness, and now cynicism.
MICHAEL LERNER: It's the ethos of cynicism, selfishness, and materialism in the society. I, umm, have many people working with me in the Politics of Meaning Movement who think that it's possible to change the capital system to make a new bottom line.
DAVID GERGEN: And that would be what?
MICHAEL LERNER: And that new bottom line is the critical thing. The bottom line, I think the productivity and efficiency should be judged by the degree to which a society tends to maximize loving and caring relationships and ethical, ecological, and spiritual sensitivity. If that can happen within a capitalist system, God bless, and if it can't, then okay, then the changes have to be made. What I want to ask is not what's the abstract economic system we're for, but what is it that we really want, what values do we really want? And the values I want are love and caring. And I want every institution to be judged by how much they produce loving and caring human beings. And don't tell me that we have a productive society if we have lots and lots of money, but a huge amount of personal pain and people not able to stay in families and people not able to sustain loving relationships, and friendships falling apart, and people feeling very isolated because they can't trust other people since they think that everybody is out looking for No. 1. That kind of a society is in my view, in the Politics of Meaning view, this is a very unproductive society.
DAVID GERGEN: But you spoke in your book about loving and caring. You said we should stop demonizing others. You said when one group becomes very vested in demeaning the other, it has a very difficult time building a society based on Politics of Meaning principles.
MICHAEL LERNER: Right.
DAVID GERGEN: I understood that. In the same book, you go on to say about conservatives, "I do not doubt that there is a hard core of racist homophobes, anti-semites, sexists who form the back bone of the American right." You also in another point, "At the end of the 20th century, we suddenly find ourselves confronting fascistic possibilities that many thought had faded out with the defeat of the Nazis half a century ago." Doesn't that demean the very people of the religious community that you may want to form an alliance with on some of these questions?
MICHAEL LERNER: Well, in my view, most of the people moving to the right are not racist, sexist, or homophobes, or any of that. Umm, most people moving to the right today are people who are very sensitive, who are aware that there is a tremendous problem in their lives, and they're hearing the right speak to those problems. But I don't want to deny either, and this is what you're quoting from the book, that there is a sector of our population--umm, luckily, it's not more than 10 or 15 percent of our population--who really, uh, are racist, who really are homophobic, who really are sexist. This exists in the society. The vast majority of people are not that way. Americans are a wonderful people, and the vast majority of people who move to the right aren't that way either. They're moving to the right because the right is the only force that at the moment articulate the ethical and spiritual crisis. And that's why a Politics of Meaning movement is so important as an alternative to that. It provides another place for people to go when they are sensitive to the crisis and sensitive to the pain that the ethos of selfishness causes.
DAVID GERGEN: You came to prominence in a national way a few months ago by being associated with the Clintons when Hillary Clinton spoke out about the Politics of Meaning. In your epilogue, you describe a growing disillusionment with the Clintons. You felt that they were speaking to the idealism of the country but they backed away from it, and you talk about the terrible betrayals of the Clintons. Are, are they not allies with you in this movement, in your effort to build a movement? Have you abandoned hope that you can form an alliance there?
MICHAEL LERNER: Well, the Clintons are wonderful people but they lack back bone, they lack moral back bone, and so they've used the words of the Politics of Meaning, but they haven't followed through with the substance. And at this moment, umm, we're trying to build a movement from below of ordinary people in every locality, in every neighborhood, who will fight for a different kind of politics. And that may give the Clintons the back bone to fight for the best part of themselves. But you see the Clintons are no different from the rest of us. Every single one of us is split between a part of us that wants to go for a highest vision and a part of us that's scared and thinks that it will be self-destructive to go for a highest vision, we'd better look out for self interest. They've had that problem. So do all the rest of us. And maybe now it's our time, the people from below, to give the Clintons the courage to stand up for what they actually believe in.
DAVID GERGEN: Well, I'm sorry we can't continue this but thank you very much.
MICHAEL LERNER: Glad to be here.
MR. LEHRER: Tomorrow night, David engages Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition and author of Active Faith.