Can ‘Spiritual Left’ Make The Change They Wish To See?

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We all know about the grassroots activism of the “religious right” and the role they play in US political life. The promise of a surging “religious left” has recently generated attention, with others arguing that it’s a long anticipated political force that will never materialize. But what if we forget the “religious left” and focus on the “spiritual left” instead? Reframing how we label this disparate group not only better accounts for the complexities of American religious life today, but it also allows us to see clearly how American spiritual beliefs have actively impeded the possibility of an energized and organized left. Spiritual America has focused on being the change for decades, can they now learn how to agitate for the change?

Over the last twenty-five years, as more and more Americans cease affiliating with any particular religion or church, they increasingly identify with an alternative religious sensibility: “spirituality.” Approximately one in five Americans consider themselves “spiritual-but-not-religious.” While the practice of American spirituality is diverse and decentralized, my research shows that there are many common features in its expression, from yoga studios to mindfulness seminars.

It may not surprise you to learn that the spiritual-but-not-religious heavily favor the Democratic Party. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2012 found that Americans who identify as spiritual-but-not-religious are twice as likely to lean Democratic as they are to lean Republican (62% to 31%). But what kind of political activism does spirituality promote?

The culture of American spirituality tends to emphasize civic action through emotional self-development. Spiritual practitioners argue that we can best change the world through changing ourselves. If we properly govern our own emotional responses, lowering negative emotion while cultivating positive emotion we make our country a better place, one interpersonal interaction at a time. And so, when Yoga Journal asked 10 yogis to offer reflections on the presidential election results, it’s not surprising that they emphasized staying calm and spreading love, as opposed to say, getting angry and running for local office.

Spiritual Americans aren’t blind or uncaring about the problems in the world. But they believe that an important way, and perhaps even the most effective way, to contribute to a better world is through their own spiritual development. Spiritual Americans believe their personal, seemingly highly constrained actions (for example, how grateful they feel) have wide-reaching ramifications, impacting their personal relationships, communities, and indeed the universe. They are thinking globally, acting locally. But they act hyper-locally, on the self. They seek to reshape the world through reshaping their selves.

In The Politics of Authenticity: Christianity, Liberalism, and the New Left in America, Doug Rossinow traces the rise and ultimate fall of the New Left from the late 1940s through the early 1970s. In time, in the face of disappointments generated by the limitations of their political activities, the New Left became disillusioned with the promise of revolution as members began to adopt a more incremental approach to social change. He writes that “over time the radicals’ focus shifted away from identifying and demanding the conditions that would qualify the United States as a social democracy and towards attempts at creating democratic and authentic experiences in their own lives.” That is, in the wake of political and social disappointments, activists of the New Left decided the best course of action was to Be the Change they wished to see in the world. Those inclinations still exist today.

Political organizing through ordinary channels is never easy or simple and may not solve all problems. Spirituality is, in part, an expression of dissatisfaction with the political process. It’s not necessarily a retreat from our responsibility for others, so much as it is an alternative strategy for effecting change. In equating close attention to the self with doing for others spirituality offers a field of action in a world in which positive social action sometimes feels impossibly stymied. After all, the politicians are cozy with the bankers; the revolutionaries aren’t nice and often succumb to internecine arguments; and big movements don’t work as well as little movements. So why not be an activist in the smallest arena of all: the self?

The spiritual left has spent decades retreating from overt political activism. Given the unfolding of the Trump agenda, it’s fair to ask whether the stakes have been raised for Spiritual America. What would a political activism of the spiritual left look like? What would happen if Spiritual America reexamined their assumptions about how change happens and reevaluated their strategy for bringing the outside world into alignment with their own inner vision of a just politics?

There’s no record of Gandhi ever having said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” But he did leave a pretty clear record of public protest, activism, and engagement in the politics of dissent. Will Spiritual America follow in his footsteps?


  • Aquifer

    “It may not surprise you to learn that the spiritual-but-not-religious heavily favor the Democratic Party. …..

    Not just how “spiritual” is that?

  • One of the great paradoxes of USian sociology — indeed, one of the ultimate proofs of the terrible reality of the United States as Moron Nation — is the number of people who on the one hand claim to be “spiritual” and (as the Pew data shows) also claim to favor the Democratic (sic) Party but, on the other hand (and as if in answer to a question the Pew pollsters obviously dare not ask), regard Ayn Rand as an ultimate role model.

    A mostly retired journalist with a very broad circle of acquaintances, I have encountered this paradox many more times than I can count — probably initially when I was supplementing my newspaper income by teaching basic photography at Western Washington University’s Center for Urban Studies in Seattle c. 1975-1978. Though all of my students would have defined themselves as “humanitarians,” most of them, all female, regarded Rand as an unrecognized feminist heroine, a viewpoint that became obvious in obligatory student-teacher conferences, but which — unfortunately — I did not think to pursue in depth.

    ( A social-documentary photographer myself — though I nominally define myself as a writer, throughout most of my life I ran parallel but separate resumes as a writer and photographer — the focus of my photography classes was always on recording the human condition, whether as a personal statement [in the sense of keeping a visual journal], or for more formal purposes [as in the context of sociological research].)

    The significance of this paradox — if indeed it is as widespread as I suspect it is — is that it reveals the apolitical nature of USian spirituality to be not just a matter of preference but of methodically conditioned inability. Rand was elevated to the top of high school required-reading lists at the same time the teaching of civics and history was abolished in compliance with the Powell Memo (for which Google), so that for the generations who were graduated from USian high schools after about 1975 (and certainly after about 1980), Rand and her fictionalizations of Hitler’s Mein Kampf (and that is precisely what they are), provided most USians their only political education. But Rand had become popular long before that, note again her influence amongst my students c. 1975 and beyond.

    In fact it was only those (very few) students who had been exposed to definitively socialist indoctrination — whether through feminism or involvement with groups like the Communist Party (CPUSA), the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), Seattle’s Freedom Socialist Party and/or anti-war organizations like Youth Against War and Fascism (YAWF) etc. — who seemed immune to Rand’s malevolence

    While my sample is of course informal, it extends over six decades and two coastal regions including New York City; and the admiration of Rand was everywhere a definitive quality amongst those who identify themselves as “New Agers.”

    Thus were the Pew pollsters to ask the proper questions — and I
    offer this as an urgent suggestion with the greatest respect for their integrity and competence — I believe they would find in the USian penchant for apolitical spirituality nothing more than a hybrid of induced political ignorance bolstered by Rand’s advocacy of infinite selfishness rationalized by the “New Age” Big Lie that such selfishness is definitively beneficial to humanity. Which — as far as I am concerned — is merely a euphemistic version of living by the Ayn Rand credo that moral imbecility is the apex of human consciousness. In other words, the typically USian brand of “leftist spirituality” is at the very least a contradiction in terms and is more likely an elaborately self-protective Big Lie — yet another manifestation of the consummate dishonesty that is the core element of Moron Nation.

    Apropos the distinction between “spiritual” and “religious,” I am of course aware of the enormously valuable humanitarian work done by the Catholic and Orthodox churches, just as I am aware of how it is so often self-nullified by the genuinely savage misogyny that underlies all Abrahamic doctrine whether Jewish, Christian or Islamic.

    But there is one group on the USian Left whose spirituality is solidly grounded both in humanitarianism and environmentalism, is expressed by activism and includes vehement denunciation of Rand as a traitor not only to her gender but to all humanitarian aspirations. These are the only politically active “spiritual” people I have encountered: avowed pagans for whom the Red Star of socialist revolution is but a variant of the pentagram of the Great Goddess and for whom the hammer and sickle is as much a symbol of the god (as in the Hammer of Thor) and the Grain Mother and her lunar wisdom as it is of the power of the people — a symbolic (and symbiotic) connection that no doubt strikes bottomless terror amongst the more educated Capitalists, as indeed it should. And it is the fledgling existence of such a futuristic ethos that offers us the one tiny flicker of hope our species may somehow survive its present-day impasse.

  • BeUtahful

    The Left can powerfully be the change with their consumer choices. Go solar,
    Only drive all electric cars, divest from the big banks, for everything you do, there’s a green Choice that’s good for you and our environment. Google green choices for more ideas and info. Be the change! It’s a spiritual experience

  • rgaura

    This discussion could be expanded and made more meaningful by addressing culture and media. I recommend the work of Morris Berman and John Michael Greer in that regard. I teach and advocate meditation and other spiritual practices as a way of deeply connecting with one´s own highest humanity (dare I say divinity) and liberating oneself. My experience is that living in service to others creates the most joyful daily experience, and that ethical living creates clarity of perception. Loren is correct that the philosophy of being out for oneself is personally and culturally destructive. We are social beings, inextricably interconnected with all beings. Every thought, act, or word of love goes out into the world and creates our reality, our culture. We have a direct line to truth, higher reality and divine creative energy. Turning away from the media, and other purveyors of false and harmful ideas is essential to liberation. In the process, one may withdraw to a degree, but eventually one becomes a more effective actor in the world. Oh, and fuck the democrats!

  • Curtis Bell

    I can’t imagine why this young woman is not going to a Left mainline church.The church my wife attends had a reading by Asiata Shakir and has a city wide Beloved Community group that is taking care of the vulnerable. Another group feeds the homeless and another group stands up for immigrant rights. My own church has a Peace Group that over the years has done tremendous work in our city. Our mainline churches have changed big time over the years. She should try it. Mainline churches are a powerful force for change in our society.

  • DHFabian

    There has always been a “spiritual left” in the US, to my knowledge. Those on the spiritual left are not a homogeneous group. In the US, a good portion of this is the Christian left. Who are they? It’s really pretty basic, and not related to any “New Age” practices — no products to buy, no expensive seminars or retreats to attend. The ideology of the Christian left is based on Christ’s teachings — the call to work for peace, aid the poor, developing empathy and compassion.

  • DHFabian

    No, actually, the (open) Ayn Randians are Republicans. Paul Ryan, for example, is a proud Ayn Rand devotee. I haven’t read Ayn Rand, but as I understand it, she advocated a solidly sociopathic ideology — focused exclusively on materially benefiting oneself, with no moral responsibility toward others.

    Democrats began leaning to the right in the 1980s, with the Reagan Democrats. In the 1990s, they moved further to the right to merge with the Clinton “New Democrats,” who marketed the neoliberal agenda to the beat of a rock and roll song. Liberals embraced middle class elitism, and in the process, deeply divided those who are not on the right wing.

    Thank you for mentioning the role of the church when it comes to our poverty crisis. Christ was clear about our responsibilities to aid the poor. I can’t speak for the Catholic Church, but the Orthodox church has been doing what it can to help the poor (including quiet advocacy). Contrary to public perception, many congregations are poor, so limited in what help they can give. I haven’t personally come across misogyny in church. It’s remembered that many of Christ’s active followers were women — a truly radical thing in that time and place. Those women appear to have been regarded and treated as equals, and that was considered shocking in the culture of that time.

  • DHFabian

    Agree. The religious community played a powerful role in the movements for civil and human rights of the 1960s. Rev. Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign resulted in tremendously beneficial changes, not only for the poor (all races), but for all of the working class, the “masses.” It’s amazing, just how much the Poor People’s Campaign has been disappeared from contemporary accounts of that era.

    We currently have a confused and confusing era, and there seems to be a big gap between the left as portrayed in liberal media, and the left who are out in the broader community. We have the absurdity of a dominant (media) “left” who, by promoting middle class elitism, are giving powerful support to our (now quite vicious) capitalist system. As Bill Clinton explained, our greatest duty is to “get up every morning, work hard, and play by all the rules.” That’s just the way things are.

  • DHFabian

    That hardest part is to get Christians to ALSO advocate for restoring basic human rights (UN’s UDHR) to our poor. We know that not everyone is able to work (health, etc.) and that there aren’t jobs for all. People can’t survive on just another decade of occasional calls for job creation. A large percentage of the poor do not live in cities, and often have no access to even a church meal. Out here, we have very poor people living (hiding out) in old abandoned barns and dumped RVs.

    Poverty isn’t about a collection of lazy people seeking handouts. It is about a grossly failed deregulated capitalist system, a corporate state in which humans are mere labor units to be discarded when not of use.

  • DHFabian

    I’m not so sure that the focus on developing oneself to the exclusion pf actually doing something (advocating for/aiding those in need) is the best course. To put it another way, Jesus said that unless faith is put into action, it’s pretty meaningless. One must actively live spirituality/faith, via our treatment of others, developing empathy and compassion.

  • DHFabian

    The spiritual left aren’t very materialistic. The ideas about “environmentally friendly” consumer choices and investments are pretty low on the list of priorities. Much has changed since Reagan, and for a much of today’s population, consumer choices are based on need and cost. I can only speak for the Christian left, and this is about minimizing materialism and focusing on the survival of humans and other living things, as Jesus taught. They’re more inclined to walk or bike than drive, aren’t big consumers or investors, etc.

  • BeUtahful

    Well, they can rally their apartment building owner to put solar panels up! They still consume, maybe chose more plants to eat and less animals, reusable bags instead of plastic or paper and so one. Every little bit helps and counts toward all of our salvation from GLOBAL WARMING and other livable climate destroyers.

  • Either you misunderstand or I put insufficient stress on the word “paradox.” Yes of course there are the (predictable) Republican devotees of Ayn Rand, of whom, as you say, Paul Ryan is exemplary. But these are not people of whom I speak. Those on whom my comments focused are the infinity of self-defined “New Agers” I have met who — though they ultimately disdain politics (and damn those of us who are politically active as “immature souls”) — nevertheless vote for Democratic (sic) Party candidates (when they bother to vote at all) yet simultaneously express strong personal admiration for Ayn Rand.

    It is, as I said, a paradox. But I have encountered it enough times in enough places to believe the Pew-polling should attempt to document and explore it, not the least because I suspect the uniquely moronic USian hybrid of Ayn Rand selfishness with, say, Zen or Yogic mindfulness explains why the so-called spiritual “Left” is so apolitical — or more accurately, not just apolitical but avowedly anti-political..

    Indeed, to become political from such a perspective would immediately expose its contradictions and therefore at the very least demand genuine thought — an activity the vast majority of Moron Nation has been conditioned to avoid at any and all costs.

  • Jon

    And don’t forget the good work of Rabbi Michael Lerner who wrote “The Left Hand of God” (haven’t read it), is the leader of the Network Spiritual Progessives, and edits the magazine “Tikkun, ” devoted to the kinds of issues discussed here.

  • Jon

    “(media) “left” who, by promoting middle class elitism, are giving powerful support to our (now quite vicious) capitalist system.”

    Then, by definition,they are not LEFT (empowerment of the working class, including those currently without a means of support, Fabian,classically meaning all those who have nothing to sell but their labor.)

  • Jon

    Indeed, “reforming” the Democratic (sic) Party is to dance with a corpse.

  • Aquifer

    Are you familiar with Cheri Honkala’s Poor Peoples’ Campaign in Phila.? She has been at it for years – she was the GP VP candidate in ’12 and ran this year as a Green for State Rep for the 197th district in PA – you oughta read up on her – an interesting gutsy woman ….

  • Aquifer

    As has been pointed out in a number of posts here – that is not “the hardest part” – the hardest part, it seems to me, is to get the Left to stop trashing religion with such a broad brush ….

  • Aquifer

    (S)he never said to “the exclusion of actually doing something” …

  • Aquifer

    The best thing one can do is “consume” as little as possible, no matter what color it is ….

  • Aquifer

    True ….