Michael Lerner is a radical social activist. He calls himself a rabbi, although the validity of his ordination is very much in dispute. Now, Lerner has much to say about the far right, but he says it from a far left perspective. As a result, the reader learns much more about the far left than the far right. Indeed, one sees how little the far left understands the far right.
Lerner has a monolithic view of the far right. The only distinction he draws is between the political Right and the Religious Right. He believes these two factions use each other, which is true. Politics is the art of coalition building. But he regards this coalition as a merely cynical and unholy alliance.
In this book his basic contention is that a secular Democratic party cannot be a national party, for 90 percent of the electorate is religious in one degree or another. He is hoping to unite the Religious Left with the political Left.
He believes that many voters are attracted to the GOP because they are attracted to the social values of the Religious Right.
At the same time, he also believes that many “values voters” are not dogmatically committed to conservative Christian theology, and it would be possible to peel away a certain percentage if the political Left allowed the Religious Left to shape the party platform by using his syncretistic, New Age spirituality to underwrite a Green party ideology.
And it’s true that voters are drawn to the GOP for a variety of reasons. Indeed, the reasons are far more various than Lerner allows. Some are drawn to the GOP because they are foreign policy hawks. Some are drawn because they are businessmen who favor free trade, deregulation, and lower corporate taxation. Some are drawn because they are libertarians, for whom the best government is the least government. Some are drawn because they are socially conservative “single-issue” voters.
In some cases, these factions overlap. In other cases, they peacefully coexist in a state of tension. But the fault lines are there.
Lerner writes as though conservatism generally advocates big government along with an expansive foreign policy. But conservatism typically supports limited government, with an emphasis on local control. Likewise, many conservatives oppose Wilsonian militarism.
Finally, you also have theonomic Christians who operate with a social blueprint. Instead of having an ad hoc, piecemeal position, they work from within a complete value system, grounded in God’s law and promise.
“Theocracy” is the scarecrow that Lerner puts on display to anger, terrify, and mobilize his readers. Yet Lerner’s own social vision is a secular parody of theocracy.
Although he demonizes “theocracy,” he has no grasp of what it really is. For him, theocracy is synonymous with the Religious Right, which he accuses of “idolatry,” “hypocrisy” (105, 188), “triumphalism” (21), “moral relativism” (219), “social Darwinism” (97), and “hostility” towards science (130). A Bible-based theocracy is a recipe for limited government since the scope of the state is limited to the scope of the law, which is prior to the state.
Likewise, a Bible-based theocracy doesn’t force unbelievers to live like believers. Where unbelievers are concerned, the law is primarily proscriptive rather than prescriptive in force. Certain conduct is forbidden rather than commanded.
One of the ironies of liberal ideology is that liberals deny the Fall of Adam. And yet they act as if we live in a fallen world. They are extremely unhappy with the state of the world. They measure the world by some utopian yardstick.
This is because liberalism is a Judeo-Christian heresy. It’s no coincidence that Lerner is a Jewish Marxist, for Marx was a renegade Jew. What is Marxism if not a politicized and secularized version of messianism? Likewise, so much of socialism goes back to liberal Victorian Christianity.
Because of this, liberalism fosters a culture of complaint. Not only is a liberal unhappy with the state of the world, he is angry. He lives in a perpetual state of rage. He’s unhappy when other people are happy, for they should be angry, too!
According to Lerner, the right wing is motivated by the fear that unless we dominate others, they will dominate us (78). This is, of course, a conspiratorial view of the right wing, as if we can’t sleep at night for fear of our enemies. We spend all our time plotting a grand counteroffensive.
In fact, one reason that it’s difficult to mobilize conservative voters is because many conservatives are naturally apolitical. They are easily satisfied with a certain social life, consisting in friends and family, church, work, and sports.
It is only with great reluctance that, like Marshall Kane in High Noon, they strap on their six-shooter and enter the political fray to defend their way of life.
By contrast, it is the liberal who is forever casting about for some vicarious new cause to live for, some new social mascot to adopt and patronize.
Due to this culture of complaint, liberalism can turn on itself and devour its young. In chapter 7, Lerner charts the cannibalistic implosion of the Left. The young turned on the old. Black activists turned on white activists. Feminists turned on liberal men. Lesbian feminists turned on straight feminists. White-collar activists turned on blue-collar workers. The New Left rebelled against the religious roots of the social gospel. Lerner himself goes on to attack John Kerry (120–121), Jimmy Carter, and George McGovern (190–193).
Compare this attitude with Christianity, which fosters a culture of gratitude. The Christian life is a life of perpetual thanksgiving.
People have simple emotional needs. It doesn’t take much to make them happy. They are content with a good family, a few good friends, a good job, and recreation.
You’d never know it from reading Lerner’s book, but this is a remarkable time to be alive. Thanks to democracy, capitalism, and technology, many people are better off than at any other time in history.
Some realize there’s more to life than that. They fill the void, not by doing more things along this same horizontal plane, but by recovering the vertical dimension: by discovering their true origin and destiny in the Christian faith.
True to its character as a Judeo-Christian heresy, liberalism is also out to redeem the world. This makes the liberal a professional busybody. Everyone’s business is his business. Politics is all. The public square swallows the private sphere.
You can see the religious roots of liberalism in another respect. On the one hand, Lerner repudiates “patriarchal and hierarchical visions of God” (19). On the other hand, it’s clear in the course of the book that all he actually does is to transfer this religious vision to the purely politicized vision of a patriarchal and hierarchical government.
His social vision is founded on the principle that we are all made in God’s image. But that has reference to the God of the Bible. Lifted out of context, in the image of what sort of God does a radical pluralist and syncretist like Lerner believe we are made?
Religious pluralism can only be pluralistic by endorsing an indefinable, dogma-free version of God. But that presents no clear-cut alternative to the Religious Right.
There is layer upon layer of error in Lerner’s economic analysis. He offers no serious discussion of the creation of wealth or sources of poverty. There are several reasons for this omission.
People may be poor because they make imprudent lifestyle choices, or because their country lacks the natural resources to support a large population, or because of widespread corruption.
But Lerner can’t allow himself to state the obvious since his whole diagnosis is hinged on victimology. Were he to point out, for example, that single motherhood and out-of-wedlock birth is a recipe for penury, he’d burn a key constituency. So he has to blame it on the “system” instead of imprudent lifestyle choices.
His solution to economic inequality is income redistribution in the form of universal housing (222); universal health care (222, 307); free college tuition (234); full, state-subsidized employment (222); as well as a Global Marshall Plan (344). Yet this is unrealistic in several respects. The rich can afford to lobby for legislation favorable to the concentration and accumulation of personal wealth. Failing that, the rich can afford to live wherever they please. If one country enacts a soak-the-rich tax code, the rich will simply emigrate, taking their money and their jobs elsewhere.
More fundamentally, a nanny state is expensive to maintain. It feeds others by first feeding itself. It discourages the creation of wealth by penalizing the entrepreneurial spirit while rewarding the slothful. It feeds itself by taking from others.
Underlying this incoherence is Lerner’s love-hate relationship with wealth and prosperity. Lerner loves the poor because they’re poor and hates the rich because they’re rich. But in that event, what’s the point of enriching the poor or impoverishing the rich? If everyone were rich, he’d hate everyone.
Perhaps the most basic problem of all is that Lerner lacks a proper doctrine of creation. He constantly inveighs against people “using” other people. He is against a “me-first” attitude.
But to be a creature is to be dependent. Unlike God, we do have needs. Emotional, material, and spiritual needs. As such, we do “use” other people to satisfy our needs. This is an essential feature of our creatureliness, of our dependence on others.
There is nothing intrinsically evil about that. Instead of demonizing this need, what is necessary is to distinguish between the natural, godly “use” of one another and genuine exploitation.
Another point at which he panders to his constituency is in his support of abortion. How is this consistent with his compassionate rhetoric about the weak?
But Lerner is cynical, too. If he took a pro-life position, he would instantly forfeit the support of the political Left. So he’s no better than Kerry.
He tries to counter this glaring inconsistency by accusing the Religious Right of hypocrisy for opposing abortion and euthanasia while supporting militarism and capital punishment (187–188). But this is sophistical, for it disregards the elementary distinction between innocence and guilt.
Every heresy is a half-truth. Therein lies the appeal of liberalism. And therein lies its clay-footed failure, for the contaminants of falsehood falsify the remnants of truth.
- Stephen Hays
Stephen Hays doubled-majored in history and classics at Seattle Pacific University and is currently both a student and teacher's assistant at Reformed Theological Seminary. He resides in Charleston, SC.