Lack of vision in presenting spiritual side of liberalism

July 14, 2005|By Andrew Bard Schmookler

EVEN IF ONE believes, as I do, that the urgent moral danger to America has arisen from the conservative side of the political divide, it's important to ask how one's own side may have contributed to the present crisis.

Take, for example, the failure of American liberalism to present its message in a way that resonates at a deep level.

For many Americans, it's not enough that the trains run on time, that the bureaucracies administer their programs, that America just be an address at which they live their private lives. They want to be part of a country that has a deeper meaning. They want to vote for leaders that give them a vision of national purpose that touches their moral and spiritual beliefs.

But it's been a while since America's liberal leaders have spoken from or to such soulful places. The spiritual shallowness of the liberal message is exemplified by Sen. John Kerry's lame litany, "I have a plan." A good plan, certainly, is a good thing. But having a plan is not the same thing as having a vision. Or a mission.

It's not that liberalism stands for nothing capable of stirring our passions for high purpose.

Consider the protection of the environment. If one reads how a John Muir described the radiant beauty of the earth, it becomes clear how for us human beings - having become so destructive a bull in this planet's china shop - it can be a holy a mission to clean up our act, to preserve this beautiful, living planet for future generations.

The earth is our mother. And the other creatures are our cousins. Are there not "family" values of the loftiest kind involved in protecting the biosphere that sustains such a rich web of life, including our own?

That liberalism can go beyond merely formulating sensible policy to give voice also to a spiritual dimension goes likewise for providing decent health care and ensuring genuinely equal opportunity for all our children. Likewise for upholding the constitutional system of checks and balances that was brought forth on this continent as a virtual historical miracle.

But if liberalism has failed to present this kind stirring vision, perhaps it's because the world view of too much of American liberalism has lost touch with the sense of the sacred - with what's sacred about the liberty in liberalism, about the love of humanity at the heart of humanitarianism, about the care for all life that drives environmentalism, about the devotion to the greater good that motivates progressive economics.

And so Americans, finding no spiritual vision on the left, have become vulnerable to a spiritual con job from the right.

If liberals offer no high purpose for America's leadership in the world, many will opt for a phony righteousness about smiting evildoers across the globe. If liberals convey no sense of holy purpose about taking care of America's children, many will buy into a phony "culture of life" that seems concerned with life only between conception and birth. If liberals have forgotten the spiritual significance of the liberty in which America was conceived, many Americans will salute a commander in chief who starts wars in the name of freedom even as he undermines the basis of freedom here at home.

If American liberals are going to lead America back toward a true righteousness, they've got a lot of work to do.

And the job is not just about packaging the message to give more sizzle to the steak. America has had enough of bogus, Madison Avenue posturing by politicians in the spiritual realm. To truly help America heal from its present spiritual disease, liberals are going to have to dig down deeper into their souls to find the place from which the real thing comes.

It's time, in other words, for liberalism to be born again.

Andrew Bard Schmookler is the author of Debating the Good Society: A Quest to Bridge America's Moral Divide. He lives in Albuquerque, N.M.

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