Rabbi talks about religion, politics

Lee VandenBusch

Rabbi Michael Lerner spoke Thursday night at Ted Mann Concert Hall in a lecture that, among other things, examined the effect religion has on politics in America.

Lerner, a well-known political activist and progressive Jewish leader, spoke to a few dozen attendees about the conservative movement’s success in addressing religion in America.

Lerner argued that for nearly 30 years, America has been in a “spiritual crisis” and conservatives have been more adept at taking advantage of it.

“The right addressed it and the left didn’t know what it was,” Lerner said.

He said for people who consider themselves religious, it strongly affects the way they vote.

“In the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections there was a 20 percent gulf in religious people who voted for Republicans (versus those) who voted for Democrats,” he said.

According to Voter News Service exit polls from 2000, 63 percent of voters who said they attended religious services more than once a week voted for President George W. Bush, compared to 36 percent who voted for Al Gore.

Lerner, who was once called “one of the most dangerous criminals in America” by former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, has a long history of political activism.

Lerner was a founding member of the anti-war Seattle Liberation Front in the late ’60s. He was also a member of a group of anti-war activists put on trial in Washington State, who later became collectively known as the “Seattle Seven.”

Lerner said part of the left’s problem was a feeling of “intellectual superiority” over those with religious beliefs. They were not, he argued, always very accepting of people with religious beliefs.

Part-time Hebrew student Matt Levitt, one of the few students who attended the event Thursday, said he agreed with Lerner’s conclusion.

“Historically,” Levitt said, “the left and the Democrats had kind of this arrogance against people of faith.”

Lerner was hopeful this trend was beginning to change, pointing to the most recent elections as an example.

As the lecture continued, Lerner discussed whether religious values, not necessarily religion, have a place in modern society.

Lerner said his group, the Network of Spiritual Progressives, strongly supports the separation of church and state, but also said religious values do have merit in today’s society.

“We’re challenging the religiophobia that exists in many sectors of the liberal and progressive culture,” Lerner said.

Journalism junior Rachel Lawson said she thinks religious values have a place in society, but living a good life shouldn’t be regulated.

“I think it’s something that should be a given, it shouldn’t have to be told to you.” Lawson said. “I think it walks kind of a fine line.”

Lerner discussed what he called a “new Marshall Plan.” It calls for 5 percent of the United States’ annual gross domestic product to help end poverty around the world, but Lerner didn’t go further into detail.

Lerner also argued that part of the cause of the spiritual crisis in America was that people weren’t finding meaning in their lives, particularly in the workplace.

Workers are often valued by how much money they earn for a company, Lerner said, but should instead be valued by the quality of their work.

Lawson said she didn’t know how feasible Lerner’s plans are.

“It just sounded more like theories. It’s something that could happen, I guess,” Lawson said.

Levitt said he liked Lerner’s ideas.

“Often the left gets accused of just being a party of opposition and critique. This is a real concrete example of viable and positive alternative,” Levitt said.