Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun
Interview with Martin
TIKKUN: What’s the appropriate boundary between religion
and politics? Here’s why I’m asking: We’re trying to
create a network of spiritual progressives—essentially, an
interfaith spiritual Left. Some liberal colleagues object and
say, "Can’t you see what the Right is doing? They’re pushing
religion into the public sphere. The only appropriate response
is to make sure that religion has no place in it."
MM: There’s a wonderful Dutch book titled Everything
is Political, But Not Everything is Politics. When religions
convert themselves into nothing but political forces, in the
perception of the larger republic, they hurt religion and they
hurt the republic. But, you cannot separate religion and
politics in a neat way. In a political world—and there is no
other world—not to be political is political. That is, if you
are silent, if you create a spiritual, political vacuum, it will
be filled. Therefore you are voting by not speaking. So, there’s
no place to hide.
We have to define what a political world is. Francis Crick
says that in a totalitarian order, you don’t have politics.
Politics involves that you can make a difference. You can’t do
that under tyranny, so you have to have a republic. If you have
that, your job is to try to influence that order, and you’re
going to use whatever instrumentalities you have for it. To ask
profoundly religious people to leave at home, and out of
politics, that which shaped them would be very artificial. It
can’t be done. What you have to do is ask them, "Will you be in
politics, or are you trying to become the new, not totalitarian,
but totalist … theocracy," for example.
Paul Ricoeur once said that history’s dirty secret is
violence. The best instrument you have against it is the human
invention of politics, which assures that nobody gets
everything. But through give and take, through rhetoric, through
lobbying, and through fundraising, you get some measure of human
good. This gets complex in our republic when some group aspires
to run the whole show, which is what we’re seeing right now.
The current danger is that they’re not trying to get their
share of politics, they’re trying to dominate by using the
sacred book, which changes the rules of the game and goes beyond
the Constitution. You are to be influenced by the sacred book,
but you can’t impose that reading on others.
TIKKUN: Some people in the Religious Right would
respond by saying, "Well that’s what’s been happening with the
secularists for the past fifty years. They’ve been imposing
their views on the rest of us." Though I don’t agree, I think we
have to acknowledge their arguments.
MM: I tell those Religious-Rightists, "if that’s your
perception, fight back against the secularists, because that
would be their version of religion and a lot of people have
discerned that." But, what they’re doing in the fight against
the secular is that they’re trying to change the rules of the
game in which the secular is one of the fighters among all the
other forces. The Religious Right is trying to say that
secularism dominates us. I think their big plot is to say
America is all secular.
Our public square is not naked; it’s festooned with religion.
It’s just that there are about fifty square yards in this city
that shouldn’t have a privileged religious symbol on them. You
have 30,000 lawns in a town where you can put Mary and Jesus and
a Menorah and all the rest. We’re not a secular society. They’re
trying to say that we are because a lot of people in
universities and in the media feel otherwise.
TIKKUN: Well, they use as an example that in our society
evolution is taught in schools and non-evolution positions are
not allowed to be taught in school.
MM: I think non-evolution should be taught in the school,
just not as science.
TIKKUN: The theory of evolution is weak science, but it’s
nevertheless an attempt to be science.
MM: I’d be very happy if they would teach the
Genesis story. But then they better know that they have to teach
the Navajo creation myth about the Grand Canyon, too.
TIKKUN: They’d respond by saying, "How can liberals
justify a public education system in which any topic in the
world can be taught, but religion can’t be taught? That is,
taught about, not taught as advocacy, but taught as part of the
human enterprise that has been an integral part of the
development of human consciousness."
MM: Well, here’s where I fight the liberals, because
they’re being very stupid about human motivation and human
understanding. Teaching about religion is perfectly legal. How
would we understand a speech of Abraham Lincoln if you didn’t
know religion? So, it should be taught. In our five volume
fundamentalist study (The Fundamentalist Project), we kept
saying we really got caught off-guard, because Americans didn’t
know what religion was and they didn’t know how it functioned.
They didn’t know its limits and they didn’t know how to counter
What you have to be careful of is the rules of the modern
world: "science is science, and religion is religion." For
example, my kids went to a regular public high school. They had
a wonderful Madrigals group and at Christmas they sang to Mozart
and Bach with Christian words, and they sang Chanukah songs, and
would throw in a Buddhist chant if they wanted. The point was,
it was made very clear in the program: this is performance, not
worship. If somebody’s sitting there who wants to make worship
out of it, that’s their business.
TIKKUN: Then liberals have to rethink the way they’ve set
up the schools, because the vast majority of the schools in this
country teach nothing about religion.
MM: I know, but a lot of us have been working for years
to try to change that. One of the things that holds us back is
not only liberals who are tone-deaf to religion, but the far
Right, who want their religion taught as the truth about life.
They have a real passion for it, but don’t want the Navajo
creation story. They don’t want you to know about Hinduism.
TIKKUN: Their position has some plausibility even in the
eyes of some not-far-right Americans because most public schools
don’t teach the Navajo creation story—or anybody else’s stories.
They teach nothing, so the Religious Right is able to say,
"Look, they’re teaching secularism, because they will not allow
any of the religious stories to be told."
MM: Yes, that is an important point. It has been said,
"Don’t attribute to malice what you can attribute to lethargy."
And here I would say, "Don’t attribute this failure to teach
religion to a liberal crack down on religion when we’re often
only dealing with ignorance." You simply remind a school board,
"Here are statements from the courts that tell us that teaching
about religion is legal. Here’s the department of education
statement encouraging it. Let’s get it going—here are textbooks
ready to go." When my kids were done with school, they knew why
Hindus are Hindus. I don’t know anybody who went to the school
that turned Hindu because they learned what Hindus were. But
they learned more about what humans were.
TIKKUN: Liberal and left forces in this country, fearing
the attempt by the Right to take over the public sphere, are, if
anything, more rigid in trying to keep the teaching of religions
out of the public schools.
MM: Well, number one: they won’t win. Number two: they’re
not following the legal option. Number three: they’re going to
leave a vacuum that these right-wing religious forces will fill.
When you get a typical school board of seven people, and you’re
a town of let’s say ten thousand—eight thousand of whom are
nominally Judeo and Christian—and you get in a fight over this,
the school board’s going to cower. They’re going to say, "All
right, we’ve got to have it all there," and you’re going to have
the wrong version of it there. So I think a religious Left can
perform a real service by presenting a better and balanced
version of teaching the world’s religions.
TIKKUN: So, from your standpoint, spiritual progressives
should be also calling for the teaching of religion in schools.
MM: I’ve written about it for a long time. Let’s not just
blame [this situation] on aggressive secularists. Let’s notice
that very often apathy, indifference, and ignorance is on the
local level, where people don’t care that much about it, because
they’re interested in only having their own religion taught.
TIKKUN: You said that religion is religion and
science is science. But some religious people respond this way:
You’re telling us that science is on a higher or more solid
intellectual grounding than religion. Isn’t science based on
some theory that assumes that which is real is that which is
observable by empirical observation and can be confirmed through
repeated experimentation? What is the foundation of that belief,
except a belief system?
MM: Yes, it is a belief system. There’s no way to be in
the world without a belief system. The issue is what goes with
the belief system. If somebody is teaching out of evolutionary
studies that the consequence of the evolutionary process is that
evolution is the be all and end all of existence, and they
surround that with ceremonial reinforcement and metaphysical
sanctions, then it’s evolution being taught as religion.
Teilhard de Chardin, the great Jesuit, fused evolutionary
science with religion into explicitly Jesuit, mystical forms of
great beauty, but it didn’t belong in a science classroom.
TIKKUN: Again, to represent the religious critics, they
might say "Now look, the theory of evolution talks about various
stages in the evolutionary process but it has no account of what
the agent of change is, of what really causes the change."
So, how about we come in and say, "We have one possible theory
about what the agency for change is, namely God, or a divine
spirit, or some spiritual aspiration in being or matter." Why
can’t the explanation of change in evolution be a spiritual one?
Why must it only be a scientific discussion?
MM: Well, it can be a spiritual discussion, but it
belongs in a social science or humanities classroom, not in a
laboratory. The difference is, you can someday check out the
scientific search. We may not yet know, but we have a means of
beginning to do it. We’re very critical these days. Evolution
doesn’t get a free ride, because nothing post-Enlightenment gets
a free ride. We all learned to relativize that in
post-modernity, but what makes a claim scientific is that the
instrument is there for checking out further the claims, and
when you can check it out further, it can be and sometimes is
revised. No one has yet shown a way to check out further
religious or spiritual claims to the satisfaction of other
testing agents. God is revealed, you get an experience, you get
into a tradition, a text, a community, but you can’t check it
out. You need to have belief in a particular book to get it.
TIKKUN: What’s your theory about the growth of the
Religious Right in the Seventies and Eighties? What spiritual or
social forces can we refer to in order to account for the
resurgence of religious energy—in a right-wing direction—at this
particular historical moment?
MM: First of all, it is universal or global. In The
Fundamentalism Project, Scott Applebee and I rephrased
something from Harold Isaac’s book Idols of the Tribe:
Around the world there’s a massive, convulsive ingathering of
peoples into their separatenesses, to protect their pride and
power and place from the real or presumed threat of others.
Almost always, this will be done on religious terms, because you
want to use the highest level of ingathering. In other words,
the Enlightenment envisioned that the religion that survived
would have an ecumenical, tolerant, responsive, and open
approach. But instead, what survived was a hard line, a closing
off from other humans.
In a very short period, a lot of formidable, thought-out
rivals of religion collapsed, namely Soviet life. In a year and
a half, the entire Soviet Union imploded. Maoism isn’t believed
in anymore. Whatever is left in China, Cuba, and North Korea is
not believed in—it’s just a matter of power. Sixty years ago
this week, Hitler’s [Germany] met doom. Under Nazism, you had
all these ways of organizing human life with ultimate concerns.
They did everything religion did. They had ceremony,
metaphysics, ritual, and myth.
When you get a vacuum so big that half the human race
suddenly is creedless and free to be what it was, and what we
think it was—after seventy-two years, with rivers of blood and
oceans of ink spent to defend Soviet communism, the day it’s
over we find Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, Latter Day Saints,
Lutherans, Orthodox; every ethnic group is there in
spades—clearly, you can’t put it down formally. It’s a very
profound thing in humans. Religion was an instrument to survive.
It is an instrument again, now that you have freedom to
Secondly, the forces of modernity reach everywhere, into Bin
Laden’s caves and everywhere else, mediated mainly by mass
communications, but also by global economy, by rapid
transportation, etc. They reach everybody, and it means that
your social and personal identity is threatened. Twenty years
ago, Jerry Falwell said that in the Civil Rights era, right-wing
Christians used to say it was sinful for the church to be in
politics. Now it’s sinful not to be, because we used to think we
could keep the world from our door, the way the Amish do, or
Orthodox Jews do. But you can’t. Our kids get MTV and all these
other forces by the time they’re four, five, six years old. So
we have to fight back.
Fighting back is the big thing, and that’s what everybody’s
doing: reacting, counter-acting. Fighting back.
When you do that you’ve got to have heavy ammunition, and
you’re not going to do it in a mild way. I’ve long been
interested in religion and sports. There are no Unitarians or
reform Jews in the National Football League, but there are
plenty of Pentecostals. There are plenty of people who know
God’s on their side and will bash the other guy’s face in God’s
name. When you’re on the front line, you must be sure you’re
really loaded up with pretty heavy stuff. So you have to have an
authoritative book, an authoritative teacher, an authoritative
moment, and that’s the simplifier. There was an old bumper
sticker a few years ago that stated "God said it, I believe it,
that settles it." That’s a very efficient kind of thing.
Beyond that, I would say that liberals and moderates didn’t
stress religious experience. For example, in every little town I
go to in Guatemala or Bolivia, I can walk up and down the street
and there are ten little evangelical or Pentecostal things going
on, and they don’t wait for structure. They just start right in.
They pick you up off the street, they give you an exuberant
experience, you jump up and down. You’ve got experience, and
that’s a very popular thing. I’m going to use an analogy: With
the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, you buy a $70 ticket. But U2
comes to town, and they have $160 tickets and it’s sold out
every night. It has its own drama that pales our own drama. This
is what happens with Pentecostal and exuberant forms of
religion. People are starved, and this gives them an emotional
Now how does this get into politics? Almost all of these
evangelical groups, as Falwell once said, were non-political or
anti-political. When I started writing on these themes in 1956,
through the next twenty years, my own distinction in
Protestantism was between the public and the private. The public
were the liberals, the moderates, and the mainliners; and the
privates were the fundamentalists, the evangelicals, the
Southern Baptists, and the Pentecostals, all of whom said this
world doesn’t count much. The other world is what counts; we
want to save souls. Dwight Moody, the great Chicago founder of
all this stuff, said, "The world is in a flood, God gave me a
lifeboat. ‘Moody, rescue all whom you can.’" Then, in our
country as Dixie became the Sunbelt and people from New England
and the industrial states moved to California, Texas, and places
in between, you had a huge demographic and morale shift
But they carried with them a lot of resentment against those
who had previously shaped the mass culture and had put down
religious people. So we get from many on the Religious Right a
politics of resentment. They were represented in mass media as
hillbillies, holy rollers; they were backwoods,
dribbling-spit-in-their-beards types. So they organized against
the people who put them down. You still see a lot of that. It’s
almost weirdly ironic that these people who now run the country
still see themselves as a beleagured little group, even though
now they have the senate, they’ve got the house, they want the
courts, they’ve got the entertainment industry insofar as its
religious. They’ve got it all. And they still have that
TIKKUN: Its typical nationalist self-victimization.
MM: Right. What happened was that they learned how easy
it was to grab power. So they started grabbing power. In doing
so, they moved from the politics of resentment to a politics of
the will to power. Now will to power in the past meant that
Polish Catholics didn’t like Irish Catholics, that Benedictines
didn’t like Jesuits, that Left didn’t like Right—and there was
no chance for Catholicism or Judaism to run America. The
Presbyterian Church was half Republican, half Democrat. The
Episcopal Church was called the Republican Party of Prayer.
Baptists favored the "socialist" Tennessee Valley Authority and
things like that. There was little aspiration to make this "a
Christian America," or a "Judeo-Christian America," which really
means "a Christian America."
But today, suddenly, you have people who haven’t had power,
who realize how easy it is to get it, and use these instruments
of emotion, experience, organization, and hostility to the
surrounding world, and it doesn’t take long before you have
Jimmy Carter. He had the right religion, but no aspiration to
have his Southern Baptist thing run the country. Things began to
change with Reagan. The senior Bush didn’t do much. Clinton they
resented, but suddenly they have a moment when they have a chief
executive (George W. Bush) being very explicit.
Bush has learned not to be as overt as his backers are—and
want him to be. Confronting the Muslim world, trying to make
friends in Georgia and Russia, he has to be more ample than they
are, and they don’t like that. But Bush is so close to them that
he is their man. I just wrote in The Christian Century that we
don’t have a theocracy, but we have a theocratic impulse there.
The number of people in America who explicitly are non-religious
is very small. You can’t rally enough of them, and when liberals
talk in a language that is tone deaf to religious concerns, they
are just unintentionally helping the Right gain more ground.
My image is very Madisonian—the tenth and fifty-first
Federalist Papers: The security of the republic is in the
diversity and multiplicity of its factions and interests, its
sects. What you do, says Madison, in both of those, is when
somebody in one part of the republic starts a conflagration, the
best check against it becoming a great fire is the activity of
all the other factions and sects.
The way to fight this off is not to sit back and mourn, but
to be up on the front lines. On that front line will be
secularists. Many of my best friends are secularists. I don’t
think we could have pulled off anything over the last fifty
years—the Selma marches, Civil Rights, freedom of the press—if
we didn’t have motivated secular people up front. But, by
themselves, they can’t begin to face off all of these forces.
They need all of the religious help they can get. And that means
that we don’t write off the evangelicals, because of the great
diversity among them. We’d still have the politics of
resentment, but they wouldn’t have the chance they have to be
gaining if we had an effective religious Left.
In Madisonian terms, we’d have all the evangelicals we can
get, all the African-Americans you can get, all the Jews you can
get, every kind of Protestant you can get in a religious Left.
They don’t have to agree on policy. They have to agree on
fighting off the theocratic impulse and resisting those who say
that unless you have our god, our text and our community, you
won’t have virtue.
Micheal Lerner is Editor of Tikkun magazine,
and the author of The Politics of Meaning, and Spirit
Martin E. Marty is Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished
Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity
in the Divinity School. His scholarly research is centered in a
multi-volume work entitled Modern American Religion,
three volumes of which have appeared: The Irony of It All;
The Noise of Conflict; and Under God, Indivisible