Spirituality & politics, oh my!

Leigh E. Schmidt, professor of religion at Princeton University, has an essay in The Wilson Quarterly based on his book “Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality.”

He begins by cataloguing the criticisms against “spirituality,” which mostly take the form of concerns that it will displace traditional Christianity and its attendant values and rituals with a banal, solipsistic pseudo-religion. Than, a few paragraphs later, Schmidt introduces his main thesis:

All this criticism of the “new spirituality” has obscured and diminished what is, in fact, an important American tradition, one in which spiritual journeying has long been joined to social and political progressivism.

And a little later:

This liberal reimagining of the interior life and its fruits had sweeping and enduring effects on American religious life, often for the good. It created a more open and expansive sense of religious identity; it challenged American Christian claims to supremacy and exclusivity; and it promoted an “ethical mysticism.”

It’s a good article, well worth reading for the history alone if you are interested in this sort of thing. But it overlooks two things. First, it misses an obvious point: insofar that “spirituality” has been consciously tethered to progressive social values, then, of course, it’s going to upset conservatives. And that’s not just about replacing “The Old Rugged Cross” with “Kumbaya.” It’s also about who gets to claim the high moral ground during political arguments.

Second, Schmidt omits the intriguing question of how the left’s skepticism about spirituality has been shaped by socialism. Schmidt quotes, for instance, Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine:

“The liberal world,” he claims, “has developed such knee-jerk hostility to religion” that it has “marginalized those many people on the left who actually do have spiritual yearnings.”

Yeah, well, no surprise there. One of socialisms tenets is imposed secularism, right? Opiate of the masses, etc. etc.

We also have this summary of leftist concerns about spirituality:

Observers on the left are no less prone to alarm [than those on the right]. One pair of such commentators warned recently that the rebranding of religion as “spirituality” is part of corporate capitalism’s “silent takeover” of the interior life, the sly mar­keting of a private, consumerist faith in the service of global enterprise.

In other words, the difficulty isn’t spirituality per se, it’s the spectacular commercial success of some of its popularizers and their corporate backers. Becoming rich on the backs of the working class . . .

I personally think that “spirituality” (I put it in quotes again, here, because I don’t really like that term in this usage) gives people a way to embrace the heart of a religion without being tethered to a literal reading of scripture, and as such, it is a good thing. But unless the left resolves the issue of its ties to socialism, I don’t think it can reliably find political recruits within the ranks of any religious movement, traditional or progressive. There may have been a time that spirituality and liberal politics could pair more or less effortlessly. But no more.

[tags] spirituality, politics [/tags]

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