The Rise of New Religious Voices to Counter the Religious Right
By: Bishop John Shelby Spong
Wednesday, March 8th, 2006
http://www.dioceseofnewark.org/jsspong/


When religious leaders are heard speaking in the public arena in the United States today, the overwhelming
probability is that they will be conservative evangelical or conservative Roman Catholic leaders. No other effective or
visible religious voices are heard today. That, however, was not the case some forty to fifty years ago. In the 1960’s,
the liberal Protestant voice was so effective that conservative politicians frequently attacked the National Council of
Churches of Christ in America as a ‘communist front’ organization. In the field of civil rights and the quest for justice for
black Americans, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led clergy of all persuasions through the streets of our cities
that changed the face of America. In response to these activities, laws were passed by the Congress and signed by
the president to open schools, public accommodations and the voting booths to all of our citizens. The protest against
the war in Vietnam was led by people like Catholic priests Philip and Daniel Berrigan, who put together an ecumenical
coalition, making it no longer viable for politicians to support that war. Today those religious voices from the left are
silent.

What caused their abdication into silence? Perhaps one explanation is that the national life of America has been
buffeted by a series of events beginning with the urban riots in the late 1960’s, but including the Vietnam War with its
inner turmoil, the disillusionment of the Watergate scandal and finally culminating in the events of 9/11, all of which
created massive public anxiety. Rising anxiety almost always drives people into a search for security. Traditionally, one
of the primary functions of religion is to provide the certainty that banks the fires of anxiety. On an emotional level
religion is far more often a search for security than it is a search for truth. Only when we recognize this will we ever
understand the irrational claims that religious systems always make that they possess the ultimate truth of God;
sometimes in an inerrant Bible, sometimes in an infallible pope, sometimes in the claim to provide the only doorway to
God. The claim that you alone speak for God also justifies the violence that has marked the history of religion.
Religious persecution, religious wars and inquisitions mark all authoritarian religious systems. When we understand
the place religion plays in people’s quest for security, this kind of religious activity becomes not excusable, but at least
understandable.

Today the popular evangelical voices are generally supportive of the Iraqi war, significantly silent on the evidence of
abuse and torture in the cause of prosecuting that war, opposed to any issues revolving around either the origins of
life, from stem cell research to abortion, or the end of life, such as the withdrawal of life support systems or physician-
assisted suicide. They also appear to be both deeply prejudiced and significantly uninformed about the reality of
homosexuality, as well as exhibiting a robust xenophobia. I think of people like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James
Dobson and their host of acolytes on local levels who are scaring politicians, mostly in the south but also across the
nation.

On the international scene, the new Pontiff has uttered, or caused to be uttered by some of his underlings, statements
that reflect incredibly dated ideas on birth control, religious imperialism, evolution and the necessity for Catholics in
public life to subvert their consciences to Vatican teachings, that are reminiscent of the Dark Ages. In addition to this
their utterances about both women and homosexuals are not only dated but are also breathtakingly ignorant. All this
only serves to assure people that religion is an alternative to an anxious reality.

I am encouraged to think that we are beginning to see a shift in this kind of thinking and that this fierce religious
mentality is finally coming to an end. The changes are being brought about by a series of events in which religion has
overstepped its authority and is beginning to embarrass our citizens. The failure of the Iraqi war to come to an end
after four years of conflict is one of them, the Terri Schiavo case was another, the attempt on the part of the religious
leaders to tell Americans how to vote was still another. Pat Robertson’s bizarre statement about murdering a head of
state and his remarks about why Prime Minister Sharon had a stroke did not help his cause. There is one other sign
that gives me hope. Suddenly counter voices are emerging in rapid succession in best-selling books that indicate that
they are hitting a nerve in the American psyche. Three recently published books are certainly in that category and a
fourth one will be released in mid May. All four are worthy of the wide readership that they are receiving.

First, there was Jim Wallis’ book “God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It.” Jim, a
theologically conservative old-line evangelical of great integrity, has risen to offer a powerful counterpoint to the
popular but pandering evangelical voices of today. His book was on the New York Times best-seller list for months and
all the television talk shows clamored to have him on their ratings driven programs.

Second, was a book written by our former “born again” president, Jimmy Carter, entitled “Our Endangered Values:
America’s Moral Crises.” It too has been at the top of the Times list almost since the day it hit the bookstores. No one
can doubt the depth of President Carter’s religious commitment. He served in his pre-presidential days as a lay
missionary for his Baptist church doing house-to-house evangelism. In his post presidential days, he has been
identified with building houses for the poor through Habitat for Humanity and serving the cause of world peace from
Haiti to Croatia and Bosnia. In this book President Carter lays out clearly those arenas in which religious
fundamentalism is being used today to distort the public values on which this nation was founded as well as to bend
American foreign policy to an evangelical agenda that tampers with American security.

The other two are blockbuster books that I have read in prepublication manuscripts that I believe will make a similar
impact. One has just been released and is now in the bookstores and the other will be released in mid May. I was
privileged to endorse both of them.

The first of these is a brilliant book written by Rabbi Michael Lerner entitled, “The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our
Country from the Religious Right,” published by Harper Collins (San Francisco). Michael Lerner is the Rabbi of Beyt
Tikkun Synagogue in San Francisco, but he is best known as the power behind an organization known as Tikkun, an
online journal that strives to “mend, repair and transform the world.” He has deliberately sought to bring together Jews,
Christians and people of good will who are not religiously identified into a coalition, that will work together to confront
what he believes is the destructive political agenda of the narrowly defined ‘Religious Right.’ Michael puts his body
where his mouth is, for he has worked not only to build this coalition but he is also the one major Jewish voice in
America to work in the cause of justice for Palestinians, which gives him a rare authenticity in today’s world. His goal is
to form a rescuing majority of religious progressives in all traditions in combination with secular humanists who share
the religious goal of building a more humane world. He does not shrink from daunting tasks and has the power by the
sheer force of his personality and organizing genius to make a significant impact on our national life.

In endorsing Michael’s book, I said this: “A brilliant and penetrating analysis of the way religion is now used politically to
justify military conflict, the degradation of the environment, the violation of religious liberty, the rights of women and
homosexuals and the accumulation of vast wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people. Michael Lerner comes
through these pages like a modern day Amos. The religious world needs to heed his message.”

Michael’s book is that and much more. It is a passionate readable call to restore both America’s values and America’s
religious integrity. He even offers a specific plan to build “spiritual politics,” in which all people of good will, secular and
religious, Christian, Jew and Muslim, can work together. His is a stirring vision to which I am deeply attracted.

The last book that addresses similar themes is written by Robin Meyers, a United Church of Christ pastor serving in
the heart of the ‘Bible Belt’ in Oklahoma City. His book, “Why the Religious Right is Wrong: A Minister’s Manifesto for
Taking Back Your Faith, Your Flag and Your Future,” will be published by Jossey/Bass in mid May. For a voice like
Robin’s to emerge from the heartland of America, where he has lived for more than 20 years, certainly breaks our
stereotypes of Oklahoma’s preachers. He has witnessed first hand the rise of the ‘Religious Right.’ It is all around him,
controlling politics in Oklahoma. He has also seen its dark side. He knows what it means to be threatened, hated and
character assassinated by “born again,” control oriented Christians. He sees lives broken by religious hostility and the
crippling guilt that is religion’s instrument of domination.

Robin stands publicly against this mentality and has endured the consequences of hostile mail, threatening phone
calls and the abuse of members of his family by “Bible-quoting true believers.” Bill Moyers said of Robin’s book, “This
is not a book for narrow sectarian minds; read it and you will want to change the world.” My words on its cover are
these: “In this book a powerful and authentic voice from America’s heartland holds up a mirror to the Bush
Administration and its religious allies. The result is a vision of Orwellian proportions in which values are inverted so
that violence, hatred, bigotry and war become the gifts of “the Prince of Peace.’

If you treasure this country and tremble at its present direction, this book is a ‘must read.” I sense in these four books
a new religious voice rising in America. I hope that is so. I commend each of them to you.
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