Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Right and Left Together

What Religious Liberals and Conservatives Have in Common

a sermon delivered at the Unitarian Church of Quincy , Illinois November 12, 2006

Opening Words

Hatred can never cease by hatred. Hatred can only cease by love. -- the Buddha

First Reading

From Who's Afraid of Freedom and Tolerance? in the Fall, 2005 issue of UU World.

If there is one basic thing conservatives do not understand about religious liberals, it is [our] sense of commitment. They see us champion choice over obligation, but misunderstand our reasons. They understand us to be advocating a superficial and nihilistic way of life. They think we want to choose our own moral codes so that we can pick easy ones that rationalize our every whim. They believe that we want the freedom to define our relationships so that we can walk away from anything that looks difficult.

James Dobson described the liberal viewpoint this way in a speech before the Council for National Policy:

There are no transcendent values that will stand from time to time. When human life becomes inconvenient, you can get rid of it, because it was not created by God, because there is no God, and it's all subjective and whimsical and you make up your ideas as the circumstances arise.

This expectation of superficiality colors everything conservatives see us do. Protest marches, for example, look like petulant expressions of transient anger rather than evidence of an enduring commitment to a vision of a better world. Put-downs like 'do-gooder' don't disparage our desire to do good; they question its stamina. Today, they suppose, we want to save the whales, but tomorrow we'll move on to whatever new cause is fashionable. As we lack a fixed scripture or any other visible anchor, they think, our commitments must surely blow with the wind. And because this picture looks so absurd and foreign to us, we don't bother to deny it.

In fact, religious conservatives and liberals share more concerns and beliefs than either commonly admits. Both have loyalties that go beyond self and the convenience of the moment. Both reject the materialism of popular culture. Both seek something more substantial than the momentary satisfaction of desire or the endless striving after status. The committed [liberal] life is a different way to pursue these goals, not a denial of them.

Second Reading

From a speech by James Dobson to the Council for National Policy. This section of the speech comes shortly after the one quoted above, where Dobson has presented what he calls the “postmodern” or “relativistic” view of morality. He continues:

Now, obviously, not everyone accepts this notion. And I'm here to talk to you today about those who don't. ... They're good people. They love their kids. They love their spouses, their families. They love their God and they are very, very concerned about what's happening today. They see this moral freefall. They see this moral relativism and they're very concerned about it. It contradicts everything they stand for and they also feel under attack. They feel under assault by Hollywood and they can't do anything about it and by the rock music industry that just sells sex and violence and all sorts of evil to their kids.

And MTV they see the television and ... cable TV and all those sorts of things. They see it and they're very alarmed about it and they can't do anything about it. They feel the culture has got their families. The culture is like a river that flows in front of us and their kids are caught in this current and they're being carried downstream and so many of them are being wounded by it. ...

These people out there are worried about what they see and they're in contradiction with the elite and with the cultural trend setters and it is very difficult for any of us to get anyone in government to understand those people or to treat them like they had a legitimate point of view, and that is my concern.


Back in April, I talked about what theists and atheists could learn from each other. Today I want to discuss a different reconciliation: What religious liberals have in common with religious conservatives.

This sermon had its start right after the previous one, from two conversations I had here in Quincy with old friends. One of them told me more-or-less what was in the Dobson reading – that the fundamentalists he knows seem to feel just as powerless as religious liberals do. I responded tactfully, saying something like, “They own the government. What do they want?”

Apparently, that's not how it looked to them – even before Tuesday. Sure, political leaders flatter the religious right and pander to it, but still the country moves in the wrong direction – from their point of view as much as from mine. They look at “this moral freefall” and imagine that some hidden liberal establishment must still be in control.

In the second conversation, another friend told me about his son, a young man not too far out of high school. The son works an unskilled job, and seems to have no plan for doing more with his life. Now, under other circumstances that lack of career ambition could be downright admirable -- if, say, it meant that he had rejected materialism and was putting his energy into doing good or making art or even just appreciating this beautiful world. But, as his father tells the story, it just reflects a lack of depth, a failure to grasp that something important is going on in life. If the son can keep gas in his car and occasionally buy something for his girl friend – well, what more is there?

As I listened, I imagined how such stories often play out: Eventually it gets old, going from one lousy job to the next, hanging with buddies who never grow up, and never quite living up to your responsibilities. After a while -- maybe after a divorce or an illegitimate child or two -- disillusionment sets in.

And then, as I imagine the story, he's born again. Suddenly disillusionment is broken, and there is something deep and important in life: Jesus – Jesus as interpreted by a conservative church. Not the compassionate Jesus of the Beatitudes, but the apocalyptic Jesus who someday will save the Good and send the Evil to Hell. Hallelujah!

Now, from here this sermon can go two ways, and I've actually written both of them. The sermon I'm not preaching today explores why I don't expect this young man to have a liberal awakening. You see, I don't resent the power of the religious right to awaken such people, I envy it. Because liberal religion has a class problem. Where is our transforming message for the unskilled and the uneducated? Why is it so hard for us to call people of all classes and backgrounds to a deeper, more meaningful life?

But this morning I want to take the other path by asking this question: How does my second conversation illuminate my first one? How does my friend's son help us understand this strange feeling of helplessness on both the Left and the Right? I feel oppressed by the James Dobsons and Jerry Falwells, only to discover that they feel oppressed too. Isn't somebody winning? Shouldn't somebody feel empowered?

To start answering that question, I want to raise this one: Assuming that this young man really is the way I've imagined him, what religion does he belong to today? Because whatever it is, I think that's the religion that's winning.

Now, I'm not asking where he was baptized or whether he attends services somewhere. I want to know about the religion he's actually practicing. The superficial approach to life, the belief that you buy some things and satisfy some desires and that's all there is -- who teaches that? Is that liberal? Is it conservative?

I think it's neither one. And that's my answer to the paradox:: Religious liberals and conservatives alike feel that America is slipping away from them because it actually is. This other religion, which is neither liberal nor conservative nor even moderate, is actually in control.

Now, I understand that it's hard to take this argument seriously. I seem to be talking about some kind of consumer hedonism, and surely it's just a metaphor to call that a religion. There is, after all, no Church of Consumer Hedonism in Quincy or anyplace else, no place where people are getting together this morning to celebrate the superficial life and preach the Consumer Hedonist theology. Because there is no Consumer Hedonist theology or theory of the afterlife or anything. There is no clergy, no membership list, no newsletter, no committees or any of the other trappings that all others religions have.

So it's tempting, when we talk about religion, to leave Consumer Hedonism out. Later on I'll describe the problem that causes, but before I get to that, I need to explain why it makes sense to call Consumer Hedonism a religion at all.

I think the reason Consumer Hedonism looks different from other religions is that it's the dominant religion of our society. The dominant religion always looks different.

You see, when a religion truly dominates a society, it's like air. You don't see it, and you can't point to it because it's everywhere. A dominant religion doesn't seem to have members because everyone is a member. It doesn't seem to have a temple because the World is its temple. The reason we don't see the temple of Consumer Hedonism is because we live in it. We can't get outside of it.

Only when your religion doesn't dominate society do you need a building like this one. Churches are like fortresses; you build them because the world out there is foreign territory. You enclose a space that your religion can dominate, because it can't dominate the world out there. If it did, you wouldn't need any special schools or rituals. Just by living, people would breathe in your teachings. Just by living, they'd perform your rituals.

The fundamental questions a religion needs to answer aren't about God and the afterlife, they're about life here and now. What should we be trying to do? Where should we look for fulfillment? What is going to save us from misery? What really matters and why? Some religions may need a theory of God or the afterlife to make sense out of their answers, but Consumer Hedonism doesn't. That doesn't mean it's not a religion.

So what are Consumer Hedonism's answers? Basically this: Only two things are really worth doing in life – satisfying your desires and projecting the right image. If you could do both, you'd be as fulfilled as it is possible to be. So how do you do it? You satisfy your desires by buying things and by manipulating people into giving you what you want. And you cast the right image by aligning yourself with the saints of Consumer Hedonism, the celebrities.

No Sunday school teaches us how to worship the celebrities, but we all do it. Sometimes we imitate them. We wear their t-shirts and sunglasses. We repeat their famous lines, which we know by heart, as if we learned them from a catechism. Or we worship them from afar. We know their nicknames, their cars, their pets, and the convoluted mythology of who has been married to who.

If you fall out of step with the celebrities, no church council has to vote to shun you. It happens automatically. Conversations just pass you by. Everyone else laughs and you're there saying “What? What?”

But if you could be one with the celebrities, if you could have the same car or the same haircut or learn to flash the same smile – you'd be so cool. How could you not be totally fulfilled?

Except for the Amish and a few other closed communities, every child in America is raised Consumer Hedonist. Most of us still practice it. Here's a test. It's a take-home test, self-graded. Psalm 38 says, “In thee, O Lord, is my hope.” Where is your hope? When you daydream about a better life, what specifically are you hoping for?

Better things like a house or car?

Physical satisfaction like food or sex?

Something to improve your image, like a big promotion or a diet that really works?

Or maybe you think about money, which stands in for all three? Some people hope in the Lord. Some people hope in the Lottery.

Whatever your hope is, wherever you look for a better life, that's the religion that is real to you, the one you're counting on to save you from misery. And not until you become disillusioned with that religion will you have any deeper spiritual awakening.

Most of us do get disillusioned at some point, because Consumer Hedonism is all sizzle and no steak. You actually can't be fulfilled by satisfying your desires and impressing people. Brad Pitt and Britney Spears will not save you. We all know that at some level, but Consumer Hedonism laughs at our knowledge. It sells us movies about its own emptiness and invites us to project an image of being wise to it all. You can buy things to flesh that image out, and imitate a whole other pantheon of celebrities. "This medallion comes from Tibet. It's, like, so spiritual."

No matter how many times we fail to consume our way to fulfillment, it always seems like our own fault. We bought the wrong things. We picked the wrong celebrities. (Tom Cruise really did not come through for me this year. And I don't even want to talk about Michael Jackson.) Salvation-by-coolness could still work, if you were just a little bit cooler.

No it couldn't. Don't try again. Don't try to do better this time. It doesn't work.

It doesn't work because there really is something deep and important going on in life, and you can only find fulfillment by connecting with those deeper values. This is the message of both liberal and conservative religion. Both. If you can't hear that message in the other side, listen harder.

Liberals and conservatives alike reject the emptiness of Consumer Hedonism, and nurture values that transcend desire and image: Values like family and friends and community. Compassion for the stranger. A just society. Appreciating the wonder of creation. Building a personal relationship with Beauty and with Knowledge and with Understanding. When those values are part of your experience of every moment, when you have trained yourself to experience them as immediately as you experience your physical desires, you're there. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.”

The main difference between religious liberals and religious conservatives is in where they look for those values and how they hope to bring them into the world. Conservatives look to traditional values, a way of life that they believe worked for our ancestors. Typically, a conservative faith has a Golden Age it wants to preserve or restore: Eden, ancient Israel, the Jerusalem of the Apostles, the Medina of Muhammad, or even the small-town America of Norman Rockwell. Conservatives see the deeper values of those communities being replaced by practices that satisfy more superficial desires.

Liberals, on the other hand, attach their vision of deeper values to a future Utopia or to a Platonic ideal. They see themselves not as restoring a Golden Age, but as marching onward and upward towards a world more perfect than has ever existed before. Two centuries ago, a world without institutionalized slavery was a complete dream. No Golden Age had ever achieved it. But here we are.

Whether the Past or the Future makes a better home for our dreams of higher values -- that would be an interesting debate to have with the conservatives. And we could have it – after we recognize our common struggle against Consumer Hedonism and its empty values. The beginning of a productive liberal/conservative dialog is for both sides to acknowledge that we share a nightmare, a Dystopia:

  • Where all relationships are transient.

  • Where life is cheap.

  • Where winning is everything.

  • Where no one will sacrifice for the common good.

  • Where impulse satisfaction outweighs any consequences.

  • Where the innocent are not protected.

  • Where the old are cast aside and the next generation is left to raise itself.

  • Where profit is the ultimate argument, and money answers all questions.

  • Where no one is willing to stand on principle, and truth doesn't matter.

We both see that path and we both don't want to go there. In theory, we could work together to avoid it. But in practice we can't even talk about it in a civil tone. Why? Because we both imagine that Consumer Hedonism isn't really a religion, and so we let it slip out of the picture. We both forget what we've been struggling against, and instead imagine that we've been struggling with each other.

And so, when liberals defend freedom and tolerance, James Dobson hears the voice of Consumer Hedonism saying that "There are no transcendent values ... it's all subjective and whimsical and you make up your ideas as the circumstances arise."

And when conservatives defend traditional values, we liberals also hear the voice of Consumer Hedonism: “It's all about striking a pose, building yourself up by tearing others down, projecting an image of goodness and righteousness without having to do the hard work of compassion.”

Neither side has to lie to make its case, because Consumer Hedonism has in fact corrupted and subverted people on both sides. That's what it does, and it does it very well. You set out to make the world a better place, and you end up buying things and striking a pose. You try to take The Road Less Traveled, and you wind up at The Road Less Traveled Gift Shop. You try to walk the narrow path, and you wind up buying a t-shirt that says “I Walked the Narrow Path”. Whether you set out to the Left or to the Right, the gravity of Consumer Hedonism is always pulling you back.

So how do we restart the liberal/conservative dialog? I think we begin by recognizing the trick that has been played on both sides. We've all been left holding the bag. We all look guilty. And so we're all going to have to calmly and patiently deny accusations that we can't imagine any sane person making.

So, for example, liberals really do need to say that we support marriage and don't want to tear it down. I feel silly saying that. I've been married for 22 years. I've nursed my wife through two life-threatening illnesses. What sane person could imagine that I want to tear down marriage? But conservatives do imagine it, because Consumer Hedonism does undermine marriage, and I've been left holding that bag. So I need to reassure them. I need to emphasize that I support gay marriage because I support marriage. Whether people are gay or straight, when they turn away from transient promiscuity and sign up for the more challenging life of commitment, I support that. I understand that they didn't do it that way in the Golden Age, whenever it was, but I hope for a future that is better than the past.

On the other side, religious conservatives need to say that they don't want a theocracy, that they aren't aiming to set up a Christian version of the Taliban here in America. I'm sure they'd feel silly saying that. Because what sane person could imagine that they want Christian Taliban? Well, I could. A little reassurance would really help.

Holly Near has a song called Singing For Our Lives, and I've heard it several times in Unitarian churches. One of the verses starts, “We are gay and straight together.” And you can keep the song going as long as you like by doing that verse again with other kinds of difference: young and old, black and white, rich and poor, and so on. One substitution I've never heard in a Unitarian church is “left and right.” Because we don't think of ourselves as Left and Right together. We built those walls to keep the religious right out, not to welcome them in and sing.

I thought about writing that song into the order of service, but I decided it would be too manipulative. I don't imagine that I've been that convincing. Most of you, I suspect, are probably still not ready to sing about Left and Right together.

So I'm not going to ask you to sing it. I'm just going to ask you to think about it. What if liberals and conservatives could realize how much they have in common? What if we all understood that traditional values and progressive values are allies against the real enemy, which is no values at all?

That's the vision I want to leave you with. It may not be Eden or Utopia, but I like it.

Closing Words

Never let your zeal outrun your charity. -- Hosea Ballou