Hillary Clinton may have caused a stir in the early 90’s by embracing Michael Lerner’s “Politics of Meaning,” but it is the Barack Obama campaign that has been carrying the flag for this pernicious idea in 2008.
Millions of Obama supporters have been swept away by the promise of a political transformation that would follow in the wake of an Obama victory in November. His campaign promises to restore hope and bring change to the lives of Americans. According to Obama “We are the hope of the future. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek."
Obama’s message is messianic. His support derives from his promise of transformation, not just of the country, but of people’s lives. Michele Obama promised UCLA students that “Barack Obama will require you to work. He is going to demand that you shed your cynicism. That you put down your divisions. That you come out of your isolation and that you move out of your comfort zone. That you push yourselves to be better. And that you engage. Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual…”
In another speech Michelle Obama insisted that her husband should be President because he understood that our souls were broken and needed fixing.
Well, Michelle Obama may be right: our souls may be broken and maybe they do need fixing. But politics is not the venue in which human souls are healed.
We have seen before movements that spiritualize politics. In fact, Jonah Goldberg has written an outstanding book about the phenomenon: Liberal Fascism. Such movements derive from a deep human desire to find meaning in our lives—a meaning that has been traditionally found in religion and not politics.
While not unique to the modern world, there is something especially modern about these movements to imbue politics with a spiritual dimension. At no time in Western history has there been so little religion to address our spiritual needs, and as a consequence there has been an abnormal amount of spiritual seeking in the otherwise mundane world of politics.
Traditionally politics has been understood to be concerned with the body, while religion concerned with the soul. The idea of the separation of Church and State was built upon the insight that each served a deep need in human beings, but that the needs were quite distinct. In some ways, this was the perfection of the Christian insight that the soul and the body are distinct as are their realms. Jesus himself pointed to separation of the temporal from the spiritual in the Gospel of Matthew: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”
Modern political movements such as Communism, Socialism, Nazism, and Fascism have all been driven by a desire to create a new heaven on earth, denying that there is or could be an effective separation of politics from the spiritual life. Politics itself becomes the essentially spiritual activity of the human soul, and provides the meaning to life that used to derive from religious activity.
The history of these movements should give us all pause. Out of them has sprung the worst bloodshed in human history.
Christians are certainly not immune from the lure of the politics of meaning, but in general it is the skeptics who are most drawn in. The spiritual hunger does not disappear when faith does, but is displaced into politics.
Can politics satisfy this hunger? No, but the attempt leads to the kind of comprehensive government intervention into our lives that the Western democracies have been creeping toward over the past 100 years—and have been galloping towards over the past few. A truly spiritual politics is a politics in which there is little or no room for human freedom.
Political freedom as we know it is based upon the separation of politics and religion. Our freedom of speech and conscience is based upon the belief that politics, the ruling of the body, should be separated from religion, the governance of the soul. Spiritualized politics will inevitably become unfree politics—or worse.
That is why I am not inspired, but scared of a political movement which has as its appeal that it “never allow you to go back to your lives as usual” because it promises to fix our souls. In trying to fix our souls, what will such a politics break?