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A Thoughtful Article in Tikkun Magazine

Tikkun Magazine offers thought-provoking articles every issue. I found this one to be particularly interesting, because I know many liberals who have an inordinate fear of religion. Can you blame us after what we witnessed in the last election campaign? However, I do think that we need to over-come this fear and realize that many of those who wear their religion on their sleeves share our concerns and our values. They may not speak in a language that we understand, but if we wish to contribute to the healing of the terrible divisions in this country, we need to reach out to those who we misunderstand. Perhaps this act of reaching out will lead to a place where those who we misunderstand will feel safe in reaching out to us to create the dialog that is past due in this fractured society we call America.


By Peter Dunlap

With an Obama presidency, liberals like me can breathe a sigh of relief, right? Well, yes, but maybe no. Certainly when our candidates win locally or nationally we feel pride, relief, and hope. Yet, what have we really gotten with an Obama administration? As the Clinton administration demonstrated, it takes more than winning an election to move the country, especially if it seems that winning required a turn to the right.

Many people feared Obama’s post-convention lean to the right. George Lakoff may have articulated this fear best when he said Obama’s pull to the right would legitimize the conservatives’ positions and perhaps even help make their candidates more appealing. After all, “if Obama espouses conservative positions, then why not simply vote for the real thing?” Well, Obama took that risk and has been elected on centrist political themes without a clear liberal/progressive mandate. Where does that leave the Left? Where does that leave issues of universal health care, offshore oil drilling, corporate accountability? While I’m certain that Obama would do the right thing if he thought he could, his turn to the right tells me he isn’t so confident. He may know the way, but will he turn this country toward its moral destiny? Will he lead us toward a future that repudiates and pursues reparation for our past militarism? Will we develop alternative fuels and overcome our oil addiction? Well, I don’t know. What I do know is that, like before, the opportunity does not lie so much with Obama as it does with us.

How many times have we heard that one—that the answer lies with us? How about the idea that the answer lies within? Does that sound true but unhelpful, because you feel you don’t know how to turn inner change into political change, or your own concerns into community engagement? Gandhi’s invitation for us to become the change we wish to see in the world risks becoming a painful cliché because it does not come with instructions. Without some sense of direction, it’s too easy to infuse Obama with too much responsibility for the hopes he has released in us. He released the hope. We need to embody it, but how?

In an oft-told story, FDR said to a group of trade unionists who wanted him to promote some controversial legislation, “I agree with you—now go out there and make me do it!” If Obama is to bring about the change we want to see, we will need to pull him and the center of the country up and to the left. It’s up to us. But we still don’t have instructions. How do we lead, how do we change the political culture of our communities, states, and the country?

No doubt organizations pressing Obama and a Democratic Congress from the left will be able to “make them do it” on some crucial issues. But this will not be enough to radically alter the future. Obama’s ascension offers us a deeper opportunity.

If we assert our political agenda in the overly rationalized manner adopted by many liberals and progressives, we will not have learned from Obama’s example. Obama’s evocation of hope reflects his own transformation of that traditional liberal identity; it is this transformation that’s worthy of following, not his (necessarily?) centrist stance on issues. We can follow him toward the realization of a new liberal political identity, one based on his mastery of leadership capacities and our own manifestation of other emergent leadership capacities that even he has not yet embodied.

While we can learn from Obama’s new liberal identity, there are many cultural leaders currently articulating and embodying other leadership capacities that will be essential for the future of liberalism and the progressive movement. My own understanding of the emergence of such capacities comes from the work of Aftab Omer, founder of the Institute of Imaginal Studies. I discuss the contributions of Omer, Lakoff, Michael Lerner, and other emergent progressive cultural leaders in my book Awakening Our Faith in the Future: The Advent of Psychological Liberalism.

Obama’s Embodiment of Leadership Capacities: Religiosity and Emotional Intelligence

The presidential campaign of Barack Obama caught fire in part because of his unique leadership capacities, which have the potential to reinvigorate liberalism as both a political force and a personal political identity available to other liberals. One of Obama’s strengths is his integration of a personal religious conviction (what I call his “religiosity”) with his political identity: He unapologetically grounds his liberal egalitarian values and rational policy proposals in a deeper call to respond with love, as a sacred commitment to address the anguish of living in an alienated modern world. Another of Obama’s strengths is his substantial emotional intelligence, which enables him to acknowledge the pain suffered by different constituencies, to forgo scapegoating and blame, and to challenge his own supporters as well as his political opponents to be more responsible as parents and citizens.

Obama’s Religiosity as an Emergent Leadership Capacity

One crucial dimension of Obama’s capacity to lead is revealed in his effort to live a religious life without sacrificing his egalitarian values, nor simply adopting a church to claim a religious lineage. Obama has actually thought through at a new pitch what it means to be religious. He expresses this thoughtfulness in the keynote address he delivered in Washington, D.C., on June 28, 2006, to the “Call to Renewal” conference sponsored by the progressive Christian magazine Sojourners.

In this speech Obama contrasts conservative and liberal relationships to religion, identifying the conservative inclination to take advantage of the gap between Americans of faith and many Democrats. According to Obama, the Democrats fearfully avoid questions of faith and hide behind the secular culture that has attempted to do away with the influence of any one religion. Obama sees this as avoidance, and in response he calls for “a serious debate about how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy.”

For Obama, religion cannot be reduced to a right-wing fundamentalism that identifies abortion and same-sex partners as immoral. Obama believes that America’s religious tendency speaks to a hunger that “goes beyond any particular issue or cause.” Describing his own experience with this hunger, Obama testifies that, without faith, something is missing in our lives. He understands that people “want a sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives. They’re looking to relieve a chronic loneliness.”

During his time as a community organizer, Obama confronted his own “spiritual dilemma” through which he discovered that he had kept a part of himself “removed, detached,” leaving him as an “observer” in the midst of the many people of faith he worked with. He said he learned that “without a vessel for my beliefs, without a commitment to a particular community of faith, at some level I would always remain apart, and alone.” Through his community service work, he confronted his own religious alienation and resolved this dilemma by joining a faith community.

Obama’s story shows us one path to reconciling our prejudices against religion with our liberal values and politics. His integration of these enable him to speak with a moral authority that is missing from both traditional religious speaking not rooted in egalitarian values and traditional liberal speaking not rooted in a faith community.

His clear awareness of the necessity of this integration is central to his destiny. While too easily thought to be grandiose, destiny is simply a human capacity we all can aspire to embody through whatever service to humanity, to our family and community, we are capable of offering. Unlike liberals such as John Kerry, Obama embraces religiosity, and his moral speech seems wholly embodied, not contrived or overly rationalized. This religious and moral integrity challenges at least two generations of liberals, if not five or more, to rethink their fears and prejudices about religion and moral speaking.

If we are to renew liberalism, we must follow Obama and others and take up the challenge of deepening our understanding of what it means to be religious and to make peace with those religions that historically and currently seek both justice and spiritual vitality. Of course, this peacemaking must include full accountability for all that has taken place in the name of these religious institutions. However, it is too easy for liberals to scapegoat these institutions, the way conservatives scapegoat the institutions of government. Obama is not inclined to scapegoat any institution, any one political group or politician, or any segment of our society. At a private meeting in April, he did make a dismissive comment about “bitter” working-class voters who “cling to guns and religion.” This was a rare lapse and whether it revealed true feelings that he is too wise to say in public, or played to the prejudices of his audience in a way that was not authentic to his own more nuanced worldview, we can each conclude for ourselves. I go with the latter. Obama’s tendency not to blame is the second aspect of his character that I will discuss. By refusing to blame others, he is modeling the lib-eral speech of a new moral center.

Obama’s Emotional Intelligence As an Emergent Leadership Capacity

Following Obama, as simple as this sounds, we must learn to stop blaming one another for our problems and to practice accountability and atonement with one another—to solve problems together. Obama clearly understands this and seems to have the moral character necessary to achieve such an end. He displays a level of emotional intelligence, and his words and actions reveal his expectation that we too live with the emotional complexities of our time without reducing them to simple explanations that find a villain to blame for our difficulties.

Obama’s religiosity, his capacity for moral speech, and his disinclination to blame seem rooted in this clear embodiment and public use of his emotional experience. This embodiment reveals that Obama has faced his own personal suffering and found both a religious and psychological solution to it. As a result, unlike too many liberal leaders such as Michael Dukakis and John Kerry, Obama has found a depth of emotion and avoided the overly rationalized identity to which many liberals fall victim. Traditional liberals have rightly been accused of indulging in forms of rational techno-speak. Lakoff has gone so far as to say that rationalism is the “bane of liberalism.” You may object that Obama’s public affect is “cool” rather than emotional. Some of his supporters have urged him to be more openly emotional in his debates with McCain, for example. There may be some validity to this view; however, it is also the case that, for an African American man, erring on the side of a cautious emotional intelligence has proven crucial. Americans are not ready to integrate the shame they would feel confronted by the legitimate anger of African Americans and other minorities coming out of the historical and current immoral cultural oppression.

Even were he Caucasian, Obama would have needed to contain his emotionality. As valid as it is to accuse Democrats of being overly rational, it is also true that they have erred in the other direction. Ed Muskie lost significant ground in the polls when he cried in public, and in 2004 Howard Dean’s presidential campaign was doomed when he attempted to rally his supporters with a seemingly erratic passion. Obama has not made the mistake of crying in public or showing his passions too intensely.

It’s funny that when we think of publicly expressing passion, we imagine some over-the-top, almost smarmy or violent image. Perhaps there is some other way. For example, while Obama has remained emotionally contained, Joe Biden has found a little more room for a public display of passion. Remember his becoming choked up during the vice presidential debate? Biden’s emotional expression was a vitalizing moment. In the future we may be able to go even further and truly integrate what we have learned from psychotherapy about the use of our emotions in our private lives, within our public and political selves, and with each other.

Obama’s effective use of a public emotional intelligence was most strikingly displayed in his response to his former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. As this psycho-political drama unfolded, Obama used it to build the new moral center of our society. Instead of waiting out the drama in an effort to rationally rise above such “irrational” attacks, the way Kerry attempted to rise above the swift-boat accusations, or apologetically seeking to appease by immediately throwing Reverend Wright under a bus, Obama found a truer, emotionally intelligent path that responded to both the psychological and political needs of the situation. The people of America needed to see how he would respond to a situation that includes some of the worst manifestations of American humanity. We needed to see how he would manage our felt and denied shame, our overt and subtle hatreds. He proved up to the challenge, using the events to further define himself, prove his capacity to lead, and reveal to us our own destiny through his moral vision.

In his response to the complex psychological, moral, and political needs of this event, Obama spoke of the suffering of African Americans and of the imperfections in the African American community, including the anger of this community. His honesty was courageous. In discussing this anger, Obama placed the expectation on the rest of us to understand the psychological impact of oppression. He accomplished this without any dramatization or minimization. He simply said that this anger is “real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.”

However, he did not stop by only acknowledging the anger of the African American community; he also noted the anger within much of the white community. He spoke of how, for many, being white does not bring with it privilege but much suffering in the face of the social and economic inequities of our history and current circumstance. This attention to the emotional pain caused by the social and economic suffering in America, his recognition of its historical and current reality, precludes blame. He simply is able to speak openly about all human suffering without having to find a simple solution in blaming someone or some institution for our ills.

Now Obama is not the only liberal, or conservative, with significant emotional intelligence. However, due to his more integrated religiosity and his deep liberal consciousness, he is better able than other emotionally intelligent politicians to speak in a new way. What we identify as eloquence is really more than that. If we try to capture it by simply calling it charisma, we lose the opportunity to see the extent to which he actually has achieved something that we are all capable of doing.

Very few can match the eloquence or charisma that is part of Obama’s genius. However, following Omer’s unique understanding of how emotion can be transformed into capacity, we are all capable of working our way through our fear, anger, grief, and shame in a manner that would evoke our capacities for courage, fierceness, compassion, and humility. To do this we must address our prejudice against any institution, whether religious or governmental, and approach the task of institution building and renewal from the perspective that identifies responsibility and not blame. This will help us to become part of the new moral center for our society.

Following Obama, we can find whatever talents lie in our own sensitivities and the ways that we too have suffered. This is our responsibility. Obama’s religiosity and his embodied and articulated emotionality successfully overcome key limitations in the modern liberal identity. While there is much more to the mystery that he represents, a renewed liberalism must embrace at least these two strengths.

Obama’s ability to evoke hope in the American people is a direct result of his embodiment of these capacities. He causes people to feel different about themselves and their future. I suspect that this experience of hope includes an experience that we are not alone, that our suffering is seen, and that we can face our society’s crises together as a people.

Obama has activated our hope that he has become the transformation we need. However, we cannot take his success too literally or follow it too closely. Instead, we can learn more about his breakthrough by attempting it ourselves, becoming our own version of what the world needs. Whether Obama can become the kind of president we need will depend on how many of the rest of us become the change that we search for, by fulfilling our own particular destinies as citizens.

Renewing Liberal Identity

Liberals and progressives alike must learn how to fight for our liberal heritage, identify and assert our distinct egalitarian values, and reclaim a moral position oriented toward a sustainable human future. These tasks will be more easily accomplished if we balance our focus on political issues with a comparable focus on remaking our political identities. This new identity will, in part, be made up of those leadership capacities we identify in leaders like Obama. Through the embodiment of these capacities we will find ourselves speaking with the new voice of liberalism, which will enable us to articulate our values, reconnect to one another, and engage our communities in political action.

In order to renew liberalism, we have to accept responsibility for the limitations of our current political identity. We must speak with a voice that will resonate with those who have found liberalism to be too weak a political language. That will help us create new forms of community engagement to meet the current conservative domination of our country’s political discourse.

Bridging Values of Justice and Self-Responsibility: the New Voice of Liberalism

George Lakoff has taught us of the importance of framing traditional liberal political issues in ways that echo both egalitarian and traditional values. His insight is helping create a new generation of liberal discourse. Unfortunately, the new discourse is limited by the traditional overly rationalized political identity of liberals themselves. Lakoff’s crucial understanding of “reframing” won’t be utilized to its full capacity until we construct such a new liberal political identity. Remaking our identities requires learning to face our own problematic attitudes, to identify subtle prejudices such as the prejudice against religion or the public use of emotion, which limit our effectiveness, and to overcome the isolation we feel due to our alienated and fractured modern culture.

Obama’s conscious or intuitive political identity exemplifies much of what will be needed in order to bring us together as a people and renew our mutual faith in the future. Obama appears to be able to form a connection between the community-minded values of liberalism and the self-responsibility values of conservatism.

Inclusiveness at a New Level of Political Development

Central to Obama’s speech is this inclusiveness, this refusal to be divisive. He is helping us remember that we are a people, that we are not forever fractured by differences. His unwillingness to play on people’s fears, his compassionate recognition of the suffering we all experience, and his ability to meet prejudice openly, enable us to imagine that we are a people, that we are together. Radicals, liberals, and conservatives alike are all Americans; and, whatever shame being American requires, we also can find a deep pride in our American identity. We can come together in our shame, our pride, and in our determination to be a moral people.

Obama’s integration of liberal and conservative values can be and must be distinguished from his post-convention turn to the right. Like too many liberals, Obama may have confused the need to integrate conservative and liberal values with the perception that he must not appear to be too liberal regarding political issues. This confusion suggests that he may have underestimated the power of his own genuine presence; as a new type of leader he too is in unknown territory: being the mapmaker includes making such mistakes.

Obama’s turn to the right suggests that he may not understand the way in which a new moral center need not split the difference between conservatism and liberalism. Such a center can be wholly liberal and wholly moral while identifying and articulating an effective way of representing the profound need to conserve and express the traditions that make conservatism a force to reckon with. While speaking a language of inclusiveness, Obama need not cater to the conservative language of our day that distorts the idea of the “middle,” thus hiding our current off-kilter spin to the right. Instead, by simply recognizing the moral authority conservatives hold, by connecting their politics to both religion and individual responsibility, he could re-create a language of liberalism without alienating the more appealing values of conservatism.

Creating A New Moral Center

In order to create a new moral center for our society, we will need to transform political culture. Such change will only come about when we learn to come together in public holding both the values of healing and political action. When we come together, we cannot just talk about political issues or the delight and angst of raising children. Instead we must find our way to a new intimacy with one another within which we talk about what it is we have to contribute to our communities. We each have a political destiny, which can help bring all of us back to a new moral center.

In order to explore this new center, we must also be willing to talk about our prejudices. While liberals have a lot more to learn about racism, classism, and sexism, we have made enough progress in these areas to turn part of our attention to other, subtler prejudices. When we gather we need to talk about our prejudices against the use of our own moral authority, against religion, and against the public use of emotion. These prejudices undermine our relations with one another, our ability to build and sustain effective political organizations, and our ability to draw the attention of the American public.

So long as we on the Left have a hard time recognizing our own natural authority, we will not know who to follow when. This severely undermines our capacity to support effective leadership on the Left. We must learn to talk openly about leadership and we must relearn the value of surrendering to genuine authority.

Lastly, we must learn what our emotions are for, including the way they support decision-making, provide us with political energy, and bring us together as a people. So long as we allow ourselves to remain too rational, we are sterile. The alternative is not an overt, reactive public emotionality. Learning how to speak openly about our emotional experience and how to identify and welcome the emotions of others will be difficult but will strengthen our relationships and our organizations.
Now that the election is over, now that we have tallied our wins and losses, it is time to move past strategizing. Starting this winter we should gather together and reflect upon our election victories and failures. We also should take the time to attend to each other’s injuries and begin the work of healing the suffering that is at the root of all prejudice. Like the seasonal task of growing a crop, we work in the summer and fall and reflect privately and together while we seek restoration in the winter. This is the work of renewing liberalism.

Peter T. Dunlap is a political and clinical psychologist working in private and political practice. Peter works with political change groups using educational, healing, and community engagement learning practices. For more info, visit The Center for Political Development.

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