Building Better Secularists

by David Brooks, New York Times,  FEB. 3, 2015

Over the past few years, there has been a sharp rise in the number of people who are atheist, agnostic or without religious affiliation. A fifth of all adults and a third of the youngest adults fit into this category.

As secularism becomes more prominent and self-confident, its spokesmen have more insistently argued that secularism should not be seen as an absence — as a lack of faith — but rather as a positive moral creed….

Zuckerman argues that secular morality is built around individual reason, individual choice and individual responsibility. Instead of relying on some eye in the sky to tell them what to do, secular people reason their way to proper conduct.

Secular people, he argues, value autonomy over groupthink. They deepen their attachment to this world instead of focusing on a next one. They may not be articulate about why they behave as they do, he argues, but they try their best to follow the Golden Rule, to be considerate and empathetic toward others. “

As he describes them, secularists seem like genial, low-key people who have discarded metaphysical prejudices and are now leading peaceful and rewarding lives. But I can’t avoid the conclusion that the secular writers are so eager to make the case for their creed, they are minimizing the struggle required to live by it. Consider the tasks a person would have to perform to live secularism well:

• Secular individuals have to build their own moral philosophies. Religious people inherit creeds that have evolved over centuries. Autonomous secular people are called upon to settle on their own individual sacred convictions.

•Secular individuals have to build their own communities. Religions come equipped with covenantal rituals that bind people together, sacred practices that are beyond individual choice. Secular people have to choose their own communities and come up with their own practices to make them meaningful.

•Secular individuals have to build their own Sabbaths. Religious people are commanded to drop worldly concerns. Secular people have to create their own set times for when to pull back and reflect on spiritual matters.

 

•Secular people have to fashion their own moral motivation. It’s not enough to want to be a decent person. You have to be powerfully motivated to behave well. Religious people are motivated by their love for God and their fervent desire to please Him. Secularists have to come up with their own powerful drive that will compel sacrifice and service.

The point is not that secular people should become religious. You either believe in God or you don’t. Neither is the point that religious people are better than secular people. That defies social science evidence and common observation. The point is that an age of mass secularization is an age in which millions of people have put unprecedented moral burdens upon themselves. People who don’t know how to take up these burdens don’t turn bad, but they drift. They suffer from a loss of meaning and an unconscious boredom with their own lives.

One other burden: Past secular creeds were built on the 18th-century enlightenment view of man as an autonomous, rational creature who could reason his way to virtue. The past half-century of cognitive science has shown that that creature doesn’t exist. We are not really rational animals; emotions play a central role in decision-making, the vast majority of thought is unconscious, and our minds are riddled with biases. We are not really autonomous; our actions are powerfully shaped by others in ways we are not even aware of.

It seems to me that if secularism is going to be a positive creed, it can’t just speak to the rational aspects of our nature. Secularism has to do for nonbelievers what religion does for believers — arouse the higher emotions, exalt the passions in pursuit of moral action…Religions don’t just ask believers to respect others; rather each soul is worthy of the highest dignity because it radiates divine light.

The only secularism that can really arouse moral motivation and impel action is an enchanted secularism, one that puts emotional relations first and autonomy second. I suspect that over the next years secularism will change its face and become hotter and more consuming, less content with mere benevolence, and more responsive to the spiritual urge in each of us, the drive for purity, self-transcendence and sanctification.

Full text

Over the past few years, there has been a sharp rise in the number of people who are atheist, agnostic or without religious affiliation. A fifth of all adults and a third of the youngest adults fit into this category.

As secularism becomes more prominent and self-confident, its spokesmen have more insistently argued that secularism should not be seen as an absence — as a lack of faith — but rather as a positive moral creed. Phil Zuckerman, a Pitzer College sociologist, makes this case as fluidly and pleasurably as anybody in his book, “Living the Secular Life.”

Zuckerman argues that secular morality is built around individual reason, individual choice and individual responsibility. Instead of relying on some eye in the sky to tell them what to do, secular people reason their way to proper conduct.

Secular people, he argues, value autonomy over groupthink. They deepen their attachment to this world instead of focusing on a next one. They may not be articulate about why they behave as they do, he argues, but they try their best to follow the Golden Rule, to be considerate and empathetic toward others. “Secular morality hinges upon little else than not harming others and helping those in need,” Zuckerman writes.

As he describes them, secularists seem like genial, low-key people who have discarded metaphysical prejudices and are now leading peaceful and rewarding lives. But I can’t avoid the conclusion that the secular writers are so eager to make the case for their creed, they are minimizing the struggle required to live by it. Consider the tasks a person would have to perform to live secularism well:

• Secular individuals have to build their own moral philosophies. Religious people inherit creeds that have evolved over centuries. Autonomous secular people are called upon to settle on their own individual sacred convictions.

• Secular individuals have to build their own communities. Religions come equipped with covenantal rituals that bind people together, sacred practices that are beyond individual choice. Secular people have to choose their own communities and come up with their own practices to make them meaningful.

• Secular individuals have to build their own Sabbaths. Religious people are commanded to drop worldly concerns. Secular people have to create their own set times for when to pull back and reflect on spiritual matters.

The tone of the comments couldn’t be clearer. There is a loud, pervasive disdain among the secular for the religious. If it doesn’t rise…

• Secular people have to fashion their own moral motivation. It’s not enough to want to be a decent person. You have to be powerfully motivated to behave well. Religious people are motivated by their love for God and their fervent desire to please Him. Secularists have to come up with their own powerful drive that will compel sacrifice and service.

The point is not that secular people should become religious. You either believe in God or you don’t. Neither is the point that religious people are better than secular people. That defies social science evidence and common observation. The point is that an age of mass secularization is an age in which millions of people have put unprecedented moral burdens upon themselves. People who don’t know how to take up these burdens don’t turn bad, but they drift. They suffer from a loss of meaning and an unconscious boredom with their own lives.

One other burden: Past secular creeds were built on the 18th-century enlightenment view of man as an autonomous, rational creature who could reason his way to virtue. The past half-century of cognitive science has shown that that creature doesn’t exist. We are not really rational animals; emotions play a central role in decision-making, the vast majority of thought is unconscious, and our minds are riddled with biases. We are not really autonomous; our actions are powerfully shaped by others in ways we are not even aware of.

It seems to me that if secularism is going to be a positive creed, it can’t just speak to the rational aspects of our nature. Secularism has to do for nonbelievers what religion does for believers — arouse the higher emotions, exalt the passions in pursuit of moral action. Christianity doesn’t rely just on a mild feeling like empathy; it puts agape at the center of life, a fervent and selfless sacrificial love. Judaism doesn’t just value community; it values a covenantal community infused with sacred bonds and chosenness that make the heart strings vibrate. Religions don’t just ask believers to respect others; rather each soul is worthy of the highest dignity because it radiates divine light.

The only secularism that can really arouse moral motivation and impel action is an enchanted secularism, one that puts emotional relations first and autonomy second. I suspect that over the next years secularism will change its face and become hotter and more consuming, less content with mere benevolence, and more responsive to the spiritual urge in each of us, the drive for purity, self-transcendence and sanctification.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/03/opinion/david-brooks-building-better-secularists.html?_r=0

A Values- and Vision-Based Political Dream

by Benjamin Mordecai Ben-Baruch, Tikkun, Winter 2011, December 21 2010

Excerpt

We need leaders and organizers to inspire people and communities to act on their values and hopes. We need help articulating our values and vision of the ideal future. Right-wing successes have been achieved by appealing to peoples’ fears, hatreds and prejudices. But the politics of hope is stronger than politics of fear. Imagining our future based on our highest ideals can mobilize us to overcome the paralysis of fear and hatred.

The politics of hope is not issue oriented, and people who share the same values and vision often disagree on the issues….[people] have been misled into believing that their freedom and empowerment resides in “free markets” and that the government is Big Brother and something to fear. They have become paralyzed by their fears. The irrationality of these fears makes us vulnerable to demagoguery. We need to go beyond issue-oriented politics and the politics of fear to a public discourse focused on articulating our vision for the ideal future and what that future would look like. We need a vision of a society without the injustices of poverty and social inequality. We need a dream…

Most Americans will understand that the kind of America they want to build is quite different from that of the new Conservatives and the neo-liberals.

But we need clarity. We need help articulating our values and vision. We need help exposing the contrary values and vision of the neo-liberals, clericalists, religious Right, and ultra-capitalists. We need to overcome the politics of fear. We need to go beyond issue-oriented politics. (And we need to go way beyond cyclic party and electoral politics.) We need to engage in the revolutionary politics of hope. We need to build a social movement of people inspired and mobilized to act upon hopes and dreams.

Full Text

We need leaders and organizers to inspire people and communities to act on their values and hopes. We need help articulating our values and vision of the ideal future. Right-wing successes have been achieved by appealing to peoples’ fears, hatreds and prejudices. But the politics of hope is stronger than politics of fear. Imagining our future based on our highest ideals can mobilize us to overcome the paralysis of fear and hatred.

The politics of hope is not issue oriented, and people who share the same values and vision often disagree on the issues. For example, people are not inspired by a proposal for a universal single-payer health care system. People are inspired by believing that a future they couldn’t imagine is now possible. Many opponents of “Obamacare,” (the recent health insurance policy reform legislation) value providing health care to all who need it and want a future in which such care is unproblematic. But they have been misled into believing that their freedom and empowerment resides in “free markets” and that the government is Big Brother and something to fear. They have become paralyzed by their fears. The irrationality of these fears makes us vulnerable to demagoguery. We need to go beyond issue-oriented politics and the politics of fear to a public discourse focused on articulating our vision for the ideal future and what that future would look like. We need a vision of a society without the injustices of poverty and social inequality. We need a dream.

Similarly, when we explore Jewish attitudes toward Israel we find a high level of agreement on basic values that is hidden by the nature of discourse. The real difference among most American Jews is the extent to which they believe that Israel, the regional military power, is threatened. We see a polarization between those who fear for Israel’s existence and hence are paralyzed from even dreaming of a better future and those motivated to act on their dreams.

When we establish a politics of hope, a political discourse of values and vision, then most Christians will see that they do not share the values and vision of the “Christian Right.” Most Jews will see that they do not share the values and vision of Israel’s political leadership. Most Americans will understand that the kind of America they want to build is quite different from that of the new Conservatives and the neo-liberals.

But we need clarity. We need help articulating our values and vision. We need help exposing the contrary values and vision of the neo-liberals, clericalists, religious Right, and ultra-capitalists. We need to overcome the politics of fear. We need to go beyond issue-oriented politics. (And we need to go way beyond cyclic party and electoral politics.) We need to engage in the revolutionary politics of hope. We need to build a social movement of people inspired and mobilized to act upon hopes and dreams.

Benjamin Mordecai Ben-Baruch is a former principal in the United Hebrew Schools of Metropolitan Detroit and currently serves on the board of directors of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation and also of the Progressive Jewish Voice.

Ben-Baruch, Benjamin. 2011. A Values- and Vision-Based Political Dream. Tikkun 26(1): online exclusive.

http://www.tikkun.org/article.php?story=winter2011ben-baruch

Speaking Out Is at the Heart of Being a Citizen

By George Lakoff, Reader Supported News, February 16, 2013

Political journalists have a job to do – to examine the SOTU’s long list of proposals. They are doing that job, many are doing it well, and I’ll leave it to them. Instead, I want to discuss what in the long run is a deeper question: How did the SOTU help to change public discourse? What is the change? And technically, how did it work?

The address was coherent. There was a single frame that fit together all the different ideas, from economics to the environment to education to gun safety to voting rights. The big change in public discourse was the establishment of that underlying frame, a frame that will, over the long haul, accommodate many more specific proposals.

Briefly, the speech worked via frame evocation. Not statement, evocation – the unconscious and automatic activation in the brains of listeners of a morally-based progressive frame that made sense of what the president said.

When a frame is repeatedly activated, it is strengthened. Obama’s progressive frame was strengthened not only in die-hard progressives, but also in partial progressives, those who are progressive on some issues and conservative on others – the so-called moderates, swing voters, independents, and centrists. As a result, 77 percent of listeners approved of the speech, 53 percent strongly positive and 24 percent somewhat positive, with only 22 percent negative. When that deep progressive frame is understood and accepted by a 77 percent margin, the president has begun to move America toward a progressive moral vision.

If progressives are going to maintain and build on the president’s change in public discourse so far, we need to understand just what that change has been and how he accomplished it.

It hasn’t happened all at once.

In 2008, candidate Obama made overt statements. He spoke overtly about empathy and the responsibility to act on it as the basis of democracy. He spoke about the need for an “ethic of excellence.” He spoke about the role of government to protect and empower everyone equally.

After using the word “empathy” in the Sotomayor nomination, he dropped it when conservatives confused it with sympathy and unfairness. But the idea didn’t disappear.

By the 2013 Inaugural Address, he directly quoted the Declaration and Lincoln, overtly linking patriotism and the essence of democracy to empathy, to Americans caring for one another and taking responsibility for one another as well as themselves. He spoke overtly about how private success depends on public provisions. He carried out these themes with examples. And he had pretty much stopped making the mistake of using conservative language, even to negate it. The change in public discourse became palpable.

The 2013 SOTU followed this evolution a crucial step further. Instead of stating the frames overly, he took them for granted and the nation understood. Public discourse had shifted; brains had changed. So much so that John Boehner looked shamed as he slumped, sulking in his chair, as if trying to disappear. Changed so much that Marco Rubio’s response was stale and defensive: the old language wasn’t working and Rubio kept talking in rising tones indicating uncertainty.

Here is how Obama got to 77 percent approval as an unapologetic progressive.

The president set his theme powerfully in the first few sentences – in about 30 seconds.

Fifty-one years ago, John F. Kennedy declared to this Chamber that ‘the Constitution makes us not rivals for power but partners for progress … It is my task,’ he said, ‘to report the State of the Union – to improve it is the task of us all.’ Tonight, thanks to the grit and determination of the American people, there is much progress to report. …

First, Obama recalled Kennedy – a strong, unapologetic liberal. “Partners” evokes working together, an implicit attack on conservative stonewalling, while “for progress” makes clear his progressive direction. “To improve it is the task of us all” evokes the progressive theme that we’re all in this together with the goal of improving the common good. “The grit and determination of the American people” again says we work together, while incorporating the “grit and determination” stereotype of Americans pulling themselves up by their bootstraps – overcoming a “grinding war” and “grueling recession.” He specifically and wisely did not pin the war and recession on the Bush era Republicans, as he reasonably could have. That would have divided Democrats from Republicans. Instead, he treated war and recession as if they were forces of nature that all Americans joined together to overcome. Then he moved on seamlessly to the “millions of Americans whose hard work and dedication have not yet been rewarded,” which makes rewarding that work and determination “the task of us all.”

This turn in discourse started working last year. Empathy and social responsibility as central American values reappeared in spades in the 2012 campaign right after Mitt Romney made his 47 percent gaff, that 47 percent of Americans were not succeeding because they were not talking personal responsibility for their lives. This allowed Obama to reframe people out of work, sick, injured, or retired as hard working and responsible and very much part of the American ideal, evoking empathy for them from most other Americans. It allowed him to meld the hard working and struggling Americans with the hard working and just getting by Americans into a progressive stereotype of hard working Americans in general who need help to overcome external forces holding them back. It is a patriotic stereotype that joins economic opportunity with equality, freedom and civil rights: “if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or who you love.”

It is an all-American vision:

It is our unfinished task to make sure that this government works on behalf of the many, and not just the few; that it encourages free enterprise, rewards individual initiative, and opens the doors of opportunity to every child across this great nation.

“Our unfinished task” refers to citizens – us – as ruling the government, not the reverse. “We” are making the government do what is right. To work “on behalf of the many, and not just the few.” And he takes from the progressive vision the heart of the conservative message. “We” require the government to encourage free enterprise, reward individual initiative, and provide opportunity for all. It is the reverse of the conservative view of the government ruling us. In a progressive democracy, the government is the instrument of the people, not the reverse.

In barely a minute, he provided a patriotic American progressive vision that seamlessly adapts the heart of the conservative message. Within this framework comes the list of policies, each presented with empathy for ideal Americans. In each case, we, the citizens who care about our fellow citizens, must make our imperfect government do the best it can for fellow Americans who do meet, or can with help meet, the American ideal.

With this setting of the frame, each item on the list of policies fits right in. We, the citizens, use the government to protect us and maximally enable us all to make use of individual initiative and free enterprise.

The fact that the policy list was both understood and approved of by 77 percent of those watching means that one-third of those who did not vote for the president have assimilated his American progressive moral vision.

The president’s list of economic policies was criticized by some as a lull – a dull, low energy section of the speech. But the list had a vital communicative function beyond the policies themselves. Each item on the list evoked, and thereby strengthened in the brains of most listeners, the all-American progressive vision of the first section of the speech. Besides, if you’re going to build to a smash finish, you have to build from a lull.

And it was a smash finish! Highlighting his gun safety legislation by introducing one after another of the people whose lives were shattered by well-reported gun violence. With each introduction came the reframe “They deserve a vote” over and over and over. He was chiding the Republicans not just for being against the gun safety legislation, but for being unwilling to even state their opposition in public, which a vote would require. The president is all too aware that, even in Republican districts, there is great support for gun safety reform, support that threatens conservative representatives. “They deserve a vote” is a call for moral accounting from conservative legislators. It is a call for empathy for the victims in a political form, a form that would reveal the heartlessness, the lack of Republican empathy for the victims. “They deserve a vote” shamed the Republicans in the House. As victim after victim stood up while the Republicans sat slumped and close-mouthed in their seats, shame fell on the Republicans.

And then it got worse for Republicans. Saving the most important for last – voting reform – President Obama introduced Desiline Victor, a 102-year spunky African American Florida woman who was told she would have to wait six hours to vote. She hung in there, exhausted but not defeated, for many hours and eventually voted. The room burst into raucous applause, putting to shame the Republicans who are adopting practices and passing laws to discourage voting by minority groups.

And with the applause still ringing, he introduced police officer Brian Murphy who held off armed attackers at the Sikh Temple in Minneapolis, taking twelve bullets and lying in a puddle of his blood while still protecting the Sikhs. When asked how he did it, he replied, “That’s just how we’re made.”

That gave the president a finale to end where he began.

We may do different jobs, and wear different uniforms, and hold different views than the person beside us. But as Americans, we all share the same proud title: We are citizens. It’s a word that doesn’t just describe our nationality or legal status. It describes the way we’re made. It describes what we believe. It captures the enduring idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations; that our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others; and that well into our third century as a nation, it remains the task of us all, as citizens of these United States, to be the authors of the next great chapter in our American story.

It was a finale that gave the lie to the conservative story of America, that democracy is an individual matter, that it gives each of us the liberty to seek his own interests and well-being without being responsible for anyone else or anyone else being responsible for him, from which it follows that the government should not be in the job of helping its citizens. Marco Rubio came right after and tried out this conservative anthem that has been so dominant since the Reagan years. It fell flat.

President Obama, in this speech, created what cognitive scientists call a “prototype” – an ideal American defined by a contemporary progressive vision that incorporates a progressive market with individual opportunity and initiative. It envisions an ideal citizenry that is in charge of the government, forcing the president and the Congress to do the right thing.

That is how the president has changed public discourse. He has changed it at the level that counts, the deepest level, the moral level. What can make that change persist? What will allow such an ideal citizenry to come into existence?

The president can’t do it. Congress can’t do it. Only we can as citizens, by adopting the president’s vision, thinking in his moral frames, and speaking out from that vision whenever possible. Speaking out is at the heart of being a citizen, speaking out is political action, and only if an overwhelming number of us speak out, and live out, this American vision, will the president and the Congress be forced to do what is best for all.

By all means, discuss the policies. Praise them when you like them, criticize them when they fall short. Don’t hold back. Talk in public. Write to others. But be sure to make clear the basic principles behind the policies.

And don’t use the language of the other side, even to negate it. Remember that if you say “Don’t Think of an Elephant,” people will think of an elephant.

Structure is important. Start with the general principles, move to policy details, finish with the general principles.

http://readersupportednews.org/opinion2/277-75/16058-speaking-out-is-at-the-heart-of-being-a-citizen-

The Progressive Economic Narrative in Obama’s State of the Union

by Richard Kirsch,  Senior Fellow, Roosevelt Institute; author of ‘Fighting for Our Health’, 2/13/2013

Two years ago, frustrated by a conservative resurgence in the 2010 election, a group of progressive activists, economists, communicators, and pollsters came together to write a compelling story about our view of the economy (as Mike Lux relates). Our goal was to write a story that people could easily understand, based on our beliefs about how to create an economy that delivered broadly shared prosperity — a story that could stand up against the right’s familiar recipe of free markets, limited government, and rugged individualism. The core of the story we developed in our progressive economic narrative (PEN) was: “The middle class is the engine of our economy. We build a large, prosperous middle class by decisions we make together.”

So it was a milestone in our work to hear President Obama tell our story and use our language in his State of the Union address. The key line, delivered at the top of the speech and quoted in almost every news story, was “It is our generation’s task, then, to reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth: a rising, thriving middle class.”

Taking another lesson from PEN, the president prefaced that quote with an explanation of what the economic problem is, focusing on how working families and the middle class have been crushed. In PEN we say, “American families are working harder and getting paid less, falling behind our parents’ generation. Too many Americans can’t find good jobs and too many jobs don’t pay enough to support a family. Big corporations have cut our wages and benefits and shipped our jobs overseas.” Here’s the president’s version:

But — we gather here knowing that there are millions of Americans whose hard work and dedication have not been rewarded. Our economy is adding jobs, but too many people still can’t find full-time employment. Corporate profits have skyrocketed to all-time highs, but for more than a decade, wages and incomes have barely budged. It is our generation’s task, then, to reignite the true engine of Americas economic growth: a rising, thriving middle class.

When it came to describing how we build this middle-class engine, the president again used the same ideas frame laid out in PEN: “We build a large and prosperous middle class through the decisions we make together; investing in our people, expanding opportunity and security, paving the way for business to innovate, and to do business in ways that create prosperity and economic security for Americans.” The president’s agenda was based on these same concepts:

Invest in people through education (starting at Pre-K), skills we need for today’s jobs, affordable health care, and a secure retirement.

Pave the way for businesses through research, infrastructure, and green energy.

Do business in ways that create prosperity, with a higher minimum wage and pay equity for women.

The president’s story contrasted sharply with Marco Rubio’s. Rubio also paid homage to the middle class, but he told the conservative tale:

This opportunity — to make it to the middle class or beyond no matter where you start out in life — it isn’t bestowed on us from Washington. It comes from a vibrant free economy where people can risk their own money to open a business. And when they succeed, they hire more people, who in turn invest or spend the money they make, helping others start a business and create jobs. Presidents in both parties — from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan — have known that our free enterprise economy is the source of our middle class prosperity.

So the fight is joined. For too long, progressives have not taken on the conservative story with our own narrative. As a result, even when people agree with us on specific issues, they still hold fast to the right’s definition of how to move the economy forward. We have, with the simple tale told by the president and in the progressive economic narrative, a very different story, an economy driven by working families and the middle class, which we create by decisions we make together, with our government as the catalyst.

Our next task is to tell this same story over and over again in all of our communications. Repetition is key. People need to hear the story whenever we communicate on an economic issue. We give examples of how do to that on job quality, job creation, the federal fiscal mess, and health care at progressivenarrative.org.

President Obama left out one part of the progressive economic narrative in his speech. As we say in PEN, “Our political system has been captured by the rich and powerful and corrupted by big money in politics. The issue is not the size of the government, it’s who the government works for — powerful corporations and the richest few, or all of us. We have to take our democracy back to ensure that our economy will work for all of us. “

That’s a story that politicians are reluctant to tell. As always, we need to lead and the leaders will follow. It is up to us to build an America and economy that works for all us. Clearly describing our vision of how to do that is a crucial element of building power that progressives overlooked for too long. We’re much closer when the president tells that story to the nation. It’s up to us to keep telling it every day.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/richard-kirsch/the-progressive-economic_b_2680460.html

A movement to reclaim the American Dream

by Katrina Vanden Heuvel, Washington Post, September 27, 2011

The modern American dream has always been a simple promise of opportunity: Hard work can earn a good life, a good job with decent pay and security, a secure retirement, and an affordable education for the kids. The promise always exceeded the performance — especially with regard to racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants and women. But a broad middle class and a broadly shared prosperity at least provided the possibility of a way up.

Today, every element of the dream is imperiled. Twenty-five million Americans are in need of full-time work. One in six people lives in poverty, the highest level in 50 years. Wages for the 70 percent of Americans without a college education have declined dramatically over the past 40 years, even as CEO salaries and corporate profits soared. Corporations continue to ship good jobs abroad, while the few jobs created at home are disproportionately in the lowest wage sectors. Nearly one in four homes with a mortgage is “underwater,” devastating what has been the largest single asset for most middle-class families.

Meanwhile, the richest 1 percent of Americans capture nearly a quarter of the nation’s income and control about 40 percent of its wealth. They have pocketed almost all of the rewards of the past decade’s economic growth and have shouldered almost none of the burdens.

On Oct. 3, thousands will gather in Washingtonat the “Take Back the American Dream Conference” in the belief that only a citizens’ movement can reclaim and save the fading American dream.

Organizers confront an economy that is broken for all but the wealthy. Economists and politicians invoke globalization, technology and education as the causes of our extreme inequalities, but in fact, they result from specific policies that have weakened workers, liberated CEOs, starved social protections and savagedAmerica’s middle class.

Despite continued mass unemployment, the GOP has dominated the debate about who will pay to clean up the mess left by Wall Street’s excesses — and what kind of economy will emerge out of the ditch. While progressive thinkers, activists and members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus have worked to reset the economic narrative and organize demonstrations for jobs in the wake of the economic collapse, their efforts have received little media attention and generated little momentum.

With President Obama in the White House, most progressive resources and attention have been committed to helping pass his reform agenda rather than broadening the national conversation. But in the wake of the 2010 elections, the focus has begun to shift. Now, the GOP’s attempts to roll back not simply Obama’s reforms but the Great Society and the New Deal — indeed much of the progress made in the 20th century — have sparked a vigorous progressive response.

When teachers, students and firefighters joined with union members in Wisconsinthis year to defend workers’ rights and oppose the assault on public education, the mass demonstrations electrified progressives and captured national attention. When House Republicans passed a budget that would have ended Medicare as we know it while cutting taxes for the wealthy, angry citizens filled congressional town halls across the country. And in the aftermath of these battles, a collection of unions and progressive organizations have banded together to fight back in a coalition called the American Dream Movement.

The movement is taking its first, ambitious steps: hosting more than 1,500 house parties across the country and developing an online outreach that has drawn 2 million participants. Just as the Tea Party provided an umbrella for conservative groups with disparate agendas, so the American Dream Movement hopes to gather and mobilize widespread progressive organizing efforts that are virtually invisible nationally. But unlike the Tea Party, the American Dream Movement is championing concerns that have widespread popular support. Its organizers recognize, as Michael Kazin argued in the New York Times, that “when progressives achieved success in the past, whether organizing unions or fighting for equal rights, they seldom bet their future on politicians.”

The agenda is clear: It’s our job as citizens to preserve, protect and defend the American dream. But first we have to resurrect it. That calls for major initiatives for jobs and growth, and reinvestment in our decrepit infrastructure and support for green industries. It calls for repairing our basic social contract: making quality education available and affordable, providing Medicare for all, and protecting Social Security. It means making work pay a living wage and empowering unions to organize and protect workers’ rights. It means progressive tax reform and an end toAmerica’s wars abroad. And it demands urgent democratic reforms to curb the power of money in politics. More than anything, all of this demands an independent people’s movement willing to challenge the grip of private interests on the public good. A movement of ordinary citizen-heroes, people willing to disrupt their normal routines to save the American dream.

The national mobilization will face an early challenge in an Ohio referendum on workers’ rights in November. But the broader challenge for the movement is to link these struggles and help raise awareness and energy, and to give voice to the outrage — and aspirations — of Americans. For this to happen, the movement has to challenge not just the extremism of the right but the failed dogmas of the establishment. The central task of the American Dream Movement — like the populist movement of the late 19th century — will be to put forth an alternative vision of American society and the economy. No movement can grow unless citizens are convinced fundamental change is possible.

Americans are right to have a low opinion of their government, to feel that their leaders have often left them to fend for themselves, that their democratic institutions have failed them. They are right to see Washington as rigged, dominated by insiders and corrupted by corporate money. Yet it would be a grave mistake to give up on government; instead it’s time to clean up our politics and rebuild a fair economy.

Elements of a new direction already have the support of a vast majority of Americans. What’s needed now is to state clearly and passionately what a more just country would look like and what it will take to achieve it. It will take a movement that connects with people’s real-life experiences to convince the country that change, on the scale required, is still possible, and within reach. It will mean inspiring people, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said — and did — to “refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.”

That takes a movement. Now is the time to build one.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/a-movement-to-reclaim-the-american-dream/2011/09/26/gIQApFfz1K_story.html

The Constitution is inherently progressive by John Podesta and John Halpin

Politico.com October 10, 2011 

Excerpt
…Progressives disagree strongly with tea party views on government, taxation, public spending, regulations and social welfare policies…As progressives, we believe in using the ingenuity of the private sector and the positive power of government to advance common purposes and increase freedom and opportunity…Coupled with basic beliefs in fair play, openness, cooperation and human dignity, it is this progressive vision that in the past century helped build the strongest economy in history and allowed millions to move out of poverty and into the middle class. It is the basis for American peace and prosperity as well as greater global cooperation in the postwar era…Our original Constitution was not perfect. It wrote women and minorities out and condoned an abhorrent system of slavery. But the story of America has also been the story of a good nation, conceived in liberty and equality, eventually welcoming every American into the arms of democracy, protecting their freedoms and expanding their economic opportunities… The Constitution is inherently progressive by John Podesta and John Halpin

Full text

Progressives disagree strongly with tea party views on government, taxation, public spending, regulations and social welfare policies. But we credit the movement for focusing public debate on our nation’s history, the Constitution and the core beliefs that shape American life.

This conversation is long overdue — and too often dominated by narrow interpretations of what makes America great.

Since our nation’s founding, progressives have drawn on the Declaration of Independence’s inspirational values of human liberty and equality in their own search for social justice and freedom. They take to heart the constitutional promise that “We the People” are the ultimate source of political power and legitimacy and that a strong national government is necessary to “establish justice, … provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty.”

Successive generations of progressives worked to turn these values into practice and give meaning to the American dream, by creating full equality and citizenship under law and expanding the right to vote. We sought to ensure that our national government has the power and resources necessary to protect our people, develop our economy and secure a better life for all Americans.

As progressives, we believe in using the ingenuity of the private sector and the positive power of government to advance common purposes and increase freedom and opportunity. This framework of mutually reinforcing public, private and individual actions has served us well for more than two centuries. It is the essence of the constitutional promise of a never-ending search for “a more perfect union.”

Coupled with basic beliefs in fair play, openness, cooperation and human dignity, it is this progressive vision that in the past century helped build the strongest economy in history and allowed millions to move out of poverty and into the middle class. It is the basis for American peace and prosperity as well as greater global cooperation in the postwar era.

So why do conservatives continue to insist that progressives are opposed to constitutional values and American traditions? Primarily because progressives since the late 19th century rejected the conservative interpretation of the Constitution as an unchangeable document that endorses laissez-faire capitalism and prohibits government efforts to provide a better existence for all Americans.

Progressives rightly charge that conservatives often mask social Darwinism and a dog-eat-dog mentality in a cloak of liberty, ignoring the needs of the least well-off and the nation as a whole.

As President Franklin D. Roosevelt said in his 1944 address to Congress, “We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. ‘Necessitous men are not free men.’ People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”
Yet according to modern conservative constitutional theory, the entire Progressive, New Deal and Great Society eras were aberrations from American norms. Conservatives label the strong measures taken in the 20th century to protect all Americans and expand opportunity — workplace regulations, safe food and drug laws, unemployment insurance, the minimum wage, limits on work hours, the progressive income tax, civil rights legislation, environmental laws, increased public education and other social welfare provisions — as illegitimate.

Leading conservatives, like Texas Gov. Rick Perry, claim that Social Security and Medicare are unconstitutional. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) even argues that national child labor laws violate the Constitution.

They lash out at democratically enacted laws like the Affordable Care Act and claim prudent regulations, including oversight of polluters and Wall Street banks, violate the rights of business.

This is a profound misreading of U.S. history and a bizarre interpretation of what makes America exceptional.

There are few Americans today who believe America was at its best before the nation reined in the robber barons; created the weekend; banned child labor; established national parks; expanded voting rights; provided assistance to the sick, elderly and poor; and asked the wealthy to pay a small share of their income for national purposes.

A nation committed to human freedom does not stand by idly while its citizens suffer from economic deprivation or lack of opportunity. A great nation like ours puts forth a helping hand to those in need. It offers assistance to those seeking to turn their talents, dreams and ambitions into a meaningful and secure life.

America’s greatest export is our democratic vision of government. Two centuries ago, when our Founding Fathers met in Philadelphia to craft the Constitution, government of the people, by the people and for the people was a radical experiment.

Our original Constitution was not perfect. It wrote women and minorities out and condoned an abhorrent system of slavery. But the story of America has also been the story of a good nation, conceived in liberty and equality, eventually welcoming every American into the arms of democracy, protecting their freedoms and expanding their economic opportunities.

Today, entire continents follow America’s example. Americans are justifiably proud for giving the world the gift of modern democracy and demonstrating how to turn an abstract vision of democracy into reality.

The advancements we made collectively over the years to fulfill these founding promises are essential to a progressive vision of the American idea. The continued search for genuine freedom, equality and opportunity for all people is a foundational goal that everyone — progressives and conservatives alike — should cherish and protect.

John Podesta is the president and chief executive officer of the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank. John Halpin is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. The Center for American Progress is hosting a two-day conference, “The American Idea: A More Perfect Union,” beginning Tuesday.

© 2012 POLITICO LLC

http://dyn.politico.com/printstory.cfm?uuid=FDBF1F29-05F2-4D3C-9A66-3A3B838BD299

Six Reasons We Can’t Change the Future Without Progressive Religion

By Sara Robinson, AlterNet | News Analysis, 09 July 2012

Mini-excerpt

..the history of the progressive movement has shown us, over and over, that there are things that the spiritual community brings to political movements that are essential for success, and can’t easily be replaced with anything else. Religion has been central to the formation of human communities — and to how we approach the future… all successful religions thrive and endure because they offer their adherents a variety of effective community-building, social activism, and change management tools that, taken together, make religion quite possibly the most powerful social change technology humans have ever developed…in a nation where over 90% of everybody has some kind of God-belief — and the overwhelming majority of them ground their political decisions in that belief — abandoning the entire landscape of faith to the right wing amounts to political malpractice…To our credit, a lot of our best organizers and activists are starting to realize the magnitude of this mistake. We’re paying a lot more attention these days to learning to clearly articulate progressive values, to express ourselves in explicitly moral language, and to put forward more strongly progressive frames, narratives, and future visions to counter the bankrupt conservative worldview that’s brought us to this sorry place in history… If we’re going to overwrite their [right wing] brutal and anti-democratic story of how the world works, the most important step we can take is to tap into the vast reach and deep moral authority of our remaining progressive faith communities, and amplify their voices every way we can….there’s very little agreement about the nature of God — but a very strong consensus that the act of radical community-making is the most intensely holy and essential work that they do… Progressives of faith have always played a central role in our political victories in the past. It’s time to stop imagining that somehow, we’re going to take the country back without them now.

Excerpt

One of the great historical strengths of the progressive movement has been its resolute commitment to the separation of church and state. As progressives, we don’t want our government influenced by anybody’s religious laws. Instead of superstition and mob id, we prefer to have real science, based in real data and real evidence, guiding public policy. Instead of holy wars, othering, and social repression — the inevitable by-products of theocracy — we think that drawing from the widest possible range of philosophical traditions makes America smarter, stronger, and more durable over time.

That said: while we all want a government free of religion, there are good reasons that we may not want our own progressive movement to be shorn of every last spiritual impulse. In fact, the history of the progressive movement has shown us, over and over, that there are things that the spiritual community brings to political movements that are essential for success, and can’t easily be replaced with anything else.

Religion has been central to the formation of human communities — and to how we approach the future — for as long as homo sapiens has been around. Apart from God-belief (which varies widely between religions), all successful religions thrive and endure because they offer their adherents a variety of effective community-building, social activism, and change management tools that, taken together, make religion quite possibly the most powerful social change technology humans have ever developed.

What does religion offer that progressives need to make our movement work?

First: there’s nothing like it if you want to bond a bunch of very diverse people into a tight community of shared meaning and value. A religious congregation brings together people of all ages, backgrounds, educational levels, professional rank, and life circumstances, and melds them into an enduring tribe that’s centered around a shared commitment to mutual trust and care, and (most importantly) has a clear and vivid shared vision of the future they’re trying to create.

There is simply no other organizational form that encourages people to share their time, energy, and resources so quickly, completely, or enduringly; or aligns so much conviction toward the same goal... Second, religious narratives center people in the long arc of history, telling them where they came from, who they are, what they are capable of, and what kind of future is possible. History does this, too; but religion does it at a deeper, mythic level that gives these stories extra emotional and cognitive resonance… Religion is the native home of the prophetic voice — the voice that calls people to transformative change… the kind of language that calls us to a better place. Third, over the course of American history, liberal religious faiths have been the primary promoter of progressive values throughout the culture — and also the leading institution when it came time to inculcate our progressive sensibilities into the next generation…Fourth, progressive religion has always been America’s most credible and aggressive front-line defender of non-market-based values against the onslaught of capitalism and greed. In recent years, as the “free-market” fetishists took over (and gulled American Evangelicals into shilling for their hellish utilitarianism), our liberal faith communities — mainline Protestants and liberal Catholics, Jews and Quakers, Unitarian Universalists and the rising wave of reformist Muslims — are the strongest remaining cultural forces left with the moral authority to insist that we have a duty to the poor, that democracy cannot survive without a commitment to justice, and that compassion is always a better survival strategy than competition.

The market says: Everything and everybody has a price, and is for sale. Faith says: The most valuable things in our lives — good health, safe food, strong families, a clean environment, a just economy, meaningful work, access to opportunity — are beyond price, and should by right be available to us all. Our faith communities (especially, but not always exclusively, the progressive ones) have always held this light up within our culture, and it’s never been needed more than it’s needed right now.

Fifth, in a nation where over 90% of everybody has some kind of God-belief — and the overwhelming majority of them ground their political decisions in that belief — abandoning the entire landscape of faith to the right wing amounts to political malpractice. For most Americans, our religious worldviews are the epistemological soil in which every other decision we make is rooted — the basic model of reality that we use to navigate the world. When we stopped engaging people’s basic model of moral order, we effectively ceded the entire moral landscape of the nation to our enemies. It was, in retrospect, perhaps the most self-destructive error we’ve made over the past 40 years (and that’s saying something).

To our credit, a lot of our best organizers and activists are starting to realize the magnitude of this mistake. We’re paying a lot more attention these days to learning to clearly articulate progressive values, to express ourselves in explicitly moral language, and to put forward more strongly progressive frames, narratives, and future visions to counter the bankrupt conservative worldview that’s brought us to this sorry place in history.

But while we’re working toward some new understandings here, let’s also remember that the right wing’s success on taking this field was rooted directly in their ability to mobilize conservative churches to carry the moral banner forward into the culture for them. If we’re going to overwrite their brutal and anti-democratic story of how the world works, the most important step we can take is to tap into the vast reach and deep moral authority of our remaining progressive faith communities, and amplify their voices every way we can. Churches and temples have always been the first and most natural places Americans turn when it’s time to have serious cultural conversations about value and meaning and the future they desire. If we’re serious about changing the national story and bending the future in our preferred direction, then that’s where we need to be.

Sixth: Progressive faiths, across the board, promote the essential belief that human communities are, in themselves, inherently and intrinsically sacred. In fact, progressive atheists may be surprised to learn that among their more religious brothers and sisters, there’s very little agreement about the nature of God — but a very strong consensus that the act of radical community-making is the most intensely holy and essential work that they do… Progressives of faith have always played a central role in our political victories in the past. It’s time to stop imagining that somehow, we’re going to take the country back without them now.

Full text

One of the great historical strengths of the progressive movement has been its resolute commitment to the separation of church and state. As progressives, we don’t want our government influenced by anybody’s religious laws. Instead of superstition and mob id, we prefer to have real science, based in real data and real evidence, guiding public policy. Instead of holy wars, othering, and social repression — the inevitable by-products of theocracy — we think that drawing from the widest possible range of philosophical traditions makes America smarter, stronger, and more durable over time.

That said: while we all want a government free of religion, there are good reasons that we may not want our own progressive movement to be shorn of every last spiritual impulse. In fact, the history of the progressive movement has shown us, over and over, that there are things that the spiritual community brings to political movements that are essential for success, and can’t easily be replaced with anything else.

Religion has been central to the formation of human communities — and to how we approach the future — for as long as homo sapiens has been around. Apart from God-belief (which varies widely between religions), all successful religions thrive and endure because they offer their adherents a variety of effective community-building, social activism, and change management tools that, taken together, make religion quite possibly the most powerful social change technology humans have ever developed.

What does religion offer that progressives need to make our movement work?

First: there’s nothing like it if you want to bond a bunch of very diverse people into a tight community of shared meaning and value. A religious congregation brings together people of all ages, backgrounds, educational levels, professional rank, and life circumstances, and melds them into an enduring tribe that’s centered around a shared commitment to mutual trust and care, and (most importantly) has a clear and vivid shared vision of the future they’re trying to create.

There is simply no other organizational form that encourages people to share their time, energy, and resources so quickly, completely, or enduringly; or aligns so much conviction toward the same goal. (This is why the leaders of corporations, the marketers of sports teams, and the military all study religious cultures, and try to appropriate their tribe-building techniques for their own purposes.) The resulting tribes can last for many centuries — and acquire a resounding moral voice that can reverberate throughout their larger communities, and well beyond. If you want to change the world, this is the kind of group — deeply bound by faith, trust, love, history, and a commitment to each other and to the world they envision that transcends life and death — that’s most likely to get it done. Religion is the best way going to get people to consecrate themselves, body and soul, to a larger cause; and to take on the kind of all-or-nothing risks that are often required to really change the world.

Second, religious narratives center people in the long arc of history, telling them where they came from, who they are, what they are capable of, and what kind of future is possible. History does this, too; but religion does it at a deeper, mythic level that gives these stories extra emotional and cognitive resonance. For most of human history, in fact, the task of imagining a different future and giving people the inspiration and courage to reach for it has been the primary role of religious prophets. (So has the job of warning the people that they’re wandering into grave error or betraying their own values, and must change their ways or face disaster.) Religion is the native home of the prophetic voice — the voice that calls people to transformative change. Throughout America’s history, our most evocative political prophets — both Roosevelts, all the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, Van Jones, Barack Obama — have invariably been people who spent a lot of time in the pews, learning to speak the kind of language that calls us to a better place.

Third, over the course of American history, liberal religious faiths have been the primary promoter of progressive values throughout the culture — and also the leading institution when it came time to inculcate our progressive sensibilities into the next generation. Many, if not most, progressives in America are progressive specifically because they believe that this is what their faith demands of them. They’re raising their kids in churches and temples because they believe, as the Bible says, that “if you train up a child in the way that he should go, when he is old, he will not depart from it.”

Liberal congregations have etched our values onto the young souls of tens of millions of American progressives, over three centuries and dozens of generations. Do we really want to try to do without them now?

Fourth, progressive religion has always been America’s most credible and aggressive front-line defender of non-market-based values against the onslaught of capitalism and greed. In recent years, as the “free-market” fetishists took over (and gulled American Evangelicals into shilling for their hellish utilitarianism), our liberal faith communities — mainline Protestants and liberal Catholics, Jews and Quakers, Unitarian Universalists and the rising wave of reformist Muslims — are the strongest remaining cultural forces left with the moral authority to insist that we have a duty to the poor, that democracy cannot survive without a commitment to justice, and that compassion is always a better survival strategy than competition.

The market says: Everything and everybody has a price, and is for sale. Faith says: The most valuable things in our lives — good health, safe food, strong families, a clean environment, a just economy, meaningful work, access to opportunity — are beyond price, and should by right be available to us all. Our faith communities (especially, but not always exclusively, the progressive ones) have always held this light up within our culture, and it’s never been needed more than it’s needed right now.

Fifth, in a nation where over 90% of everybody has some kind of God-belief — and the overwhelming majority of them ground their political decisions in that belief — abandoning the entire landscape of faith to the right wing amounts to political malpractice. For most Americans, our religious worldviews are the epistemological soil in which every other decision we make is rooted — the basic model of reality that we use to navigate the world. When we stopped engaging people’s basic model of moral order, we effectively ceded the entire moral landscape of the nation to our enemies. It was, in retrospect, perhaps the most self-destructive error we’ve made over the past 40 years (and that’s saying something).

To our credit, a lot of our best organizers and activists are starting to realize the magnitude of this mistake. We’re paying a lot more attention these days to learning to clearly articulate progressive values, to express ourselves in explicitly moral language, and to put forward more strongly progressive frames, narratives, and future visions to counter the bankrupt conservative worldview that’s brought us to this sorry place in history.

But while we’re working toward some new understandings here, let’s also remember that the right wing’s success on taking this field was rooted directly in their ability to mobilize conservative churches to carry the moral banner forward into the culture for them. If we’re going to overwrite their brutal and anti-democratic story of how the world works, the most important step we can take is to tap into the vast reach and deep moral authority of our remaining progressive faith communities, and amplify their voices every way we can. Churches and temples have always been the first and most natural places Americans turn when it’s time to have serious cultural conversations about value and meaning and the future they desire. If we’re serious about changing the national story and bending the future in our preferred direction, then that’s where we need to be.

Sixth: Progressive faiths, across the board, promote the essential belief that human communities are, in themselves, inherently and intrinsically sacred. In fact, progressive atheists may be surprised to learn that among their more religious brothers and sisters, there’s very little agreement about the nature of God — but a very strong consensus that the act of radical community-making is the most intensely holy and essential work that they do.

If there is a God (and progressives of faith debate that question endlessly), then we might most reliably see the face of that divinity in that permanent circle of friends with whom we celebrate life’s passages and joys, and wrestle with its hardest challenges — the people whom we trust to stand with us no matter what comes, and who will work with us tirelessly toward our shared vision of a better world. It’s this deep faith in the dream of the beloved community that also feeds our faith in the potential of good government, and our confidence in the unleashed potential of the American people. (And furthermore: I don’t think I’ve ever met a progressive atheist who would disagree on this point.)

Across all the long centuries of the American progressive movement, we’ve never launched a successful change wave that didn’t draw most of its leadership, its base, and its moral grounding from the country’s deep liberal religious tradition.

Our churches and temples have been the fountain, the rock, the mother source of our movement from the very beginning. Progressives of faith have always played a central role in our political victories in the past. It’s time to stop imagining that somehow, we’re going to take the country back without them now.

This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license.  Sara Robinson
Sara Robinson is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America’s Future, and is also doing futures consulting with the Progressive Ideas Network, which is a project of Demos. Her work often appears online at the Huffington Post, Firedoglake, OpenLeft, and Alternet; and has also recently been in print at The Progressive Christian and Survival: The Journal of the International Institute of Strategic Studies. Starting in 2006, she was David Neiwert’s co-blogger in covering authoritarian and extremist movements at Orcinus, where she cultivated her professional interest in the politics and sociology of change resistance.
http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/10231-six-reasons-we-cant-change-the-future-without-progressive-religion