“Spirituality” and the Revival of Liberalism

In the Wilson Quarterly, Leigh Schmidt makes the case that hopes for the revival of liberalism rests in “spirituality”, itself an old and important American tradition.

America may be polarized, but in one activity its social critics have achieved a rare unanimity: lambasting American “spirituality” in all its New Age quirkiness and anarchic individualism. The range of detractors is really quite impressive. James A. Herrick, an evangelical Christian author, deplores the “new spirituality” as a mélange of Gnostics, goddess worshipers, and self-proclaimed UFO abductees out to usurp the place of Christianity: all told, a widespread but shallowly rooted challenge to the mighty religious inheritance of the West. The neoconservative pundit David Brooks of The New York Times thinks that a “soft-core spirituality,” with its attendant “psychobabble” and “easygoing narcissism,” is epidemic. Observers on the left are no less prone to alarm. One pair of such commentators warned recently that the rebranding of religion as “spirituality” is part of corporate capitalism’s “silent takeover” of the interior life, the sly mar keting of a private, consumerist faith in the service of global enterprise.

Even many scholars of religion have jumped on the bandwagon. Martin E. Marty, the widely esteemed historian of American Christianity and professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, published an opinion piece this past January in Christian Century in which he labeled the “spirituality” versus “religion” debate “a defining conflict of our time.” …

All this criticism of the “new spirituality” has obscured and diminished what is, in fact, an important American tradition, one in which spiritual journeying has long been joined to social and political progressivism. Emerson’s “endless seeker” was, as often as not, an abolitionist; Whitman’s “traveling soul,” a champion of women’s rights; Henry David Thoreau’s “hermit,” a challenger of unjust war. A good sense of the continuing moral and political import of this American vocabulary of the spirit comes from Barack Obama, the recently elected Democratic senator from Illinois. Obama has said that, despite the results of the 2004 election, it “shouldn’t be hard” to reconnect progressive politics with religious vision: “Martin Luther King did it. The abolitionists did it. Dorothy Day did it. . . . We don’t have to start from scratch.”