Spirituality? Politics? How can we mention
these in the same breath? Most people would say you can be either a
spiritual seeker—or a political activist—but never both. For those caught
in dualistic, “either/or” thinking, politics and spirituality seem worlds
apart-- two different arenas that should never be mixed or they produce
deadly results--such as we see today with certain politicians trying to
impose their religious beliefs on everyone else through public policies.
But there’s a big
difference between spirituality and religion. “Religion” refers to an
organized institution and community of believers, with specific dogmas and
practices. But spirituality relates to one’s inner, moral-centered life in
relation to the Transcendent. It is concerned with qualities of the
human spirit such as love and courage. Religion can help a person be
spiritual, but spirituality isn’t dependent upon religion.
In actual practice, true spirituality can
ennoble politics and politics can ground spirituality. Spirituality can
help people leave ego and power trips at the door and truly serve the good
of others. Politics can provide a practical arena for applying spiritual
principles such as compassion, as instant feedback is given if someone
doesn’t “walk the talk”— if their words are more pious than their deeds.
Bringing spiritual values such as altruism and courage into politics could
offset the immense power of moneyed interests to influence policy, and
offset the cynicism and apathy of much of the public.
Gandhi had no trouble bringing his spirituality
and politics together. He said, “I could not lead a religious life
unless I identified with the whole of mankind, and that I could not do
unless I took part in politics.”
But what about separation of church and state in
this country? As Congressman Dennis Kuncinich says, “Our Founders never
meant to imply that we should separate…the actions of government from
spiritual principles.” Nor did they intend that we should avoid
discussing spiritual ideas in the public arena. They only intended that
the State not impose religious beliefs on citizens or interfere in the
practice of religion.
People today are
yearning for a spiritually based politics guided by moral values—a
politics that doesn’t appeal only to self-interest and pit one group
against another. They seek a type of political discourse that speaks to
their deepest values as human beings, that provides a greater sense of
community and a transcendent purpose as a nation, that offers us a higher
vision of public life and service to the common good--rather than
appealing only to greed and lust for power.
As Jim Wallis writes in God’s Politics, we
shouldn’t be asking if God or Spirit is on our side, but rather ask, Are
we on God’s side? Are we embodying our spiritual values and promoting
compassion, justice, and peace?
A recent poll found
that 84% of Americans agree that “our government would be better if
policies were more directed by moral values.” Another poll in The
Washington Post found that the issue of greatest concern to voters
wasn’t healthcare or education, but rather moral values.
If citizens make it
safe to discuss spiritual values in public life, then they can hold
politicians accountable for the spiritual values they espouse. The public
has made it very clear they don’t want negative campaigning, and
candidates today often try to convince voters that their campaign is the
most positive. A refreshing call to honesty, service and sacrifice from a
candidate often draws people to vote for the first time in many years.
How can we recognize a spiritually based
politics? Here are some key qualities:
Courage in standing up to special interests
Honesty and integrity—“walking the talk”
Lack of ego-inflation and manipulation of others
Fairness and justice
Non-violence and peaceful means
Compassion for the disadvantaged
Serving the good of the whole, rather than personal
Respect and civility for opponents
Collaboration and partnership
Whole systems thinking—understanding how everything is
Reliance on intuition and inner guidance
Faith in a Higher Power—God, Spirit, the Universe, etc.
Spirituality in politics is most apparent where
citizens altruistically engage in politics to help others, rather than
just protect their own self-interests (e.g. lowering their taxes,
providing healthcare they need, etc.) Although promoting self-interest may
be necessary and certainly is not wrong, it is not motivated by unselfish
concern for others. However, even when the public motive is to help
others, one needs to also honestly assess whether the private motive might
be increasing one’s own power or fame, as this would reduce its spiritual
value. And ultimately the measurement of spirituality is
integrity—whether someone embodies the spiritual principles they promote.
There are many ways in which spiritual values
impact American politics today. (Of course, depending on your personal
political leanings, it may be harder to see the spiritual motivation in
the politics of your opponents.) Providing for the poor, the homeless,
and the handicapped, as well as reducing violence and drug abuse have
always been key arenas for spiritual activism. Liberals generally promote
government-funded social programs as solutions, while conservatives
promote private solutions, including faith-based organizations.
Another arena is fighting injustice and
inequality by speaking truth to power. Liberals and reformers have
generally taken more of this approach. Issues include human rights,
racism, women’s rights, etc. Many spiritually oriented people have been
increasingly concerned about the protection of wildlife and stewardship of
the natural world. Environmental protection, endangered species
protection, and energy conservation are key issues. The invocation of
service and sacrifice for a higher ideal to activate political will is
another major arena for spirituality.
One of the most contentious areas
recently for spirituality and politics has been what one side calls
“declining morals and family values” in schools and popular culture.
Fundamentalist Christians have been the most vocal about this, but others
have also expressed concern. The issues here are school prayer, censoring
sexuality in movies and TV, banning abortion, etc.
The Seeds of a Truly Transformed Politics
While doing research
for our book Spiritual Politics, we found that in addition to these
traditional arenas for spirituality and politics, there is a new politics
emerging around the country today that embodies a more innovative
Using a “higher common ground” process for resolving conflicts
and making policy
Many of the new political approaches
transcend the usual adversarial approach to find higher ground on
polarized issues. There is usually a grain of truth on each side in any
political conflict. Healing, reconciliation and forgiveness are spiritual
qualities very much needed today.
The training of initiates in ancient mystery
schools included training in paradoxical thinking--holding two opposite
ideas at the same time and seeing the truth in both. Taoists teach about
yin and yang--the polar opposites--that are held in a dynamic balance.
Buddhists follow the Noble Middle Path between the pairs of opposites. In
the Jewish Kabbalah or Tree of Life, the middle pillar shows the path of
balance between the opposites.
As Einstein said, we can’t solve a problem on
the same level of consciousness that created the problem. We have to find
higher common ground.
dialogues, which involve all parties in a collaborative dialogue, are
proving to be the most effective way to develop viable policies and reduce
conflict on divisive issues such as race, abortion, and the environment.
For example, The Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy helps resolve ethnic
conflicts worldwide through involving all stakeholders in
dialogues--government, business and non-profit groups—and listening deeply
to all perspectives. Search for Common Ground helps opponents on both
sides of the abortion debate find common ground by working together to
prevent unwanted pregnancies and to make adoptions more easily available.
America Speaks creates innovative citizen dialogues on local issues such
as neighborhood development and national issues such as Social Security.
The ageless wisdom of East and West emphasizes
that unity is needed before there can be lasting peace in the world, and
peace is needed before there can be shared abundance. Peace is built on
right human relations. Through efforts to transform conflict and listen
to the voices on all sides of an issue, the seeds of a new politics is
beginning to emerge. It is a politics that recognizes the underlying
unity of humanity and builds a new synthesis based on identification with
Working to transform consciousness--the causal factor
Our negative patterns of thinking are the
deeper cause of problems in our world. As medical researchers in
psychoneuroimmunology are discovering how our thoughts affect our health,
we need to explore how our collective thoughts are affecting our
collective social health.
The Ageless Wisdom of both East and West
reveals how to change the world by changing consciousness. To create peace
in the world, we must create peace within ourselves. In the West, the
Bible says, “As a man [or woman] thinketh in his heart, so he is.”
Likewise, the Buddhists say, “With our thoughts we make the world.”
Energy follows thought--mind is the builder. The interplay of human and
Divine thought creates all reality.
For example, The
Foundation for Global Community, (formerly Beyond War) based in Palo Alto,
CA, successfully enlisted hundreds of teams around the country to help
Americans reframe their consciousness about nuclear war. They learned to
see it as obsolete, because no one could actually win a nuclear war. So a
new, non-violent strategy for security was promoted.
Tikkun, an interfaith community started by
Rabbi Michael Lerner, produces a national magazine and “Spiritual
Activist” conferences that promote the consciousness of a “new bottom
line”—compassion, generosity and caring—instead of the old bottom line of
materialism and selfishness. To address the spiritual crisis in America,
they have created a “Spiritual Covenant with America” to encourage
spiritual people to stand publicly for their highest vision and values.
Other groups such as our Center for Visionary
Leadership, are helping people study the deeper spiritual causes of
current events and crises and the karma involved. Events can be a rich
source of collective learning if we’re willing to explore the lessons
being offered through shared national experiences. We can interpret events
as the symbolic out-picturing of the inner forces at work and explore
their hidden causes in consciousness. The Native Americans called this
“Reading the Book of Life.”
collective disasters and wars provide major opportunities to learn
compassion for victims, as well as to learn the consequences of our
actions. “As you sow, so shall you reap,” as the Bible says--or “karma” as
the Hindus say. When the Mississippi River flooded major portions of the
U.S. several years ago, for example, sewage dumped in its tributaries
backed up and returned to the towns that had dumped it. This new
spiritual approach to politics does not look for others to blame, but
rather takes responsibility for our own thoughts and actions.
Using meditation to invoke the soul of a nation and spiritual
help for leaders, policies, and crisis situations.
A spiritually based politics recognizes that
we humans do not have to struggle with our problems alone, as help is
always available from higher dimensions when it is asked for. There are
many examples of guidance by higher spiritual forces throughout history,
such as George Washington’s vision of an angelic presence at Valley Forge,
the help received by the Allies during the Battle of Britain in World War
II, and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s vision of Mohammed inspiring him
to create peace in the Middle East.
Prayer has been used
by all religions down through the ages, but today there are many groups
that promote meditation for creating peace and justice, such as the
Buddhist Peace Fellowship in Berkeley, CA. Pathways to Peace in Larkspur,
CA for example, has organized prayer vigils to ask for spiritual help in
crisis situations. A major meditation vigil around the world helped
support the peace process in Bosnia at a crucial juncture. Pathways to
Peace and many organizations promote meditation for the United Nations
every September 21st on International Peace Day. Intuition in
Service in New Zealand sends out regular notices about important events
and crises to be held in the light of meditation.
The Faith and
Politics Institute in Washington D.C. provides retreats and reflection
groups to support Congresspeople and their staff in being true to their
deepest values when confronting difficult issues such as campaign
At The Center for
Visionary Leadership, we encourage people to invoke the soul of their
nation, because like individuals, each nation has both a self-serving
personality and a more altruistic soul. We also created a meditative prayer to help heal the divisions that divide us as a nation, and many people around the country have been
using it for years. Citizens of several other nations have also adapted
it to their own country.
We also encourage
people to “Adopt a Leader”--find a national leader that needs help
spiritually, but has a lot of potential, and follow his or her career,
praying or meditating for him/her, that s/he may align with higher
spiritual principles and serve the good of all.
Synthesizing the spiritual aspects of both hierarchy and democracy
A new approach to
politics takes the spiritual aspects of hierarchy--leadership and
quality--and the spiritual aspects of democracy--caring and
inclusiveness--and raises them up into a higher synthesis. The synthesis
of the best of democracy and the best of hierarchy creates enlightened
leadership. Democracy provides the loving container to hold and nourish
people's development, and hierarchy models the direction for others to
The principle of hierarchy acknowledges current
abilities, quality and excellence (actualized potential). Hierarchy
recognizes current accomplishments. It values leadership, purpose,
direction, and vision. It can be very efficient and provide clarity and
accountability, encouraging and rewarding initiative. It can provide
models of achievement for others to aim for, offering mentoring for those
who are younger or less experienced.
Each of us must learn to recognize whom we can
learn from because they are more advanced in certain areas (and thus we
can learn humility). But we must also recognize whom we can serve because
they haven’t yet developed certain qualities that we might have (and thus
we can learn responsibility).
The principle of democracy acknowledges future
potential and empowers its development, giving people the maximum freedom
to grow and develop. It provides opportunity and encouragement. It values
inclusiveness, relationship, listening, compassion. Equal opportunity,
political rights, and decision-making power are bestowed on all so that
individuals may develop their full potential. There is an emphasis on
inclusiveness, where everyone is equally honored and encouraged to
participate. This can be especially reassuring especially for those
lacking self-worth or self-confidence.
A number of new groups are experimenting with
this innovative approach, such as Foundation for Global Community in Palo
Alto, CA and the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. Governance structures
include enlightened, empowered leadership at the core with very
participatory, decentralized decision-making. Leaders listen carefully to
concerns from all participants, and build consensus on major issues.
Promoting “best practices”—spiritually based solutions to social
Many new solutions have been pioneered by
“civil society” groups (non-profit organizations) which represent a
powerful third force beyond government and business that embodies the
spirit of service found in all religions. Their spiritually based
solutions are effective because they address the whole person--body, mind
and spirit--and change lives, rather than just provide food or shelter.
Washington, D.C. has helped juvenile gang members give up violence and
drugs and find a new life through a spiritual approach. The Restorative
Justice Institute in Virginia brings together crime victims and offenders
for reconciliation and forgiveness. The Alliance of Concerned Men in
Washington, D.C. helps unmarried fathers reconnect with their sons and
take responsibility for their education. The Sarvodaya self-help movement in Sri
Lanka is built on Buddhist principles of loving kindness, sharing and
service, with thousands of participants meditating together each day.
In the widespread
trend to bring spirituality into business, an increasing number of
Americans are working to make their companies reflect their values in how
they relate to their employees, their community and the natural
environment. They are promoting a triple bottom line—people, planet,
profit—and making their companies more socially responsible. Many people
are hungering for a deeper sense of meaning and purpose at work and want
to apply their values in a practical way.
many citizens want their politics and government to reflect deeper, more
universal spiritual values. They demand that politicians embody the
values they espouse—but without imposing these values on others.
Bringing together spirituality and politics is a key idea whose time has
come—in fact, it’s long overdue! But as the French say, Everything
begins in mysticism and ends in politics!