Disillusioned Obama acolytes gather to plot a course independent of politicians

Copyright 2010 Marta H. Mossburg

They pronounced it a strategy conference for progressives. It felt more like a New Age wake for Hope, that undefined campaign promise of Barack Obama.

Rousing folk songs, “sacred hollers,” visualizations of world peace, deep breathing and laments for Obama’s lost potential infused the Network of Spiritual Progressives (NSP) meeting in Washington last month.

The 400 or so mourners registered for the June 11-13 conference -- garbed in Birkenstocks with socks and look-a-like sandals, elastic waist pants and assorted t-shirts espousing no nukes and “Gaza Freedom March!” -- looked as if they had protested over the decades.

As one of the speakers said, “I know how old you are, I’m looking at you.” Women, a majority of the audience in the nearly all white crowd, wore their salt and pepper hair cropped short and no makeup.

Billed as a conference for people of all faiths and backgrounds, most attendees I interviewed were mainly Jewish or from liberal Protestant denominations. One young woman wore a Moslem-style headscarf and one Buddhist monk was in robes. About 10 black people showed up.

The conference could be dismissed as a small group of disgruntled ex-hippies except the organizers and speakers are not nobodies. Rabbi Michael Lerner, one of the three heads of Berkeley -based NSP, was a former health care adviser to Hillary Clinton and edits Tikkun magazine. Lerner says Obama attended Tikkun meetings in Chicago and used to read the magazine, according to conversations he had with candidate Obama. The most recent cover of Tikkun, which according to NSP means “to mend, repair and transform the world,” features an illustration of two dark-skinned androgynous people wearing robes and head scarves embracing next to the headline, “Queer spirituality and politics: Why gay rights is a religious issue.”

Other speakers included Rep. Keith Ellison, a Democrat representing Minnesota’s 5th district. Heather Booth, a community organizer and force behind ACORN, spoke. She led the AFL-CIO’s health care campaign in 2008 and was training director of the Democratic National Committee. Rob Weissman, president of Public Citizen, a prominent anti-trade, environmental and consumer rights group, was another panelist along with numerous professors, community and labor organizers and leftist religious leaders.

The speakers’ credentials did not stop them from sounding a little bit crazy, however.

Lerner compared Tea Party activists to Hitler at least five times over two days and repeatedly described American society as on the verge of veering toward National Socialist policies without a new world vision based on “relationships of caring.” “People will gravitate toward something like that if the alternative is steering on the status quo,” said Lerner.

He also urged people to reject realism because “reality is constantly transformable.” A lot of people seemed confused by that and other statements of his, with one audience member asking how to explain their platform to other people “without sounding like I am talking from the 1960s.” Another wanted advice on how to approach people he disagreed with without sounding like “we are coming from left field.”

Some other political insights from speakers:

Rep. Ellison, a Muslim, on immigration: “God willing, one day the border will become an irrelevancy.”

Sister Joan Chittister, a co-head of NSP with Lerner and Princeton Professor Cornel West, a Benedictine nun and author of more than 30 books, on compassion: “We know the level of brain damage by a citizen’s degree of distance away from it.”

On crop management: “Genetic modification makes food itself a weapon of mass destruction.”

Peter Gabel, a long-time law professor at the now defunct New College of California School of Law on big government: “We need to construct another view of big government as a carrier of love, connection and community….Obama should send a thank you letter to you when you send in your taxes saying all of the caring compassionate things the government does –educating people, helping the poor….”

On why Elena Kagan should be confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice: Along with Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, she “will stand up for the human concern.” He said, “Putting your heart into it – that’s the way to exert pressure on the court.” The reason: “You will never out argue [Justice Antonin] Scalia.”

Is he saying that former Harvard Law School Dean Kagan should be confirmed as a justice because she will use her heart rather than her head – the same reason men argued that women should not be able to vote at the turn of the last century?

But the overall theme was recovery from Obama abandonment. Lerner, a former avid supporter of the president while running for office, urged people not to “waste time fighting for political candidates.”

He criticized Obama for abandoning single-payer health care reform and espousing a war doctrine held by every administration since the Vietnam era. As a result of distancing himself and his administration from core progressive beliefs, the hope Obama generated in supporters during his campaign that he would operate using a “strategy of generosity” had largely dissolved, he said.

“As it dissolved it created a deeper cynicism because people feel humiliated,” he said.

Carol Quinn, a Presbyterian from Denver, said she agreed with Lerner. “Politicians will not save the world,” she said.

Rep. Ellison urged participant to think of Obama as “one player of 18 in our quest to build a society of generosity, inclusion and love.”

Not everyone thought Obama was such a disappointment, however.

The Rev. Raymond Bell, senior pastor of First Rising Mount Zion Baptist Church in Washington said he attended to counter “abuse of Obama.”

“We want to make it clear it’s fair to criticize him on issues where he’s made a promise and didn’t fulfill it. It’s unfair to put on him all of one’s hopes and assumptions,” he said.

Dressed in a black suit with open neck shirt, Bell, who is black, was probably the only attendee in business attire in the sweltering hot weather that weekend. He said he was not surprised at how few African Americans came to the conference. “I don’t think it was really advertised to the black churches,” he said. Most black pastors in the area were in Hampton, Va., at an annual conference that’s been going on for 96 years, usually over the same week.

He said his church supported the idea that multiple religions should come together to create a more compassionate society, but he was amused that the speakers were so upset with Obama.

“We’ve always hoped that the government would do something. … We’re used to our hopes not being fulfilled. We’re not new in this game. Maybe it’s new to white people.”

Bell also said his church and many of the pastors at the conference could not sign on to the full agenda of the NSP, which includes supporting the right of homosexuals to marry. “We’re not homophobic. Everybody is welcome in our church,” he said. “But we call it sin. We’re not going to legislate your sin.”

President Obama may still have the solid backing of black Americans. But with his approval rating in the pits and job numbers showing the economy still faltering, losing a key group of influential Democratic supporters this election season will not help the president or his party. Attendees at the conference said they may still vote for Democrats. But the take away from the conference was to “Go for your highest vision of good, highest goals, highest moral and ethical and spiritual self,” outside party control.

If that is the sentiment shared by millions rather than just the 400 attending the conference, Obama could be in serious trouble.

And it begs the question of whether the glamorous ambiguity Obama employed to marshal so many young voters and old activists alike to believe in Hope and Change will work a second time around. When a candidate does not define what he stands for, other people will do it for him, often with negative results out of the candidate’s control.

As Rabbi Lerner said, “We’re here to support Obama…We’re here to help him to be the Obama Americans thought they elected.”