Andy Schmookler: The power of the spirit

Andy Schmookler

Something reminded me recently of when I first saw how America’s secular culture greatly underestimates the potential power of the spirit.

It was at the beginning of the 1980s, when I was working in Washington on American national security. The overthrow of the Shah of Iran by the Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers had taken American foreign policy and intelligence people by surprise.

That shock led a group of thinkers to try to include the potential of religious movements into American assessments of possible changes in the world. I was given a role in that, which enabled me to witness how some smart people – even religious people – needed to expand their thinking to make room for how an eruption of “the spirit” might change the course of things.

The issue arose again at the end of that decade, when the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe started to fall apart. American analysts had become readier to see how one important factor leading up to that unforeseen development was of a spiritual nature. Namely, that a charismatic Polish priest had become pope, and that his words had subtly instilled into his own nation a deep kind of liberating energy — an energy that inspired his people to help dissolve what Churchill had called, 40 years before, the “Iron Curtain.”

Ordinary forces lead to ordinary, predictable outcomes. But the spirit can lead to extraordinary outcomes that take people by surprise.

All this came back to my mind recently when I engaged with readers of an article I’d posted on a couple of liberal forums on the web.

In that piece, I put forward my view of how — in a democratic society like ours —“the balance of power between good and evil” can shift for the worse:

If some political force can deceive enough basically “good and decent people” into mistaking the evil for the good, their alignment with the forces of destruction can tip the balance of their society in a destructive direction.

I used that image to make the argument that, for the long term health of America, an absolutely crucial task is to bring back to the good side many of the “decent people” who have been led astray by the deceptive political force that has hijacked the political right.

It’s a force that pretends to be conservative and patriotic but has trampled on our political traditions, as no real conservative would; and one that pretends to be patriotic while repeatedly damaging the nation for the sake of its own power.

My liberal interlocutors were not interested in such a task.

Many of them rejected the notion that anyone who supported Trump, after his displaying so many vices so blatantly, could be “good and decent people.”

Never mind that most of my interlocutors don’t actually know people like those I had in mind — people with whom I’d engaged in hundreds of hours of radio conversations back in the 90s. And never mind that, as I told them, other liberals who live out here in the Trump country of the Shenandoah Valley agree that many of our conservative neighbors are indeed, in important ways, “decent” people.

To these liberals, a person’s support of Trump was quite sufficient to condemn them utterly. (Such dismissal reminded me of the thoughtless and narrow-minded way that some conservatives have declared that “You can’t be both a Christian and a Democrat.”)

And so to these liberals, the idea of working to bring these people “back” to the side of the good seemed foolish.

But even most of the others could not imagine any such redemptive transformation as my hopeful idea envisioned. They argued that whatever these Trump supporters may have been like 20 years ago, there’s no way they’ll ever escape from the grip of the fear-mongerining, lying propagandists of the right have done to them.

That’s what reminded me how surprised some very smart people were back in the 80s, when the power of the spirit upset their certainties about what might or might not happen in the world.

I admit, it’s quite possibly true that most Republican voters (and Trump supporters) will go to their graves believing the false political picture they’ve been sold over the years by the likes of Limbaugh and Fox News and the Republican Party, and believing they’ve been supporting righteous conservatism throughout this era, even while “conservatism” got hijacked by a radical and destructive force.

But the spirit springs forth in history in unpredictable ways. And when the spirit erupts, the impossible becomes possible.

Twice in American history – once in the 18th century, once in the 19th – major parts of America got swept up in spiritual/religious “awakenings.” With each of these great awakenings, people’s spirits were moved toward the good regarding America’s bedeviling evil: race-based slavery.

The first awakening -in the 18th century — led to greater inclusion of blacks in religious life, even as the bondage of slavery continued. The second awakening – in the 19th century — ignited the anti-slavery movement. People’s hearts turned against that profound evil.

Which leads me to wonder: might there be some awakening in our times — some positive transformational kindling of the spirit among American conservatives, in many of whose lives religion and religious feelings are so central?

Andy Schmookler is an award-winning author, and was the Democratic candidate for Congress in Virginia’s 6th District in 2012.