Spirituality finds a place in the US' political landscape

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Photo: Getty Images
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Photo: Getty Images
Spirituality has emerged as a force on America's political left - and long may it prosper, says Ian Harris. 

Spirituality in politics? I can hear the snorts of disdain. Surely politics has to be grounded in the gritty stuff of life - economics, law and order, trade, roads, schools, hospitals.

Politics is Donald Trump busy making America great again, back-stabbing personality tussles in Australia, Britain's messy disengagement from the European Union - that's what it's all about!

Then, suddenly, it isn't. Something less tangible comes into play. Ordinary people see a glimmer of hope, stop being cynical or dismissive, and find their voice.

Who says nothing can change, they ask. Why can't social values such as fairness, respect, care, sustainability determine policy, rather than macho chest-thumping, the desire to dominate, the pursuit of wealth above all else? Doesn't being more matter more than having more? What exactly is wrong with the economics of enough?

Those gentler values are an aspect of spirituality, that elusive sense that there's more to life than simply existing, certainly more than a relentless focus on getting and spending. It's wairuatanga, unseen strands that connect us to one another and everything else, an awareness that shapes individual lives, shapes families, shapes communities. And through politics it can shape a nation.

So it's not surprising that people who realise this are welcoming the stunning emergence on America's political landscape of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, central to whose appeal is ... spirituality!

A 28-year-old New Yorker of Puerto Rican background, Ocasio-Cortez is troubled by the widening social and political disconnect in American life. Two years ago she joined a cross-state march against a new crude-oil pipeline in Dakota, which native Americans saw as threatening their water rights, and learnt a lot.

"Native American spirituality was the lynchpin for the water protectors there," she says. "That is where people get the strength."

Each night the indigenous activists met for ancient rituals to pray for purification and strength, and Ocasio-Cortez, brought up Catholic, found the ceremony "a profound spiritual experience". She saw the water protectors' cause as a matter of spiritual wellbeing as well as

political action.

Back home, it propelled her into politics. There she spoke openly about her experience, so helping to revive a notion of spirituality in left-wing politics, where it has long been ignored or regarded as silly or shameful.

Journalist Sarah Smarsh describes this shift as "a reconciliation of the public sphere with private meaning". If that is so, may it grow and prosper! Any spiritual movement or religion worth its salt strives towards social justice along with spiritual health, the one reinforcing the other.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, brought up in the Jewish faith though no longer practising, also believes that ethical imperative is the foundation of serious politics. "It's hard to imagine why anyone would be involved in politics if one didn't have a moral sense of right and wrong, of justice and injustice," he says. "We are not a just and moral society when three people own more wealth than the bottom half of America."

(Actually, it isn't hard. Some people go into politics to protect privilege and wealth or promote some specific interest or cause.)

Like Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez identifies with the democratic socialist wing of her party, but says it's not ideology but a moral imperative that drives her. "In a society that is materially and logistically and in every way capable of ensuring people are paid a living wage, have healthcare, have access to an education and opportunity - if that is materially possible, I feel we are morally compelled to make it so," she says.

In the primary election to select a Democratic candidate for the Bronx/Queens district in New York, she promoted a moral stance on Medicare, freer access to higher education, gun control and rolling back the privatisation of prisons.

The grassroots warmed to her. She dislodged a senior Democrat who had held the seat for 20 years and had the backing of big party donors. He spent $US3.4million ($NZ5.25million) on his primary campaign, swamping Ocasio-Cortez's $US194,000, most of which came from small donations.

Looking ahead, the odds are daunting. Democrats and Republicans are divided as seldom before. Factions vie within the parties. "Our country doesn't understand itself as a collective nation," Ocasio-Cortez says .

Sanders, however, sees signs of hope all over the country. "Sometimes when you do the right thing, and you organise at the grassroots level and you have ideas which resonate with people, you can do remarkable things," he says.

Next month's mid-term elections will be a straw in the wind. And spirituality will play a part.

Ian Harris is a journalist and commentator.


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