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A muckraker on matters of the spirit

"We cannot allow spirituality to be the exclusive preserve of the politically conservative," Jeffrey Klein cautions in a lead editorial that is almost as striking for where it appears as for what it says.

Klein is president and editor in chief of Mother Jones, and my first thought, on seeing his piece in the November/December edition was: What is an investigative magazine (and a liberal magazine to boot) doing devoting nearly an entire issue to religion?

In truth, much of the content of the issue is a lot nearer the usual Mother Jones treatment: articles on sexually unfaithful priests, phony faith healing and religion as a virus, for instance.

But it is Klein's lead essay that grabs.

"For too long," he says, "progressives and the establishment have ceded public discussion about morality to the religious right. That's a major reason Mother Jones has dared to step foot on this sacred ground. Still, we do this not just to counter the religious right. Spirituality, if approached with integrity and intelligence, is an effective force for the public good. Brave mainstream people of faith have made common cause with reformers at key moments in America's past _ from abolitionism to the Progressive era, from the New Deal to the civil rights movement."

It is strange and marvelous stuff to hear from a liberal muckraker (the magazine is named for Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, 1830-1930, described in the masthead as "orator, union organizer and hell-raiser").

Maybe it strikes me as marvelous only because it expresses so much of what I've been trying to articulate. Klein even echoes my political fear that liberals and progressives, already having yielded patriotism and morality, are in danger of ceding yet another significant piece of ground _ spirituality _ to the right. I find almost painful, for example, the dismissive treatment by so many liberals of the Promise Keepers _ on grounds hardly more substantial than that Pat Robertson finds the movement attractive.

Let the effort to address the spiritual hunger that I believe much of America is feeling become exclusive turf of the religious right, I keep warning my friends, and your fear of a Christian right takeover could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

"But," says Klein, "I'm much less worried about a theocratic takeover than about the lopsidedness of the American spirit. After all, the realm of the soul _ real or imagined _ is where most of us make our most important moral decisions."

The great difficulty is in finding a proper place in public life for this "realm of the soul." Assuredly I do not want theologians _ Bible-thumping or not _ running the government. Nor do I want to see the government treat citizens as though they are merely physical beings. Maybe all one can reasonably hope for is some acknowledgment, in policies and in attitudes, that what people believe is important.

Isn't it of some account that 96 percent of us profess a belief in some universal spirit that transcends our physicality? Klein believes there is.

"Balanced spirituality can provide vision in times of crisis by placating the ego and pulling for both strength and humility. .


. As we enter the 21st century, it becomes harder not to recognize the commonality of the human condition. Our societies are fragmenting as we continue to hyper-focus on personal consumption. Lip service has replaced real service. How much longer can we afford to ignore the mutual responsibilities we bear for the health of our symbiotic web?"

Nothing in what he has written offers a clue as to how "religious" Klein is _ nor should it. That would only invite arguments about the specifics of his religion, when his point is the importance of recognizing the near-universal belief in our common spirituality and of honoring the validity of one another's search for truth.

Klein believes that, whatever our doctrinal particulars, our desire to connect with some transcendent power or idea _ with something bigger than ourselves _ is deeper even than our drive for economic satisfaction.

I believe it too _ and I believe, moreover, that it is our societal failure to address that longing that tempts us into the non-spiritual excesses that threaten to bring us ruin.

I just didn't expect to find it in Mother Jones.

Washington Post Writers Group