BERKELEY, Calif. – The Network of Spiritual Progressives, founded by Tikkun magazine, assembled 1,200 left-leaning spiritual activists from across the country in July for its inaugural conference.

The conference cited three goals:

– To challenge the misuse of God by the right to justify militarism, dismantling of social justice and ecological programs, and assaults on the rights of women and gays and lesbians.

– To challenge anti-spiritual biases within parts of the left.

– To support a new bottom line of kindness, generosity, ecological sensitivity – and to replace the dominant one of selfishness and materialism.

It would be easy to assume that the efforts of this conference are merely the flip side of the alliance between the Republican Party and conservative Christians.

But there were several aspects to the contrary. In addition to the 1,200 attendees, every speaker who participated, regardless of location, did so at his or her expense.

We want to challenge the religiophobia in the left and the Democratic Party, to challenge the demeaning of spirituality, the reduction of spiritual consciousness to either new age trivia on the one hand or to reactionary politics on the other hand, says Tikkun founder Rabbi Michael Lerner.

For Lerner, all of the religious rituals are meaningless if there is not a corresponding commitment to social justice. Specifically, this would mean universal health care, a livable wage, restorative justice and becoming better stewards of our natural resources.

The Network of Spiritual Progressives obviously is aligned with the progressive left, but Lerner insists that they are also prepared to critique those liberal and progressive forces for not going deep enough, for not understanding that there is a need not only for material well-being, but there is hunger for a framework of meaning and purpose to people that transcends materialism and selfishness.

If successful in its efforts, the group of spiritual progressives that met last week would be following in the prophetic tradition of Martin Luther King Jr.

The repeated calls for inclusion at the conference invoke the spirit of King, who said we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied to a single garment of destiny.

Such thinking would suggest that spiritual progressives would bear a burden that appears to befall their conservative counterparts. Assuming an authentic commitment to inclusion, spiritual progressives must be willing to leave the door open for those whose world view may differ. One of my of criticisms of conservative Christianity in particular has been the ease with which they can post a No Vacancy sign for anyone who is not in lockstep with their ideology.

Moreover, spiritual progressives would do well to learn from history.

King never endorsed a candidate for president. It is uncertain if he ever changed his political affiliation from the Republican Party.

His belief in a beloved community, however, moved politicians to his vision. Lyndon Johnson’s voting record in the Senate suggested that he indeed was a segregationist, but the ethos of the Civil Rights Movement caused a shift in his thinking, which resulted in landmark legislation.

But calls for inclusion, noble as they may be, are not enough. During the Thursday morning plenary session, at which I was one of the speakers, there were no more than 15 African Americans present in the otherwise packed ballroom.

There are probably myriad reasons, but lack of outreach was not among them. Unfortunately, the Network of Spiritual Progressives still bears the face of a predominately white organization.

This is problematic for two reasons.

First, it cannot be inclusive if everyone is not present. Second, there has never been a successful social movement that did not include the active participation of African Americans, Prohibition notwithstanding.

The immediate plan is to repeat such an effort in Washington, D.C., in February 2006. It will be the challenge of those who participated in last week’s conference to do more to ensure that inclusivity means exactly that.

But the seeds of hope have been planted. The Network of Spiritual Progressives has emerged, and not a moment too soon.

We have already witnessed that without a viable alternative, a thirsty person will drink muddy water.

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