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How a Spiritual Government Might Have Responded to Katrina

The United States government, so good at rushing in to "aid" (or invade) other countries, spectacularly failed its own people recently when faced with the disaster of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. To avoid similar scenarios in the future, America can consciously foster spirituality in government. Though the idea of a spiritual government might today seem like a contradiction in terms, it is possible to guide policy-making according to spiritual principles.

A spiritual government-like a spiritual individual-would conserve its resources in an effort to liberate its energies for genuine duties. Just as the spiritual aspirant might practice asceticism to conserve and inwardly direct her energies in mystical practices, the spiritual government would carefully direct its resources to the area of greatest need, avoiding the temptation to waste vital resources on projects of choice, whether they are a war or a lucrative contract given to a crony campaign fund-raiser.

Even as the spiritual practitioner knows that she is only as strong as her weakest attribute or poorest habit, a spiritual government, realizing that a society is only as strong and successful as its poorest citizens, would carry out the duties of social equality. Hence the spiritual government would be conservative in that it would limit itself to its true purpose: defending the life and liberty of all through its progressive military, social, and economic policies. It would consider war only as a last resort, respect science, reject the influence of theology on legislation, and acknowledge that human beings are not all born into equal opportunity.

To achieve a spiritual government, America will have to undergo a decentralization of power similar to the decentralization of worship I propose in my new book God Without Religion. Seeking God without religion means expanding the sense of self free from centralized authority, dogma, and identity-a theme that can be applied to every sector of life, including the political, to create a more spiritual existence.

Past administrations have embodied domestic and global paradigms that have directly and indirectly put the lives of Americans at risk. They have waged class warfare, favoring the rich, and incited international wars and terrorism. Ironically, a move toward decentralization was instigated during the American conservative movement of the 1950s. Observing how fascism wrought havoc in Europe, conservatives wanted to put a halt to centralist trends and temper the power of the federal government. However, corporate interests soon found the conservative movement to be the perfect ideology to bend toward their will. The spiritual conservatism of the 1950s soon became disfigured by the centralizing influence of corporatism, eventually leading to the neoconservative abuses of the current administration.

Though Ronald Reagan could hardly be remembered as a fiscally conservative president, he once remarked that the federal government must live within its means just as we as individuals must live within ours. However, today that spirit of conservatism is dead not only in government-which now serves as a centrally located feeding trough for corporate interests-but among the American public as well, where millions live on borrowed money and the imaginary money created by the housing bubble. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" slogan captured the spirit required for effective spiritual decentralization, though he has since proven to be the epitome of reckless spending and apathy toward the poor.

Bush's ultimate step away from conservatism was the instigation of the Iraq war. Hundreds of billions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives were mobilized in the name of a so-called "war on terror"-when the likeliest 9/11 suspect, Osama bin Laden, could well be sitting in his palace getting his daily dialysis. More liberal analyses place the responsibility for 9/11 closer to home. Either way, the expense of this war drained resources from the Army Corps of Engineers, FEMA, and the National Guard, rendering them unable to serve their own people by tending New Orleans's levees before the storm hit, transporting the poor out of the city, and setting rescue efforts in motion.

These national problems may seem impossible to overcome, but individuals can begin the movement toward spiritual government by themselves embodying the conservatism (read: asceticism) that spirituality requires. This may require a shift in perception, as most people attracted to spirituality are liberals both politically and in their thoughts regarding social issues. Their basic premise is usually that capitalism is inherently unfair, rendering it necessary to have in place a strong centralized government. Liberals plainly see that our current administration is contrarily bent on exacerbating the unfairness of capitalism with its misguided loyalty to the "trickle down" theory. Indeed, even staunch Republicans are realizing that this administration's debt could result in a global economic crisis.

If the solution is conservative spirituality, then the full answer to our economic and class challenges might be in blending liberal ideals with conservative pragmatism. The more the federal government conserves its energies by cutting military spending and fostering fairness and goodwill toward all people, the fewer enemies it will create and thus the more resources it will have to legitimately defend our borders against clear and present threats. The more it abandons the idea of government for, by, and of the corporate lobbyist, the more resources it will have for disaster relief, scientific research, and international aid. Finally, the more it allows states to tax its residents, limiting itself to taxing the states directly, the more local governments can help their poor, fund education-and respond to emergencies in their own backyards.

Those of us who enjoy the benefits of capitalism can help avoid future disasters like the Katrina response by choosing to follow a spiritual life of simple living and high thinking, giving to those who don't share our financial comfort-and especially creating a government that reflects our "conservative asceticism" in its ability to direct its energies in a timely manner to those citizens who need it most. And we can remember that the hour of need is often a very short hour, making every effort to take advantage of the small window of opportunity to better human life.