From Bad to Worstest: How Liberals Should (And Should Not) Talk About Values

Forgive a tiny bit of self-promotion: over the weekend, I was on State of Belief with Welton Gaddy, talking about my recent RD article on Why Being “Faith-Friendly” Isn’t Worth It For Democrats. It was fun, and hopefully I was able to reiterate some of the points made in the article.

At the end of the interview, Welton tossed me an unexpected question: Is it still possible, he asked, to have a conversation about values in today’s political climate? I fumbled around a bit trying to answer that, mostly because I believe that while it is possible, it’s very, very difficult. Consider this a (hopefully) more coherent response.

Before we get into a direct answer, though, let’s talk about some of the more common mistaken assumptions liberals—particularly religious liberals such as myself—labor under. First, people—again, particularly religious liberals—have a tendency to assume that “values” are a privileged category in today’s political discourse. They’re not. The sum total of fucks given about the moral or ethical reasoning behind political positions is: “Do they agree with me or not?” As I’ve explained before, what this means in practice is that the people who agree with you don’t really care if you have a religious reason for your position or not. They agree, and that’s enough. The people who disagree, on the other hand, discount your religiosity. They disagree, which invalidates your authority.

People also tend to assume that there is a shared moral framework in America that can unleash great cooperative political power, if it can only be tapped in just the right way. There’s not, for pretty much the reasons outlined above. While Americans might share broad moral assumptions, in reality the interpretation and application of those assumptions breaks down along the lines of my team vs. your team.

Want to convince everyone that we’re all on the same team? You’d probably have better luck trying to reconcile Eagles and Cowboys fans. It’s not happening.

Extending this thought a bit, people often have the idea that appealing to the authority of a transformative, inspirational leader will tap the shared moral framework. This doesn’t work, either.

Last but not least, it’s easy to think you’re talking to people with different values when in fact you’re just talking to people like yourself. That’s less a liberal or conservative flaw than a human problem. We’re all a bit myopic, morally speaking.

With all this in mind, there are bad, worse, worser, and worstest ways to talk about values (I’m assuming a liberal perspective in what follows):

  • Bad: “As a Christian…” Nobody gives a shit. You just lost 90% of your audience in three words.
  • Worse: “I am a ‘values voter’ too. I am pro-the-entire-life, not just before birth!” Nobody gives a shit, and you just gave away all your moral ground by buying into a conservative frame. Besides, do I really have to tell you how weak “Liberals have values too!” is?
  • Worser: “All Christians can surely agree on the value of…” Wrong. They don’t, and they don’t think you’re a Christian. (Also, not everybody’s a Christian.)
  • Worstest: “On this special day, we must all strive to live up to the ideals of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr….” Yes, I said it. Don’t invoke King if you want to start a conversation on values. Citing King’s authority is overdone, he’s impossible to condense appropriately, he’s not the inspirational figure he used to be.

To put that last point differently, nobody who would oppose liberal values will suddenly be converted by hearing Dr. King’s name. Which is of course not why people ever toss his name around: the point is to identify oneself with the “right side of history.” “Well, Donald Trump is a fascist nitwit, but I believe in what King wrote in Letter from the Birmingham Jail…” That’s not having a conversation, that’s talking at people, assuming they’ll hold King in the same esteem liberals do. In other words, it’s talking to your own, not across the divide.*

To make matters worse, people who stress living ethical lives—whether liberal or conservative—tend to rub other folks the wrong way, as though they were holding them in constant judgment. It turns out to be super easy to turn people off by talking about ethics and morals.

It’s not wrong to talk about your values. I do it all the time! But you have to approach it sideways, with a sense of humor and surprise. Giving someone an unexpected reason to buy into a value works much better than a blunt, confrontational declaration.

Start with a story. Drop the labels, the identities, the principles, and tell a story. As it unfolds, let the values come through. I’ve been far more effective in getting even conservative congregations to empathize with the poor by talking about my experiences among the homeless and drug addicts in Atlanta than by railing about letting “justice roll down like mighty waters.”

People will listen to a concrete story and absorb its message much more quickly than an abstract argument. The goal is to find powerful stories that prompt people to understand the world in a different way. It’s really hard to do.

Remember, though, this is a conversation! Be prepared to listen to other people’s stories, and to think about them carefully. On the other hand, it’s fair to insist that they tell you their stories. I don’t really give a rat’s ass what FoxNews has to say, why do you think this way? It can be disconcerting for people to open up like this. Many won’t be able to do it, or will refuse. But it’s still worthwhile, even if it doesn’t result in a great liberal awakening. We live in a society that is so fragmented, so cut off from one another. Anything we can do to change that, to create connections across value systems, makes for a stronger society. It makes it incrementally more difficult to cut citizens off from one another, to manipulate their divisions.

In the end, I think we can have conversations about our values because we’re human, and that’s what humans do. The worst thing that could happen to America over the next eight years wouldn’t be a conservative or liberal triumph, but losing sight of our own humanity.

*In my experience, people whose faith is built around a call to establish social justice have a tendency to assume that everybody else’s faith is structured the same way, or should be. That’s an observation more than a criticism.