Patriotism and Piety—Not For Conservatives Only

Did you hear the one about the guy who says: “We should respect conservative political values just as much as liberal, because no one has the whole truth. And I know that for sure, so I don’t need consider other points of view.” Pretty funny, huh? Wait, it gets better.

“Moral judgments are based on intuition much more than reason,” the guy says. “But I’m going to use reason to explain why I’m increasingly sympathetic to conservative views—even though my own theory suggests that all my arguments are actually after-the-fact rationalization for some change in my intuitions, which I can never really understand.”

The guy slays me! Too bad I recently had surgery and it hurts so much to laugh.

But seriously, folks: 

Jonathan Haidt’s bestselling new book, The Righteous Mind, is built on exactly these contradictions. The reformed pundit—“I used to be part of the liberal academic tyranny but no more”— is now a fixture in mass media, insisting that his or her bold new perspective will “bring us together.”

How such an irrational defense of conservative politics—justified in all sorts of brainy ways, as Haidt’s own theory would predict—is supposed to bring us together is beyond me. Maybe it’s a joke I don’t get. Or maybe a sneaky way to try to shift us all a bit to the right.

I’ve already done my own rational, professorial deconstruction of many of Haidt’s arguments here on RD, so I won’t repeat myself. And why should I expend much intellectual effort on such an amusingly self-contradictory author? Besides, this is an election year, and I’m not sure there’s time for leisurely academic exercises.

But I do agree with one part of Haidt’s argument: Politics is driven much more by unconscious processes (what he calls intuition) than by conscious, logical thinking. No doubt I’m unconsciously influenced by the way Republicans in my home state of Colorado recently killed a bill that would have allowed my son and thousands of other gays and lesbians to form civil unions—even though a majority of the public and the state legislature supported it.

No doubt I’m unconsciously and deeply concerned not only about the GLBTQ community but about the sick, the unemployed, senior citizens, the homeless, the underfed, the undereducated, and the natural environment—all suffering from a Republican stranglehold on our political lives. Yes, for reasons I’ll never fully understand, I’m one of those bleeding-heart liberals Haidt chastises for dominating academia. And I’m proud of it.

So rather than engage in intellectual fencing with Haidt, I’m interested only in doing what I can to fend off the attack on liberalism—and even more, the attack on the left (which he mistakenly equates with liberalism)—an attack he has joined with such gusto. Like any strategist, I’m eager to learn whatever I can from my foes and use it against them. For that purpose, The Righteous Mind turns out to be useful.

Haidt’s primary point is actually a good one: people on all sides of the political debate ought to listen more carefully, and try harder to understand one another. He correctly identifies a cardinal sin of so many liberals and lefties: failing to give conservatives an honest hearing.

But it’s lousy strategy. If you want to win, you’ve got to have the best possible intelligence about what the other side is up to.

Hierarchy, Loyalty, Sanctity

If you listen to most conservatives, you’ll hear them saying one thing over and over: Let’s go to a religious worship service. For decades now, there’s been a clear statistical correlation: the more often you attend those services, the more likely you are to vote Republican. It’s an ironclad rule of our recent political life. Mitt Romney now “gets the disproportionate support from highly religious voters in the general election that Republican candidates traditionally enjoy,” as the Gallup Poll says.

The mass media keep insisting that voters care only about the economy and that they’ll hold Obama responsible if things don’t get better by Election Day. But the religiosity-conservatism link has held in the past through economic good times and bad. And if higher income levels correlate with more frequent worship attendance (as Charles Murray, most famously, claims), the mystery deepens—the people who are best insulated from the economic shocks of the last four years and have the least reason to punish Obama are most likely to vote against him.

Might religiosity be an independent variable, one that can override economics? Jonathan Haidt gives us good reason to think so. As you move along the political scale from left to right, he says, three values become increasingly important: hierarchical order (everyone in their proper place), loyalty to one’s own in-group (defending against outsiders), and sanctity (which, Haidt finds, conservatives equate with purity). He’s got apparently decent data to document this.

So the statistics tell us that the more conservative you are, the more likely you are to seek out these three values within a religious community—and vice versa. The challenge for liberals is to see how their own policy positions can actually promote order, loyalty, and a sense of sanctity.

That’s no problem for Barack Obama and his speechwriters. Like so Democratic politicians in recent years, Obama flaunts his personal commitment to sanctity. And he links it to a passion for order, even some of the kinds of hierarchical order conservatives love: children obeying their parents, soldiers doing their duty, citizens obeying the duly-enacted laws of their government. 

When he hones in on wealth inequality, Obama subtly suggests that the super-rich have disrupted socioeconomic order; that there’s something obscene about the massive wealth they’re building up while the rest of us struggle to make ends meet—and that they’ve betrayed their loyalty to the group. (“Is Mitt Romney really one us?”, every Obama ad seems to ask.)

Many in the Democrats’ activist base are well to the left of Obama and have long been skeptical about, or outright rejected, the big three values of the right (as Haidt so often complains). Even many who hold them as private values are often resistant to making them a basis for public policy. But there’s no hypocrisy in promoting the policies we support with language that can engage more conservative voters.

Don’t we really believe that a major policy shift to the left would make society more orderly? True, most of us don’t endorse hierarchies of any kind. But there’s plenty of evidence (which Haidt ignores) that hierarchy is mostly a means to an end for conservatives.

The dominant conservative trait, psychologists find, is conscientiousness: impulse control, planning and organizing, following norms and rules. In religious terms, this correlates closely with what Robert Wuthnow calls the spirituality of dwelling: feeling surrounded by walls strong enough to keep out dangers, known and unknown. What right-wingers really want (and plenty of centrists too, I bet) is the feeling of safety they get from orderly, predictable structures that give them a sense of certainty.

It’s not hard to make the case that a society where everyone is well cared for, well educated, and decently treated—and where even the richest must follow rules that protect everyone—is a safer, more predictable place for us all.

Why don’t those of us on the left make that case loud and clear? 

In With the In Crowd

The conservative value of in-group loyalty presents a tougher problem.  And it’s the pivotal conceptual battleground of this year’s presidential election. Obama and his speechwriters have made a brilliant move. They passionately promote the group bonding that conservatives love, but they’ve redefined the in-group to include all Americans. 

Though they use the language of religion to help make this point, Democratic strategists don’t insist (as Haidt does) that religion is nothing but group bonding. Rather, they link group loyalty with patriotism.

That word has made many on the left shudder ever since the 1960s, when they saw the horrors to which it can lead. But Gandhi and MLK were as intensely patriotic, and as fervently religious, as any right-winger. But both made the distinction that, for a religious person, true patriotism means using the resources of the nation to serve the well-being of all humanity.

Which brings us to the toughest value of all for so many liberals: sanctity in politics. Haidt tell us that for conservatives (and he knows these folks pretty well) sanctity means, above all, avoiding what’s disgusting.

Okay. Don’t we on the left actually believe that conservatives policies are repellent? Don’t we hold our responsibility to the natural environment as a sacred trust and get outraged when it is fouled by conservative policies? Decency is as much a value for us as for the right-wingers. So is a deep reverence for human life. If that’s what conservatives mean by spirituality, then we should not hesitate to proclaim the spirituality of our politics.

Yes, this means mixing religion and politics, something so many liberals have long been afraid of. But most Americans have always wanted religion mixed into their politics, and for the foreseeable future they always will. It makes no sense to cede this nexus to the right. Instead, we should recognize that there is a right way and wrong way to do it, insist that it be done the right way, and get to work.

Of course many liberals already do. And there lies the good news. The United States has a rich heritage of liberal (and even radical) political views being promoted by religious people and congregations. Millions of Americans seek sanctity in their lives, humble themselves before a higher power (however they understand it), and realize that liberal policies will foster a safer, more orderly life for themselves and their community.

But “community” here means the entire country: people of every color, every sexual orientation, every socioeconomic status, documented and undocumented alike. Religious left activists are dedicated to serving the most pressing needs of all Americans. And they are equally dedicated to bending the unrivaled resources and power of the United States to serve human needs around the world—we need not be embarrassed to invoke both patriotism and spirituality.

So thank you, Jonathan Haidt, for reminding me what valuable guidance the religious left offers as we struggle to find the political language we need in 2012. 


Front page image: “American Values,” courtesy flickr user Spiritualmonkey