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Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Who's afraid of freedom and tolerance?

Doug Muder — aka Pericles at Daily Kos — offers a perceptive analysis of two competing worldviews in his latest article for liberal religion and life: He wants to know why fundamentalists seem so afraid of liberal assumptions and liberal family values. He genuinely wants to know what's so scary about freedom and tolerance?

Three things stand out to me about Doug's analysis: First, as a liberal he isn't interested in dismissing conservatives. He knows we all have conservative relatives, coworkers, and friends. We happen to share a country with them, too, and religious liberals — no matter which tradition they're in — are always in dialogue with religious conservatives whether they want to be or not. He doesn't share their worldview, but he wants to understand it and he grants that his political opponents aren't necessarily or wholly wrong. He's not out to get them. That makes a difference, because he wants to find ways to make dialogue and transformative conversation possible. It's a strategy that won't do anything to help matters in Washington, but it might transform your next Thanksgiving dinner.

Second, he offers what I find to be a more helpful distinction than George Lakoff's "strict father/nurturant parent" contrast. Doug claims that the conservative worldview is rooted in a sense of inherited obligations, while the liberal worldview is rooted in a sense of personally chosen commitments. Call it the contrast between "Thou Shalt" and "We Choose."

He writes, first about conservative obligation:

A child, in this view, is born into a network of mutual obligations and depends for its survival on the fulfillment of those obligations. As it grows, the child takes an ever more active role in upholding that network. At no point in the process is the individual in a position to stand outside the network and choose whether or not its obligations apply to him or her. The only choice the individual has is whether to fulfill his/her obligations or to renege on them. This is what fundamentalists mean when they say that moral values are “absolute” rather than “relative.”

By contrast, the liberal worldview puts a much greater emphasis on commitments undertaken by choice, rather than obligations imposed from birth. Naturally, this is a difference of degree rather than kind. Unitarian Universalists have obligations and Baptists make choices, but choice plays a far greater role in the liberal worldview than in the conservative. Choice is entirely a good thing in the liberal worldview, whereas it is ambiguous to the Christian Right.

Finally, Doug is convinced that liberals ought to emphasize commitment even more than choice:

If there is one basic thing conservatives do not understand about religious liberals, it is this sense of commitment. They see us champion choice over obligation, but misunderstand our reasons. They understand us to be advocating a superficial and nihilistic way of life. They think we want to choose our own moral codes so that we can pick easy ones that rationalize our every whim. They believe that we want the freedom to define our relationships so that we can walk away from anything that looks difficult.

Talking about commitment might allow religious conservatives and religious liberals to recognize some common ground:

In fact, religious conservatives and liberals share more concerns and beliefs than either commonly admits. Both have loyalties that go beyond self and the convenience of the moment. Both reject the materialism of popular culture. Both seek something more substantial than the momentary satisfaction of desire or the endless striving after status. The committed life is a different way to pursue these goals, not a denial of them.

But the committed life requires freedom, because only voluntary commitment has meaning. [Unitarian Universalist churches] give our members the freedom to doubt and encourage them to question their beliefs not so they will see all beliefs as whimsical and contingent, but quite the opposite: We find that hard-tested and hard-won beliefs are more likely to withstand the challenges of modern life. A marriage whose every assumption and duty has been freely negotiated is not a house of straw, but rather a house whose every brick has been carefully laid. The freedom of liberal religion is an invitation to engage with the most significant issues of human life and society, not an excuse to fall into a shiftless and vacant hedonism.

You can read the whole thing at liberal religion and life, a new weekly online liberal religion magazine. (Full disclosure: I just so happen to be the editor.)

P.S. Doug is discussing the article with readers at his religion blog, Free and Responsible Search.

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 21 September 2005 at 7:59 AM

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Dudley Jones:

September 21, 2005 01:18 PM | Permalink for this comment

Sometimes not having a map can be tough.


September 26, 2005 05:07 PM | Permalink for this comment

I really loved this article you write about. I think the ideas in it are compatible with Lakoff's Strict Father/Nurturant Parent analysis.
In the same issue of the UU World, one of the letters to the editor describes people she sounds contemptful of as "values-relative materialists". As a liberal, progressive, values-relative person who has the same disdain for what she calls materialists as she does, I was inspired to wonder if those "materialists" that both types of values people disdain, aren't a third group? Do conservative values people and progressive values people each lump the "no-values materialists" into the opposing group when they are really a separate third group? does that make any sense? and who are they? Would anyone admit to being in that group? How much do they overlap the "Neocons"?

Phil on the Prairie:

September 27, 2005 04:45 PM | Permalink for this comment

I really don't think the issues Muder brings in from Ault are compatible with Lakoff at all. I've just looked through the index of Lakoff's Moral Politics, and the obligation/commitment dichotomy that Muder sets up is nowhere to be found. Truth is, liberal religious families can have a multigenerational identity just as conservative religious families do. It's not so much a matter of obligation, but of prioritizing values. For many religious families--conservative and liberal--being part of a community of faith is a high priority. Unfortunately it is too often a matter of choice among UUs, as Muder suggest. Not a way to grow a movement is you ask me.

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