Saturday, September 24, 2005

Values, Culture and Politics

Who's afraid of freedom and tolerance? Why are fundamentalists so frightened by liberal family values? A look at competing worldviews, by Doug Muder, is the cover story in the Fall issue of UU World magazine, published by the Unitarian Universalist Association.

For those seeking to find progressive religious "values-based" approaches to understanding and responding to conservative evangelicalism, it is an interesting and important read. Muder makes a spirited and convincing case that conservative values hold no distinct advantage for the family or for anything else, and that statistics on such matters as divorce and pornography bear him out.
He calls for greater understanding of conservatives and better articulation of progressive religious values as essential in the culture war. Here is an excerpt:

"It is tempting, human, and (to an extent) inevitable for religious liberals to respond with our own feelings of persecution, helplessness, and anger. But in doing so, we fall into the vicious cycle of polarization: Our anger feeds their sense of persecution just as theirs feeds ours.

We have a way out of this cycle: a message of hope that the Right cannot match. Our way of life works in this new world and does not demand that we roll history back. We need to broadcast this Liberal Good News loud and clear.

But in order to communicate our message, we need to understand the anger and helplessness of the Christian Right, so that we can cut through the static that jams our signal. We need to talk about more than freedom and choice; we need to explain why we want freedom and choice. We need to talk about the committed life and how committed liberals escape the superficiality and nihilism that the Right fears and assumes we represent.

We need, in short, to reclaim one of Christianity's best ideas and hardest practices: We need to love our enemies and to bless with hope those who curse us with anger. Such love and such blessing would not be a signal of weakness or an overture to surrender, but rather a portent that we had found the true power of our religious heritage. Armed with that power, we can win these culture wars. Without it, we may not deserve to."

While I agree with much of the article, I think there is a problem, well more of a limitation, I suppose, with this approach. And its not unique to this article -- it's a limitation endemic to liberalism across the board in the U.S. The article substitutes the idea of "values" and "message" for political strategy and electoral activism -- when there is a need for both. Love and understanding and good message are not to be confused or conflated with recruiting and fielding good candidates, mobilizing voters and winning elections. There is no evidence that reframing of values, and coming up with better articulations of those values taken by themselves, affect electoral behavior or electoral outcomes.

That said, I do think that people of liberal or progressive values can and should better understand conservatives of all sorts. They should also, as Chip Berlet has persuasively argued in several essays here at Talk to Action -- stop the pointless and counterproductive demonization of conservative Christians. There are those who think that calling conservatives names like "religious political extremists" is smart politics. But this focus-grouped, inside-the-beltway-manufactured style of sloganeering has often substituted for having an actual political and electoral strategy in response to the Christian Right. I think the current composition of Congress ought to give anyone who thinks this stuff is a good idea, considerable pause.

Let me be blunt: there is no substitute for direct engagement as a citizens in electoral politics. Electoral politics is citizenship. It is here that our major civic conversations take place, and choices are made for our communities by electing our governmental representatives to office at all levels. It is the nature of electoral politics that there is some conflict as people differ about what choices should be made -- and by whom. This is normal, and valuable. The avoidance of this conflict means abandoning the playing field to the far-better organized Christian Right.

The Christian Right political movement is crystal clear about this -- and works across the election cycle to build for power sufficient to make their values real in public policy. Liberal and progressive organizations, with a few exceptions, (notably Neighbor-to-Neighbor and Progressive Democrats of Massachusetts), are not so engaged.

Politics begins, but does not end with values. "Message," whether a message of love and understanding, or ruthless labeling and demonization, is only one dimension of political life in our constitutional democracy. A key to the success of the Christian right has been the way that it has integrated participation in civic and electoral life with their values. In fact, that participation is a value in itself. There is no liberal or for that matter, Democratic, "message" that will make much, if any electoral difference, absent a major retooling of our approach to electoral politics.

Crossposted at


Blogger Shai Sachs said...

excellent post, thanks for bringing Mouder's article to light!

I have to say that I don't think he was thinking of electoral politics. I certainly agree with your view that electoral competition is the key to winning at politics.

but i think there is a deeper question here: how do we get religious conservatives to become religious liberals? it seems to me like that is what Mouder is driving at - he wants to see UUs recruit religious conservatives to a liberal religious worldview. and he believes tht the first step in this process is to approach them from an angle of love and understanding.

(I blogged about this at Cambridge Drinking Liberally's blog)

I think you're right that message does not replace strategy, but i suppose the question is, What is the strategy? How do we bring religious conservatives into the liberal worldview, given this message?

8:50 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

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With the goal of trying to help progressive voices to be heard, please consider us mutually linking in order to improve both our search engine rankings. Regardless of your decision, please keep up your writing and best of luck on your new web site. Godspeace.

Richard Mathis

8:51 AM  
Blogger Frederick Clarkson said...


I agree with Muder that developing a strong and mature progressive religious culture in response to the Christian Right makes great sense. But I think liberal religious institutions would be foolish to attempt any significant evangelization to religious conservatives.

Lets be clear, the choices being made in society -- the culture war to which Muder refers, and to which he proposes his ideas are a solution, is not being waged primarily through evangelism or values. It is being waged through electoral politics. Electoral politics. Electoral politics.

The way that the Christian Right succeeds is by organizing the people they already have, and who they can reasonably get -- into electoral politics.

The reason liberals don't think about electoral politics, is that they try to think of everything but. Next time some starts to talk about message and values, ask them when is the voter registration deadline. What do they think should be done about the problems faced by college students with regard to absentee ballots.

We live in a constitutional democracy, and we talk about it with great reverence, and are fond of invoking it in response to the Christian Right's efforts to dismantle it. But lets look around. We all know how difficult it can be to really get people engaged in electoral politics. We have a disoriented political culture on the left, broadly stated. Way too much talk, and not enough action. Not enough talk about the things that win elections.

Either liberals and democrats will have the power to defend and advance their values in public policy or they won't.

And we have to decide what its going to be. How we get there, how we contend with the religious right on all levels,sorting out what are priorities as distinct from small stuff; how to think about what works for different people in different settings, and so on, is the kind of stuff we will talk about every day when we launch the scoop based version of Talk to Action -- which is coming up very soon.

4:06 PM  
Blogger Frederick Clarkson said...

Richard, thanks for the kind words. I hope you'll come around often when we launch the scoop-based site. No launch date yet, but we are getting there!

Our link policy at the moment, is to link only to blogs that write substantially and responsiblty, (though not necessarily all the time) about the religious right. Thats a fairly small universe at the moment, but we hope it will grow. A look at the posts on your blog suggests that while you do write about lots of interesting things, I didn't see anything about the religious right. If I missed something, or if that changes, please let me know!

4:16 PM  
Blogger Bruce Wilson said...

Fred and I have talked fairly far down the road of the territory Mr. Mouder discusses.

Mouder takes an approach which is so simple that it has perhaps escaped notice of liberals who have become bullied by the claims of the religious right as to the left, liberals, democrats, secularists, non-Christians, athiests, gays, urbanites generally, Unitarians certainly.....

Is there any factual basis for the right's claims on the supposedly "immorality" of such groups ?

In general, and across the board, the answer seems to be :


This, in turn, raises the question of "false witness" : a Christian term, yes, ( and a Judaic one too, of course ) :

Especially of public figures such as Dr. James Dobson, a man whose pronouncements are broadcasts to millions of Americans on a regular basis - When Dobson takes on the mantle of authority as a doctor, a Christian leader, a self declared expert on the rearing of children and the arrangement of family affairs, doesn't he then have the responsibility to actual do even the tiniest bit of research to determine if his claims are supported by data and research ?

Mr. Dobson - apparently - feels no such responsibility whatsoever, and among leaders of the Christian right he is far from alone : in fact among that group those who attempt to determine whether or not their claims have factual basis are few indeed.

I can't think of any at the moment.

5:55 PM  

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