The blog of Frederick Clarkson

Values, Culture and Politics

with 2 comments

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 on 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 Talk to Action]

Written by fred

September 23rd, 2005 at 10:33 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Values, Culture and Politics'

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  1. They should also, as Chip Berlet has persuasively argued in several essays on Talk to Action — stop the pointless and counterproductive demonization of conservative Christians.

    You’re right of course…but it’s so hard when they can be so heartless (or rather, cannot seem to think beyond themselves about solutions to societal problems). I have members of my own family in this category, and I get so angry at the sheer knock-headedness that I find it hard to engage them at all. The last conversation I had with my dad about politics ended very badly, and I’ve had to decide not to approach that subject ever again.

    Forget religion – we haven’t gone there since I was in college.

    There’s a sense of distrust in dealing with people of such an ideology – a sense I’m sure they feel as well. If I can’t form a bond of trust regarding political discourse with my own father, how can anyone?

    (I don’t even tell them I do political blogging – god forbid they ever read my stuff!)


    24 Sep 05 at 8:33 am

  2. I whole heartedly agree. Just changing our message isn’t enough. It’s going to take sweat equity in getting the vote out. Actually the more successful the neocons are the easier it is to take the blinders off the people who don’t vote or follow the pack. It is going to take some Democrats willing to stand up to the slime machine instead of buckling in to it to change things.

    Greek Shadow

    24 Sep 05 at 1:06 pm

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