The conservative worldview

The conservative worldview

Doug Muder


When Hollywood's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are on the run, the all-star posse on their trail seems almost inhuman. They don't get tired or hungry. They don't slow down. No matter what trick the outlaws try, the same posse soon reappears just this side of the horizon. With rising frustration Butch and Sundance keep asking each other, "Who are those guys?"

Lately I've been hearing the same awed and exasperated tone when Unitarian Universalists talk about the Christian Right: They never run out of money or volunteers. They have their own networks, universities, and think tanks. The president and both houses of Congress are in their debt. On every social issue, no matter what we want, there they are on the other side. Who are those guys?

They have no doubt who they are: They’re the pro-family people, defenders of moral values. But if that's so, then who are we? The anti-family people? Destroyers of moral values?

We can't even demonize them without betraying our Principles; spawns of Satan don't have inherent worth and dignity. A book like Thomas Frank's popular What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (Metropolitan, 2004; $24) can get our blood pumping with rhetoric like this:

Kansas is ready to lead us singing into the apocalypse. It invites us to join in, to lay down our lives so that others might cash out at the top; to renounce forever our middle-American prosperity in pursuit of a crimson fantasy of middle-American righteousness.

But I have to wonder where the interfaith dialogue goes after we attribute our opponents' views to “derangement. Satisfying as it can be to write fundamentalists off as crazy, stupid, or evil, if we're going to be true to ourselves we first have to try to understand them as thinking, feeling human beings.

Fortunately two books—George Lakoff's Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think and James M. Ault Jr.'s Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church —can help us picture the Christian right without violating the First Principle.

The Families in our Heads

George Lakoff, a Berkeley professor of linguistics and cognitive science, believes that people think in metaphors. The human mind, he says, did not evolve to philosophize, but rather to guide a physical body through a physical world. The mind conceives each new idea metaphorically in terms of something it already knows how to think about until the modern adult mind is a Manhattan of vertiginous towers—metaphors resting on metaphors all the way down to the bedrock of physicality. He has been developing this theory for a long time in academic tomes such as Philosophy in the Flesh and Where Mathematics Comes From. A good popular introduction is Lakoff and Mark Johnson's Metaphors We Live By, published in 1980.

Moral Politics applies Lakoff's ideas to political thinking. Little-noticed when it came out in 1996, it has picked up a following as the red-state/blue-state polarization of American politics has become more significant. In 2004 he published a followup collection of short pieces for liberals, Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate.

The key concept in Moral Politics is called framing. A frame is an unconscious set of metaphors through which we perceive and interpret a situation. For example: Time is Money. Most of us never consciously decided to think about time in terms of money, but still we spend time, waste time, save time, and invest our time—profitably, we hope. Frames are not objective or neutral but carry content that is all the more powerful for being unconscious. (Time-is-Money implies that time is scarce and valuable.) Changing your frame can change your perception. (If you talk about passing time rather than spending it, time may seem more abundant.) Common sense, in Lakoff's view, is nothing more than the unconscious content of popular frames. Common sense seems so obvious because its conclusions are already embedded in a situation before we start thinking about it consciously.

When Lakoff looked at American politics, he saw two constellations of positions with no obvious connection.

What does opposition to abortion have to do with opposition to environmentalism? What does either have to do with opposition to affirmative action or gun control or the minimum wage? A model of the conservative mind ought to answer these questions, just as a model of the liberal mind ought to explain why liberals tend to have the cluster of opposing political stands.

Looking deeper, Lakoff found not only two sets of opinions, but also two divergent notions of common sense:

Contemporary American politics is about worldview. Conservatives simply see the world differently than do liberals, and both have a difficult time understanding accurately what the other's worldview is.

What underlying frames would explain these differences? The first piece of Lakoff's answer is surprising, because he found a commonality rather than a difference: Both liberals and conservatives use what he calls the Nation-as-Family metaphor. Both talk about the government as if it were a parent and citizens as if they were siblings. The government defends, educates, rewards, and punishes its citizens—like parents with children. The difference Lakoff found between liberal and conservative thinking, however, came from the frame each put on family. In other words: What is the stereotypic ideal family on which the nation should be modeled?

From conservative common sense, Lakoff derived a frame he called the Strict Father Family. Liberals, on the other hand, seem to use a frame Lakoff called the Nurturant Parent Family. Because these are both intended to capture popular stereotypes, it's not hard to imagine what they are: In a Strict Father Family, roles and morality are strictly defined. The strict father distributes rewards and punishments to train children to do what is right. A Nurturant Parent family, by contrast, focuses more on the inherent goodness and uniqueness of each child. The parents create a nurturing environment in which children can develop their unique gifts and eventually find their own way in the world. Strict fathers worry about spoiling children; nurturant parents about stifling them.

The bulk of Moral Politics expands this insight to explain how liberal common sense and conservative common sense play out in the divisive issues of American politics—welfare, taxes, crime, abortion, the environment, the arts, and affirmative action. “These are not ultimately different issues,” he writes “but manifestations of a single issue: strictness versus nurturance.”

Lakoff's theory explains not only the content of political polarization but its emotional intensity, too:

[The political division] is ultimately a family-based division, about what you think the right kind of family is—whether your parents were good parents, whether you are a good parent to your children, and whether you were raised right.

Real Families

Spirit and Flesh complements the aerial view of conservatives in general in Moral Politics with a ground-level look at the Christian Right. In the 1980s, James Ault was a struggling young sociologist with a simple question: Why weren't more working-class women attracted to feminism? At first he studied working-class women in the right-to-life movement, but before long he got interested in a small, upstart, Jerry Falwell–style church in Worcester, Massachusetts, that he calls Shawmut River Baptist in the book. Eventually, he made the 1987 PBS documentary Born Again, which, coincidentally, was part of his own professional rebirth as a filmmaker.

Apparently Ault lost his publish-or-perish discipline when he left academia, because he didn't finish Spirit and Flesh until 2004. In exchange for the wait, we get the kind of book no academic sociologist would write: a first-person account of Ault's culture shock and the personal re-evaluation it set in motion. Whatever you think of Shawmut River, you'll keep turning pages just to find out whether Ault converts.

As Lakoff would predict, Ault noticed a profound difference between the families of Shawmut River and those of his liberal academic friends. But, although Shawmut River families were strict, the difference ran deeper than just strictness vs. nurturance. At Shawmut River, Ault found extended families in which multiple generations remained deeply involved in each other's lives. Academic sociologists like Ault had trouble believing such families still existed, especially in a Massachusetts edge city like Worcester. Shawmut River's children typically lived with their parents until marriage, and even afterward remained in daily consultation.

By contrast, by the time my friends and colleagues and I married . . . we generally had established ourselves as independent individuals removed from daily cooperation with parents and other relatives. Rather than conform to an existing moral code shared by our elders, to whom we were bound in daily cooperation, we were encouraged and needed to fashion our own moralities within an environment where diverse and unreconciled ones jostled uneasily with each other, and in which perhaps the only standard we might readily share was mutual tolerance for different values. We did not choose to be moral relativists; the lives we lived, in some sense, required it.

Ault identifies the deeper distinction as given relationships as opposed to chosen ones. At Shawmut River, children are born with obligations and depend for their survival on other people's obligations to them. This network of mutual obligations provides the context of their lives from birth to death. Good people fulfill their obligations and bad people don't--it's just that simple.

Ault's friends, by contrast, sound a lot like people I know at First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts, my home church. Their lives are defined not by obligations they carry from birth, but by commitments they have chosen. Their personal relationships, even their marriages, are free-form and mutually negotiated rather than fixed and timeless.

It is easy to see how each family would frame the other negatively. To those who assume chosen commitments and negotiated relationships, Shawmut River's members appear to be virtual automata, living unexamined lives based on preprogrammed templates. But those who depend for daily survival on a network of fixed obligations see us—who feel free to renounce congenital obligations and re-negotiate long-term relationships—as irresponsible and untrustworthy. A chosen moral code, which the individual could revise at any time, seems to them like a bad parody of real morality. Even liberal Christian morality lacks gravity. Shawmut River's pastor describes it as “a perpetual guide to how to be nice. . . . You know, cute little stories, a joke here or there.”


In an afterword to the 2002 edition of Moral Politics, Lakoff writes about ways to combat negative frames. The obvious approaches are often counterproductive: Denial of a frame just reinforces it (as Richard Nixon's famous “I am not a crook” linked Nixon and crook forever in the public memory). And it's not even enough to be right: “The facts themselves don't set you free. You have to frame facts properly before they can have the meaning that you want them to convey.”

It is very hard to remember, think about, or even hear facts that don't make sense to you. Those who see conservatives as pro-family and liberals as anti-family have no place to put the fact that liberal Massachusetts has the lowest divorce rate in the country. It just won't stick in their heads.

Lakoff recommends reframing. Rather than accepting the terminology used by your opponents and answering the questions they raise (“Have you stopped beating your wife?” ), redescribe the situation in your own terms and raise the questions you find significant. Rather than defend the “anti-family” position, reframe: Fundamentalists are pro-one-kind-of-family and religious liberals are pro-another-kind-of-family. Now you're set up to point out that our kind of family works pretty well—hence the Massachusetts divorce statistic.

Even if you never manage to change anyone's mind, understanding Lakoff's frames and Ault's insights into the mindset of the Christian right can keep you from reinforcing negative stereotypes and aggravating old arguments unintentionally. Fundamentalists truly do not understand that we are morally serious people and that we take our chosen commitments as seriously (if not more so) than they take their congenital obligations. If we could communicate just that much, we could provoke a major shift in the way they view the world.