Who's afraid of freedom and tolerance?

Why are fundamentalists so frightened by liberal family values? A look at competing worldviews.
Doug Muder Editorial


Like most religious liberals, we Unitarian Universalists imagine ourselves to be nice people. It is those in the Christian Right, we believe, who want to force their moral code on everyone else and use public resources to proselytize for their faith. We, on the other hand, believe in tolerance, free choice, and letting people be what they have to be. What’s so scary about that? If the rank-and-file of organizations like Focus on the Family or the Christian Coalition feel threatened by us, we think, it can only be because they have been duped by their unscrupulous leaders.

Not necessarily.

True, preachers of the Christian Right have said a lot of unfair things about liberals, both religious and political. But conservative Christian fears have not been created ex nihilo. As overstated as those fears may at times become, they have a basis, and we would do well to understand it.

Such a call for understanding, I realize, will sound to some like an invitation to surrender. Won’t opponents see our empathy as a sign of weakness and be encouraged to make even bigger demands on us? If they make to comparable effort to understand and accommodate us, won’t we be drawn into one-sided compromises that slide gradually towards capitulation? In the face of a hard and uncompromising opponent, we seem to have no choice other than to become hard and uncompromising too. Only one strategy seems to make sense: Give them hell.

But liberal religious traditions recognize understanding as a source of strength, not a sign of weakness. “Give them not hell,” advised Universalist pioneer John Murray, “but hope and courage.” What if he was on to something? If our traditions of wisdom, empathy, and respect are simply baggage in this struggle, then we are at a significant disadvantage. We must find a way to use these tools and not just lug them around until our situation improves.

Many books have been written recently about the Christian Right. One that does a particularly good job of getting inside the movement’s worldview, particularly that of its working-class members, is Spirit and Flesh: Life Inside a Fundamentalist Baptist Church by James M. Ault Jr., which I reviewed in the May/June 2005 issue of UU World. Ault, like George Lakoff and several other authors, locates the heart of the Christian Right worldview in its overall vision of family life—not just in the positions it takes on a handful of specific “family values” issues like abortion or same-sex marriage.

Fundamentalists themselves would claim that the Bible is the center of their worldview, but scriptural support for their more controversial positions is often scant and open to alternate interpretations. Ault notes that members of the pseudonymous Shawmut River Baptist Church “generally held such views before they were ‘saved’ and became born-again Christians. Their pro-family conservatism could not be explained, then, by doctrines or practices found in any particular religion.” Instead, Ault attributes Shawmut River’s conservatism to a “villagelike” web of multigenerational family ties very different from what he observed among his academic acquaintances.

Though a life of mutual dependence within a family circle was commonplace among members of Shawmut River and other new-right activists I met, it was foreign to people I knew in academia and the New Left, as well as to other educated professionals I knew. Most of us were prepared, from the moment we left home for college, to leave family dependencies behind and learn to live as self-governing individuals. This left us free to move from one city to another for graduate education or for those specialized jobs for which our training qualified us. In the process, we learned to piece together a meaningful life with new friends and colleagues alongside old ones. Our material security did not rest on a stream of daily reciprocities within a family-based circle of people known in common, but rather on the progression of professional careers, with steadily increasing salaries and ample benefits to cover whatever exigencies life would bring.

Shawmut River’s extended-family system was based on its shared belief in congenital obligations, in a society in which “relationships were seen and acted on as given rather than chosen.” 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.

Shawmut River’s members value their ability to choose how to fulfill their obligations (without, say, interference from the government), but they condemn people who choose to slough off their obligations entirely. If “freedom” means the ability to take the easy way out without suffering the consequences (as they might describe the freedom to choose an abortion), then they’re against it. The liberal worldview emphasizes negotiated relationships rather than timeless templates. We assume that each married couple will divide household duties in their own way, and that they will choose whether to become parents rather than fulfill a congenital obligation to continue the family line. Even our relationship with God—if we believe in God at all—is negotiated: Unitarian Universalist Coming of Age programs, for example, culminate in a credo each young person composes herself, rather than an examination based on the common creed.

We may think that we’re being tolerant when we grant that the Christian Right lifestyle is a valid choice. But merely by describing it as a choice, we move the discussion onto our turf. Ault explains:

Liberally minded people often do not realize . . . that rather than respecting fundamentalists’ views, they are denying them by insisting that religious beliefs or ethical standards be seen as personal, private matters we must all tolerate in one another—that moral standards are relative, not absolute. . . . Shawmut River’s commitment to absolutes was in keeping with the binding character they saw in the family obligations through which their world was organized. To see moral standards as personal and relative, on the other hand, widened the scope of individual autonomy and freedom in ways that denied and threatened to undermine lives that depended upon seeing family obligations as nondiscretionary—not as something individuals can choose or not choose, but as absolutes they have to accept.

To understand why a fundamentalist might be afraid of us, consider this: What happens to a system of obligations when the notion of obligation itself comes into question?

Conservative Moral Breakdown

In popular mythology, the Christian Right comes from the morally upright heartland of America and liberalism from its corrupt and decaying cities. Strangely, both sides have reasons to promote these stereotypes. Fundamentalist communities like to see themselves as embattled citadels, islands of eternal values in the storm-tossed sea of Anything Goes. Liberals, on the other hand, like to portray the Robertsons and Falwells as busybodies: If conservatives are high and dry inside their citadels of righteousness, then why don’t they just mind their own business rather than rail about our moral decline?

Both sides of this argument fall apart when we recognize that the Christian Right is experiencing its own moral breakdown. The disjunction between the righteous image of conservative Christianity and the actual practice of its members is the subject of evangelical author Ronald J. Sider’s recent book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience. He writes:

Whether the issue is divorce, materialism, sexual promiscuity, racism, physical abuse in marriage, or neglect of a biblical worldview, the polling data point to widespread, blatant disobedience of clear biblical moral demands on the part of people who allegedly are evangelical, born-again Christians. The statistics are devastating.

Sider quotes a wide variety of polls, studies, and conservative Christian experts to support the following points:

  • Conservative Protestants are more likely to divorce than the national average.
  • Conservative Christian men are as likely as non-Christians to view pornography.
  • Evangelical teens are “only a little less” sexually promiscuous than non-evangelicals.
  • Those who make abstinence pledges are, on average, as likely as non-pledgers to contract sexually transmitted diseases.
  • Wives in traditional marriages “where the husband was dominant” are three times more likely to be beaten than wives in egalitarian marriages.

Spirit and Flesh provides anecdotal support for many of these statistical findings. Though Ault seems not to notice the sheer quantity of moral breakdown inside Shawmut River, I found it striking. Pastor Valenti’s marriage was saved when he found Jesus, but other apparently equally God-fearing couples in the book are not so blessed. Shawmut River’s story climaxes with the community crisis brought on by the pregnancy of the Valentis’ unmarried teen daughter—who goes on to get married and divorced while maintaining close ties with her parents and their fundamentalist faith.

Conservatives are debating many of the studies Sider quotes, and the complexities of class and race are difficult to filter out of statistics broken down by religion. Social dysfunction may be no worse in Christian Right communities than in society at large. But in the absence of other compelling evidence, we should be extremely skeptical of claims that Christian Right families work better than liberal religious families or even families that practice no religion at all. Religious conservatives are not being busybodies when they worry about moral breakdown: Fundamentalists worry about moral breakdown because they see their own lives, families, and communities breaking down.

Traditional family roles--such as Father, Mother, Husband, Wife, etc.--can be brittle in the face of change, and a society based on them, while projecting an image of strength, may in fact be quite vulnerable. The Right at some level grasps this reality: “Barring a miracle,” James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, wrote about same-sex marriage, “the family as it has been known for more than five millennia will crumble, presaging the fall of Western civilization itself.”

Unitarian Universalists have a lot of trouble taking this kind of rhetoric seriously, or even believing that conservatives do. (We’re inclined to point out that the family has changed radically over the last 5,000 years.) My congregation in suburban Bedford, Massachusetts, has had gay and lesbian student ministers, and I know of at least one child of an openly gay couple in our religious education program. So far, the sky has not fallen. None of the heterosexual couples I know in Massachusetts report any adverse effect on their relationships since same-sex couples received the right to marry. Ditto for Vermont couples since civil unions were allowed. The threat to Western civilization can be hard to imagine, much less see.

But perhaps my complacency about the long-heralded decline of the West comes from the confidence I have in the voluntary commitments that underlie my marriage and my other important relationships. My wife and I felt no obligation to get married (despite being almost 30), and we thought long and hard before doing so. We worked out our own division of duties, and we adjust them from time to time as circumstances change. If other people form and manage their households differently it affects us not at all, because our reasons are our own.

I might not be so accepting of these differences, however, if I saw my marriage as part of God’s timeless plan for all people, if the unchanging role of Husband were my divinely decreed lot soon to be followed by the obligatory role of Father. In this worldview, I need not understand the whys and wherefores of my obligations so long as I fulfill them to the best of my ability. At times these duties may chafe, but in exchange I can expect Deb to uphold the Wife and Mother roles, and children to care for us in old age.

Choice is the serpent in this Garden of Obligation. As soon as choice exists, I have to look at all the people in my life and wonder what they’re going to do—and they have to wonder about me as well. If other people have choices, then maybe fulfilling my timeless obligations just makes me a sucker. Maybe everyone who does his or her duty is a sucker.

Now the gay couple next door provokes serious cognitive dissonance: Who is the Husband and who is the Wife? If they raise children, who is Mother and who is Father? And if none of that matters, then what does matter? Not just the definition of marriage is being questioned, but the obligation system itself. If I see Western civilization as a network of obligations with millions and millions of people filling timeless roles for no reason other than the expectation that everyone else will fill their own timeless roles, then I might suspect that the whole structure was about to come down.

The Committed Life

When fundamentalists consider their own moral breakdown, they can only imagine that our problems must be infinitely worse. Ault notes:

The taken-for-grantedness of our own pattern of family life makes it a faulty lens through which to perceive the actions of others. The misperceptions it creates occur in both directions between conservatives and liberals in American life.

If your family life consists of individuals obliged to take on timeless roles, hoping and trusting that the meaning and satisfaction of those roles will be revealed to them in the fullness of time, then a family without such roles and obligations must surely seem like a house of straw. “How would you like to play football without referees and a rule book?” Pastor Valenti asked Ault.

One of the best-kept secrets in American society, however, is that religious liberal families are holding together at least as well as any other kind of family. Unitarian Universalists not only raise children, we do a pretty good job of it. I am consistently impressed by the quality of the young people I meet in my church and in the other churches I visit. Somebody is doing something right.

But contemporary Unitarian Universalist parenthood looks a lot like Unitarian Universalist marriage: Rather than feeling an obligation to become parents, couples think long and hard before deciding to have children. They work out their own division of duties for their own reasons instead of relying on social templates. Parents are motivated less by obligation than by a sense of commitment—like the commitment a composer feels to her symphony or an architect to his cathedral. An artist is always perfectly free to walk away from her life’s work, but why would she want to?

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.

James Dobson described the liberal viewpoint this way in a speech before the Council for National Policy on February 7, 1998:

There are no transcendent values that will stand from time to time. When human life becomes inconvenient, you can get rid of it, because it was not created by God, because there is no God, and it’s all subjective and whimsical and you make up your ideas as the circumstances arise.

This expectation of superficiality colors everything conservatives see us do. Protest marches, for example, look like petulant expressions of transient anger rather than evidence of an enduring commitment to a vision of a better world. Put-downs like “do-gooder” don’t disparage our desire to do good; they question its stamina. Today, they suppose, we want to save the whales, but tomorrow we’ll move on to whatever new cause is fashionable. As we lack a fixed scripture or any other visible anchor, they think, our commitments must surely blow with the wind. And because this picture looks so absurd and foreign to us, we don’t bother to deny it.

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. We 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.

Our Message of Hope

In one sense, fundamentalists have every right to fear and resent religious liberals. By adjusting to the breakdown of the obligation system, we speed its collapse. Every person who defects from the regime of timeless roles and obligations makes life more difficult for those who try to keep it going. From their point of view, freedom is a kind of plague we carry. While our commitment-based families may be immune to its ravages, the effect on others is not always benign.

But (as the Billy Joel song puts it) we didn’t start this fire. The medieval extended family—rooted in a particular place with inherited, inflexible roles—has been slowly coming apart since the advent of modern capitalism with its desire for ever-larger markets and a mobile work force. In the global village, we can no longer pretend that our norms and standards are universal. Social changes that used to happen invisibly (as one generation was born and another passed away) are now packed into an individual lifetime. Careers used to be passed down from father to son, and the role of housewife barely changed over centuries. But today’s professionals have to retrain every decade or two, and we baby boomers cannot ask our mothers how to keep children safe on the Internet. Unless we want to try to freeze history, today’s individuals must have the freedom to renegotiate their roles.

It is a trying time, and the anger of the Christian Right is understandable. “Whenever an old order dies,” writes the liberal Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong, “anger is always loosed upon the whole society.”

But though we must defend ourselves and other innocents against the misdirected rage of the Christian Right (and the comparable fundamentalisms of other major religions), we lose if we simply oppose our anger to theirs. To give them hell is to fight the battle on their turf, not ours. Instead, we can offer a message of hope for which they have no answer. We know that the system of timeless templates and universal obligations is coming apart—but we have come out the other side of that tunnel, and there is light here:

  • We can hold families together without insisting that everyone make the same choices we do.
  • We can teach children to find a committed life full of meaning while leaving them the freedom to confront a future beyond our imagination.
  • We can carry forward the traditional values of justice and compassion.
  • We can accept and learn from other belief systems without refighting the Crusades or the Thirty Years’ War. The so-called clash of civilizations need not climax with Armageddon.

Civilization, in short, need not fall. And we need not victimize the poor, the powerless, or the unpopular in order to prop it up.

Ault tells the following fascinating anecdote about a rural community in South Carolina where the traditional family was so unthreatened that “land changed hands largely outside the marketplace, through family ties”:

Members of the Southern Baptist church in this community had so little comprehension of the conflicts then raging between liberals and conservatives in the Southern Baptist Convention that they had to have a special representative sent out from the convention to explain it to them. Where mutual dependence among kin is not threatened, new-right enthusiasms might not only hold little interest but even be incomprehensible.

In spite of their political success and vast worldly power, fundamentalists and allied evangelicals feel increasingly helpless to prop up the obligation model of family or the worldview based on it. This helplessness leads them to lash out against people who fit poorly into the old templates—against “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way—all of them who have tried to secularize America” that Jerry Falwell blamed for 9/11. (Falwell later apologized.)

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.

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