There is an interesting paradox in the national discourse
over President Obama's health care plan.
A majority of Americans support the provisions of the plan -- no
preconditions, no caps, no loss of coverage if you get sick, the ability to
keep your college-age child on your policy, and so on -- and, at the same time,
a majority of Americans are opposed to the plan. How can this be? According to George Lakoff, conservatives
persuaded a majority of Americans to oppose what they call
"Obamacare," not by arguing against its policy details, but by
reframing the whole debate by controlling the language of the debate. They introduced phrases like "death
panels" and "government takeover," and they said things like, "Government
bureaucrats will make you health care decisions for you," and they
repeated these phrases over and over until they convinced millions of Americans
who were for the policy provisions of Obama's plan to be against the plan as a
What is more, observes Lakoff, liberals have actually
helped the conservatives by arguing against them. By arguing against them, liberals have
unwittingly helped to repeat and thus reinforce the conservative
arguments. Liberals do this all the time
with nearly every issue. If liberals
want to win the hearts and minds of voters, advises Lakoff, they should be
putting forth their own terms, phrases, arguments, and values without any
reference to the conservative message.
So who is George Lakoff, and why would I talk about him in
a sermon? He's a linguist who teaches at
the University of California at Berkeley, and he's been trying to teach
liberals how to communicate at least as effectively as conservatives. He tells us that communication is more than
words; it's about framing -- framing your words, your arguments inside a
particular worldview. Framing is
something we all do. We all talk in a
way that reveals and appeals to the worldview we happen to hold. In politics, he says (and I would add
religion), the ultimate frame is morality.
All politics is moral.
Politicians, political parties, and political movements use words and
propose policies that imply certain moral values. Policies are proposed because they are
assumed to be right, not wrong.
Conservatives understand this. They do a much better job than liberals of
giving moral justifications for their positions. Liberals are policy wonks, nattering on about
the details of policies, cost-analysis, scientific facts, demographic trends,
socioeconomic factors, while conservatives are moralists, painting the world in
black and white, as good vs. evil, and this is the way most people think.
Lakoff points out that conservatives and liberals have very
different moral systems that stem from different family values. This is so because the family represents our
first experience in life of being governed, and we use these early experiences
as templates for the way we think we should be governed later in life. The ideal conservative family model is what
he calls the strict father family, in which the father is the ultimate moral
authority. The father is the Decider,
and his authority must not be challenged.
His job is to protect the family, support the family (by winning
competitions in the marketplace), and to teach his kids right from wrong by
disciplining them physically when they do wrong. The use of force is necessary and
required. Only then will children
develop the internal discipline to become good, successful adults.
This idealized conservative family is projected by
conservatives on the capitalistic market.
Their slogan "Let the market decide" assumes that the market
itself is the Decider. The market is
seen as both natural (since it is assumed that people naturally seek their
self-interest) and moral (since if everyone seeks their own profit, the profit
of all will be maximized). As the
ultimate moral authority, there should be no power higher than the market that
might go against market values, including the government. The government can spend money to protect the
market and promote market values, but it should never rule over the market
through regulation, taxation, unions, workers rights, environmental protection,
or safety laws.
For conservatives, the role of government must be kept to a
bare minimum because government is seen as antithetical to individual
freedom. That's why they are forever
pushing tax cuts, slashing pubic spending, and privatizing nearly everything. In the words of conservative Grover Norquist,
want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can
drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub."
In the conservative moral framework, individual freedom, individual initiative,
and individual responsibility, not social responsibility, are primary. It's the freedom to seek one's own
self-interest with no commitment to the interests of others. It would be wrong for the government to
provide health care, education, public broadcasting, public parks, and so on
because this represents paying someone else's way. People should pay their own way. No one else should pay for your health
care. If you want an education, you
should pay for it yourself. Providing
birth control and abortion removes the consequences of immoral behavior. Taxation is taking money away from those who
have earned it and giving it to people who don't deserve it. If people are uninsured, unemployed,
homeless, or poor, it's their own fault.
They're not disciplined. If
government steps in and helps them, it will prevent people from learning the
hard lessons of life they need to learn.
Helping others creates dependency.
So when Tom and Judy Turnipseed and others from our congregation feed
the homeless at Finley Park on Sunday afternoons, they are actually doing them
It has long baffled liberals why low-income, working class
whites consistently vote against their economic self-interests by supporting
conservative candidates and causes. Lakoff's
analysis makes perfect sense. Most
low-income, working class whites have strict father family values, define
themselves in terms of those values, and vote on the basis of those values,
selecting strict father figures as their political leaders.
We see the conservative value system in full bloom in the
Tea Party and in the policies of our Governor, who recently vetoed $1.4 million
in proposed state spending for things like supporting victims of rape, helping
hemophiliacs pay their insurance premiums, and providing testing for people
at-risk for kidney disease. In
explaining her vetoes, Governor Haley says these people have her "sympathy
and encouragement" but that such spending is a "distraction"
from protecting South Carolina's overall
public health. One of the Governor's
supporters in the legislature warns that our state government is "turning
into a charity." According to Sen.
Lee Bright from Spartanburg, "The difference between charity and tyranny
is that charity is when you willingly give to an organization because you want
to help. Tyranny is when you force
tax-payers to pay for these different organizations." To liberals' ears, such policies are
heartless, but they are entirely consistent with the conservative moral
framework of individual responsibility and minimal government.
The liberal moral system likewise flows from an ideal
family model, only it's one in which parents have equal authority. Their central moral role requires empathy
with each other and their children, it requires self-responsibility, and
responsibility for the well-being of other family members. This means open communication, transparency
about family rules, shared decision-making, and fairness. When liberal family values are projected onto
the political arena, they envision democracy as citizens caring about one
another and acting responsibly on that sense of care, taking responsibility
both for oneself and for one's family, community, country, people in general,
and the planet. In the liberal moral
framework, social responsibility is primary.
Therefore, the role of government is to protect and empower
all citizens equally. Protection
includes the social safety net of health care, social security, safe food and
drugs, trade policies, consumer protection, environmental protection, and job
protection. Empowerment is what makes a
decent life possible -- roads and infrastructure, communication and energy
systems, laws and enforcement, transportation, education, minimum wages, scientific
research, resources, art and culture.
The public is not opposed to the private. The public makes the private possible. Nobody makes it on their own. If you got wealthy, you depended on the
public, and you have a responsibility to contribute to the public so that
others can make it, too. Moreover, the
wealthy depend on those who work and who deserve a fair return for their work
and for their contribution to our national life.
The public is not opposed to freedom; it makes freedom
possible. You're not free if you get
sick and cannot see a doctor because you don't have health insurance. You're not free if you don't receive an
adequate education to enable you to pursue your goals for your life. You're not free if your wages are so low that
you cannot afford a decent living. You're not free if you are denied the
necessities of life. Government has a
moral mission to provide necessities because this is how we take care of one
another. Private enterprise can provide
services, but the necessities of life should never be subordinated to private
profit. In the liberal moral framework,
human values take precedence over market values.
So what does George Lakoff have to do with religion? I believe his explanation of the competing
conservative and liberal moral frameworks helps to understand the difference
between conservative and liberal religion.
Conservative religion worships a strict father God. If you sin, he will punish you for your own
good, maybe in this life, but certainly in the next life. Heaven and hell are the ultimate reward and
punishment system. I think
Fundamentalists refer to the Old Testament so much more than the New Testament
because the Old Testaments portrays a wrathful, vengeful God who kicks Adam and
Eve out of Eden, incinerates Sodom and Gomorrah, floods the entire earth (save
Noah), and orders the genocide of the inhabitants of Palestine so that his
chosen people can have their promised land.
To be saved in conservative religion is not to trust your own good
thoughts or good intentions or good works; it's to put your faith in your
heavenly father. Conservative religion
is about individual sin and individual salvation. You pay for your sins, and you purchase your
own ticket to heaven with your own personal faith in a savior. I think one reason conservative religion
thrives in America is because it complements our extremely individualistic
Liberal religion emphasizes empathy and compassion, which
is why, I think, liberal Christians refer more to the New Testament,
particularly to the compassionate life and teachings of Jesus. Jesus scandalized the religious establishment
of his day with his radical, unconditional love for all people, even
Samaritans, gentiles, prostitutes, lepers, the poor, and the infirmed. Our Universalist ancestors rejected the
notion of hell because they believed that a loving God would not condemn
anyone, and our Unitarian ancestors rejected the notion of original sin because
they believed everyone was created in the likeness of God, with the capacity
for goodness. Non-theistic, humanist
religion likewise emphasizes the intrinsic worth of all persons and that all
people deserve to be treated equally with respect.
Liberal religion is about social sin and social salvation. Our social, political, and economic
structures and systems can crush human dignity and deny human worth. Since we make the social, political, and
economic structures and systems of our world, it is our responsibility to
unmake them or remake them to reflect the values of justice, equity, and
compassion. I think the contrast between
conservative and liberal religion is captured by the contrasting answers to a
question posed to Mother Teresa and former Unitarian Universalist President
Gene Pickett. When asked, "What is
the meaning of life?", Mother Teresa replied, "To become holy and go
to heaven." Pickett answered,
"The purpose of life to become whole and create heaven on earth."
While Unitarian Universalism stands clearly in the liberal religious
tradition, I want to point out that our UU Principles emphasize both individual
and social responsibility. We affirm and
promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person (1st Principle), which
is your responsibility as an individual to recognize and honor in yourself and
others. We affirm and promote a free and
responsible search for truth and meaning (4th Principle), which is your
responsibility as an individual. We
affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic
process (5th Principle), which is your duty as an individual to exercise.
We also affirm and promote justice, equity, and compassion
(2nd Principle), which your responsibility in your social relationships. We affirm and promote acceptance of one
another and encouragement to spiritual growth (3rd Principle), which is your
responsibility to your congregation. We
affirm and promote the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice
for all (6th Principle), which is your responsibility to humanity. And we affirm and promote the interdependent
web of all existence (7th Principle), which is your responsibility to the
planet. Our UU Principles express the
essence of conservative and liberal faith -- the sacredness of the individual
and the reality that as individuals, we exist in community and come to life in
relationship. The realization of both
poles on that continuum is necessary for a balanced, holistic
I think Lakoff's observations about communication are also
relevant to liberal religion. We UUs
dwell too much in the neocortex and hardly ever visit the limbic system. We strive very hard to be rational, and we
expect others to be rational, too. We
speak with an academic accent, and we expect others to be as well-reasoned and
well-educated. The longer I live, the
more I am convinced that people are not all that rational. They are also emotional and moral, and if we
UUs expect to communicate with a wider community, we need to learn to speak in
moral terms with passion and conviction.
Martin Luther King was a master communicator because he spoke to our
head and heart and aroused our conscience and concern. I suspect that we UUs are hesitant to use
moral language because we are afraid of sounding moralistic. Yet it is possible to talk about right and
wrong without assuming that others are never right and you are
never wrong. It is possible to speak the
truth with love and to seek justice with humility.
I also think that Lakoff is right on target when he
observes that we liberals are too reactive to conservatives. We spend too much time trying to distinguish
ourselves from them and from the way we used to be. Being a psychologist, I suppose I see this in
developmental terms. I suspect that many
of us UUs are in an adolescent stage of spiritual development. Many of us are still in the process of
rejecting the conservative religion we came from and of healing from the wounds
it inflicted on us. We may not be where
we used to be, but we're still not where we ought to be. I think it would facilitate our healing and
help us to get unstuck from reacting to our past if we would strive to be as
clear about what we do believe as we are about what we no longer
believe. The next step in our
spiritual maturation is to know what we stand for, not just what we
stand against; to know who we are, not just who we are not. If we would do that for ourselves, we would
have a positive, appealing message for others.
It would be the kind of message written by the participants
in the adult education class we held a few months ago, "Articulating Your
UU Faith." For example, in response
to the question, "What is Unitarian Universalism?", Lisa Eason
wrote: "We are a liberal faith
community that is bound not by a creed but by our shared values as represented
in our Seven Principles. People of any,
all, or no religious beliefs are welcome in our congregations. We respect other faith traditions and believe
that there is wisdom in the world's religions and that we can learn from
them. We have a long and proud history
of challenging injustice in the world.
We believe that humans are not perfect but that each and every person
has inherent worth and dignity."
This is example of a winsome way of stating what we stand for and
We don't need to waste our time arguing with and refuting
conservatives. We have a moral vision for
our city, our state, and our nation based on the liberal values of acceptance
and open-mindedness, fairness and equality, compassion and community. And the most effective way to communicate
that vision is to live it.
Rev. Dr. Neal Jones