Thursday, December 1, 2011

Religion and politics - part 6

This post, part 6 in my post on Religion and Politics, examines the moral gulf that separates liberals and conservatives.

Some research by prominent University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt (known for his research on happiness) and colleagues about liberals and conservatives surprised me. (Cf. Thomas B. Edsall, “The Gulf of Morality,” New York Times, November 13, 2011 at

Their research showed that liberals:

      Say it feels wrong to fire an employee who needs a job

      Is wrong for rich kids to inherit a lot of money and poor children nothing

      Have tender, concerned feelings for the less fortunate

      Believe peace is extremely important

      Have understanding, appreciation, and protection for the welfare of all people and for nature

      Want to rehabilitate offenders

Conservatives, in contrast:

      Want to pay employees based on contribution to firm’s success

      Feel that social status and prestige, control or dominance, count for more than people and resources

      Believe that war is sometimes best way to resolve conflict

      Think nothing is wrong in getting back at someone who hurts you

      Emphasize an “eye for an eye”

      Believe all children need to learn respect for authority

Haidt and his colleagues then analyzed those differences using five sets of values. Liberals focus on just two of the five sets: harm/care and fairness/reciprocity. Conservatives emphasize all five: harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, in-group/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. If the research is correct, then much of the political discourse in the U.S. unsurprisingly generates more heat than light because participants speak from radically different perspectives.

In the abstract, I can identify a Christian basis for the five sets of values. The importance of protecting from harm and exercising care incorporates the values of beneficence and nonmaleficence (cf. part 4 in this series of posts). Fairness and reciprocity have their roots in the concept of justice as fairness. In-group/loyalty is the most problematic of the five sets of values because Christianity emphasizes that our loyalty to God should transcend all boundaries and that love for neighbor knows no bounds, encompassing even love for one’s enemies. Respect and authority have roots in human dignity and freedom, although the latter imposes constraints on authority. Christians rightly debate the appropriate balance between freedoms and authority. Purity and sanctity are similarly basic Christian values, but people will vehemently disagree about the proper balance between individual and social responsibility for purity and sanctity.

The continuing controversy over humanitarian foreign aid illustrates the divide separating liberals and conservatives. Humanitarian foreign aid totals $3 billion per year, approximately 0.5% of the federal government’s budget. Christian organizations, including the National Council of Churches, Catholic Relief Services, and Bread for the World, support continuing this aid.

However, 56% of evangelical Christians oppose this aid, maintaining that it is not the federal government’s responsibility to provide overseas humanitarian aid. My guess is that evangelical conservatives oppose humanitarian foreign aid, at least in part, because the aid breaks in-group boundaries to aid non-members (i.e., foreigners). At least three factors undercut their opposition. First, providing humanitarian aid supports U.S. foreign policy goals, e.g., building support for the U.S. and its policies among foreign constituencies. Second, private aid seems unlikely to meet the extensive, often life-threatening need. The largest Protestant organization providing overseas aid spends a paltry $308 million per year on missionaries and assistance combined. Third and most importantly, Jesus taught and practiced an inclusive love in which love for neighbor transcended ethnic and national boundaries. The Very Rev. Dr. Alan Jones, former Dean of San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral (Episcopal), echoing Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, has commented, “Our real situation is that the human race is one community living in one home” (Soul’s Journey, 63).

Haidt’s research is regrettably incomplete. For example, most conservatives value fiscal prudence and equal opportunity. As the analysis of wealth, incomes, and federal spending in part 1 of this series demonstrated, the U.S. is in trouble both because of the growing disparity between rich and poor and the federal government’s excessive spending. Conservatives (e.g., in the Tea Party) rightly call our attention as citizens and Christians to those problems. George Packer in his article, “The Broken Contract” (Foreign Affairs, November/December 2011, 30-31), wrote

The persistence of this trend toward greater inequality over the past 30 years suggests a kind of feedback loop that cannot be broken by the usual political means. The more wealth accumulates in a few hands at the top, the more influence and favor the well-connected rich acquire, which makes it easier for them and their political allies to cast off restraint without paying a social price. That, in turn, frees them up to amass more money, until cause and effect become impossible to distinguish.

He concludes, “Inequality undermines democracy” (31).

My next post in this series on Religion and Politics will address the issue of whether an individual candidate’s character is important in politics.

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