Friday, June 03, 2005

Red Family, Blue Family -- the sermon

My most popular political essay to date is Red Family, Blue Family, where I discuss the difference in family values between liberals and conservatives -- quoting heavily from George Lakoff's Moral Politics but modifying it with the insights from James Ault's Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church. The essay's purpose is to provide some insight to liberals who look at the Religious Right and can't understand how they can possibly think that way.

Well, it cried out to be a sermon, and my church (First Parish in Bedford, Mass.) has a tradition of letting lay members preach. (I had done it before, but not for a couple years.) May 29 was an open date on the worship calendar, mostly because attendance is always spotty on Memorial Day Sunday -- too many members take vacations. So I grabbed the date.

Sermons, of course, are different from essays. You're speaking directly to real people, and have more of a chance to engage their emotions. Also, I was speaking to my home congregation rather than to the dark and echoing halls of the Internet, where you never know who may be listening. And finally, a sermon could and should bring out the religious aspects of the subject rather than just the politics. So I honed the essay and personalized it and cut it way down in size. It came out like this:

Readings
from Moral Politics by George Lakoff
Contemporary American politics is about worldview. Conservatives simply see the world differently than do liberals, and both often have a difficult time understanding what the other’s worldview is. ...

Whenever a cognitive scientist hears the words “It’s just common sense,” his ears perk up and he knows there’s something to be understood. Nothing is “just” common sense. Common sense has a conceptual structure that is usually unconscious ... -- not unconscious in the Freudian sense of being repressed, but unconscious simply in that we are not aware of it. ... When we think, we use an elaborate system of concepts, but we are not usually aware of just what those concepts are like and how they fit together into a system.

That idea is elaborated in Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson
We have found that most of our ordinary conceptual system is metaphorical in nature. ... To give some idea of what it could mean for a concept to be metaphorical, and for such a concept to structure our everyday activity, let us start with the concept ARGUMENT and the conceptual metaphor ARGUMENT IS WAR. ... It is important to see that we do not just talk about arguments in terms of war. We can actually win or lose arguments. We see the person we are arguing with as an opponent. We attack his positions and we defend our own. We gain and lose ground. ... If we find a position indefensible, we can abandon it and take a new line of attack. ... The metaphor is not merely in the words we use -- it is in our very concept of an argument. ...

Even if you have never fought a fistfight in your life, much less a war, ... you still conceive of arguments, and execute them, according to the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor because the metaphor is built into the conceptual system of the culture in which you live.

from Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church by James Ault
Ault is a sociologist who studied a small fundamentalist church in Worcester that he called Shawmut River Baptist.


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. ...

One day, several months into my fieldwork, Pastor Valenti turned abruptly to me and asked in puzzlement, “Where do you live out there in Northhampton? You’re still at home, aren’t you?” He meant with my parents. Even though I had told him on more than one occasion that my parents lived in Pittsburgh, he could not help but imagine that, since I was not married, I would still be “at home.” In fact, as I looked around, I realized that virtually all the unmarried men and women at Shawmut River -- even those who were well into their thirties -- still lived “at home.”

By contrast, by the time my friends and colleagues and I married -- even if just out of college -- 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 ... 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.

... These contrasting sensibilities ... I came to see, were one reason why some people felt immediately “at home” when they first attended Shawmut River, even if raised in quite different churches or no church at all. Its villagelike atmosphere was simply an extension of the kind of sociability prevailing in their own family circles, within which the personal was readily aired, people stood ready to “oblige” and relationships were seen and acted upon as given rather than chosen.

Finally, while we’re talking about family values, I thought you should be aware of the following statistics from the Barna Group, one of the few institutions to study the relationship between religion and divorce:

21% of atheists, agnostics, Catholics, and Lutherans have been divorced.

Mormons: 24%

Mainstream Protestants: 25%

Baptists: 29%,

and non-denominational Protestants, the most conservative group of all: 34%

Sermon
James Dobson wrote the following about same-sex marriage: “Barring a miracle, the family as it has been known for more than five millennia will crumble, presaging the fall of Western civilization itself.”

Did I hear that right? “Barring a miracle, the family as it has been known for more than five millennia will crumble, presaging the fall of Western civilization itself.”

What can you do with something like that?

Most of you, I imagine, just can’t take it in. Two weeks ago, Roger and Sylvia [our student and assistant ministers] did a service on marriage, including a number of same-sex couples. I had many thoughts during that service, but none of them was: “I wonder if this presages the fall of Western civilization.”

How does a thought like that get into a human head?

One way to resolve this problem is denial. We could deny that such a thought ever really does get into a human head: Dobson himself doesn’t believe what he’s saying. He’s just making an excuse to justify being nasty to homosexuals. He doesn’t intend it to makes sense.

Unfortunately, Dobson’s statement clearly does make sense to a lot of people, who repeat it as if they believe it ought to make sense to us. They seem to believe that we are the ones who are faking: Deep down we know Dobson is right, we just pretend not to for our own sinister purposes. Denial cuts both ways.

A second coping strategy is: They’re crazy. Don’t bother trying to make sense of what they say. Occasionally it sounds like coherent English, but it really isn’t.

Sometimes that’s the right answer. There are crazy people. They say nonsensical things and you can’t always get somewhere by discussing those things with them. You just have to keep them away from sharp objects and try to work around them.

But maybe a quarter of the country identifies with the Religious Right. If there really is no sense to what goes on in their minds, then they could do anything. How are you going to live in a society where a quarter of the population could do anything?

For your own sanity, you need to make some sense out of the Religious Right. But how?


George Lakoff thinks that the reason liberals and conservatives seem to live in different worlds, is that in some sense they really do. According to Lakoff, when we look at something a very fast unconscious process frames it and presents it to us as an event. Two people who have different frames may see different events even though they’re looking at the same thing.

Take this event. Consciously, you don’t just looking up here and see light waves: You see a person preaching a sermon. You could make up reasons to explain how you know that, but mostly you just know it. You don’t even realize you’re interpreting the situation, you think you’re just seeing it the way it is.

But what if the left half of the room looks up here and sees me leading a discussion? And doing a really bad job of it. “Enough introduction! When is that guy going to shut up and let somebody else talk?”

“Call on me! Call on me!”

Meanwhile, you folks on the right are sitting here thinking: “What’s wrong with those people?” When you all get together at coffee hour, you’re going to have some bizarre conversations.

Let’s apply that to marriage. When someone says marriage, I don’t consciously decipher the word. Some unconscious process causes a network of ideas and images to pop into my head: Two people in a partnership, facing whatever life throws at them, and making it up as they go along. I never decided to think about marriage that way, I just do.

But a very different network of ideas and images pops into James Dobson’s head. He sees the timeless roles of Husband and Wife, and two people taking on those roles like actors agreeing to be in a play.

Now we hear gay marriage. I picture: Two men in a partnership, facing whatever life throws at them. Why not? But Dobson has a very different problem: Who’s the Husband and who’s the Wife? If they raise children, who’s the Father and who’s the Mother? He can’t make it fit in his frame. Neither of us really understands our framing process, because it’s unconscious. We can make up reasons and argue about them, but it’s all after the fact. We each think we’re just seeing the situation the way it is, and we don’t understand why other person doesn’t.

In Lakoff’s theory, we frame a situation through metaphors. We think about abstract things in terms of more concrete things: Time is Money. That’s not just a poetic image: We actually spend time, save time, waste time, and even budget time. Give me a minute. Take five. If you had to talk about time without using any words that were more appropriate for money, you wouldn’t know what to say.

We think about institutions as if they were people. So we might ask: “Does this church want to grow, or not?” You may not even realize the question is metaphoric, because you interpret it without asking what it means for a church to want something.

We describe institutional relationships in personal terms: Is China our friend or our enemy?

We describe our nation in family terms. George Washington is the father of our country. On April 15 you pay Uncle Sam. And look out if you don’t, because Big Brother is watching. Most often, we picture the government as a parent. It defends us, educates us, helps us if we’re in trouble, and even punishes us if we’re bad.

Lakoff studied American political rhetoric, and boiled it all down to this: What kind of parenting advice do you want to give the government? If you think the government is too permissive and want it to be more strict, you’re a conservative. If you think it’s too harsh and want it to be more nurturing, you’re a liberal.

No Child Left Behind, for example, is strict: It treats an underperforming school district as if it were a lazy child. Clear standards and the threat of punishment, it thinks, should shape that district right up. Liberals, on the other hand, would rather nurture the district, as if it were a child with special needs. Two metaphors. Two very different frames.

In his book Moral Politics, Lakoff goes through the full collection of social issues and explains how the conservative and liberal positions come from a metaphor of the government as a strict parent or a nurturing parent. Lakoff says that welfare, taxes, crime, abortion, the environment, the arts, and affirmative action “are not ultimately different issues, but manifestations of a single issue: strictness versus nurturance.”


James Ault reduces conservative and liberal family values to a different pair of concepts: the Given and the Chosen. Ault’s liberal academic friends took for granted that the major relationships of their lives would be chosen and negotiated -- like the description I gave of marriage. The key idea of the chosen relationship is commitment. You negotiate a relationship with someone and then choose to commit to that relationship.

But for the working-class fundamentalists Ault studied at Shawmut River, relationships are given, and the key notion is obligation. You are born into a network of obligations. Your survival depends on other people fulfilling their obligations to you, and as you grow you pick up more and more obligations to them. Good people fulfill their obligations and bad people don’t. If nobody fulfilled their obligations, civilization would fall. (Maybe that’s what Dobson was thinking.)

At Shawmut River, obligations take the form of fixed roles: Husband, Wife, Son, Daughter, Father, Mother. You don’t make these relationships up as you go. They are timeless and they’re not up for negotiation.

One of your obligations is to carry on your family and your community by having children. You have an obligation to find someone to marry, so that together you can take on the timeless roles of Husband and Wife, and then of Father and Mother.

Shawmut River promises you long-term satisfaction and pride, but not that you’ll enjoy every minute of it. Obligations, by their nature, are inconvenient. It’s inconvenient to raise children, it’s inconvenient to stay faithful to your spouse, it’s inconvenient to take care of your parents when they get old. But, inconvenient as they are, obligations are what gives depth to life.

And that brings us to an important point: Choice and freedom, which are always good words in the liberal vocabulary, are ambiguous to the Religious Right. Sometimes they’re good, but people who choose to be free of their obligations are bad people.


Let’s look at how these two notions -- commitment and obligation -- play out in the issue of abortion. To a liberal, parenthood is the biggest commitment you can make. It’s a huge amount of effort, and you can’t be sure that you’ll get anything back. You may hope to have a lifelong relationship with your children, but you’ll have to wait and see what they want. Your nurturance has to be a gift, not a deal.

But your heart isn’t automatically filled with that kind of generosity just because your birth control fails. The sacrifices and uncertainties of liberal parenthood are unthinkable without a moment of commitment when you say, “This is my child; I’m doing this.” Without the option of abortion, you may not get that moment. Conception may be an accident, and then there’s a baby you never wanted and don’t feel committed to.

The obligation model of family doesn’t require a moment of commitment. Sure, it may be really inconvenient to have a child right now. Maybe you’d rather pursue a career, maybe you’d rather wait until you have more money, or until your marriage is on firmer ground. But pregnancy creates an obligation, and obligations are always inconvenient. And besides, parenthood is a good deal. In the long run the child’s obligations to you more than compensate for your sacrifices. By insisting that you have this child, society is forcing you to make a good investment that, given your own short-term view, you might otherwise chicken out of. To the Religious Right, having a child is like getting an education or buying a house. It’s hard at first, but in the long run you’ll thank them for making you do it.

To sum up: To a liberal, the possibility of abortion creates the moment of commitment that makes the whole parent-child relationship work. To a fundamentalist, a woman who wants an abortion is just trying to slough off her obligations because they’re too inconvenient. And a permissive government that lets her get away with it just encourages people to be self-indulgent.


That, I might add, is the general fundamentalist view of liberals: We’re self-indulgent. They believe that liberals want to be free so that we can live a life without obligations. We want to be able to slough off anything that’s inconvenient. That’s why they see liberalism as a superficial, morally trivial way to live. That’s not rhetoric; it’s what they think of us.

Superficial. Morally trivial.

Have I made anybody mad yet?

It’s always unpleasant to see yourself the way your enemies see you. But I needed to put you through that so that I could answer the question that I know is on most of your minds: How do we beat these people?

Understanding, of course, is good in itself. And I believe that our UU principles require us to try very hard to see our opponents’ points of view. But we don’t want to be so high-minded that we can’t take our own side in an argument. It matters whether we have war or peace, whether the poor have health care, whether church and state remain separate. So how do we win?


One thing I like about Lakoff’s terminology is that it becomes really easy to describe what Gandhi did to the British: He broke their frame. The British framed themselves as the standard-bearers of civilization and the Indians as their children. Gandhi won India’s independence by staging a series of events that the British could not ignore and could not fit into that frame.

So how do we break the frame of the Religious Right?

I’ll tell you what doesn’t work: Getting really angry and damning them for not living by our values. They know they don’t live by our values. They’re proud of it. And we play the petulant, self-indulgent liberals they think we are: No impulse control. We just blow up for any old reason.

You have to understand the Right to criticize it effectively. Those divorce statistics, for example, really bug them. How can they frame themselves as the stronghold of family values if their families don’t hold together as well as the atheists’ do?

It’s also effective to call them on violating their own values. Take, for example, this latest flap about judges and the nuclear option. Dobson and his allies tried to read things into the Constitution that aren’t there, and they tried to slough off Senate rules that they find inconvenient. Those are their values, not just ours.

But attacks by themselves won’t break the frame of the Religious Right. You see, the Dobsons and the Falwells and the Robertsons have a fundamentally negative view of where the world is going. The Anti-Christ is coming. Armageddon is coming. Things are going to get really bad. And so, if Tom DeLay or Rush Limbaugh or Jimmy Swaggart get into trouble -- and they have -- that just shows how strong the winds of temptations are in this fallen society. It just shows how strong Satan is in these last days. And whatever conservative scandals come out, they will imagine that we are doing much worse.

Conservative vice, no matter how outrageous, will not break the frame of the Religious Right. But liberal virtue will.

Let me repeat that: Liberal virtue breaks the frame of the Religious Right. They can’t account for it.

For years, religious liberals have been publicizing the wrong thing about ourselves: our freedom. The Right knows that we have more freedom than they do, and they see it as evidence of our superficiality: Sure, you’re free. You can get an abortion. You can get a divorce. You can drink. You can sleep in on Sunday mornings. You can go to porno movies. You can sleep around.

They’re not impressed.

They see us as people who want to be free to slough off our obligations. They don’t understand that we want to be free to make commitments. And that we do make them and keep them. That part doesn’t fit. It breaks the frame.


When I look at this congregation, I see a lot that would break the frame of the Religious Right, if they only knew about it. I see married couples -- gay and straight alike -- who stand together and handle gracefully whatever the world throws at them. Their frame can’t account for that.

I see children who are growing up to be fine young men and women. Their frame can’t account for that.

I see people who give up their time, their energy, and their money to make the world better. Who build affordable housing. Who are committed to peace. Who make beautiful art and music. Who care for the mentally ill. And there are people I don’t see right now, because at this moment they’re back there teaching our children to be better people.

Their frame can’t account for that.

The Religious Right sees itself as the last embattled fortress of virtue in a world overrun with vice. If evil is breaching that fortress, it just makes their battle more desperate. But if goodness is alive and well outside the walls, that doesn’t fit. It breaks the frame.

We fight them best by making lives that they have to admire. By building better families and better communities. By contributing more to the world. By doing it in public. By doing it in ways they can’t ignore. If you want to hear sermons about family values, go listen to Jerry Falwell. He’s good at that. But if you want to be surrounded by people who live values, whose example can show you how to make your family work, come here.

That’s the message that wins.

The message I want you to take home from this sermon is that the personal is political again. Your life, your family, your marriage, your children, your church, your town -- this is where the battle is going to be won. It’s not about talking heads on TV. It’s about people on the ground showing in our lives that our way works better.

10 comments:

Mark J. Norton said...

As as said at the talk-back after the service, this was an outstanding sermon. This not only gives us the ability to think how we might take back some of the moral ground lost to the right, but also helps us to better understand how they think. Understanding leads to tolerance and acceptance -- never a bad thing, in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

I want to thank you for expressing so well, and so compassionately, how Ault and Lakoff help explain how these perspectives differ. In particular it is important to do so in a respectful and affirming way, truly in accord with UU principles.

I always find myself surprised that my wonderful neighbor sees no contradiction between being at once compassionate, generous, and intelligent, while fully identifying herself with the LDS church; and I think of my aunt, who makes the most despicably racist remarks about every imaginable minority but spends her holidays cooking for and literally serving homeless minorities through her Catholic church. There is no question but that these prejudices on my part limit my own ability to live my own principles.

But the analysis does not explain everything. In particular, how can these concepts properly account for such widespread and virulent antipathy toward gay marriage--and indeed, toward homosexuality itself? How do the strict parent frames dictate the degree of this animousity?

Using the Lakoff/Ault perspective, one may construct an argument to account for it, thus:

A. Premise--(No one in his right mind would have and raise children unless compelled to do so). If I see my neighbor getting away with not having and raising children, I will want to do the same, just as I will want to steal things and fornicate with many women if I know I can get away with doing that.

B. Premise--The purpose of the family is to have and raise children. Being in a family and not having children destroys the purpose of the family.

D. Premise--When families do not have and raise children, society will be destroyed.

E. Those who tempt others not to have children thus destroy the purpose of the family and as a result, destroy society.

F. The idea that one can choose whether to have and raise children is a temptation. Anyone or anything that exemplefies, spreads, or promotes this idea therefore destroys families and society.

G. Families in which people choose when and whether to have children serve as examples that tempt others not to have children.

H. Therefore families in which people choose when and whether to have children destroy the purpose of the family and thereby destroy society.

I. Gay families in particular choose when and whether to have children. Therefore they serve as examples which tempt families not to have children and destroy the purpose of the family and also destroy society. Gay families promote and spread the idea that one can choose whether to have and raise children. Therefore they are especially dangerous to families and society.

Isn't this overly rational? There is something much more primal about the almost uncontrollable fear, hatred, and loathing--even rage--which so many of the "Red Families" feel toward gay people. It is almost as if they fear that heterosexual men and boys, if they think they can get away with it, will travel a downward path of moral degradation through cheating, stealing, and hetrosexual fornication, arriving finally at the ultimate wickedness: homosexual lust... a concept to my mind so much at variance with the actual inclination and conduct of most heterosexuals--at least, with the vast majority of those I am aware of--as to be hysterically risible. I mean no disparagement to any gay person when I say this, but personally I am just plain heterosexual. Under the right circumstances, I expect I could conceivably wish to steal things, or perhaps even want to commit adultery or murder; but I can't possibly imagine summoning up any inclination whatever to "choose the gay lifestyle." Ironically, if there is anything one does not choose, it is probably one's sexual orientation.

Somehow there is something more than a chain of premise and deduction at work here, based upon irrational premises perhaps but reasonable enough within its own framework. Whenever we are concerned with dehumanizing some people or group of people we definitively hate and fear, we see them as a direct sexual threat. Or this is some fear that one's children will be posessed by a demonic force--or, perhaps much the same thing, a terror of them being replaced with a changeling.

I would very much like to read your response to this question.

Bill Baar said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Bill Baar said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Bill Baar said...

We discussed your Sermon last night at Framing the Discussion at the Unitarian-Universalist Society of Geneva Illinois.

I was troubled by it.

The divorce statistics especially, which seemed to be a return to some long gone New England Puritianism: We lead virtous lives Look at our stats! We must be right.

Also showed your statistics and this quote to my wife:

You have to understand the Right to criticize it effectively. Those divorce statistics, for example, really bug them. How can they frame themselves as the stronghold of family values if their families don’t hold together as well as the atheists’ do?

...and her reaction was of course the non-denominatonal Christian Right have more divorced people. They target people in need: the divorced, the addicts; any one in crisis.

Our mega Churches here in St Charles Illinois offer a whole host of programs for people seeking somekind of healing.

So it stands to reason they share a disproportinate number of sinners (using an archaic terms perhapes).

How at home could a sinner be in a UU Church which holds out statistics about our virtues?

This is a troubling perspective on Unitarian Universalism indeed.

I'll forward this to our whole group in UUSG....

Do take this in a spirit of goodwill because while I found your sermon troubling (and my wife -who went through a failed marriage- found down right offensive), I do think it starts a discussion UUs ought have.

Doug Muder said...

Sorry I've done such a bad job of keeping track of comments and responding to them.

I'll respond to bill baar's wife's comment here: Ronald J. Sider in "The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience" anticipated your wife's objection and notes on page 16 quotes a study saying "90% of all divorced born-again folk divorced AFTER they accepted Christ."

Doug Muder said...

Now I'll respond to anonymous' comment about the virulence of the Right's antipathy toward gays.

I don't fully understand it either. I don't think the not-having-children argument is key, because I have a childless marriage myself and don't experience anything like the degree of denunciation that gay couples get. Also, religious-right folks would be happy if my wife and I adopted, but not if a gay couple adopted

I think gays and lesbians threaten the Right's vision of separate gender roles. They confuse the Right's definitions of what it means to be a man or a woman, and especially a father and a mother.

Gender segregation is also key to the Right's desire to put sex in a box. In an all-male military, for example, they'd like to assume that they've removed sex from the equation. But what if the soldiers are gay? That's why so many of the no-gays-in-the-military people are also the no-women-in-combat people.

Bill Baar said...

"90% of all divorced born-again folk divorced AFTER they accepted Christ."

So?

Doug Muder said...

Bill,

The answer to your question "So?" is that members of the conservative churches don't have more divorces because the churches target divorced people. People join the churches, THEN get divorced.

You're interpreting my piece as an attack on the conservative churches, when I see the conservatives as the attackers. We're constantly faced with the message that THEY represent family values and we want to tear familes down.

But if you look at the facts, our families work pretty damn well compared to theirs. If they would stop attacking us, we wouldn't need to point this out. But we do need to point it out.

Kim Ravn-Jensen said...

My bonus-daughter (daughter of the woman I married after my divorce, just to set the scene ;-) ) drew my attention to your "Red Family, Blue Family"-paper a few hours ago. I think it highlights a lot of issues an a very inspiring manner.

But I would like to add to the subject: "What do Right-Wing people think they know better than us liberals since they do not convert voluntarily?"

Consider making "psychopathy" a key metaphor. Start by assuming that some of us are psychopaths and some are not. Then, realize that in a world of freedom and chosen relations, psychopaths thrive, and empathic liberals seem unable to prevent them from doing so. In a world of given relations, on the contrary, psychopaths are tamed like all other people.

The next step is to embrace (what I believe is) the attitude of professionals: Psychopathy does not exist as a well-defined psychological condition, it is a genuine metaphor used to push people you do not like away to a position which does not threaten your desire to feel good and responsible.

You may then recognize that the Right-Wing position may be considered wise by sane people: If psychopathy is out there, but psychopaths are not identifiable, a system which tames everybody is more efficient than a system which needs to trace down psychopaths in order to preserve its identity of being free and responsible at the same time.

Look at history, and you should see that efficient handling of psychopathy may prevent a disaster or two.

I am myself able to argue against some of my statements above. I just wanted to add what I see as a somewhat disregarded aspect of the discussion.