Red Family, Blue Family: What to Make of the Religious Right

A sermon presented by Doug Muder at First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts on 29 May 2005


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%


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 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 this 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 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.

Read other sermons by Doug Muder