“Strict Parents and Line-Cutters”
A Sermon by Josh Leach
Delivered on Sunday, April 23, 2017
At The First Parish in Bedford
A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:
“This book began with a conversation in my garden several years ago with my friend the late Paul Baum. I asked Paul if he could think of a single question, the answer to which would be the best indicator of liberal vs. conservative political attitudes. His response: ‘If your baby cries at night, do you pick him up?’ The attempt to understand his answer led to this book.”
~ George Lakoff, Moral Politics (1996)
Risk and Membership
Rev. Megan Lynes
I was raised Unitarian Universalist, and attended church pretty much every single Sunday, at first with my family, and then later on my own as a teenager, even when the rest of the family lost interest. Like most of us, I longed to belong to something great. I didn’t want to stand out, but how I hungered for something powerful to care about and work for alongside my peers and elders. In church, I found just that. Singing in the choir gave me a chance to do my part in the creation of something sacred. On choir Sundays, we donned our robes with reverence, and when we sang, we stood tall. We knew beyond a shadow of doubt that we were born to manifest the glory that was within us. We weren’t pretending to be gifted with a great commission, the music simply filled us, and we became vehicles for the experience of transformative worship. I remember my throat would sometimes close over the beauty of the music, and tears would smart in my eyes. I’d mouth along until I could sing again. Every UU church has its own flavor of course, and the words of those songs were pretty much the only scripture I ever heard in our very humanist UU church. Yet those refrains are often what come to me when I am in need of comfort or clarity. It’s hard to explain how hungry I was for something wondrous and gritty and real at that time in my teenage life. Through music, and the solidarity of singing as one among many, I was ministered to, as I ministered to others. And after we sang, no one dreamed of clapping. We weren’t cute. We weren’t performing. The listeners weren’t an audience. The young people had simply taken our turn in leading the community in going deeper note by note, word by word. The music itself wrapped around us and lifted us. So much so in fact, that I often had the physical sensation upon returning to my pew, that the top of my head was tingling, as if my hair was being swept upwards by a warm wind. In those moments, our little church seemed so much a part of everything, beneath wide sky of all that ever was and will be.
That was the best of church life for me, belonging to the whole, and articulating through music, the connectedness we each have to all life. But I’ll also tell you that when the time came to consider signing the membership book at age 16, I stood before it and felt only confusion. Why on earth would I join this place, I asked myself? My happy musical heart was not even part of the conversation. Somehow the message I’d picked up in church was that choosing or finding one’s religion is an individual process, that each person goes on their own quest for what’s true and right, and that being a part of a specific group might mean giving up one’s own thinking. It was the mid-nineties, and faith in institutions was at a new low. Our religion taught us to question authority, often to be specifically anti-authority, to be counter-cultural, and it cultivated a reflexive “no” response to many situations. It taught us to lead far more often than follow. It taught us to be someone who is intrepid and exceptional. In short the message I heard over and over was DO NOT BE A JOINER. THINK FOR YOURSELF, OR YOU WILL BE SWALLOWED UP BY THE WHOLE. That day in the church narthex I placed the pen carefully back down without signing the book, and no one asked me why. I simply walked away. But here’s the truth I wish I knew then: Nothing is lost, and so much is gained, when we risk joining something we believe in.
It took me another decade to realize on my own just how important church was to me and to at last become an official member of a particular congregation. I had to join the choir again before I could re-member (such a telling word) how much both my religious experience and my religious identity is shaped by who I am as part of the whole. I had to feel as well as think my way to knowing I am part of a force for good.
Looking back, I could no sooner give up on being a Unitarian Universalist, than I could discredit my parents for raising me. I am proud of who we are, when we are at our best. I do not want our young people to disinherit our religion, and I absolutely do want them to stick around for the long haul. And later, when the time is right, and they stand with a membership book open before them, I want them to want in! Let’s interact in all ways with them like we expect our young people to stay, like we need them to stay, because we do. They are part of us, and we are part of them, all members of one body. The same is true for newcomers, seekers, and people who may keep the faith of their youth and also claim this community as home. The clearer we can be about who we are together, rather than all we stand against, the better it is for all of us. It is both an honor and a calling to share and live the values of our liberal faith. If you have not yet become a member here, or if re-membering is a matter of the heart, I invite you. Take a risk. Opt in.
For all my life up to the age of eighteen, I was more than used to being surrounded by people who disagreed with me about politics and religion. Growing up in the suburbs outside of Dallas, we were the lone UU family in a neighborhood that was otherwise made up of conservative mainline Protestants and evangelicals. It was the sort of place where, by a kind of unwritten town ordinance, every house on the block had to have matching Christmas and Easter decorations at the appropriate times of year, and it all had to be put up the agreed upon number of weeks prior to each holiday. When I explained all this to a friend years later, who was the product of quite different circumstances – namely, a hippie home-schooling collective in Maryland– she was memorably aghast. “That’s so… Stepford,” she said. She was right. In a word, I grew up in WASP central.
In high school, all my friends were conservatives, because all the people I knew were conservatives, apart from the other members of my family and the old radicals at my church. The experience of being this tiny drop of blue in a sea of deep red has colored my perception of myself to this day. It gave me a taste for taking the unpopular side in any dispute, for one. And, as much as it turned me into a perpetually crusading liberal as a teenager, it also – paradoxically – gave me the sense, once I started to reside in an almost exclusively liberal bubble here in Massachusetts, that I was not quite a true believer in the left-wing pieties. This might be surprising, given that I think I have a reputation around here for preaching some pretty political sermons. But for a long time I really did cherish the belief that, for all my strong convictions, I was also able to understand where the other side was coming from, and even that I was able to code-switch to conservative language, when I was speaking to friends back home.
This belief stayed with me, in fact, even through this past election – mostly because my best-friend from high school, Jack, who is a conservative, seemed about as unimpressed by Trump as the rest of us. “He’s not a real conservative” he would say. And: “Hey, remember the days when Trump was just that obnoxious guy on The Apprentice?”
It wasn’t until I talked to him again about politics about a month ago that my belief in my ability to still communicate across the red state-blue state divide was punctured. We were on vacation together, and he finally confessed to me that he was “starting to like Trump.” I was quickly off on a tear. What about the refugee ban, I asked? What about the deportations; the corrosive poison of Islamophobia and bigotry that he was leeching into our society? My friend didn’t defend any of that, per se. He just thought it was outweighed by the President’s many good qualities. “Like what?” I asked. He replied: “I liked it when he met with the businessmen.”
I was genuinely floored. As much as I wanted to believe that I had the power to transcend difference and still speak the lingo of the people of my humble origins, this one finally left me with that incredible gaping sensation of: “I just don’t get it.” I had no idea what he was referring to about Trump’s meeting with “the businessmen.” And I certainly didn’t understand how this alleged summit could have been so admirable in his eyes that it would have eclipsed all the shamelessness and bullying and bigotry.
As the argument continued, I began to perceive that something more strange was happening here than just a simple disagreement. Jack admitted that he thought I was probably right about the refugee program, for instance, but he just saw this as a minor and highly specialized policy question that would only be of interest to zealots with a professional stake in the matter, like me. “It’s just not really my issue,” he said, as if I was a celery farmer basing his political decisions on which party seemed to be doing better for celery that year. To me, the threats to the refugee program were not only callously toying with the lives and futures of thousands of people, they were also a fundamental erosion of the moral consensus of human rights. To Jack, it was a side-issue, somewhere in the same category as an ethanol tax.
I began to understand something else as well. Jack could see how each one of Trump’s more offensive utterances might be objectionable in itself, but the pattern in which he fitted them was wholly at odds with mine. To him, everything Trump said on the campaign trail had been a kind of gaffe that wasn’t to be taken too seriously, and which he would never actually implement. “He won’t really try to do a Muslim ban,” he said. “But he just did – twice!” I replied.
I think I know what happened here. The dominant narrative on the right-wing media that Jack has consumed for the last ten years has been variations on a theme, the basic thread of which goes like this: Conservatives often say innocuous or well-meaning things that perhaps come across as a little tin-eared, and then liberals proceed to pounce on them for it and call them sexist and racist. To Jack, the outrage provoked by Trump was just another instance of the same. “But Jack,” I said, “the Muslim ban was not some gaffe. It was Trump’s official policy position that he issued in a press release and kept on his campaign website up to the day of the election.”
This didn’t seem to matter though. Perhaps there have been enough real-life instances of liberals over-reacting to things by now that Jack was confident in writing this off as one more of the same, even though this time it really was as bad as liberals were making it out to be. I was explaining all this to a different friend, Seanan, and found myself struggling for an analogy. “It’s like the ‘Boy Who Cried Wolf,’” said Seanan. “I know,” I replied, “except this time there actually is a wolf at the end of it.” Seanan reminded me that that was also true in the Boy Who Cried Wolf, and that was sort of the whole point. But whatever.
I came to see that even if Jack couldn’t or didn’t want to defend Trump in every instance, nevertheless by being a Republican president, Trump was still part of Jack’s tribe. Therefore he was afforded a presumption of good intentions. If he did something reprehensible, then – well, he must not have meant it – whereas a Democrat in the same position would be abhorred. A communications firm called Frameworks, which specializes in helping non-profits understand the way people think about politics and social issues, observes the following in one of their memos: “[We see the world in terms of friends and strangers.] Our friends are people who share our basic beliefs, norms and rules. They talk like us and act like us. They are extended certain privileges and courtesies. We give them the benefit of the doubt and forgive their foibles. Strangers are dangerous. […] We are unsure of their intentions and have trouble understanding their language and behavior.”
Jack and I are friends, but in the sense conveyed in this paragraph, I began to see that we are also strangers. We belong to different tribes, and he perceives the things that come from my tribe as mean-spirited even, when he knows they are right, and sees the things his own tribe does as good-natured, even when he knows they are wrong.
In thinking back on our long friendship, I try to pinpoint the moment that I first realized that Jack and I belong to different tribes. A conversation comes back to me from sophomore year of high school. We were on a school trip together, and discussing politics for what must have been only the first or second time. I told him that I was a liberal – or, rather, an anarcho-communist, as was true at that time, which to him must have sounded like much the same thing. He told me in reply that he was a conservative.
Then he presented me with a simple parable that now strikes me as surprisingly instructive. “A liberal family and a conservative family drive up to a large house,” he said. “The conservative looks at it and says, ‘kids – if you work really hard, one day you’ll be able to afford a house like that.’ The liberal looks up at it and says, ‘kids, someday, we will live in a fairer society, and everyone will be able to afford a house like that.’”
It had the structure of a joke, but it wasn’t funny and there was no punch line. Instead, it pretty much accurately conveyed my belief system as a teenage anarcho-communist. I felt that I had been heard and understood. But more to the point, it seemed utterly self-evident to me that the liberal character in the story was right. Wasn’t it obvious that you were supposed to want everyone’s standard of living to rise, not just the disciplined few? The fact that Jack could tell this parable, and come away from it with the idea that the conservative in the story sounds better, was incredible to me.
We had stumbled in our naïve way upon what social scientists describe as the political unconscious – those guiding assumptions that are so basic to each of our worldviews that we don’t often bring them to awareness. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild calls it the “deep story.” The cognitive scientist George Lakoff writes that whenever we describe something as “common sense,” what we are really saying is that it is a product of our background assumptions, which he believes are mostly rooted in metaphors drawn from family life – a hypothesis that Jack’s story would tend to support.
For Lakoff, conservatism is rooted in a “Strict Parent” version of morality. According to this moral code, a parent’s role – and by extension, the role of the state – is to ensure that children are not coddled, that they gain an appreciation early on for the stern and inescapable realities of life. Children should be exposed to competition—within reason – according to this value system, because it will teach them the discipline needed to succeed in a struggle for scarce resources. Reward and punishment are also heavily prioritized. In the “Strict Parent” worldview, the punishment of transgressions is not a tragic necessity, but an act of central moral significance, because it is the basis for all moral behavior, in a world where people otherwise naturally incline toward sin. To show so much mercy that you neglect to punish a wrong-doer is not a sign of magnanimity, according to this worldview, it is itself an immoral act, so that for conservatives, failing to punish someone is almost as bad as doing the thing for which you need punishment in the first place.
This “Strict Parent” worldview contrasts with what Lakoff calls the “Nurturant Parent” model, according to which people’s primary obligation is to take care of one another, to ease the burdens of the struggle for existence, and to err, if we err at all, on the side of mercy, tenderness, and forgiveness. “Nurturant Parent” morality, as you can probably guess, is the background assumption of liberalism, in Lakoff’s view.
Arlie Hochschild’s model of the people waiting in line is gesturing toward a similar idea. It too reflects an assumption that life is a zero sum affair, in which only so many rewards will be passed out at the end, and to only so many people. The Strict Parent believes that their kids need to toughen up early, because otherwise they will fall behind in the distribution of winnings. Hochschild’s line-waiters believe that they need to protect their place in the pecking order, because otherwise someone else will swoop in and get all the goodies before there is any left over for them.
The liberal “nurturant parent,” by contrast, views life as a place of almost limitless abundance, where there actually will be enough for all of us if we agree to share it in advance and take care of one another.
Jack’s parable, then, had gotten it exactly right. The conservative in the story sees the big house as a reward for good behavior. And not only would it be bad policy to try to give everyone houses like that, it would be immoral, because it would be failing to punish people who didn’t work hard enough, and it would also be unfair, because then the person who waits in line would get the same outcome as the person who cuts in line— in which case, what was the point of waiting in line at all?
Once we come to see that the fundamental divisions in our politics have to do with moral ideas, rather than with policy, we start to realize how much of our usual political discourse is entirely missing the point. Libertarians wish to cast our political divide in terms of “big government” versus “small government,” and they are therefore forever mystified by why so many conservatives seem content to favor small government when it concerns labor standards or environmental regulation, and to have big government when it comes to Border Patrol, ICE, the prison system, and the military. But if the conservative worldview really has nothing to do with the size of government, per se, but is grounded in Strict Parent Morality, which prizes both competition and an unbending system of rewards and punishments, then there is in fact no contradiction at all.
Similarly, I have often heard one side of the political spectrum say about the other, “Oh, we have to put this in financial terms because that’s the only thing they – the other side – cares about.” Liberals are often seen, therefore, to try to justify more open borders not by moral appeals to the humanity of immigrants, but with tendentious arguments about the positive effects of immigration on the economy and labor market.
This tendency to recast all our arguments in utilitarian rather than moral terms never convinces the other side; on the contrary, it just encourages them in the belief that their side must be the only one with any moral values. “See,” they say, “I told you those liberals don’t care about enforcing the law, they just care about money, this proves it!”
The truth is that conservatives won’t be persuaded to demilitarize the border and grant lawful status to undocumented folks by being shown that this would “work” – quote unquote – for the economy, because it is rooted in conservative moral conceptions, not in models of economic growth. The underlying conservative belief about undocumented immigration is not that it is slowing the economy or driving down wages, but that it is “cutting in line.” How often has each of us heard a Trump supporter say, “I have nothing against immigration, but they have to come here legally.” The question of whether or not it is actually possible to come to this country by lawful means in any of these cases is irrelevant. The idea that maybe our immigration laws might themselves be unfair is a liberal preoccupation. In the Strict Parent morality, rules must be obeyed not because they are fair, but precisely because they are harsh and inflexible, and thereby provide the disciplining of the will that is the essence of all morality.
So too, conservatives would probably still favor supply-side economics even if it could be irrefutably proven to them that it is worse for GDP growth over the long haul – just as, truth be told, I’d probably still favor liberal Keynesian economics regardless of the evidence I was shown against it. The reason in both cases has to do with morals, not economics. Conservatives don’t like the idea of deficit spending, because they don’t like to think that you might not actually need to pay all your debts. They don’t like the idea that you can get something for nothing. And even if you could, they think, anyways, you shouldn’t.
Liberals meanwhile don’t care for the idea of Reaganomics, not because we necessarily know whether it will keep the growth rates high or not, but because we believe that it’s better from an ethical point of view to spend more on social programs, because it’s more generous. Krugman-style liberal economics is a viewpoint founded in abundance. It suggests that we can actually gain more for all of us by spending more on the least of us. And it is just this fact that makes it seem so deeply moral to liberals, and so deeply immoral to conservatives.
Even when liberals and conservatives do regard the same thing as immoral, they are often on closer inspection seen to be bothered by exactly opposite aspects of it. After the 2007-2008 financial crisis, for example, both liberals and conservatives where worried about the unfairness of the crisis’s consequences – except that for liberals, the unfairness lay in the fact that innocent people had invested their money in financial institutions that were supposed to employ it wisely and safely, only to find their savings irretrievably lost later on. Conservatives, meanwhile, were incensed mostly by the thought that some people might not be getting punished enough in the recession’s aftermath for having invested in the wrong places. I would point to the rant by Rick Santelli on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade in 2009. This was the famous diatribe that first sparked the “Tea Party” phenomenon. You will see that his rage was not directed against Wall Street firms who had lost people’s money, but against the possibility that the government might intervene to make up some of that loss. As Santelli stormed in a classic Strict Parent vein: “Government is promoting bad behavior. . . . This is America! How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage? President Obama, are you listening? How about we all stop paying our mortgages! It’s a moral hazard.”
In reading this, I have another of my “I just don’t get it” moments. Once again, we are speaking different languages. To me, paying one’s neighbor’s mortgage may sound like a tall order – and anyways wasn’t, in fact, what President Obama was proposing we do – but it also sounds like a pretty noble and generous thing, if one could do it, and the sort of thing that would happen all the time in a more ideal world than our own. It certainly would not strike me as immoral, or a moral hazard. This is my liberal political unconscious kicking in. And it turns out that I come by it honestly.
I said at the outset of this sermon that I aspired in some sense to be able to speak across the political divide. I’m afraid, however, that I was irretrievably set back in that effort from an early age by the fact of growing up UU. They don’t call us a “liberal religion” for nothing. If there were ever a theological worldview more distant from Strict Parent morality, it would have to be Unitarian Universalism. In truth, our Seven Principles could stand in pretty well for a list of the tenets of Lakoff’s Nurturant Parent model of morality. We tend to believe that the right thing to do is also the most generous thing. We assume that it is both a harder and a better thing to forgive, where possible, rather than to punish. This is so much the case that the 19th century Universalists took this to its furthest theological conclusion – they held that a truly loving God would have mercy on every person in the next life, that God loved humanity unconditionally. The Universalist God was, in short, the ultimate Nurturant Parent. This God was the God of the line-cutters.
This is not to say that none of us ever has our Strict Parent moments. In my case, I know I tend to be most conservative when I feel that my own hard work is not being sufficiently recognized, or when I feel that someone else has just gotten something I feel I earned, but with none of the same effort. I recall once lecturing a friend who had turned in a paper late and still gotten an ‘A.’ I said something to the effect of: “Hang on a minute, what was the point of me working so hard for my A if they just give them out to everyone now?” The most miserly of Hoschild’s line-waiters could not have said it better.
As a general rule, we are most conservative about the things we possess, and we are most generous – unsurprisingly – with the things we don’t possess. Sure, share those things around! is something we are happy to say about other people’s things. It’s gets a little harder when those things are our own.
But the point is that the whole of our tradition as UUs urges us to try to be a little more generous than comes easily to us, and to view our relapses into a scarcity mentality as a kind of retrogression. We feel like we ought to be liberal, even on our conservative days.
I think we’d better face facts therefore, in this case, that in our efforts to understand our conservative neighbors, we’re not going to end up discovering that we actually agree with them. Indeed, we are pretty much the last people in the country who are likely to do so, since not only are we practitioners of Nurturant Parent morality – it is, if you will, our religion.
And yet, this isn’t the end of the story. Because hidden within the outermost extremes that we inhabit of the Nurturant Parent morality is something that calls us to strive to bridge the political divide, even as we are in some ways uniquely unequipped to do so. This is the fact that Nurturant Parent morality – Universalism, if you will – is founded in an ideal of unconditional love, and that extends even to the most hard-nosed practitioners of the Strict Parent morality.
If we take ourselves at our words, then this morality of ours tells us that we are not only supposed to forgive the things that the Strict Parents find it so difficult to forgive – we are not only called to spare the rod and spoil the child – we are also supposed to forgive the Strict Parents themselves. We are called to forgive people, even for their lack of forgiveness. We are supposed to forgive people for following the rules too narrowly and with too little heart, as well as for breaking them. Self-righteousness may be the subtlest of wrongs, but it too needs forgiving.
Oddly, in probing my friend Jack’s political views, I continually discovered that it was precisely a lack of forgiveness and forbearance toward him and other conservatives that he most blamed in liberals. He believed that liberals constantly “pounced” on innocuous utterances or slips of the tongue, and never gave conservatives the benefit of the doubt.
I might have asked him how he squared this cry for mercy on his behalf with his unmerciful Strict Parent morality. I might have asked him why he thought that liberals owed him forgiveness, but he did not show any concern about the structural lack of forgiveness in our country’s criminal justice system, and border enforcement system, and economic system. I might have asked him why he deserved second chances, but not people who are threatened with deportation or incarceration for driving without a license or hopping a subway turnstile, or who are at risk of losing unemployment benefits under certain conservative policy proposals if they have recently smoked a joint.
But before I do all of that, maybe I should ask myself whether he has a point. Whether I too have not been guilty of self-righteousness at times, in my railings against the self-righteous. You may have noticed that the political Left does have its own particular variety of self-righteousness. It is prevalent in settings like college campuses, where people have often spent so much of their lives so far viewing themselves as powerless that they are oblivious to the fact that they can indeed hurt other people. At its worst extremes, this moral arrogance can even take the form of violence. I have in mind a recent incident at Middlebury College, where the conservative writer Charles Murray was physically assaulted by a group of left-wing students and thrown to the ground. Most of us aren’t likely to do things like that, but we are all guilty on occasion, I’m suspect, of lapses of charity toward our political opponents.
Jack, by the way, has been to a UU church on a couple of occasions. He said he liked what he heard there, for the most part, but that when we got to the part at the beginning of the service about how “all are welcome here, whether you’re a liberal or a conservative,” he thought – “yeah right.”
It may be that we’re always going to provoke a snort and a “yeah right” when we say that, at least from some quarters. After all, we’re not about to start preaching Strict Parent morality from this pulpit, and we shouldn’t want to. But we can ask ourselves if we are truly applying the tenets of our Nurturant Parent morality as widely as they demand. We can ask ourselves if we are keeping wide the circle of Universalism as we claim.
In the meantime, I haven’t resigned my best friendship with Jack. I haven’t passed in my friendship card. For now, we will continue to be both friends and strangers, separated by tribe and occasionally by language – but not by affection. I guess that will have to be a start.
Please join me in Hymn #318 We Would Be One.
From the Gospel of Matthew:
10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked them, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’[a] For I have not come to call the righteous, but the unrighteous.”
May it be so! Amen.