I read a book a couple years ago that was co-authored by two members of Focus on the Family–the conservative, Colorado Springs-based Christian institution founded by James Dobson. The book was about a particular spiritual challenge I was facing at the time, and I hadn’t seen any books by authors closer to my own style of Christianity that addressed it.
I liked the book. So I decided to email the authors to tell them how much their book had helped me. My message concluded:
As a member of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, I spend a lot of my “citizen time” fighting groups like Focus on the Family–as much, I believe, for the sake of the Gospel as for anything else. But I have learned something by sharing an office, at the evangelical university where I teach, with a colleague on the opposite end of the right-left spectrum from me: it isn’t disagreement that keeps people from getting along, but distrust. My colleague and I trust each other to have the right motives, and we get along very well (to the surprised amusement of our colleagues and students!) That experience allowed me to pick up and read your book, and profit by it greatly, as I never would have otherwise.
The authors’ responses were prompt and gratifying:
This is a great email! Thanks so much for the thoughtful words and practical update on what’s working with and in you! Hope you continue to move ahead, and that you find all the blessings that I have!
When I was in college, several student groups got together to sponsor an interracial event in which students could ask each other frank questions in a safe space. (“Why do black students talk so loudly in the halls?” the white kids wanted to know; “Why do white students have food fights and put shaving cream on doorknobs?” the black students asked.) I’d like to see a similar event take place between liberals and conservatives—a forum in which people with widely divergent viewpoints could question each other in good faith and in an environment of trust. And I’d like to get the ball rolling with a manifesto of what I believe about conservatives.
I’m going to try very hard to keep all traces of Devil’s-Advocate irony and sarcasm out of this document, and to include only those things I genuinely believe to be the sincerely-held values of mainstream conservatives. And as tempting as it is to exploit the rift between social conservatives and libertarians by including only one or the other in my list, I’m going to shun that easy way out by assuming that, for most conservatives, social and economic issues come “in the same package.”
What I Believe About Conservatives
1) I believe that conservatives need to have confidence in a person holistically before they are prepared to weigh specific arguments.
Once we understand where a candidate is at on their core values, and we believe that they are convicted with their core values on life, on marriage, on separation of powers and the Constitution, on limited government and on free enterprise…then we want to hear what their vision is.
This determination not to pick and choose issues on which to agree with someone, but rather to accept or reject a person or movement as a whole, is behind many conservative positions that can seem baffling from the outside.
Why, for instance, would conservative Christians view the environmental movement with such distrust? (Note: I don’t believe it’s really for the reasons that the loudest among them say it is—those are ex post facto rationalizations, in my opinion.) It’s because of who they believe environmentalists are, and what it would mean if they were to make common cause with them.
“There’s kind of this divide between the evangelical subculture and the environmental subculture,” says the Rev. Jim Ball, President and CEO of the Evangelical Environmental Network. “From the evangelical point of view, a lot of it is based on the perception that environmentalists are liberals, and that helps drive how they view these things. They think ‘Well, if environmentalists are liberals—meaning they are probably pro-choice–maybe we ought to go in the other direction.’”
Ball says that “both sides need to…realize that we have to de-couple (these issues) a little bit, and be ready to say, ‘I’m going to be pro-environment and pro-life, and that’s OK, and you can be pro-environment and pro-choice, and that’s OK.’” But for most conservatives, it’s more all-or-nothing than that. This is something to bear in mind when conservatives respond to liberals with what seem like ad hominem attacks rather than substantive arguments; for many conservatives, the question of who says a thing is as important as what is said.
2) I believe Conservatives genuinely view economic issues as a matter of freedom, and personal behavior issues as a matter of morality.
(And for that matter, I’m pretty sure that Liberals hold exactly the opposite view.)
What Liberals regard as mean-spirited greed, Conservatives view as allowing people to keep what they earn; what we view as allowing people to make their own decisions about personal morality, they view as countenancing moral chaos. And while politicians on both sides will cynically espouse these positions in the service of their corporate owner-operators, rank-and-file folks truly believe these things, and don’t understand why the rightness of their positions isn’t obvious to those on the other side.
3) Conservatives have the best interests of America at heart, and believe that their agenda is the best way to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”
When ordinary Conservatives talk about personal responsibility, it isn’t code for social Darwinism; when they espouse American exceptionalism, they aren’t merely shilling for American multinationals; they don’t oppose abortion because they want to punish women for having sex, but because they truly believe that abortion ends a human life. (Full disclosure: so do I–though I disagree with most conservatives about what should be done about it.)
That should be enough to get started. If there are any conservatives reading this, I’d love to hear your good-faith estimation of what Liberals believe. Maybe we can build a bridge over the gridlock.