Freedom – mine or ours?

Binary thinking – all or nothing, black or white, right or wrong – undergirds the worldview of a global authoritarian movement which includes Christian Nationalism. We’ve all heard the language:

  • My way or the highway.
  • You can’t have it both ways.
  • We can’t both be right.
  • Those are the rules.
  • It’s the principle of the thing that matters.
  • Love it or leave it.

    This way of understanding the world leaves little room for complexity or nuance. It’s about following the rules, and there is little room for empathy. It’s about principles, not people. Justice means people getting what they deserve, not setting people free who don’t deserve what they are getting in life.

    George Lakoff’s family model for understanding the morality of politics – all of life, really – makes sense of the deep divisions we experience. You can find more research than you want on his website or by just searching for Strict Father and Nurturant Parent, which are his terms for describing two foundational worldviews at the heart of our divisions, one based on Authority and one on Compassion.

    At first glance, this seems binary in itself, as if each one of us sees the world as “strict fathers” or as “nurturant parents.” Lakoff, however, reminds us that life is a continuum. It’s not either/or. Sometimes we act more as strict fathers and sometimes more as nurturant parents, depending on the context. Still, he insists – and I agree – most of us strongly favor one more than the other in how we view the world – how the world “should” be.

    One primary difference is whether we see responsibility as primarily individual or systemic. For instance, if I don’t feel that I’m better than someone of another race, does that mean I’m not racist? Or do I – as a white man – acknowledge the privileges and freedoms I have simply because of the color of my skin? Is racism only a matter of individual responsibility or is it a systemic reality in which we all participate, either having or being denied those privileges? And so I share responsibility for changing it?

    Or consider poverty. Are people poor primarily because they don’t individually take the initiative and work hard enough? So they don’t deserve any help from the government? Charity from a religious or nonprofit agency is okay, but not any publicly-funded programs? … Or does poverty have multiple, interrelated causes – including racism, poor education, sexism, low wages, and a system designed to keep people poor? Does government (at all levels) share responsibility for such a system, and do we as citizens in a democracy also share responsibility to change it?

    For people with a Strict Father view of the world, individual freedom is most important. Freedom from “the burden” of paying taxes. Freedom from “government control” of just about anything, such as education, guns, business. However, an exception to government control is made if it’s a matter of what they consider to be moral issues, such as reproductive freedom or LGBTQ rights, because those are matters of individual responsibility that must be limited for the sake of the nation. Or so the reasoning goes.

    For people with a Nurturant Parent view of the world, a desire for everyone to enjoy freedom is tied to justice – and all of it is systemic. What’s good for the greatest number of people – the common good – requires a democratic government (of the people, by the people, for the people) to use its resources to help people who have been denied freedom and justice by the system. We pay our taxes and pool our resources to provide education, enhance infrastructure, build better neighborhoods and housing, improve healthcare, and regulate corporations for the well-being of our communities. As many have said, no one is free until all are free. Individual responsibility ties directly to systemic responsibilities. One without the other reinforces injustice and denial of freedoms for many people.

    Lakoff’s paradigm helps make sense of our divisions. Christian Nationalism, more political than religious, can best be understood in this way as well. Does it seem at times like we live in different “worlds”? We do – and this is why. If we can understand both “worlds” better – though we might disagree vociferously – we can learn to “tell the story” of the kind of world we want to live in so it makes sense to more people.

    How do people change?

    Why and how do people change? My doctoral thesis began with those words. My research led me to define imagination as the human ability to interpret what we experience in a meaningful way. How do we imagine the world to be? How do we see it?  That’s what gives meaning to our experience of life. If we can imagine it differently – see it another way – we change our experience of it and live in a different way.

    Many people see Christian Nationalism as scary and terrifying, and they often equate people caught up in it with the movement itself and its leaders. Perhaps, though, many of those people are themselves afraid. Afraid and confused – and listening to movement leaders because what they say seems like common sense. If that’s true, then why not give them another way of seeing the world and making sense of what’s happening?

    In The Persuaders, Anand Giridharadas tells stories of a dozen people whose work focuses on changing the way people see the world and, as a result, making different social and political choices. Anat Shenker-Osorio, a messaging consultant, uses the term “persuadables” for people who are moderates. Why? Because, she says, “they toggle between competing views of the way the world works, and whatever they hear repeated most frequently becomes ‘common sense’ and ‘what everybody thinks.’” This 50-year-old movement has done that for a long time.

    Giridharadas summarizes her approach to persuasion this way:

    “If Shenker-Osorio is right that persuadables aren’t looking for an average of two positions but rather for what is normal, common sense, how the world works, then the way to persuade them of your view is by making it ubiquitous around them, inescapable. …. Repetition is a really big deal. More familiar messages are rated more convincing. Never mind the content. Repetition creates cognitive ease, so people rate familiar ideas as more favorable, more convincing, and more positive.”

    One of her slogans is “Painting the beautiful tomorrow.” Don’t argue with people. Don’t debate issues and policies and “truth.” Help people see a better world.

    “People aren’t stirred to reduce harm. They’re motivated to create good. As many have remarked, Martin Luther King did not get famous for saying, ‘I have a complaint.’ He certainly did not get famous for saying, ‘I have a multi-bulleted list of policy proposals.’ There has to be a dream. …You’ve got to sell people on the beautiful tomorrow.”

    Shenker-Osorio also gives a word of caution: “When you open with anger, what you can’t achieve is the second step—the hope. It’s not that people don’t think our ideas are right. It’s that they don’t think our ideas are possible, and so why bother?”

    Do we? – Do we believe our ideas are possible? That a world of empathy and compassion for people is possible? If we can see such a world, then we must learn to describe it. To talk about what it’s like and how it can “work” for everyone. The movement drives people with fear. We want to empower people with hope. We do that by telling a different story –  helping people “see” the world we want everyone to live in – and living together in that world.

    What is a Conservative?

    How do we define “conservative” in 2022? Depends on who we listen to. Compared to today’s conservative movement, Ronald Reagan was “center left,” and Dwight Eisenhower was “liberal.” At the National Conservatism Conference in Miami, Florida in September, prominent speakers promoted a new conservative worldview. Here’s a promo for their conference:

    Promo for National Conservatism Conference

    The Heritage Foundation, founded almost 50 years ago, leads the way. As perhaps the #1 conservative Think Tank for decades, their power to impose conservative policy was apparent when Donald Trump was president. In the 1980s the Reagan Administration used the Foundation’s policy series, Mandate for Leadership, to guide its work. Under President Trump, the Foundation placed its own people in positions of power to enact conservative policies.

    Heritage Foundation President, Kevin Roberts, spoke at the conference about “the betrayal by the Republican Party of the families, community, and nation it exists to serve.” He went on to clearly distinguish the Republican Party from the “national conservatism” he was advocating for. Today’s conservatives are no longer Republican in any traditional sense.

    A report on the conference in The Daily Signal, the foundation’s media arm, puts the new conservatism on full display in the language and ideas of Kevin Roberts:

    “I come today to this convention as president of The Heritage Foundation to extend my gratitude for the ideas and energy national conservatives have injected into the national debate, and my fellowship with principles you advance to rescue America from the barbarians inside the gates of our very own institutions.”

    Roberts “commended the national conservative movement for restoring a ‘proper’ public orientation of virtues like patriotism, courage, honor, loyalty, wisdom, religion, and family in American society.” And he spoke of “the rot coming from within: The tragedy of our universities, the stratification of our economy, the gelding of Congress, the farce of our news media, the weaponization of government against its people, and the popular culture against their values; these were all inside jobs.”

    Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., spoke at the conference as an advocate for Christian Nationalism, part of the larger movement:

    “The left is engaged in a project to undo the American Revolution and separate the nation from its biblical, Christian moral heritage. We are a revolutionary nation precisely because we are the heirs of the revolution of the Bible. This is a revolution that began with the founding of the nation of Israel, of Zion, and continued with the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth in the days of ancient Rome.”  

    Sen. Hawley’s words do not fully explain what he envisions as the “revolution of the Bible,” but he continues in the same direction:

    “Without the Bible, there is no modernity. Without the Bible, there is no America. The Bible’s centrality in our politics is the question of the age.  The ‘woke left’ is desperate to unseat its influence in American life, to ‘remake’ this nation. It’s doing this by making Americans believe that the country is ‘irredeemably racist and oppressive,’ that men can become women, and that the family is repressive. Their real target in all this, I submit to you, is the inheritance of the Bible. What they particularly dislike about America is our dependence on biblical teaching and tradition. What they particularly dislike about our culture is the Bible’s influence on it. And now they want to break that influence for good.

    The conference program included Balasz Orban, political director for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (no relation to Viktor Orban). He represents a global conservatism. With intended humor, he said their language has no word for “woke” and added that “we are lucky enough to not have to come up with a word. Obviously, we’re doing anything we can do to ensure that it stays that way.”  

    He attributed a widespread practice of “kneeling” at sports events as a “woke” influence in their country. And he continued, saying “the radical left further tried to influence Hungary by targeting the country’s children, similarly to what the left does in America. The turning point came when we realized that the woke propaganda was being used against our children. They started targeting our children, brainwashing young kids with ideology.” He “concluded his speech by encouraging leaders and conservatives across the world to stand strong against wokeness coming from America.”

    Where will this new conservatism take our nation? Leaders of the movement make no apology for seeking power to change the laws and impose their understanding of morality upon everyone. They like to claim they are the “victims” of “the woke left” – their favorite new term for the rest of us – through the media, arts, education, business, and government, which are all controlled by this imagined “left.” If we do not want that future for ourselves, we must act now to change it.