Neither Conservative Nor Liberal, Traditionalist Nor Progressive: Toward a More Creative Unity

Conservatives and liberals. Traditionalists and progressives.

Maybe I shouldn’t put an and in the middle, but rather an or.

In Western Christianity, it’s no surprise that our binaries reflect our political divisions. Considering how deeply tethered our contemporary American Christian expressions are to both the economics and politics of our country, we recognize how the systems in place almost force us into having to choose a side between this or that.

But, what if there was a better way? What if we could reframe the entire system?

What if our polarizations were actually contrasts to be harmonized for the sake of the creative transformation of our religious and moral landscapes rather than means for division?

In the field of moral psychology, there is a theory that has been developed by Jonathan Haidt, Ravi Iyer, Sena Koliva, and their colleagues called Moral Foundations Theory. This theory purports that our human moral intuitions actually have neurological foundations in our brains.

Said simply, our ethical preferences are mainly influenced by our built-in brain types. Although this does not mean that our moral tastebuds are unmalleable throughout our lives (perhaps we can explore malleability in a subsequent post…and MFT actually affirms that we do grow and change), it does mean that our ethical choices reflect our predisposed tendencies toward making certain kinds of ethical decisions.

Here’s why this is so important:

Most of us think that we have come to our ethical stances of our own volition. And not only that, but some of us think that our ethical stances are equivalent with God’s!

  • But, what if our interpretations of our religion’s ethical imperatives were instead formed (at least in part) by some predisposed wiring?
  • What if our conversations started with an admission that, even though we all think we hold the correct position by our own choosing or by God’s dictation, in actuality, we are all working with predisposed ethical tastes?
  • How would that recast our ethical discourse across the conservative and liberal religious divide?

No matter what side we are on, it’s likely that the central conviction of our moral community is that our group holds the right answers and that anyone outside our group is a complete and utter moral failure. I don’t think I need to elaborate as to the repercussions of this line of thinking here. The point is, we war over this stuff.

My hunch is that if we could begin with moral psychology, then it would shift the religious conversations around ethics from “left vs. right” and into the sphere of “us.” This is an “us” conversation precisely because, as the science shows, we have all come to our moral intuitions in a way that we all share: namely, evolution. All six moral foundations evolved in us as we evolved to form tribes that needed types of morality in order to preserve our species.

Only when we acknowledge our commonalities can we then move into a place where we are able to give one another the charity of actually listening to each other. At first glance, our differences seem so divorced that many of us become frozen without even an inkling of a first step toward togetherness. This is where moral psychology offers us a way forward.

The six moral foundations that Haidt and his colleagues have laid out are as follows:

  • Care/Harm: we feel and dislike the pain of others.
  • Fairness/Cheating: our desire for reciprocal altruism.
  • Loyalty/Betrayal: as tribal creatures, we protect our in-groups.
  • Authority/Subversion: we have social hierarchies with leaders & followers.
  • Sanctity/Degradation: our purity codes protect bodies from contamination.
  • Liberty/Oppression: taking down dominators who restrict freedom.

And, here’s where American religious liberals and conservatives fit in to this paradigm:

“The current American culture war, we have found, can be seen as arising from the fact that liberals try to create a morality relying primarily on the Care/Harm foundation, with additional support from the Fairness/Cheating and Liberty/Oppression foundations. Conservatives, especially religious conservatives, use all six foundations, including Loyatly/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, and Sanctity/Degradation.”—

So, while liberals choose their framework from three of the six, conservatives choose all six (with a lesser degree) to formulate their position. The delineation here is clear as to how both sides use the various moral foundations to purport their own ethical positions, and the differences in their conceptualizations are real. But they are not insurmountable. It’s in the recognition of this reality that we have an opportunity for moving the conversation forward.

So who is right? Who is wrong? Who has the most glaring strengths/weaknesses?

I’m not really interested in answering that here. What I am interested in is moving the conversation on both sides to a place where our oppositions become opportunities for mutual transformation. If we can embrace these moral foundations as a starting point, then we can enter into a dialogue in which we might be able to have constructive conversations about which foundations might need to fall at the prioritization of others. IE: Loyalty/Betrayal takes a back seat for a time to Harm/Care if there are a group of people whose actual lives are being threatened by unjust systems, etc.

Here’s the thing…if we are to move our religious dialogues into a healthier place in the 21st century, it will necessitate that we commit to one another. As our political and religious systems continue to split off into binaries that further divide our country, we need more and more people committing to holding one another up…no matter what characterizes our disagreements and divisions. Choosing connection is the best place to start.

In the Christian New Testament, Galatians 3:28 speaks to the potential of this kind of connection in its affirmation of a sort of pan-tribalism:

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” -Gal 3:28 (NRSV)

If conservatives, liberals, traditionalists, and progressives are indeed tribes of some kind, then our common faith pushes us beyond our tribes. If there is then any kind of oneness to who we are all becoming together in Christ, and if this unity is somehow inclusive of (while attending to) all of our differences, then we must in turn honor each other in our uniqueness for our own mutual transformation.

When theologian John B. Cobb Jr. aligns the Christian theological concept of “Christ” with the notion of creative transformation from Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy, he is offering us a way to understand this process of creative transformation amidst our differences. The process of creative transformation that he speaks of in Christ is the very process by which we have the potential to move our civilization toward a unification in realizing the highest ideal of Peace, which is, for Whitehead, the harmonizing of all contrasts in our world to create the most Beauty possible in our time.

My hope is that now is a time where we can also say:

“Neither conservative nor liberal, traditionalist nor progressive, but all are one in Christ (that creative transformation of our world for Peace).”

Because, we all have our convictions. And all of our convictions are subject to critiques from all sides. For instance:

  • Conservatives often prioritize the legislation of the moral majority’s nationalist/capitalist agendas at the expense of the suffering of those marginalized by the impoverishing system.
  • Liberals often purport their social agendas without calling into question the underlying capitalist infrastructure that marginalizes the poor and people of color.
  • Traditionalists are often so disengaged from culture in their trying to reclaim the past that they miss what beauty and plurality is becoming right before their eyes.
  • Progressives often push at the edges of religious culture under the banner of “progress,” when “progress” really just masquerades as anglo-colonialist culture and agendas.

See? It’s not that difficult to admit our blind spots. To be honest, if I was forced to identify with a camp, I would choose team progressive. Progress generally sounds like a good thing. And to be sure, not everyone who identifies in these camps are susceptible to the quick critiques I have laid out. The issue is, when it comes to progressivism, I’m all too aware from working to understand the colonization of my home region that, at its inception, our local culture in its own editorials and civic life:

“Stressed the need for civic improvements and advocated further Anglo ‘progress’ — progress being equated with the Americanization of Santa Barbara.” -Albert Camarillo*

I’m uninterested in this kind of American “progress.” And you should be too. Progress that Americanizes (which is anglo-code for whitewashes) the preexisting culture isn’t progress at all. It’s colonialization at the expense of our brothers and sisters of color and their gifts and culture.

But it doesn’t have to be this kind of progress my friends. We can all be encouraged to transcend the divides in our society. We don’t have to play the game of being conservative, liberal, traditionalist, or especially this kind of progressive y’all.

Instead, we can be processive. We can be committed to each other and bound in our mutual transformation so that, in our faithfulness, we might continue to head toward deeper and deeper Peace. May it be so.

You can follow along with me on Twitter here: @tdburnette.

*Camarillo, Albert. Chicanos in a Changing Society: from Mexican Pueblos to American Barrios in Santa Barbara and Southern California, 1848–1930. Harvard University Press, 1979, p. 16.