It’s not Hypocrisy

Lately I’ve been reading up on the Religious Right, particularly James Ault’s marvelously insightful new book Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church. I’m in the middle of writing a larger article on these themes (maybe next week), but right now I want to toss out a simple conclusion: Despite how it looks, when the conservative rank-and-file talk about moral values, they aren’t being hypocrites.

I know. I know. Rush Limbaugh had a drug problem. Bill O’Reilly settled rather than face those nasty charges about harassment and phone sex. Our freedom-loving White House can’t seem to grasp the idea that torture is wrong. You don’t have to remind me how much hypocrisy there is on the Right. But at the lower levels, conservatives worry about moral breakdown for a simple and absolutely genuine reason: Conservative morality is breaking down.

Ault’s book relates his study of a small church outside of Worcester, Massachusetts that he codenames Shawmut River Baptist. The church teaches its members and their children a just-say-no morality: God made the rules, and they’re not up for negotiation. You don’t need to know why, beyond knowing where the Bible says so. George Lakoff’s description of the Strict Father Family paradigm (in Moral Politics, another marvelously insightful book) rings true:

A traditional nuclear family, with the father having primary responsibility for supporting and protecting the family as well as the authority to set overall family policy. He teaches children right from wrong by setting strict rules for their behavior and enforcing them through punishment.

Lakoff contrasts this with the Nurturant Parent Family, which he presents as the model for liberal moral values:

The obedience of children comes out of their love and respect for their parents, not out of the fear of punishment. ... The questioning of parents by children is positive, since children need to learn why their parents do what they do

Ault describes Shawmut River Church as “villagelike.” The members are all involved in each other’s business and privacy is minimal. Church activities take up enormous amounts of time, which limits the members’ exposure to the mass media and friends outside the church.

But in spite of this attempt at immersion, the moral conditioning of Shawmut River doesn’t work. Divorce is rampant among the saved, and the decisive moment of Spirit and Flesh comes when the minister’s unmarried teen
daughter is discovered to be pregnant. In the ensuing battle to oust the minister, true nastiness breaks out on all sides.

Here’s the conclusion I draw from all this: The just-say-no, rules-are-absolute model of morality used to work reasonably well in real villages, where everyone believed more-or-less the same thing and the rules were never seriously questioned. But no matter how villagelike a church community is today, members are inevitably going to come into contact with
people who do question the rules. And once the questioning starts, people who have been trained not to question are in trouble, because they have no answers. On the other hand, people who have been trained since childhood to question the rules until they find answers that satisfy them -- the liberal model -- are in much better shape.

The stats bear this out. Right after the election, the media gave some play to the fact that Massachusetts has the lowest divorce rate in the nation. (I’ve heard the following quip there about same-sex marriage: “In Massachusetts we
like marriage so much we think everybody should have a shot at it.”) What didn’t get covered is how typical this is: If you pick at random a red state, a blue state, and an index of moral decay -- drop-out rate, divorce, teen pregnancy, murder, whatever -- odds are that the blue state is significantly better off than the red state. [1]

Liberal morality is doing just fine, thank you.

But religious conservatives like the members of Shawmut River don’t realize that there is liberal morality, much less that it is in reasonably good shape. They know from personal experience how hard it is to stay moral in today’s society, and how hard it is to pass moral values on to the next generation. If they are the moral elite -- and their ministers and Fox News assure them that they are -- they can only imagine how bad things are in liberal families. And if they can’t imagine those dens of iniquity, their ministers and Fox News will tell them about it.

So they hear those tales of conservative misconduct with different ears. Even Rush Limbaugh is a drug addict. Even Bill O’Reilly is coercing underlings into phone sex. Even Bill Bennett has a gambling problem. What more evidence
do you need that the temptations of Babylon are almost irresistible these days? What even more sick and twisted things must Godless liberals be doing?

We won’t pull those people away from conservatism by showing them more and more examples of conservative misconduct. Whatever they hear about conservatives will not surprise them; they already know morality is breaking down. It will just convince them that liberals must be doing even worse things.

Instead, we need to spread the good news of liberal morality. We need to publicize how liberal sex education is succeeding at limiting teen pregnancy where conservative abstinence-training is failing. We need to publicize how
well liberal marriages are doing -- so well that even homosexuals want to get married. We need to talk about young people who carry on their parents’ liberal values by fighting poverty and social injustice -- causes that were also dear to the heart of a certain Jewish carpenter.

Liberal morality is alive and well. That’s the message, and we should repeat it so often that they can’t help but hear it.

Doug Muder

February, 2005

back to Doug Muder’s Open Source Journalism project

[1] The American Prospect has a nice summary at

Divorce statistics broken down by religion (conservative Baptists have the most, with liberal Christians doing much better and agnostics and atheists best of all) are at

You can find the complete list of my political/legal articles at

As always, I appreciate anything that gets me more readers. Feel free to
forward these links, email text from the articles, and so on. Just spell my
name right.