The Republican Advantage, or Is It Time for Integralists to Go Back to Church?

By mzimmerman

For years, Republicans made hay by appealing to “family values.” Liberal Democrats were often at a disadvantage because many of them did not in fact adhere to such values, as Jonathan Haidt has made clear in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (2011). Haidt (pronounced “hite”) is a liberal Democrat who learned to take seriously the advantages of traditional values, such as those he studied and experienced first-hand in India years ago. Moreover, he appreciates the pro-market values of Libertarians, who often have more in common with liberal Democrats than they do with traditional Republicans. Haidt invites his readers to join him in affirming and respecting the enduring importance of these three political perspectives, thereby helping to overcome political gridlock in Washington, D.C. In this respect, Haidt is thinking in an integral way, although without the developmental perspective shared by most integral thinkers.

Haidt provoked uproar in 2011 when a New York Times columnist published the results of an informal poll that he conducted at a meeting of about 1000 of his social psychologist colleagues.[1] About 80% identified themselves as Liberal, whereas fewer than four-dozen identified themselves as either Republican or Libertarian. Haidt’s controversial conclusion: Social psychologists constitute a cult, a “tribal moral community” with “sacred values,” which inevitably restricts research questions and objectives. Haidt received a lot of pushback from his Liberal colleagues, some of whom concluded in effect that the lack of Conservatives among social psychologists could be attributed to the fact that Liberals are “smarter.”

Haidt’s book showcases the emerging field of “moral psychology,” which relies on empirical research to determine how humans actually behave in moral matters, as opposed to how philosophers think they ought to behave. According to Haidt, there are six major foundations of moral value. Republicans can and do call on all six of these foundations, but Liberals and Libertarians call on only three. Hence, the Republican electoral advantage, despite changing demographics.

According to Haidt, the six foundations of value are: care vs. harm; liberty vs. oppression; fairness vs. cheating; authority vs. betrayal, loyalty vs. subversion, and purity vs. degradation. Liberals interpret fairness in accordance with the care vs. harm foundation. Taking care of people requires redistributing resources to avoid the harm that follows from great income disparity. According to Republicans and Libertarians, however, fairness means that people should receive what they deserve, based on their own efforts.

The last three value foundations (authority vs. betrayal, loyalty vs. subversion, and purity vs. degradation) are central to “family values,” which don’t have much appeal for Liberals and Libertarians. The latter are suspicious of authority, do not value loyalty (such as nationalism) highly, and are not much affected by traditional views (often bound up with religious beliefs) about purity and degradation.

According to many integral theorists, Liberalism and Libertarianism constitute a developmental advance beyond the family values adhered to by traditional Republicans. Haidt, however, does not offer such an interpretation.  Instead, he assumes that some people happen to have a genetic tendency to be more cautious (hence, a Traditional or Republican orientation), whereas others are genetically inclined to try out new things (hence, a Liberal/Libertarian orientation). Nurture and life experience have important roles in how these genetic tendencies are expressed, but Haidt shares with sociobiology the conviction that much human behavior is initially shaped by genetic factors whose importance is often underestimated. Reason must work hard to overcome the initial tendencies offered by this genetic basis. Here, Haidt sides with David Hume, who argued in the 18th century that reason comes along after the fact to justify actions that we have already taken.

How, then, to explain the rise of modern liberation movements, including the American and French revolutions, with their emphasis on individual liberty and rights, separation of powers, and market economies? According to the developmental model often used in integral theory, those movements can be attributed to two factors. First, there was the individualist ideology of Liberalism/Libertarianism, which was gradually developed by philosophers and intellectuals in the salons of Europe in the late 17th and 18th centuries. Second, this ideology became intertwined with the Industrial Revolution, the enormous economic gains of which helped to make possible by a new middle class. Members of the latter, informed by Liberal ideology, were increasingly unwilling to tolerate Traditionalism, including the intrusive religious authority often associated with an expensive, conservative, overbearing, and landed aristocracy. Haidt does not provide this sort of historical-ideological explanation of the rise of Liberalism/Libertarianism

He would say that individuals (genetically and by nurture) inclined to be adventurous (Liberal) were both drawn to and helped to generate Liberal ideology and the Industrial Revolution. Arguably, however, this approach–influenced by socio-biology–does not give sufficient credit to the ways in which consciousness evolution and dramatic socio-economic changes shaped modern history.

Although a self-described atheist, Haidt came to appreciate the crucial role that Traditionalism–typically embodied in religion– has long played in socio-cultural organization. Whereas Liberals emphasize only three value foundations– care vs. harm; liberty vs. oppression; fairness vs. cheating–Republicans appeal to those three as well as to the three Traditional (family) values. By hitting on all six value-cylinders, as it were, Republicans often have an advantage in elections, given that 40% of American voters describe themselves as Conservative/Traditional, whereas only about 20% describe themselves as Liberal (Haidt’s statistics). On-going demographics changes seem to give Liberals/Democrats the edge in national elections. By failing to show appropriate respect for Traditional values, however, Democrats miss the opportunity of attracting prospective voters who regard Traditional values as important. Typically Liberals and Libertarians regard pre-Liberal values as having little merit.

Faced with this finding, an Integral thinker would say that Democrats ought to transcend and include previous stages of moral/valuational development. Haidt, however, adopts an arguably flatland perspective, according to which values are different, not necessarily more evolved.  For instance, he argues that group selection pressure has made humans far more cooperative than chimps, with which we have so much in common genetically. Group cooperation requires identification and solidarity, which are undermined by too much diversity. Liberals emphasize the latter, whereas Traditionalists emphasize the former. Traditional religion has played a crucial role in the development of group solidarity, which is responsible for cultural-social vitality and commitment to the future. Hence, Haidt says that the decline of religion in modern society might have devastating consequences.

“Societies that forego the exoskeleton of religion should reflect carefully on what will happen to them over several generations. We don’t really know, because the first atheistic societies have only emerged in Europe in the last few decades. They are the least efficient societies ever known in turning resources (of which they have a lot) into offspring (of which they have few).” (Haidt p. 313)

In the 1880s, Nietzsche predicted that without a replacement for Christianity, European civilization would go into steep decline. To replace Christianity, and to avoid subsequent nihilism, Nietzsche posited a new goal–the Overman–that would inspire people to build something great and beautiful beyond themselves. In the 20th century Nietzsche’s goal was taken up in perverted form by secular religions, National Socialism and Soviet Marxism, each of which set out to create the “new” humankind, purged of a variety of “decadent” features.  Having renounced these two secular alternatives, Europeans have attempted to get along without religion altogether. In Haidt’s terms, they have foregone the “exoskeleton” of religion. One disturbing result: Birth rates have fallen below replacement levels in most European countries. European civilization, as Nietzsche predicted, is apparently undergoing slow-motion extinction. In fifty years, will Europe be primarily Islamic?

Integralists often portray themselves as spiritual, but not religious, meaning that they do not often belong to churches or synagogues. What, however, might be the long-term consequences in America of abandoning the exoskeleton of Traditional religion? In response to possible negative consequences, should Integralists form religious organizations of their own making? Should they join churches, thereby supporting to some extent Traditional values, even while continuing to adhere to Liberal and even post-modern values that invite the congregation to undergo consciousness evolution?

Integralists might point out that Liberalism and Libertarianism arose from the ashes of a Europe scarred by terrible post-Reformation wars fought between Catholics and Protestants. Religion, in other words, can divide as well as unite. Furthermore, in today’s Europe and North America there is so much cultural diversity that there are scant prospects for the rise of a unifying religion.

Haidt’s book deserves serious consideration by all students of moral development, in part to see how an account of moral difference can bypass historical, ideological, and cultural aspects of such difference. There is an opportunity for Integral thinkers here: To include Haidt’s very useful findings, while simultaneously showing what is missing form his otherwise thought analysis.

[1] John Tierney, “Social Scientist Sees Bias Within,” New York Times, February 7, 2011.


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  • Michael Zimmerman

    Thank you, Cynthia, for that very thoughtful comment. Yes, a We space is crucial for allowing for appropriate relationship between authority and conscience, tradition and creative responses to current situations. I was raised Catholic in the 1950s and 1960s, then dropped out for a decade in reaction to top-down authority, and finally found my way back via Buddhism, Hinduism, meditation practice, yoga, and son on. Being a member of a traditional path is very helpful, yet the nature of that membership needs to reflect our own spiritual development. There is not a one-size-fits-all Christianity, and the same goes for Buddhism, Judaism, and so on.

  • Teri Murphy

    Yes yes YES!!!!!
    My own solution is to attend both a New Thought spiritual center that honors all paths AND a fundamentalist church where meetings end on time.

    In my own posts assessing an integral stance for meeting Haidt’s challenge, I propose that we “Avoid extremes by integrating opposites: For just as too much loyalty breeds revenge, we come to see that too much reciprocity breeds heartless legalism and too much care breeds what Buddhists call idiot compassion.”

    I am very excited by the direction of this organization.

  • Cynthia

    As a Christian who is frustrated with most mainline churches, I am seeing some churches slowly changing. I see the difficulty with the loyalty value for myself, because I have not really found a “home”. Yet, Contemplative Outreach, a nationwide network founded by Father Keating and others, is close to a home for me.

    I can see a way to transcend and include the values of the Conservatives, that would work for me within a new religious and/or spiritual paradigm. As I said, I can be loyal to something that is of value to me and opens me to the truth of who I am. I see the need for authority, but the authority would come from an institution that values inner authority as well as outer. The authority can also come from a “We” space so that we can be accountable in a way that transcends approval or external rules. Ultimately a community can have a say in who in the community may have more wisdom than others, and listen to the wise chosen elders in the community. Purity of motives is important to me and a value in traditional religion and need not be thrown out. Often purity is looked at as following rules by an external authority. However, purity of heart and motives to love one another and love our enemies is critical in this day and age.

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