Moral values and the fiscal cliff

By Jonathan Haidt and Hal Movius, Washington Post, November 27, 2012

Excerpt

President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner …have to reach a deal themselves, and then convince majorities in the House and Senate to go along…What can they do to improve their odds of beating the clock? Moral psychology can help.

Human beings are “super-cooperators,” the only species on the planet that can form cohesive teams out of non-siblings. Part of our evolved mental toolkit for teamwork is our ability to make something sacred… enhance their cohesiveness by generating heroes, taboos and pledges to uphold certain ideals or commitments.

But the psychology of sacredness makes it harder for negotiators to execute tradeoffs in a utilitarian way. When the Republican presidential candidates all said they would walk away from a deal that offered 10 dollars of spending cuts for each dollar of tax increases, they revealed that tax increases had become a form of sacrilege for the Republican Party—though the recent moves by several Republicans to disavow Grover Norquist’s tax pledge suggest this might be changing.

Sharing moral commitments helps teams to function cohesively, but it also blinds them to reality. They select arguments and narratives that support their preferred policies while denying facts that threaten or contradict their commitments. They sometimes vote for symbolism over substance, even when it harms their material interests or long-term goals. High-stakes negotiations are hard enough, but when sacred values are in play, the odds of success go way down….

So what can our political leaders do to convince their supporters to accept a deal averting the fiscal cliff?

First, they should negotiate—and describe their progress—only in terms of overall packages of options across spending and revenues…

Second, they should jointly call for shared sacrifice…

It may seem counterintuitive, but our political leaders should avoid using the word “compromise” too often. When moral values are at stake, those who compromise may be seen as morally compromised. Compromise will be essential, but it would be more effective for each side to describe its determination to find common ground, and its flexibility and openness in finding novel ways to achieve its long-term goals.

Finally…each side can calm partisan passions by invoking the virtue of humility...

The agreement ultimately reached on the fiscal cliff will not be as exalted as the Constitution, but it can be presented to Congress and the nation as a test of whether we the people are still able, 225 years later, to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.

Full text

The fiscal cliff negotiations remind us of the long-running game show “Beat the Clock.” Couples had to perform a stunt, such as tying their shoelaces together using only their left hands, before a large clock ticked down to zero. The host would often introduce a twist at the last minute, something like, “Oh, and one more thing, you have to do this while members of the audience throw tomatoes at you.”

President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner must do something far harder than tying their shoelaces together before the clock ticks down to January 1. They have to reach a deal themselves, and then convince majorities in the House and Senate to go along. Oh, and one more thing, they have to do this while being pilloried by their respective bases. What can they do to improve their odds of beating the clock? Moral psychology can help.

Human beings are “super-cooperators,” the only species on the planet that can form cohesive teams out of non-siblings. Part of our evolved mental toolkit for teamwork is our ability to make something sacred—a rock, a tree, a flag, a person or a principle—and then circle around it, literally or figuratively. It’s not just religions that do this. Sports teams, fraternities, political parties and nations at war all enhance their cohesiveness by generating heroes, taboos and pledges to uphold certain ideals or commitments.

But the psychology of sacredness makes it harder for negotiators to execute tradeoffs in a utilitarian way. When the Republican presidential candidates all said they would walk away from a deal that offered 10 dollars of spending cuts for each dollar of tax increases, they revealed that tax increases had become a form of sacrilege for the Republican Party—though the recent moves by several Republicans to disavow Grover Norquist’s tax pledge suggest this might be changing.

Sharing moral commitments helps teams to function cohesively, but it also blinds them to reality. They select arguments and narratives that support their preferred policies while denying facts that threaten or contradict their commitments. They sometimes vote for symbolism over substance, even when it harms their material interests or long-term goals. High-stakes negotiations are hard enough, but when sacred values are in play, the odds of success go way down. (Just ask the Israelis and Palestinians.)

So what can our political leaders do to convince their supporters to accept a deal averting the fiscal cliff?

First, they should negotiate—and describe their progress—only in terms of overall packages of options across spending and revenues. Taken alone, any single issue such as tax rates is likely to trigger diametrically opposed responses and invocations of moral duties. Yet taken together, each side can find specific moral victories. In this case, that could be reining in the growth of government, for Republicans, and making taxes more progressive, for Democrats.

Second, they should jointly call for shared sacrifice. When Winston Churchill became prime minister in 1940, he told Britons that he had nothing to offer except “blood, toil, tears and sweat.” In doing so he activated a powerful psychological mechanism that makes people willing to bear burdens and pay costs when the group’s survival is at stake, and when everyone is called on to pull together as a team.

If our leaders want to be statesmen rather than panderers, they need to do the same. Pledges to protect this or that group from all sacrifice are as counterproductive as pledges never to raise taxes. President Obama and Speaker Boehner should develop shared language to convey to the American people the severity of our problems and the need for all Americans to make some sacrifices.

They can also start using contingent agreements to break impasses. Each side has its own experts, facts and forecasts that yield different conclusions about, say, whether tax increases will slow growth. This invariably stalls policymaking before it even gets a real start. One way to break the stalemate is for negotiators to structure some of the key provisions in the form of “if…then…” statements. In the case of tax increases, an agreement might stipulate that if growth falls below a 2-percent rate for three consecutive quarters, certain revenue-increasing measures will be scaled back for a specified period.

It may seem counterintuitive, but our political leaders should avoid using the word “compromise” too often. When moral values are at stake, those who compromise may be seen as morally compromised. Compromise will be essential, but it would be more effective for each side to describe its determination to find common ground, and its flexibility and openness in finding novel ways to achieve its long-term goals.

Finally, when the clock has ticked down nearly to zero and an agreement is near, each side can calm partisan passions by invoking the virtue of humility. Benjamin Franklin weighed in on the last day of the constitutional convention with these words: “I cannot help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it, would with me, on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility, and to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.”

The agreement ultimately reached on the fiscal cliff will not be as exalted as the Constitution, but it can be presented to Congress and the nation as a test of whether we the people are still able, 225 years later, to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.

Jonathan Haidt is a professor of business ethics at the NYU-Stern School of Business, and is the author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Hal Movius is the president of Movius Consulting, and is the author of Built to Win: Creating a World-class Negotiating Organization . They are both contributors to CivilPolitics.org.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/on-leadership/moral-values-and-the-fiscal-cliff/2012/11/27/a7c0d46a-38be-11e2-8a97-363b0f9a0ab3_story.html?wpisrc=nl_headlines

Reviving progressive conservatism

by Michael Stafford,  benningtonbanner.com, November 19, 2012

The great American conservative thinker Russell Kirk once observed that some disasters are so catastrophic they require a re-examination of first principles. On Election Day, the Republican Party suffered such an existential shock.

The corporate wing of the GOP was decisively rejected by the voters because it offered nothing but obsolete ideas driven by a bankrupt libertarian ideology that would actually exacerbate the problems America is facing. It cravenly serves the interests of the rich through an agenda composed of tax cuts for the wealthy, deregulation for large corporations, crony capitalism, and climate change denial coupled with attacks on the existing social contract.

These outmoded, unappealing, elite-friendly policies are marketed to mainstream Americans mixed with a toxic stew of nativism, misogyny, racism, and fear.

The time is ripe for a new alternative — progressive conservatism. Progressive conservatism would offer a fresh perspective — a synergy of populist economics, social justice, environmental stewardship, communitarianism, and traditional values that addresses the concerns of the common people.

The re-establishment of a progressive conservative voice in American politics within the GOP would create a true opposition capable of keeping the Democrats honest, the rest of the Republicans sane, and the plutocracy firmly in check.

Although many are loath to admit it, a class war has been raging in America for decades. The rich have been the aggressors and, so far, they are winning. America’s working and middle classes have been the victims of an unprovoked assault — a massive wealth and power grab fueled by boundless greed. As a result, our economy has been looted and hollowed out, our environment imperiled, our civil liberties curtailed, and our political process captured, by a rent-seeking elite whose only concern is to increase its own take from, and special privileges in, an increasingly rigged and corrupt system.

Today, income inequality is growing even as economic opportunities and social mobility are constricting. Meanwhile, large swaths of the country have been transformed into a post-industrial wasteland. Factories that once stood as symbols of our strength and vitality, and which offered decent jobs and a path to a better future for thousands of Americans, now sit empty and abandoned. Our public infrastructure — including our roads and our schools- that was once the envy of the world is crumbling.

After three decades of trickle-down economics, the only things falling are tears.

Thankfully, the outlines of a modern progressive conservative reform agenda addressing these problems are already apparent. It includes tax reform that benefits working families and ends the special treatment of income from dividends and capital gains, preferences for domestic manufacturing, securing the social contract, classic Theodore Roosevelt-style trust-busting, enhanced regulatory oversight of the financial sector, a return to the old Glass-Steagall Act restrictions separating commercial banking and securities trading, measures to control the spiraling costs of post-secondary education, strategic investments in public infrastructure, action on climate change, campaign finance reform, and the tireless defense of both civil and religious liberty.

Taken as a whole, progressive conservatism offers a positive vision of a limited, but vigorous, federal government promoting the interests of America’s working families and communities.

Finally, on social issues, progressive conservatism would move beyond culture war divisiveness in a number of ways.

As conservative author Rod Dreher has recognized, same-sex marriage is an accomplished fact; continued opposition to it merely serves to alienate allies needed to craft a broader coalition, including younger voters. Conservative concerns about its impact can be addressed by pushing for broad protections for religious entities that object to it on doctrinal grounds.

Abortion is a different story. The 2012 elections have ensured that Roe v. Wade will not be overturned in our lifetimes. Under these circumstances, the best way to address abortion is to attack its root causes while advancing reasonable restrictions on the practices that enjoy broad support, like parental notification laws. In other words, abortion must be transformed from a question of personal righteousness, into one of social justice, and then nested in a broader web of policies that consistently recognize and protect the dignity of every human being.

Writing during the 2012 Republican presidential primary, David Brooks observed that “[i]f you took a working-class candidate from the right, like [Rick] Santorum, and a working-class candidate from the left, like Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, and you found a few islands of common ground, you could win this election by a landslide.”

Progressive conservatism is Brooks’ common ground. It can win elections for Republicans and, more importantly, move our country forward.

Michael Stafford distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate. He is a former Republican Party officer and the author of “An Upward Calling.” Michael can be reached at anupwardcalling@yahoo.com.

http://www.benningtonbanner.com/columnists/ci_22023965/reviving-progressive-conservatism

Conservative Christianity’s Marketing Gimmick to Keep Its Old-Time, Heaven-and-Hell Religion Afloat By Valerie Tarico

by Valerie Tarico, AlterNet, July 10, 2012

The Southern Baptist Convention is a force to be reckoned with. As the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, with over 45,000 affiliate churches, it have been shaping and channeling conservative Christian sensibilities since the Civil War, when Southern Baptists split from the North so they could advocate on behalf of slave owners. They fought to keep slavery and lost. Then they fought for Jim Crow laws and lost. Then they fought for segregation and lost.  Now, faced with eroding membership, the Southern Baptist leaders are fighting against irrelevance. Unfortunately, they have committed to a strategy that will make it harder for their members – and for all of us—to move toward a future based on collaboration, compassion and practical solutions to real-world problems.

With secularism on the rise, entrepreneurial Christian denominations have evolved a variety of survival strategies.  Anglican theologian John Shelby Spong (Why Christianity Must Change or Die) proposes a rigorous rethinking of Christian belief.  Mainline and Unitarian congregations have embraced Michael Dowd’s Evolutionary Christianity, an interplay between Christian worship and scientific wonder. Elsewhere on the spectrum, Joel Olsteen plays down theology, instead offering comforting platitudes and promises of prosperity to those who pray and give. Willow Creek mega-church in Chicago pioneered sound and light shows and indie rock bands that entice young people into the club by emulating familiar entertainment media. The Catholic bishops are brazenly trying to recreate an epoch in which they were ascendant.

A few weeks ago the Southern Baptist Convention voted to approve a name change. Congregations will now have the option to call themselves “Great Commission Baptists.” The name change is meant to distance from their past association with racism, but it does much more. To those in the know, it announces that their future will be focused on turf wars – on competing for members and dollars rather than any kind of forward-facing spiritual leadership. To draw an analogy, imagine that Coca-Cola decided to distance from its past sales of cocaine drinks by dropping the “Coca” and calling themselves “World Dominance Cola.” Imagine it announcing to the public: Rather than improving our product, we’ve chosen to focus on our marketing department. That’s essentially what the new name means.

The Southern Baptist denomination was formed in 1845 when Baptists split over a question of slaveholders as missionaries. Freed from the sensibilities of their Northern brethren, the Southern Baptists became strong and vocal advocates for slavery as a Biblical institution. As one leader, Dr. Richard Furman, wrote to the governor of South Carolina, “the right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example.”

Over the years, Southern Baptist deacons and pastors moved in and out of Ku Klux Klan leadership positions. In 1956 the minister of the largest Southern Baptist church in the nation testified before the South Carolina legislature, voicing his support for segregation. It wasn’t until 1995 that leaders formally apologized for their defense of slavery and 20th-century opposition to equality for blacks. As recently as the Trayvon Martin murder, the denomination has struggled with embarrassing racist taint. Last week, along with the name change, the Convention elected a fiery black preacher as the first African American president in its 167 year history.

In an alternate universe, the Southern Baptist history of endorsing slavery and then Jim Crow laws, so shameful in hindsight, might have led to broad theological growth. For example, it might have softened the authoritarianism that caused ordinary believers to blindly follow whatever their preachers said. It might have called into question the notion of “biblical inerrancy,” which gives God’s seal of approval to every form of Iron Age bigotry in the biblical record. It might have led to an increase in denominational humility – the sense that maybe there are things to be learned from other kinds of Christians, the outside world, or the moral trajectory of human history. Alas. It would appear that the lesson learned was a narrow one: blacks are fully human and they can make loyal church members. A cynic might suggest that there was no lesson learned: economics were on the side of slaveholders at the start and are now on the side of putting blacks at the helm.

Like the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention almost made a leap that would have brought its teachings into line with compassion and the moral demands of the 21st century. In fact, by the 1970s it appeared that the Southern Baptists might be ready to move into a position at the vanguard of Christianity. Doors were slowly opening to women even at the flagship seminary in Louisville, and scholarship in fields like archeology, linguistics and the natural sciences was penetrating and changing theology discussions.

But then at the national convention in 1979, hard-liners seized the reins of power. Theological dissent was purged. Over a several years, women were removed from positions of spiritual leadership. By 1993 an adroit biblical literalist, Albert Mohler, who had been instrumental in the coup, was installed at the helm of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. A 1997 documentary, Battle for the Minds, tells the story of one well-loved but regrettably female theology professor, Molly Marshall, whom Mohler forced out. Under the leadership of Mohler and likeminded theological conservatives, the denomination has pursued the kind of authoritarian Old Time Religion that lead to the 1845 split, with biblically sanctioned sexism and homophobia replacing Civil War-era slavery endorsements.

Like the Catholics, the Southern Baptists recently have doubled down on controlling women as it has become clear that they are losing their battle to ostracize gays. Last year, Albert Mohler told Focus on the Family Radio that Christians need to prepare for gay marriage. “I think it’s clear that something like same-sex marriage is going to become normalized, legalized and recognized in the culture. It’s time for Christians to start thinking about how we’re going to deal with that.”

In January, LifeWay Christian Resources, an arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, published a two-volume Bible commentary about gender roles. The commentary promotes “complementarianism,” the idea that God made men and women for different purposes. If you couldn’t guess, the purpose of women is homemaking and childbearing. Men are made for marital, social, political, economic and spiritual leadership. Complementarianism is Jim Crow in the gender realm, a desperate last ditch attempt to ensure that straight white males keep dominance over somebody. To date it continues to have broad appeal among Southern Baptist members.

The Southern Baptists are staking their institutional future and finances on the idea that Old Time patriarchal heaven-and-hell religion still has a market and will for some time to come. In their choice of a new name, they have made clear how they intend to compete for mindshare in the coming decades: with better and more aggressive marketing of their traditional theological product. The Great Commission refers to a set of New Testament texts that mandate proselytizing. Quotes vary slightly from author to author, but they are always composed as words spoken by the resurrected Jesus to his disciples. Here are a couple examples:

Matthew: Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 28:19 NIV)

Mark: Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well. (Mark 16:15-18 NIV)

It’s not a given that Bible-centered Christians should make these passages about proselytizing, belief and baptism the cornerstone of their faith. Some New Testament texts advocate a very different set of priorities. In one place, Jesus says in graphic terms that hell is for those who fail to tend the needy and ill (Matthew 25:31-46). Elsewhere, he suggests that worldly riches mean a person is living outside God’s will (Mark 10:17-25). When asked which is the greatest of the Hebrew commandments, Jesus says that the Torah and Prophets can be summed up very simply: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22: 26-40).

Over the centuries many Christians have made these teachings the center of their faith and religious practice. The result is a spiritual life centered on simplicity and service. A Christianity centered on the Great Commission, by contrast has the following defining features.

1. Every member is a part of the sales force. Great Commission Christianity is first and foremost about recruiting, because membership is top priority. The Great Commission brand says that the most important thing churches can do is recruit more converts. Overseas medical services, inner-city food banks, even friendship –all of these can be smart marketing, but they should be a means to an end, conversion.

2. What is sold is a package of exclusive truth claims. A focus on outreach necessarily goes hand in hand with a certain kind of theology. The recruiting efforts would be pointless if there were many paths to God. The message of the recruiting is that there is only one path to God: being cleansed by the blood of Jesus. Interspiritual or interfaith perspectives are wrong, and adherents need to be wooed from their misguided beliefs to the Righteousness.

3.  The measure of a spiritual person is right belief. In this case right belief means something like: You deserve hell; Jesus died for your sins; accepting him as your savior will get you to heaven. Buddhists may believe that compassion is the heart of spiritual practices. Modernist Christians may center in on the words of the Great Commandment: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Priorities like these simply don’t work with the Great Commission strategy; they are too inclusive.

4. Other religions and denominations are competitors, not partners. The Great Commission is a competitive strategy; and in fact successful conversion activities often are described as “winning” souls. Creating heaven here on Earth might require interfaith teamwork. By contrast salvation through right belief is an individual affair, and those who believe they are saved and headed for heaven tend to get grumpy if someone suggests that there is no hell.

After failing on the great moral questions of the 19th and 20th centuries—full personhood for blacks and females respectively—the  Great Commission rebranding effort that inadvertently shows the world how little Southern Baptist leaders have learned from two centuries of ethical slumming. Mind you, the Great Commission strategy has been a winner for some mega-churches, and proselytizing is strongly correlated with the growth in minority sects like Scientology and Mormonism.

In past centuries religions could capture mindshare through conquest, which is how Christianity spread through Europe and how Islam spread through India. Competitive breeding was baked into both Catholicism and Islam because it offered some additional advantage. But in the last century, the primary mode of competition among religions has been evangelism.  In other words, the Southern Baptists have placed their bets on a strategy with some history of success.

Whether they win or lose from the standpoint of re-filling church pews and bank accounts remains to be seen. What is regrettable, either way, is that by choosing to be competitive they have once again pitted themselves against the moral arc of history. Whether humanity can flourish in the 21st century will depend largely on whether we can move beyond competition to collaboration. Population growth, resource depletion and weapons technology have carried us to the point that there are fewer and fewer “winnable” competitions. Humanity desperately needs to find common ground in our shared moral core and dreams for our children. Just as they did on the questions of slavery and the full humanity of women, the Southern Baptists have positioned themselves as moral dead weight, which is a loss for us all.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington and the founder of Wisdom Commons. She is the author of “Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light” and “Deas and Other Imaginings.” Her articles can be found at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com.

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