On the Charge of Liberal "Moral Relativism."
Frank Cocozzelli printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sun Dec 17, 2006 at 09:48:21 AM EST
The enemy of pluralism is monism -- the ancient belief that there is a single harmony of truths into which everything, if it is genuine, in the end must fit. The consequence of this belief (which is something different from, but akin to, what Karl Popper called essentialism -- to him the root of all evil) is that those who know should command those who do not. Those who know the answers to some of the great problems of mankind must be obeyed, for they alone know how society should be organized, how individual lives should be lived, how culture should be developed. This is the old Platonic belief in the philosopher-kings, who were entitled to give orders to others. There have always been thinkers who hold that if only scientists, or scientifically trained persons, could be put in charge of things, the world would be vastly improved. To this I have to say that no better excuse, or even reason, has ever been propounded for unlimited despotism on the part of an elite which robs the majority of its essential liberties.   -Isaiah Berlin

"This is the old Platonic belief in the philosopher-kings, who were entitled to give orders to others." And that one sentence captures the very essence of Religious Right philosophy.  I wonder how effective our opponents would be if we were to effectively communicate that one kernel of truth to the American people?

We already know the answer to that question yet we haven't done enough to transform it into reality.

With that in mind, let us briefly return to James Dobson's comments about Liberals:

KING: If the left gets glee, Doctor, does the right get glee over sexual peccadilloes on the left?

DOBSON: That's very possible. We're all inclined to look at other people. But it's interesting to me that those, again, on the more liberal end of the spectrum are often those who have no value system or at least they say there is no moral and immoral, there is no right or wrong. It's moral relativism.

Well let's consider some issues here.   I cross-posted last week's story on several sites, and pointed out that Liberals not only have values, but that they are utterly mainstream values.  I was disturbed, however, when several commenters claimed they were moral relativists, when clearly they were not.

These commenters were not, as Dobson accuses, accepting evil over good, but acknowledging that while there are commonly held notions of evil, there is also more than one definition of "good." Dobson, in his absolutist mind set, simply cannot tolerate that other Americans have different ideas about what is moral behavior. -- Especially if they differ from his.   And as Thomas Jefferson admonished, if the competing good "neither picks his pocket nor breaks his leg" then another's value of what is right is not his business.

Other commenters, confused exceptions to generally accepted norms of moral behavior with moral relativism. They were actually describing the concept of epikiea, or what we know as equity.

Epikiea/Equity is the concept that gives justice and morality a necessary sense of flexibility. Think of this musical example:

In the Judeo-Christian tradition (as well as others) it has always been understood that sometimes one needs to break the letter of the Law to achieve the spirit of the Law. For example, even in Orthodox Judaism if one is starving to death and the only substance that will keep you from dying is a piece of pork, then you must eat it to save a life in being.

If the written rules of faith are the keys to such music, then as with music we sometime must break the letter of the Law to achieve the spirit of a common morality.

Think of the song "Maria" written by Leonard Bernstein for his masterpiece West Side Story. The song, written in the key of C (no sharps or flats) famously uses the tritone, i.e. key of C with a prominent F#. The three note melody of the word "Maria" is C F# G. The tritone, or "flat-five" in jazz speak, is generally considered the most dissonant interval, but without that dissonance from the rules for the key of C, the song Maria would lose its essence. Equity or Epikiea is the prominent F# in a consistent, but flexible morality.

Dobson and his co-belligerents on the Religious Right insist on inflexible orthodoxy, theirs. It does not take into account the concept of Equity, something that has been a critical moral element throughout Western thought. No less than Aristotle, Maimonides and Aquinas have commented on its necessity. In fact by failing to account for the vital concept Dobson himself has become a moral relativist, not being able to see the requirement of moral equity. He has twisted the Liberal practice of equity and its closely related concept, empathy by claiming that Liberals have no values. He demagogically equates tolerance with licentiousness. He does not acknowledge that Liberals have different values that also distinguish good from evil.  He claims we have none. and that we believe that "...there is no right or wrong."


And to those readers of last week's piece who said they were indeed moral relativists, I pose the following questions:

Would you kill your neighbor or even a stranger without any sort of justification?

Would you steal your neighbor's property without justification or without feeling any pangs of conscience?

Do you believe that you are free to act in pursuit of your unrestrained self-interest, even when it tramples on the rights of others and is in conflict with the common good?

If you answered "no" to the above, you do distinguish right from wrong, good from evil and you are not a moral relativist. In fact, you practice the most basic concept of a commonly held morality, the Golden Rule. It is what Jesus meant when He said, "Do unto others as you would have them done unto you." It is the same message that Hillel was communicating when he admonished, "What is hateful to thyself do not do to another. That is the whole Law, the rest is Commentary." We find the Golden Rule in one form or another in just about every major religion. And it is why the James Dobsons of the world are more concerned with what Hillel deemed "Commentary" than "the Law."

And once again, I return to Value Pluralism. Based upon empathy, it is the concept of a basic but still commonly held general morality that embodies the Golden Rule. It wisely recognizes that for the sake of domestic tranquility that while we legislate the will of the majority, we simultaneously do not trample upon the rights of minorities.  Most importantly, as Madison noted in Federalist No. 10, it prevents divisive factions from imposing their subjective will upon "...the permanent and aggregate interests of the community."

Perhaps William A. Galston best defined the difference between Value Pluralism and a correct definition of moral relativism:

Value pluralism is not an argument for radical skepticism, or for relativism. The moral philosophy of pluralism stands between relativism and absolutism. This can be demonstrated fairly quickly:

It is not relativist. From a value-pluralist perspective, some things (the great evils of human existence) are objectively bad, to be avoided in both our individual and collective lives. Conversely, some things are objectively good (recall Stuart Hampshire on the "minimum common basis for a tolerable human life" or H.L.A. Hart on the "minimum content of natural law").

Nor is value pluralism absolutist. There are multiple goods that cannot be reduced to a common measure, cannot be ranked in a clear order of priority, and do not form a harmonious whole. There is no single conception of the good valid for all individuals: what's good for A may not be equally good for B. Nor is there one preferred structure for weighing goods. In our moral as well as material lives, there are more desirable goods than any one individual or group can possibly encompass; to give one kind of good pride of place is necessarily to subordinate, or exclude, others. Some individuals and groups may be morally broader than others, but none is morally universal.

Agendas, Specific and General
When a James Dobson accuses Liberals of having no values and no ability to distinguish good from evil, he is making a charge that will be generally understood very differently as completely understood by the source. It is nothing more than an obfuscation of reality. He is, as James Madison described such characters, acting as " a judge in his own cause;" having "bias [in] his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt [in] his integrity.

They key to the Religious Right's message "that Liberals have no values" is simple: It is a not-so-esoteric complaint of not sharing their absolutist values. While most mainstream folks take that to mean an America where they say prayer in school, to the originator of the message it usually means an America where  Christian prayers are said in school. And for many pushing this or a similar agenda, it means a fundamentalist Christian prayer in public school.

The morality that Dobson or fellow Christian right leader D. James Kennedy proposes is one that does not even respect variations of Christianity other than his own. So if you are a Catholic or an Episcopalian who goes to church on Sunday, but believes in evolution, under Dobson's definition, you too are a moral relativist because you do not subscribe to his very subjective version of the truth.

Dobson, Kennedy and others on the Religious Right deliberately do not explain the exact form of society they desire. Their idea of conservatism is not the same as perceived by the vast majority of the American people. While most of their audience envisions a philosophy of Barry Goldwater, many on the Religious Right are actually thinking in terms of a pre-Enlightenment society, one in which there is only one hierarchically imposed definition of "good." That is their dirty little secret.


Why not issue a public "statement of concern" that "creeping moral relativism" at Focus On The Family - or even among American Christian and evangelical leaders on the right -  is leading young people astray and undermining America's moral underpinings ?

There are a number of recent, egregious examples of this to cite, and the critique can be extended outward to American evangelical leaders who have recently joined together to condemn those atrocities and massacres in Darfour against Christian refugees, that some would characterize as a sort of religious warfare, but who seem strangely unwilling to condemn a mass marketed consumer product, released just prior to Christmas no less, that allows teenage children to act out totalistic religious warfare, in a videogame, against the inhabitants of a major American city.

The collective statement of American evangelical leaders against the killing in Darfour rings hollow to the extent they are willing to give tacit endorsement to a game that teaches religious warfare to Christian children and, in a wider public sphere, to tolerate rhetoric of religious warfare from many leaders on the Christian right.

When conservative moralist Bill Bennett can issue a call - at a prominent conference of American religious conservatives - for the nuclear immolation of entire Iraqi cities, a call that not only failed to provoke public moral censure but which actually was greeted by enthusiastic applause, I think we can rightly make the charge that creeping moral relativism has infected the minds of many evangelical and Christian leaders on the American right and that the authority of those evangelical leaders who have issued a statement condemning genocide in Darfour has been, sadly, degraded. We can say, I believe, that hypocritical declarations condemning religious warfare as practiced by Muslims while tacitly approving of religious warfare by Christians, will in the end do little or nothing to defuse world descent into of religious violence ; we can say that the refugees in Darfour, and American children, deserve better.

We all deserve better - in true moral guidance there is no East or West, there are no Muslims and Christians ; there is only human suffering to be condemned and humans needs to be addressed.

by Bruce Wilson on Sun Dec 17, 2006 at 11:42:31 AM EST

First Bruce, I want too direct everyone to your  excellent October piece on Dobson and moral relativism.

The trick is that when we respond, we should frame the rebuttal in our language which actually employs correct definitions. Make them have to deal in reality for a change. And by doing so, we begin to take charge of the discourse.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sun Dec 17, 2006 at 01:35:31 PM EST

Now, I generally agree with your analysis and also that it's worthwhile to introduce new terms to the debate such as "values pluralism".

Ideas do lead, and without more insightful terminology and concepts we'll get nowhere, yes.

But, it takes a long time - or can - to introduce new frames, concepts, and terms. First, those have to be sold to a friendly audience ( and you're doing that here ) and then, once you've won enough converts they'll begin to spread those ideas to a wider audience. But it can take a long time, decades even, to embed new ideas in the wider public mind.

In the meanwhile, how can we go on the attack against charges such as Dobson's "liberals have no values" canard ?

Imagine you're in a debate with Dobson and you say that he's advancing a moral absolutist position that's set against pluralist and democratic values.

How might Dobson respond ?

My guess is that he'd say : "You're darn tootin' I'm a moral absolutist ! You liberals have no standards; my standards come from the Bible. Some things are just plain wrong, and you're welcome to talk about your values pluralism all you want, but Americans want a public morality that's grounded in clear Biblical standards, not in some "if it feels good, do it" moral and ethical relativism. That's why Christian conservatives have drawn the line in the sand on abortion and gay marriage. Some things are just wrong and I think the majority of America's Christians are with me on that."

So, how would you respond to that ?

The problem is that "moral relativism" has become embedded in the minds of a great number of Americans as an evil mentality or as a corrupting mindset and to invoke "moral absolutism" or "values pluralism" before those frames have also become stuck in wide public consciousness will simply give the James Dobsons of America pretext to haul off and whack you ( or us ) with the sort of rhetorical bludgeon I've sketched out above.

In the end, everyone understands hypocrisy and given that we're not advancing moral relativism as a platform in the first place ( I agree that values pluralism is what we need to promote ) I think we can turn the tables and plaster charges of "moral relativism" all over Dobson and other Christian right leaders. Why not ? - they're accurate enough, and the recent wave of sex scandals that have recently swept over the Christian right would support such accusations.

I think frames can be much easier to convert, or subvert, than to construct and so I'd suggest turning the "moral relativism" attack right back on Dobson & co : I think it's well applied to the man and his organization. I don't see the term "moral relativism" going anywhere soon, and I think it's important to level the charge that many American Christian conservative leaders take positions that are dependent on context. Is religious war wrong ? Well, apparently only when it's waged by Muslims against Christians and not vice versa.

by Bruce Wilson on Sun Dec 17, 2006 at 04:00:40 PM EST


I thought about your two posts and they offer good aproaches to refute Dobson and friends.

Here is how I would use your idea. We could make a countercharge of Religious Right moral relativism, but that should only be the defensive jab. In other words, the warning shot that announces that we will stand our ground. Part of this ought to be an aggressive explanation of the true meaning of moral relativism, not their twisted version.

In continuing the boxing analogy, the jab must be followed by a hook shot, which is buiilt upon the twin charges of Religious Right hypocrisy and inconsistency. There is plenty there to hammer them on (the Bennett example on the war is a good example). And after the hook, we should follow with shot to the gut--our defining ourselves as proponents of Value Pluralism.

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...is symptomatic of "arrested moral development".

This unfortunate condition prevents Dobsonites from recognizing social contract orientation or universal ethical principles (Kohlberg's Level 3 - post conventional morality).
Moral absolutism leads one to taking absurd positions on contemporary social issues.

Dobson advocates child abuse for instilling obedience.
Ted Haggard would have been the ideal opportunity for Dobson to prove his absurd theories on homosexuality and he should be called out for avoiding this opportunity.
Dobson's absurd positions on child discipline and homosexuality are vulnerable to the skillful application of humor.
There's nothing better than humor for exposing the absurdity of moral absolutism.

Whenever the main stream media provides a forum for Dobson or other moral absolutists, equal time and space should be demanded for a rebuttal.
Moral absolutism should be framed as a pitiable disorder.

by justintime on Sun Dec 17, 2006 at 12:46:14 PM EST
See, for example, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development by James W. Fowler.

Just so you don't get sucked into letting them reframe it as another case of religion vs. science.

by Paul Rosenberg on Sun Dec 17, 2006 at 04:59:33 PM EST

Just a couple of cautionary notes--

L.K. has had his detractors over the years, Carol Gilligan (In a Different Voice) probably the most well-known, criticizing his methodology;

But maybe even more importantly, and you may not be intending this at all, Paul, Kohlberg's thinking is far from the madding crowd, so to speak.  Or the maddening crowd for all that. :-)

Very thought provoking article!

And strategy, I think, depends on audience.  OK, I've descended to the obvious.

Joy this Sunday,

by Don Niederfrank on Sun Dec 17, 2006 at 07:37:20 PM EST

I didn't want to unnecessarily clutter this discussion, but since you brought it up, the main roots of this go back to Piaget's studies of the developmental stages of physical reasoning.  Kohlberg then generalized to moral reasoning.

Almost in parallel with Kohlberg, there was further generalization into the field of education, via the doorway of reading comprehension by William G. Perry, based on work at Harvard and Radcliffe.  This was focused on a relatively narrow slice of the developmental process--that which occurs during college--but it represents a crucial transition from conventional to autonomous cognition as a member of a knowledge-generating community, which telescopes the issues of unquestioned/fundamentalist/absolutist concepts vs. consciously theorized & critically evaluated concepts.  Perry did find a truly relativist substage in this process--a developmental reaction to finding that previous assumptions were not necessarily valid--but it leads on to further development, as new means for critical evaluation are comprehended.

Subsequently, Kohlberg's model was adapted by some theologians at the same time that some of his students and colleagues were modifying his theories. (Gilligan was never a student of his, as is often erroniously stated.)  Gilligan criticized Kohlberg for using a rights-based, as opposed to a care-based model of morality, which Gilligan claimed resulted in biased evaluations of female vs. male subjects.  However, she did not question the basic notion of developmental stages.  Her argument was about a biased representation of them, not a denial of their existence.

Also, around the same time (late 70s-early 80s), Robert Keegan, who was a student of Kohlberg's, was further extending the theory to include therapy (Keegan's own specialty), as well as Perry's work, and developmental models of other psychologists, such as Erickson, Maslow and others.  Keegan developed an elegantly simple model of the self, in terms of a subject/object structure, in which the more abstract subject structures of one stage become the manipulable objects of the next.

Other developmental models exist which are more or less compatible with Keegan's general theory, with some people stressing differences, and others similarities.  But there is little doubt, after decades of research and countless experimental observation runs,  that human consciousness develops through a generally stage-like process, and that moral cognition is part of this.

(In fact, long before science tackled the issue, the notion of moral development in stages could be found in the folk knowledge of culture's around the world, and sometimes explicitly in religious teachings as well.  For example, Corinthians 13:11: "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.")

So, in short, "Kohlberg" as the name of the central pioneering figure who first applied Piaget's developmental model to moral reasoning, is shorthand for a much larger and more diverse community of researchers, who are all in basic agreement that there are qualitiatively different forms of moral reasoning that develop sequentially as humans grow from infancy into adulthood, and, optimally,  to greater levels of maturity in adulthood.

by Paul Rosenberg on Mon Dec 18, 2006 at 12:55:53 AM EST

That is a thoughtful comment, but the question still is: How do we turn that into a streamlined, cogent argument that the average American quickly grasp?

Our fellow itizens are not dumb, but while they are going to work, feeding their kids and paying their bills they often get their information "on the run." That s exactly why a Dobson can effectively spin baloney that quickly becomes widely accepted fact.

So the question remains: Without going off on tangents, how do we get this message into mainstream thought?

by Frank Cocozzelli on Mon Dec 18, 2006 at 07:09:41 AM EST

That's why I suggested using historical examples first--such as the struggle for civil rights, or or to abolish slavery--and referring to Fowler (not necessarily exclusively) when we talk about moral development.

The two can be related, since stage three in moral development represents a conventional morality, and the struggle for civil rights, for  example, involved going beyond that level of morality--a point that King directly addressed in his Letter from Birmingham Jail.

However, I think we first need to talk quite a bit about the basic fact that liberals supported King while conservatives opposed him before we bring moral development into the picture.  At least when we're talking about injecting it into the mainstream.

My point in presenting this wider snapshot was just to assure people that we aren't talking about some sort of school of psychology that has substantial opposition.  Gilligan, in particular, is critical from within the developmental framework, not critical of the developmental framework.  This was for our own shared understanding--particularly if challenged-- not a recommendation that we go out and try to educate people directly about this, unless challenged.

by Paul Rosenberg on Mon Dec 18, 2006 at 10:21:12 AM EST

I agree 100% with going with MLK as an example. I often use him and Bobby Kennedy as my primary examples of Liberal moralism. Both stressed the reciprocal relation between receipt and contribution in relation to maintaining the common good.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Mon Dec 18, 2006 at 04:06:47 PM EST


Thank you for this overview (and the correctives!)
I'm not sure this is the venue but considering the moral development of one's...."dialogue partner" (ever the optimist, I am) is helpful in developing strategies.  Too long ago I did some reading/writing on Rawls and the development of a sense of justice within the family.  I vaguely recall some exchanges between him and Kohlberg, but...

Anyway, I'm very interested in this b/c I think there is much, much pain that springs from an 'absolutist' view of morality (reality) from how families go through Christmas to how nations conduct foreign policy.  My personal agenda is at www.uccunity.org.

My contribution to a discussion with regard to Frank's question is:
It seems to me that there is a fear component of absolutism and that one does not lead another from such a 'cognitive cave' without first developing a relationship of trust.  From my pastoral experience people do not consider that nonhistoricity of scripture until they are reassured that such will not endanger their relationship with the Divine.  Trustworthiness and credibility are essential for any effectiveness.  Oponents on the far right are not possible converts.  

I would also add in full disclosure that I think the same dysfucntion is present at both ends of the politcal/social spectrum, so raising questions about others' maturation may also mean rigorous self-examination as well, yes?

by Don Niederfrank on Mon Dec 18, 2006 at 08:33:10 AM EST

such as Lakoffs Strict Father/Nurturant Parent family models.  The former gives us a wrathful God, the later a loving one--regardless of what people may claim to believe in.

For example---to draw on my own Unitarian/Universalist background--if people's idea of a loving God for them, their family and their community depends on millions of others suffering eternal damnation, that doesn't sound very loving to me.  It sounds even less loving if their entire orientation toward politics is concerned with further punishing those they already consider lost.

Again, one way to work at bridging this gap is through stories about historical struggles, and even passages directly taken from King's speeches.  This is the first step, I believe, by establishing that there is a positive moral vision that liberals have which anyone can relate to.  We need to establish this before a fruitful dialogue can be had about different models of morality and religious faith.

by Paul Rosenberg on Mon Dec 18, 2006 at 10:36:57 AM EST

Excellent comment, Justintime. You are absolutely correct, we must answer their charge whenever it's made. But when we do so, we have to move the discussion out of their framework and language.

I want them to play in our ballpark for a change. That's why we should start speaking in terms of Value Pluralism and alternate "goods."

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sun Dec 17, 2006 at 01:17:15 PM EST

How do we take these ideas and inject them into the mainstream discourse? In other words, how do we explain that not all choices are not between good and evil,  but often between competing definitions of good?

In other words, how do we use this information to refute the phony claims of Dobson and his like?

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sun Dec 17, 2006 at 09:58:49 AM EST

Dobson misses the timeless meaning of the Golden Rule, which is embedded in all of the world's great religions.

As Christ repeatedly pointed out, living by the Golden Rule requires a higher level of universal ethics, beyond the absolutist morality of two-dimensional, black/white, right/wrong dogma from Dobson.

It's difficult for moral absolutists like Dobson to  understand the meaning of the Golden Rule when applied to life in the here and now of the modern context.

They seem trapped in the late Bronze Age. 

by justintime on Sun Dec 17, 2006 at 03:22:28 PM EST
not two.

by justintime on Sun Dec 17, 2006 at 03:32:05 PM EST

How do we take these ideas and inject them into the mainstream discourse?
I would accuse them of violating the Ninth Commandment by bearing false witness, which they do virtually any time they talk about liberals, or secularists, or even just Democrats in general.

This goes to the very heart of what they are up to--lying and demonizing.  You've written a very thoughtful piece, but it's much too thoughtful to enter the mainstream all at once like that.  It needs a foothold.  And the foothold is simply that liberals do have morals, and we have plenty of historical evidence to back that up.

For example, white liberals were the ones who supported and joined the black civil rights movement when conservatives were fighting it tooth and nail.  This sort of historical example is far more effective in gettng people's attention, IMHO, than the sort of argument you present.

This is not a put-down of your argument.  It's very important that folks be exposed to it, because it goes well beyond historical examples to explain the logic.  And people need to do more than just hear this logic--they need to internalize it.  But first things first.  And to get this into the mainstream, you've first got to disrupt the routine dissemination of lies.  And I think that historical examples are the best way to do that.

Other examples would include the abolition of slavery, promotion of equal rgihts for women, elimination of child labor, passage of minimum wage laws ("for the labourer is worthy of his hire," Luke 10:7).  There are countless others.

by Paul Rosenberg on Sun Dec 17, 2006 at 04:50:54 PM EST

I think that's exactly right, and the frame Id put out there is that the accusation of moral relativism is a subset of the broader tactic called "misrepresenting the position of your opponent to marginalize him." That tactic is the bread and butter of the right, from red-baiting (and now terror-baiting) to their preening lectures on the moral bankruptcy of the left, or whatever phrase they use. When you look at it this way, "bearing false witness" is really THE central tactic of the Rovian divide-and-conquer strategy. Use it in this context, and see how it can be used in others too.

Finally, Id say that the Terri Schiavo affair offers a vivid illustration of what happens "on the ground" when absolutist precepts are made to be the determining factor in political judgments. Look at the negative reaction - in fact, looking back, it sure looks like that whole sordid affair was THE turning point that led to the Democratic takeover of 06. (It was before Katrina, and before mass dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq set in.) The political reaction against the Republicans' conduct wrt the Schiavo matter may be characterized as "values pluralist."  Values pluralism, in this context, appeals to the libertarian side of things, because the kind of moral absolutism Dobson & Co. advocate, in reality, on the ground, requires radical government intervention in a way that just does not feel right to most Americans, regardless of their position on the sanctity of life.

by Splash on Sun Dec 17, 2006 at 11:11:34 PM EST

Schiavo is a good example. A lot of people understand concrete situations and common sense. They aren't easily persuaded by abstract theory and intellectual arguments.

I also have to ask the question again: Who are we trying to convince and why? How many people take Dobson seriously and, of those who do, is it possible to change their minds with logical argument? I've scoured the polls and, since before the elections, find little to suggest that most Americans subscribe to Dobson's absolutist values; when people are asked to name their most important concerns in an open-ended question, the so-called "family values" rank near the bottom. It seems the last election was a good reflection of the fact that the public, in general, has a broader view of ethical values than Dobson does.  

While educating the public is important, it's also important that we don't take off-hand, dumb comments by Dobson personally and react defensively. It gives him more attention and power than he deserves. Keeping the record straight is essential, as is holding the media accountable as happened in a recent incident diaried here.

The very vagueness of the values concept makes it difficult to counter charges - which is probably why Dobson and his friends on the Right chose this approach. We need to talk about our liberal values in concrete ways and talk about how they differ from conservative values. Dobson is becoming marginalized even by the political right - which is probably why he felt the need to put in an appearance on Larry King. Looks like he needed some creds for his base.

by Psyche on Mon Dec 18, 2006 at 01:40:33 AM EST

was a highly entertaining, effective exposure of the absurdity of Christian right moral absolutism.

The Christian right and the major players created this absurd situation and the public was quick to catch on to it.

Common sense rules. 


by justintime on Tue Dec 19, 2006 at 01:53:47 PM EST
...that was mostly an example of the Religious Right shooting itself in the foot. Most Liberals didn't say "boo."

How would we effectively define the Schiavo episode with a proactive Liberal morality? What language would be used?

by Frank Cocozzelli on Tue Dec 19, 2006 at 02:41:28 PM EST

that liberals didn't have to say anything about it.

The public rejected the intention of the Bush government to interfere with family decisions. 


by justintime on Tue Dec 19, 2006 at 03:00:44 PM EST


I did not take that as a put-down at all. In fact, your second post is the very type of response I was looking for!

You correctly identified past examples of high Liberal morality. Now we need to identify contemporary examples of the same.

I am fully aware that this is somewhat dense, but it it is from this core concept we need to streamline the message. And to that end, you provided something extremely useful.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Mon Dec 18, 2006 at 07:20:37 AM EST

By it's very nature, the most significant examples are still controversial.  But we can certainly point to environmental stewardship as a liberal value, as well care for the poor and downtrodden, both here and abroad:

Mathew 25:

34 "Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'

 37 "Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'

 40 "The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'

As opposed to the opposite vision:

 41 "Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'

 44 "They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'

 45 "He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'

 46 "Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."

by Paul Rosenberg on Mon Dec 18, 2006 at 10:47:08 AM EST

It would be good to have an accurate accounting of human-needs donations aka acts of corporal mercy (food, clothing, heat/cool according to climate and medical needs, electricity, housing, medical care, perhaps quality schooling for those otherwise unable to get decent education) according to type of belief: Catholic, conservative Protestant, liberal Protestant, all Jewish (lump to get numbers), no belief indicated.

I am not sure how easy this is to separate from church donations in all denominations - certainly, in the mainstream denominations, there are domestic and international social-services organizations (Catholic Charities, Lutheran Children's Services, Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation, etc) to which you write a separate check. Non-denominationals are another matter.

In the matter of "traditional marriage", conservative evangelicals have a slightly greater divorce rate than other Protestants. What this suggests to me is that they do a worse job of marriage preparation or marry at a younger age than other Protestants, but I don't know where the stats are on that.

by NancyP on Mon Dec 18, 2006 at 02:52:30 PM EST

It's not the generally held assumption here that persons of consevative theological views are necessarily unconerned with the poor, is it?

Somewhere recently(How's that for a level of ambiguity?!) a poll came out indicating that theological conservatives were more generous.  I'm sorry I can't site it as my neighborhood (ucc.org forums) is down and it was posted there.

The point I would argue from statistics and my own experience is that there is not a necessary or definitive separation between conservatism and compassion.  I think this is important because I think respect and humility are necessary for creating the sort of community/dialogues in which transformation is possible.  Am I off base here?  

by Don Niederfrank on Mon Dec 18, 2006 at 05:29:21 PM EST

We probably don't have the DATA to answer these questions. The above discussion was about the problem of defining contributions as directed towards other people's tangible needs, vs. upkeep of one's own church or dissemination of one's own favored doctrine or thinly veiled political activity. A lot of what gets designated as "charity" benefits the recipient and recipient's immediate community (church upkeep as club membership; church facility upgrade to include members-only gym; donations to cultural institutions where low or no-cost admission is not given). I think it likely that conservatives give more to their churches, but does that translate into more total tangible-human-needs donations than the liberals? Do liberals split their giving more? Some to church, some to Habitat, some to the local battered women's shelter, some to inner city youth programs, etc..... When charity giving is compared, do the stats include 1. church only, 2. total church plus non-church, 3. tangible-human-needs giving irrespective of church v non-church origin?

There is no theological reason why the theological conservatives shouldn't care about the poor. Most black conservative Protestants do make poverty a central issue.

The white conservative Protestant movement leadership tends to neglect the issue, in favor of the less demanding and more attention-grabbing anti-gay, anti-abortion agenda.

The rank and file, pastors and lay alike, are more varied. The denominations generally seem to subsume all non-congregation work under "missions", and some missions may have a substantial human-needs component (medical clinics, schools, etc) in addition to the conversion component. This may make the determination of amount of money devoted to tangible services (as opposed to evangelizing) quite difficult. The liberalslike myself tend to assume that the emphasis is on conversion as the first goal, based on publicised bad behavior of some conservative missionaries. What percentage of conservative missionaries have the conversion as ticket to food attitude is unclear. Liberals tend to assume that adequate food, clothing etc are necessary prerequisites for any subsequent religious discussion, and conservatives accuse liberals of falling down on the evangelization part.

Megachurches must be highly variable, but I suspect that charitable human-needs giving is lower than in either conservative or liberal denominations, if only because local growth and facility expansion/ upgrading is a huge goal of these churches, versus more established churches who mostly need to do a little repair work on existing facilities, and don't necessarily have to have full service gyms, youth rec. centers, Starbucks in church for attendees, bookstores, 65-foot statues of Jesus emerging from a pond (we locals call it "Quicksand Jesus", and other things the megachurches need to stay competitive. Many megachurches are also run by "Prosperity Gospel" preachers, who imply that poverty is a sign of failure to tithe to the church and other moral failings of the poor person.

by NancyP on Mon Dec 18, 2006 at 06:52:41 PM EST

If you look at long-term polling data, you will see broad support for the welfare state among self-described conservatives.  This is one of the most well-known facts of public opinion among serious students of the subject.  However it is not reflected among the reactionary leadeship of either the religious right or any of its secular analogues.

It was true of Congressional Republicans in the 1980s, but not after Gingrich & co took over in 1994.  However, the vast majority of self-identified conservatives have no idea about this.

Nor do they know, apropos of this same passage, that G.W. Bush taunted Karla Faye Tucker, a born-again woman on death row, whose sentence he refused to commute.  Had he commuted her sentence, she would have spent the rest of her life ministering to sister prisoners, and witnessing for Jesus.  I'm not sure very many theologically conservative Christians would approve of that, either.

The purpose of citing such examples, as I understand it, is not to clobber people over the head, nor to convince them in one fell swoop, but (1) to blunt the automatic demonization practiced by Robertson, Fallwell, Dobson, etc. and (2) to open up dialogue.  I think that Matthew 25 can help considerably in this respect.  And, then, of course, there's that bit about "the stranger," which is why the Catholic Church is so much more accomodating to immigrants than most Protestants are.

by Paul Rosenberg on Mon Dec 18, 2006 at 07:05:52 PM EST

The topic of the site is the religious right and what to do about it. People who are theologically conservative in general are not necessarily part of the religious right social and political movement, as I think you understand. Therefore whether or not these unnamed people are generous or not, is quite beside the point.  Please help us stay on topic here.

by Frederick Clarkson on Mon Dec 18, 2006 at 07:56:25 PM EST
This helps me understand this corner of cyberspace better, and I'm glad to hear of the distinction (It may well be obvious with more reading!); it's an important one to me.

Sorry if I got us off on a tangent.

Ever the optimist, I do see a few evangelicals leaving the leadership of the religious right, Dr. Joel Hunter being the most recent bright spot.

by Don Niederfrank on Tue Dec 19, 2006 at 09:29:36 AM EST

The reason this corner of cyberspace exists is  because there is no other place to think about things in this way. It takes some work and some practice, and even then it is easy to stray. Tangents happen.

One of the reasons the site is set up in this way, is that society has been very good at talking about everything but the religious right and what to do about it. And too often,the conversations that would take place were rather unsatisfying, tending to careern wildly between the poles of nasty finger pointing and name calling, and radically oblivious common groundism. We collectively recognize there are problems to demcratic society posed by the religious right political and social movement, and we are trying to get a lot better and understanding it and competantly addressing it.

by Frederick Clarkson on Tue Dec 19, 2006 at 10:32:39 AM EST

The topic was how to get around "moral relativism" "no values" language applied to liberals - and part of the answer is "different values" - freedom of conscience; respect for those with differing religious interpretations; respect and care for the poor and marginalized and strangers among us; avoidance of violence and war, if at all possible; respect and care for God's gift Planet Earth and non-human creatures on it; (add your favorite).

The impression that many get about religious conservatives is that the #1, #2, #3, #4 values issues are anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-evolution, anti-religious freedom of conscience. Care for the poor is about #100 on the publicly promoted and publicly reported agendas, judging by statements of denominational heads and of radio/tv preachers and of conservative religious talking heads.

Now, at some point, someone challenged a conservative religious spokesman, Dobson perhaps, about care for the poor. The spokesman made a claim that conservatives gave more to "charity" than liberals. My posts were to discuss those claims, and specifically, the problem of defining "charity" vs. care for the poor.

If someone could find statistics on tangible-human-needs donations, and if these stats showed that conservatives and liberals were similar, or possibly that liberals gave more than conservatives in this category, well, that's proof of lived liberal values.

by NancyP on Mon Dec 18, 2006 at 09:00:45 PM EST

He asked whether there is an underlying presumption on the site that theological conservatives are bad people. In fact, there is obviously no such presumption, and speculations about whether or not theological conservatives, generally speaking, are also good and compassionate, or more so than liberals or not, is beside the point here. It also has nothing to do with the topic of the post in which Frank raised the matter of Dobson and others' claim that liberals are, among other things, moral relativists, the need to answer such charges and offering a way to do so.

Don wants you to get the idea that conservatives can be compassionate too as measured by charitable giving. But the topic of this site is the religious right and what to do about it.  I am fine with the idea of marshalling any argument you want in response to Dobson, NancyP. But that is not where Don was going with this, and why my comment was directed to him, not to you.

by Frederick Clarkson on Mon Dec 18, 2006 at 10:50:28 PM EST

With regard to Don's point about many conservative supporting the welfare state, those are mainstream, more libertarian types. Our issue here is with more subjective authoritarian-Right types, usually more neoconservative or culturally paleo-conservative in nature who pass themselves off as mainstream conservatives.

Now, with that said, what I am truly after here is how do we take what we discussed, a somewhat detailed concept, and streamline it into a cogent message that can be readily understood in our current sound-bit friendly media?

Let's try to simply the message.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Tue Dec 19, 2006 at 07:12:18 AM EST

New book by Arthur C. Brooks, Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth about Compassionate Conservatism. Reading the reviews gives the jist of the book. Some additional information here and here. The right is having a field day with it ("See we are more compassionate"). Don't get the sense that anyone has taken a really careful look at the data as yet. If this is the reference you meant, Brooks was on C-SPAN today - a talk at Brookings. They'll probably have video at their web site.

by Psyche on Tue Dec 19, 2006 at 01:51:39 AM EST
Again, I come back to the frame "misrepresenting the position of the opponent" because it's encoded into virtually everything they do. They set themselves up as the victim (thus "earning" sympathy). Look at the phrase "the surprising truth." Why surprising? Because the implied frame is "many people have the wrong idea that conservatives lack compassion." This tactic does 2 things: 1) casts liberals as dishonest; 2) casts conservatives as compassionate victims of slander. They are claiming, effectively, that they are being misrepresented by their opponents. They accomplish all this with framing alone.

The actual truth is, of course, the exact reverse: we are the ones being misrepresented, and their framing achieves a kind of detournement. We need to do that in return, but here's the rub; it wont work if we just mirror their tactics or respond to their charges. If we spend tons of energy, time and money highlighting the history of progressive church activism, that's fine, but we are still on their playing field. I realize that this is probably unavoidable, since for so long it has just been obvious that liberal church groups were indispensable to progressive political causes, and now we have to articulate it because we are being forced to; but the other side of that is that we have to puncture the bubble of false victimhood they have erected around themselves, and we dont accomplish that by defending progressive activism to the exclusion of highlighting the failure of conservative policies on the ground. So, e.g., there's the Schiavo example I pointed to earlier; another would be the demonstrable fact that abortion and divorce rates, as the data seem to show, are higher in "red states" than in blue. If we can move the debate to "what works and what doesnt," that moves the frame to a reality-based place. Our playing field.  We are then, finally, in a position to win (and Id say in the long run everybody wins) when we can effectively say, "men are not angels" and "the road to hell is paved with good intentions." Or, perhaps short and terse: "Get real."  Or how about" "Compassion alone doesnt pay the bills." Or, for that matter, the national debt. ... and back to economic justice. etc, etc.

by Splash on Tue Dec 19, 2006 at 12:20:59 PM EST

They won't let us pray in public!
They won't let us teach creationism in the public schools!
Liberals want to destroy the institution of marriage.
They're murdering stem cells!
Liberals have declared a "War on Christmas".

Why should we feel sorry for a phony victim?
Phony victims should be singled out for laughter and ridicule. 

Good observation from splash.

by justintime on Tue Dec 19, 2006 at 02:30:25 PM EST

Your remark about using the False Witness commandment to bring home the sin of false witness by the religious right is spot on..

In early Nov. the text for the Cycle B Epistle was from James.  The reader looked up from the book, connected with eyes in congregation and said very slowly and diliberately, "..and you make war because you envy",  

Now the church of which I speak is part of the Episcopal Diocese of Albany which is bought and paid for by the IRD. Heads turned; eyes shifted thither and yon as IRD supporters looked for common disapproval and consolation from their neighbors. But, whether it referred to spiritual error or literal warfare, the meaning held. There could be no arguing with it.

That reading slammed home like nothing I've ever heard read in a church anywhere, any time.  You make war because you envy!  Thank you, St. James for your clear and direct message..I'm memorizing the passage.

by tikkun on Tue Dec 19, 2006 at 06:48:59 PM EST

Every time a distortion of reality from the Christian right appears in the main stream media there’s a unique opportunity to expose the specific distortion and to discredit the Christian right perpetrator of the distortion.

Each response needs to be crafted to fit the distortion, the perpetrator and a specific target audience.

The target audience will be the group buying into the distortion.

Exposing the distortion is necessary but this is basically a defensive tactic.

Going on the offense requires discrediting the perpetrator.

To discredit the perpetrator in the eyes of his supporters, if it can be accomplished, would be the ultimate goal.

I agree with Psyche, who points out that this audience is difficult to reach using abstract theory and intellectual arguments.

Christian right distortions of reality are mostly based on moral absolutism and lead into absurd positions which are easy targets.

A common sense response (humor is an appropriate vehicle) applied to a concrete situation is most effective in exposing the absurdity of moral absolutism.

by justintime on Tue Dec 19, 2006 at 01:28:30 PM EST
Remember a very important rule: Speed Kills.

A very effecticve general (who sadly fought for a bad cause) once said  the trick to winning is "getting there fastest with the mostest."

I suggest answering slanderous charges within one news cycle and quickly using our language to respond. Part of an effective response is "what Dobson is describing as moral relatvism" is incorrect." This is followed by us providing the correct definition, and one that is objectively verifiable.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Tue Dec 19, 2006 at 02:55:42 PM EST

A carefully crafted response while public attention is focused on the issue is critical.

by justintime on Tue Dec 19, 2006 at 03:06:59 PM EST

I posted here a few days ago about Dobson's latest assault on gay families in Time - and the rapid response from the professionals whose work he'd distorted to support his bigotry. Time (good for them!) also responded rapidly with a strong article presenting an opposing view.

Now, Wayne Besen has come out with a video of Carol Gilligan answering Dobson, posted on YouTube. What do you think of it? I was pleased - thought it hit the right notes and did it powerfully. Talk about discrediting the perp! (Nothing like having a moral development expert chastizing Dr. D. on his moral values!)

by Psyche on Wed Dec 20, 2006 at 02:36:50 AM EST

I read your post and Jennifer Chrisler's response, watched the video and signed the petition.
Only two days' lag between Dobson's piece and Chrisler's response.
I doubt Gilligan will get an apology out of Dobson.
Maybe Dobson needs a few lawsuits to keep him honest.
I wonder if this episode will shake any of his supporters loose.
Do you think Dobson is beginning to lose credibility?

by justintime on Wed Dec 20, 2006 at 09:47:50 AM EST


Thanks again for your diary. Dobson and his pals remind me of the lyrics to the Coven song from the 1970s One Tin Soldier. I am especially reminded of the line "go ahead and cheat your neighbor.


by khughes1963 on Sun Dec 17, 2006 at 01:18:40 PM EST

Good point. What a great song but--in retrospect--bad flick. <Billy Jack</i> did seem to have relevance when I saw it in 1973!

And if we'don't communicate Kathy before the holidays, you and your family have a Merry Christmas!

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sun Dec 17, 2006 at 01:39:49 PM EST

I wish a Merry Christmas to you and your family also.

by khughes1963 on Sun Dec 17, 2006 at 02:35:27 PM EST
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by kakymoq on Wed Jan 27, 2021 at 11:38:46 AM EST

Isn't that the ultimate recourse of the theocrats? And how exactly does it differ from saying simply, "This sounds natural to me,"?

by nogodsnomasters on Sun Dec 17, 2006 at 02:16:43 PM EST
...But whose version of Natural Law do we use? While the Founders, the Catholic Church and even neocons cite this principle, they all have their own variations of the original concept.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sun Dec 17, 2006 at 02:37:16 PM EST

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