Why We Must Refute Dobson's Crackpot Claim of Liberal Moral Relativism.
Frank Cocozzelli printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sat Dec 09, 2006 at 08:43:08 PM EST
Many of us do not understand how important it is to refute the Religious Right's charge that Liberals are moral relativists. This is no collateral matter. In fact, it goes to the heart of their whole war against progressive religious thought and beyond that, Liberalism.
Silencing the rote charge of moral relativism--the false assertion that Liberals believe that anything goes because life has no meaning--is critical to collapsing the Radical Right's whole house of cards.  And into this continuing campaign to twist the Liberal message of tolerance and domestic tranquility, stepped the founder of Focus on the Family  

As both Fred Clarkson and then IPC pointed out, James Dobson told an outright lie about Liberals. Without flinching, he claimed on November 22, 2006 edition of Larry King Live:

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.

As The Daily Howler's Bob Somerby would sarcastically write, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.

It might be funny if it were only a joke; but it isn't. In fact, it is a damn serious claim that must be refuted once and for all. These are folks who believe that the ends justify the means. They are not afraid "...to lose their scruples." And when we Liberals take our eyes off the ball by focusing on personalities rather than messages, we fail.

Moral relativism is a message that both Neocons and the Religious Right have been pounding into the heads of mainstream Americans for the last forty years. It had its origins over 200 years ago with Joseph deMaistre and was later picked on by the likes of Leo Strauss and others. Today Irving Kristol, Robert H. Bork (In his book Slouching Towards Gomorrah, Bork extends the moral relativism charge to libertarians), George Weigel and Michael Novak now echo this intellectually corrupt theme and they do so until it makes its way out of the mouths of the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and yes, James Dobson.

This twisting of what Liberalism stands for is at the very foundation of their war upon our American democracy. From this one core belief comes the phony "War against Christmas" ("Liberals hate religion, so they want to extinguish all talk of religious holidays"); the incorrect reading of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment (deliberately blurring what they mean by "religious freedom," as if it were the right to have our government act as the secular enforcer of a particular orthodoxy) or that because certain denominations see the teaching of evolution as immoral, any other denomination that believes otherwise does not understand "the truth."

How important is it to dispel this false allegation? Simply put, moral relativism is the Religious Right's gatekeeper. It defines Liberals and more importantly, what we have to say, as being immoral. For those who buy into the premise, it cuts off the conversation even before it begins. It allows the Religious Right and their friends the luxury of not having to debate the merits of their arguments. It essentially slams the door shut on what we have to say.

Many of us may simply shrug our shoulders and say that the average American does not understand the concept of moral relativism. But that is incorrect. When they use the term, they make certain to define its meaning. Just think about the order of Dobson's statement on Larry King Live:

First the accusation: "...those, again, on the more liberal end of the spectrum are often those who have no value system."

In other words, Liberals have no morality.

Next comes the illustrated example: "...or at least they say there is no moral and immoral, there is no right or wrong."

Perhaps worse, Liberals do not distinguish between good and evil.

And finally, the definition: "It's moral relativism."

Dobson cleverly spoon-fed the audience the pabulum he wanted them to swallow. And it is a lie that tars all Liberals: secular, religious or otherwise.

But the pernicious effects only begin when charges of Liberal moral relativism leaves the lips of a Dobson. At that point the words begin to take on a life of their own. The original audience repeats the lie in general conversation with other Americans who never even viewed the Focus on the Family founder on Larry King Live. The charge then gets casually repeated at office water coolers,  card games and dinner tables all across the country. And the tall tale that Liberals "have no value system" becomes imbedded in the national psyche.

So now I ask the same question that Fred Clarkson first asked. How does it feel, fellow Liberals to be denigrated as immoral actors? How does it feel to get your nose rubbed in a lie that paints you as having no moral center? And to my fellow progressive Christians, How do you like demagogues telling the world that you practice "Whatever Christianity?" Doesn't it bother you when crackpots like James Dobson brazenly dissemble that you are incapable of telling right from wrong, good from evil?

Well it bothers the hell out of me. And I am sick and tired of being tarred and feathered with such mendaciousness. But what bothers me more is when clowns like Dobson seem to get let off the hook when they say such things. We on the Left seem to be afraid of playing hardball and focusing like a laser beam on this fundamental untruth being spun by the Right-wing punditry.

And yet even more frustrating is that the whole moral relativism argument is not so difficult to refute as fraudulent. In fact what they are truly doing is seriously misrepresenting the core Liberal concept of Value Pluralism. Our task is to finally take control of the argument and frame it in terms of pluralism and diversity. Instead of worrying about what Dobson or Limbaugh is next going to say about us we have to be thinking about how we are going to define them.  We accomplish this by defining ourselves and stop letting the Dobsons of the world go unanswered. All that is required is a sustained effort that does not fall prey to distractions.

And to that end, next week I will discuss the options we have to destroy the myth of Liberal moral relativism once and for all.


To the Talk To Action community and Mr. Cocozzelli,

As a new TtA member, though longtime reader, I humbly submit the following regarding the issue of moral relativism.  I hope my comments are useful.

It is a fundamental psychological truism that we can only recognize that which we are aware of ourselves, whether we're conscious of it this process or not.  In other words, the primary overarching factor in the Religious Right's keen ability to sniff out moral relativism in whatever form is quite simply because they themselves engage in it so heavily.  This is a crucial point, all too often overlooked regarding this subject.
    We are provided with several excellent examples of this phenomenon.  When social-religious conservatives assert the primacy of issues such as abortion and homosexuality over those of poverty, environmental stewardship, or political corruption, they are engaging precisely in moral relativism on a grand scale.  Relative to abortion,  protecting the environment is down the list; relative to homosexuality, concern for the poor or the harm monied interests do to the political process are on the back burner. 

This quite simply, and obviously relativism, by any definition.

    When you become aware that Karl Rove engages in political "dirty tricks" (completely unethical/immoral practices) to win at any costs (the ends justifying the means), and you vote for Bush anyway, you have engaged in moral relativism.

   When you vote for a politician primarily because of his or her position on the issue of abortion, while knowing that they also stand for allowing natural resources to be degraded -that's moral relativism.

The examples could fill volumes, but I think you get the idea.  Confronted with this -which to date the Religious Right has not been- the religious-political conservatives simply have no defense.



by geschickt on Sun Dec 10, 2006 at 11:16:29 AM EST
Your insight is exactly what we need to formulate a strong response to the Dobsons of the world. Your comments were what many of us were hoping to see.

Oh, and by the way, call me Frank.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sun Dec 10, 2006 at 01:16:52 PM EST

There are at least four kinds of relativism, and it is important to distinguish between them.

1)  situational relativism.  This is simply the idea that there are true moral principles, but what is morally right in a situation depends on the circumstances and facts of the situation, and that we have to determine which moral principle should govern the decision.  This is in fact how people make most moral decisions.  Moral absolutists will object to this, but in the real world there are very few people who make all moral decisions based on a uniform application of a few moral rules regardless of circimstances. 

2)  moral decisions without a religious referent are relative.  The thinking here is that you can't make a truly moral decision that is not founded on some sacred book or religious principle.  In other words, the decision has to have some kind of "eternal connection."  Thus without a referent such as the Bible, a person who makes a correct moral decision does so without any real justification or warrant for it.

3)  there are no moral truths.  This is the idea that there simply is no morality, no moral decisions, and thus every decision is simply a matter of personal taste.  This is typically the position that "liberals" are accused of holding.  In fact, I have never known anyone who holds that position.

4)  theological relativism.  This is the idea that there are no fixed moral truths, but that right and wrong depends on what God commands.  So if God tells you to destroy all Caananites, or to burn heretics at the stake, or to kill the Venezuelan president, then that is the moral thing to do.  This is actually the position of a large number of conservative Christians.  The irony here is that many of the people who claim that liberals are relativists are themselves theological relativists. 

by siguiriya on Sun Dec 10, 2006 at 11:26:07 AM EST
That's helpful.

by Bruce Wilson on Sun Dec 10, 2006 at 12:55:20 PM EST

This is extremely useful. We now need to be able to discuss these distinctions with mainstream America in a way that is quick and easy for them to grasp in this age of soundbits. But just as important, we need to start framing the conversation in terms of Value Pluralism so that it and not moral relativism is foundation of this argument.

Well done, Siguiriya!

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sun Dec 10, 2006 at 01:22:17 PM EST

I think you can run your narrative back even further - Dobson's critique traces back to the anti-Enlightenment if not even further.

To tie that into American politics, secular government was an American innovation designed, largely, to keep the peace and put the lid on the sort of religious warfare that wracked Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries -  for example, the Bartholomew's Day Massacre.

But the Christian right has now debased the contemporary understanding of what secularism is - a governmental innovation for keeping the peace among adherents of different belief systems - to the extent that dedicated peacemakers such as Jim Wallis bash away at strawman "secularist" demons in ignorance of the fact that secular government itself was designed as a peacekeeping innovation and has been so strikingly successful that it has  served as a template government structures worldwide.

by Bruce Wilson on Sun Dec 10, 2006 at 09:33:03 PM EST

Bruce I did cover that ground. That is exactly why I included the hyperlink for Joseph deMaistre.

I believe that part of the problem for many Liberals is that they do not fully understand from where many of the Radical Right's pundits are coming from. While a David Gergen, Jim Pinkerton or a George Carey draw their cnservatism from the Founding Fathers (the same point of reference for Liberals), today's firebrands are basing their beliefs on anti-Enlightenment principles--particulary on the Catholic Right.

What Liberals have to do is what Fred keeps trying to pound into everyone's heads: learn everything you can about the other side. Just as General Patton read Rommel's book on tank warfare before engaging him in battle, we too must read about deMaistre, Willmoore Kendall, Christopher Lasch and Leo Strauss. Such knowledge will let us know their mindset when they make such wacky claims such there is no such thing as the separation of church and state.

And when they talk in deliberately vague language about the Enlightenment, using the Reign of Terror that followed the French Revolution, we must respond with tho obvious rebuttal: citing the relative order of our own American Revolution and the vibrant liberal democracy it provided us with.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Mon Dec 11, 2006 at 07:18:36 AM EST


by Bruce Wilson on Tue Dec 12, 2006 at 01:44:54 AM EST
The trick is to get what we know into the national discourse.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Tue Dec 12, 2006 at 01:21:00 PM EST


Thanks again for the thoughts. I get tired of the claim that liberals are moral relativists. We aren't, and Dobson and gang are very good at projection.

by khughes1963 on Sun Dec 10, 2006 at 07:55:19 PM EST

If we destoy the myth of "Liberal moral relativism," we begin to crumble the foundation upon which the Religious Right has built its movement. Take away the demonization of Liberalism and we can then talk more effectively about ourselves and our values.

But before we can do this, we must first disassemble the dissemblers.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sat Dec 09, 2006 at 08:50:58 PM EST

More on the email flip.

by Bruce Wilson on Sun Dec 10, 2006 at 12:12:58 AM EST
Got the E-Mail. I hope that all our readship takes up the cause.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sun Dec 10, 2006 at 09:04:23 AM EST

my quick answer to this when I have not wanted to get into a major discussion has always been that it is more moral to do the right thing because it is right than because you have been told that you will be punished if you don't.

by blueisland on Sun Dec 10, 2006 at 12:13:31 PM EST

But we've known that fact for a very long time. It's now time to refute them once and for all. We have to take the fight to them for a change.

A good place to start is by defining them for what they truly are: Moral Absolutists.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sun Dec 10, 2006 at 08:24:24 PM EST

Frank writes:  "We have to take the fight to them for a change."

Yes, this is extremely important.  It is a conscious strategy of the religious right that the ball is always in your court, or the game always starts at your 5 yard line, or whatever other sports metaphor you want to use. 

A perfect example of that is . . . ironically . . .  this discussion thread.  The starting position is the liberals trying to figure out how not to be called moral relativists.  See what I mean?  In this discussion the ball starts at the five yard line, and we're trying to figure how to move it to the ten.

What this shows is that a lot of the foundational thinking has not been done.  A lot of the basic concepts are not in place, and we are left with the unhappy task of responding to unfounded and unfair accusations.

But taking the fight to them doesn't just mean having a good defense.  It means having a good offense.  It means attacking at the time and place of our choosing, not once, but repeatedly, enough to let the message sink in. 

It also means attacking not only ideas but also the people who hold them.  This is distasteful to many in the liberal camp.  But the other side has declared a "culture war," and that's not just a metaphor to them.  Not to respond in kind means that we'll always be starting at the five yard line, struggling to move the ball.

by siguiriya on Mon Dec 11, 2006 at 08:20:16 PM EST
That is why we must move forward by putting the term Value Pluralism into play.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Tue Dec 12, 2006 at 01:26:42 PM EST

Frank writes:  " A good place to start is by defining them for what they truly are: Moral Absolutists."

In my experience they are only moral absolutists on issues related to sex and reproduction.  Other than that, forget about it.  

Conservative Christians supported the war in Iraq by a greater percentage than that of the general population.  Many are intoxicated by militarism, not worshipping Jesus but Mars, the god of war.  They support false science.  They bear false witness against other Christians.  They hold a false view of government and American history.  They enthusiastically supported the Bush administration in the midst of its many corruptions.  Many of them even supported torture.  Some of them have a reprehensible affection for people such as Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter.  They support the rich over the poor.  From a Christian perspective they rarely reference Jesus or the gospels.

This is not moral absolutism; it is not even basic Christian morality.  Even some conservative Christians now realize this.




by siguiriya on Mon Dec 11, 2006 at 11:09:04 PM EST
Religious Right hypocrisy.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Tue Dec 12, 2006 at 01:24:49 PM EST

From wikipedia:

Level 1 (Pre-Conventional)

    1. Obedience and punishment orientation

    2. Self-interest orientation (What's in it for me?)

Level 2 (Conventional)

    3. Interpersonal accord and conformity (The good boy/good girl attitude)

    4. Authority and social-order orientation (Law and order morality)

Level 3 (Post-conventional)

    5. Social contract orientation

    6. Universal ethical principles (Principled conscience)


Dobson's focuses on stage 1.

The Christian right seems unable to progress beyond stage 4. 

by justintime on Tue Dec 12, 2006 at 09:21:16 AM EST
Listening to the conversation, I'd been thinking of Kohlberg, too, as well as the authoritarianism that is endemic on the right. They're not unrelated concepts and both seem to me important in a consideration of approaches to countering religious right memes. We're not tackling simple lack of knowledge or misperceptions that might be amenable to information, reason or logical argument. What we face is a group of people whose lives are organized around rules, regulations, obedience and, perhaps most important, respect for authority. In other words, we're looking more at structure of cognitive organization rather than content. This rather rigid structure can lend stability and reduce fear; it also makes this group vulnerable to authoritarian ("strong") leadership. People like Bush and Dobson use this vulnerability to manipulate their flocks by increasing fear and concurrently promising safety if they will follow their lead (and their "rules").

I must add a caveat. This sort of structure isn't necessarily set in concrete; people exist along a continuum of moral development level (or authoritarianism). People in the middle of the continuum or to the left tend to drop to a less sophisticated level of development (and become more rigid and authoritarian) as stress increases; more flexible (and able to think independently) as they become less threatened. Reality then has a chance to intrude and change perception. A good example of this is the popular support for invasion of Iraq when the threat level was high after 911 (fears were enhanced by the threat of WMD and domestic anthrax attacks). Following the "rules" (not being "unpatriotic,"  "supporting the troops") became important to "survival." For most people, when fear eased as a result of the failure to find WMD's and the lack of domestic attacks, the reality of the carnage in Iraq and the administration's deception began to sink in. Support for the war and for Bush dropped. (It probably would have done so earlier for the center to left group if we'd had a more aggressive - and less fearful! - press). However, as you may have noticed, the right core is still hanging in - the true believers.

These people, many from the religious right, are at the extreme right (authoritarian) end of the continuum. They're generally more fearful, more rule-based, less flexible in accepting change and more dependent on authority whether family, clergy or national leaders. They feel most comfortable seeing things in dichotomous terms: right/wrong, good/evil, etc. They'd rather not deal with the grays in life because gray - God forbid! -  implies anxiety-arousing uncertainty. Their fundamentalism and acceptance of biblical inerrancy is of a piece with their pursuit of certainty and security.

I raise these issues because it's important to think about who we're trying to reach, and why. I hope it's relatively clear from the above that, under normal conditions, the people who can be reached more easily with reasonable argument and solid information (such as Frank proposes) are those from the middle to the left end of the continuum. How many of these people are strong followers of Dobson, subscribing to his beliefs without thought? A recent Barna survey suggests not as many as we might think.

Almost six out of every ten adults (57%) said they had never heard of Dr. Dobson; in fact, nearly half of all born again Christians said they did not know who he was. Among those familiar with Dr. Dobson, 27% had a favorable impression and 8% had an unfavorable view. However, among evangelical Christians - the small but well-chronicled segment that is clearly Dr. Dobson's core constituency - his rating was 69% favorable, 4% unfavorable, and 21% who had never heard of him. (The other 6% did not have an opinion of him.)

It may be instructive to look at how Dobson has achieved such power with his core group (and perhaps marginally with some others). Basically, he meets their emotional needs (or at least the needs they think they have or he has inspired) - for a friendly, all-knowing father, a kindly "clergyman," a self-help guru and a successful, powerful man-of-the-world - one who never raises their anxiety by asking them to think for themselves. Got a marriage problem, unruly kids, worried about your own sexuality (or sex on TV), don't know enough to figure out who to vote for, concerned about your kids' school, confused by scientific and technological advances, afraid women are getting too uppity and independent? Not to worry. Dr. Dobson has a simple answers that he delivers in understandable language and with an avuncular chuckle (or through slick money-making books, videos, etc.). Debate about priority of values, moral relativism? Who needs it? Dr. Dobson tells them what their Family Values [TM] are and how to talk about them. And all of this, if not the word of God, receives a patina of authority by "anchoring" it in the religious right interpretation of the bible and religion.

So... are we trying to reach the more easily persuaded middle (who may not be much of a problem) or the hardcore right or both (in which case we're likely to need separate approaches). Suspect that tackling Dobson directly may be counterproductive - no matter how good it may make us feel. Those in the middle who haven't a clue who Dobson is or who think he's kind of a silly old man may write us off as cranks. His followers are likely to react with anger and anxiety to an attack on their cherished leader and become even more supportive and intransigent. If it ends up on his radar, Dr. Dobson is likely to help this along by sending out e-mails and talking about the evil liberals-with-no-values who are trying to discredit him. This is the way he dealt with Larry King's mild challenge on church-state separation and a critical newspaper editorial. This is what might be called "inoculation".

I wonder if we can think of ways to address the true believers that would be reassuring rather than anxiety provoking. In such situations, asking questions rather than making statements is often useful. Talking about what we believe and why in respectful, plain English while avoiding charged "code" words and intellectualized concepts might also be helpful. Does this make sense to anyone? Any other ideas about how to reach people where they are rather than where we'd like them to be?

by Psyche on Wed Dec 13, 2006 at 02:51:18 AM EST

I had a response typed in, but it went away for some reason.

I'll recreate it later in the day when I get time. 

by justintime on Wed Dec 13, 2006 at 01:13:45 PM EST

You raise many important points--some of which I will cover in this weekend's post. However, I propose not that we go after Dobson, pers se, but his message that "Liberals have no values."

And while many folks from the libertarian Right to the Liberal Left may not be familiar with Dobson the man, they do know his allegation.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Wed Dec 13, 2006 at 02:37:16 PM EST

Re: the "Liberals have no values," I'm not sure it's Dobson's (or at least all his). It seems to be a generic political as well as religious right meme and I suspect it comes from the top. May have come out of the cozy WH meetings where Karl Rove sat around strategizing with WH staff and religious right leaders. I get a strong whiff of Karl. They tend to manufacture the message at the WH and then distribute talking points so everyone stays on message. Dobson's been one of their salesman.

by Psyche on Wed Dec 13, 2006 at 03:41:29 PM EST

I don't think there is anything wrong with a personal attack as long as the personal attack is based on the facts.  

When Dobson says something like "liberals have no values," or that they are all "moral relativists," or whatever the slam du jour is, he is bearing false witness.  This is a matter of fact, not of opinion.

Look what happened to Michael Schiavo during the situation with his wife.  He had the most false and hideous accusations hurled at him by the religious right -- accusations that were completely at odds with the facts of the case as demonstrated in both the case record and in the findings of Jay Wolfson, the guardian ad litem appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush.  The facts were out there; anyone who spent two minutes on the internet could find them.  But the Christian right completely ignored the case record and intentionally chose character assassination, in order to score political points and to use the lies for fundraising.

This is a violation of one of the Ten commandments.  When people do this they should be held accountable.  When someone lies there's nothing wrong with calling him a liar, especially if the person is in a leadership position.  When someone, as in the Schiavo case, denounces the system of justice, threatens judges, and tries to rig the outcome, that person is an anarchist and a perverter of justice.  And there's nothing wrong with pointing that out.

In other words, you tell the truth, and if the truth hurts, so be it.  If it's a matter in which reasonable people can disagree, that's different.  But if the person is a liar, then you call him a liar.   

by siguiriya on Wed Dec 13, 2006 at 10:43:23 PM EST

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ArchaeoBob (79 comments)
Demon Mammon?
An anthropologist from outer space might be forgiven for concluding that the god of this world is Mammon. (Or, rather, The Market, as depicted by John McMurtry in his book The Cancer Stage of......
daerie (107 comments)
Anti-Sharia Fever in Texas: This is How It Starts
The mayor of a mid-size Texan city has emerged in recent months as the newest face of Islamophobia. Aligning herself with extremists hostile to Islam, Mayor Beth Van Duyne of Irving, Texas has helped......
JSanford (106 comments)

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