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(Brigitte Bouvier/Brigitte Bouvier)
(Brigitte Bouvier/Brigitte Bouvier)

NEIL REYNOLDS

Why the 'sacred' still matters to voters Add to ...

University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt, a liberal academic who voted enthusiastically for Barack Obama, now thinks – based on a rigorous morality quiz taken by 130,000 people – that the progressive mindset is, in a phrase, morally challenged. Author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Mr. Haidt says liberals need a religious revival to get back on track, a contrarian assertion that’s reverberating through the secular universe.

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Mr. Haidt used his controversial quiz to identify five “foundational attributes,” moral principles that are universally respected, however practised. (The quiz – open for scrutiny at YourMorals.Org – asks disturbing questions: Would you renounce your citizenship for a million dollars? Would you give up a year of your life for a million dollars? Would you kick an animal for a million dollars?) The first foundational attribute is the capacity to care for others and, a corollary, a capacity to reduce harm. The second is fairness. The remaining three are loyalty, respect for authority and recognition of sacred things.

Whether liberal or conservative, Mr. Haidt says, Americans are strongly moved by the first two foundational attributes: caring and fairness. His analysis of the quiz results, however, indicates that liberals care more than conservatives when they perceive harm and that conservatives care more than liberals when they perceive unfairness. Liberals, alas, are ambivalent about loyalty, authority and sacred things – qualities that conservatives embrace.

Mr. Haidt, who recently reprised his argument in a piece for The New York Times, says conservatives possess “a broader set of moral tastes” and are able, in appealing to the public, to tap a richer moral lexicon. Many liberals are embarrassed by talk of sacred things – such as Ronald Reagan’s patriotic reverence for God and country. When they threaten sacred objects, “we can expect a ferocious tribal response.”

And tribal responses, he says, are what politics is all about. “Despite what you might have learned in Economics 101, people aren’t always selfish. In politics, they’re more often groupish. When people feel that a group they value – be it racial, religious, regional or ideological – is under attack, they rally to its defence, even at some cost to themselves. We evolved to be tribal, and politics is a competition among coalitions of tribes. The key to understanding tribal behaviour is not money, it’s sacredness.”

Humanity’s “great trick,” he says, is its ability to form a circle around a tree, a rock, an ancestor, a flag, a book or a god – then to treat that thing as sacred. Thus, across America, the culture wars are now holy wars in which liberals skirmish endlessly with vociferous defenders of God, country, flag and family.

Liberals can still win elections, but Mr. Haidt argues they’ll find it harder and harder to do so. Gallup says that liberals now make up only 20 per cent of Americans, that conservatives make up 40 per cent – and that independent voters, making up 30 per cent, disproportionately share with conservatives a respect for sacred things.

Mr. Haidt’s analysis roughly parallels the findings of Reginald Bibby, the prominent and prolific sociologist who monitors social and religious trends in Canada. In his Beyond the Gods & Back: Religion’s Demise and Rise and Why It Matters, published last year, he documents the growing chasm that separates Canadians who embrace sacred things and Canadians who repudiate them. Can these antagonists, he asks, ever co-exist?

Mr. Bibby has tracked the decline of organized religion in Canada across the years – but now detects signs of religious revival. Some of the Establishment churches in this country are on life support, but other denominations report growth, especially conservative Protestant denominations.

Canada’s liberal tribes can’t quite fathom how this country has turned increasingly conservative. They snorted in derision last year when the Conservative government announced it would establish an Office of Religious Freedom within the Department of Foreign Affairs – prompting one progressive thinker to suggest that the government should promote freedom from religion instead. Judging by opposition outrage, they panicked a couple of weeks ago when the government permitted a one-day House of Commons debate on the sacred nature of life itself. Imagine.

Mr. Haidt says he wrote The Righteous Mind to help liberals understand their conservative antagonists – who run (as it were) on all five moral cylinders, not just on two. Canadian liberals might well listen up.

 
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