Behind The Labels of Liberal and Conservative: Two World Views

February 16, 2012
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By Rev. Elizabeth Geitz

AS NATIONAL POLITICAL rhetoric heats up through yet one more debate, one more news clip or online article, our country has never seemed more ideologically divided. How can one group, more liberal in their focus, be convinced that their perspective is the correct one? How can another, with more conservative leanings, be just as steadfastly certain that their ideology is more inherently correct? These questions often burn in the hearts of those who struggle to live in harmony with their neighbors in a world of conflicting ideals.
Misunderstandings and hurt feelings abound as people who all care about the future of our country find themselves in seemingly entrenched conflict with one another. Efforts to enter into meaningful, constructive dialogue often end in frustration, as feelings of “not being heard” proliferate.
The fact is, we are not hearing one another, not because we don’t genuinely try, but because we are operating out of two very different worldviews, according to George Lakoff in his book, “Moral Politics.” (Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don’t,” by George Lakoff, The University of Chicago Press, 1996.
He posits that political conservatives and liberals simply see the world differently and that both have difficulty understanding accurately the other’s worldview. These two differing worldviews can lead to conflicting moral systems which undergird much current political discourse.
Since modern American politics has unfortunately adopted religious language as its own, the boundaries between political and religious discourse have become blurred. As a result, rather than standing over against secular political rhetoric, faith traditions today often mirror it, contributing to the problem.
What are the two worldviews articulated by Lakoff? He contends that “deeply embedded in conservative and liberal politics are different models of the family. Conservatism . . . is based on a Strict Father Model, while liberalism is centered around a Nurturant Parent Model”.1
Strict Father Morality, according to Lakoff, presupposes a traditional nuclear family with the father having primary authority. A person’s character is believed to be developed in childhood and to last a lifetime. As a result, people are judged to be inherently reliable or unreliable and moral judgments are easily made. Retribution, rather than restitution, is sought for violating this moral authority.
“Immoral action is seen as motion outside of the permissible range . . . but ‘deviant’ actions are even more threatening . . . (these) acts call into question traditional moral values.”1 Those who deviate from the “normal” in this model are seen as a threat to community. Immoral people are spoken of as being sick or having a diseased mind.
In the Nurturant Parent Model, a fulfilling life is assumed to be a nurturant life. “Where the Strict Father model stressed discipline, authority, order, boundaries, homogeneity, purity, and self-interest, the Nurturant Parent model stresses empathy, nurturance, self-nurturance, social ties, fairness, and happiness.”2 Character is defined as possessing the virtues of social responsibility, generosity, respect for the values of others, and sensitivity to feelings. Restitution is favored over retribution. Those who stray from these values can be restored and are not, therefore, viewed as inherently morally defective.
What is the relevance of these two political models for us today? They can provide a framework for increased understanding among those with divergent viewpoints. Attempting to win someone over to our own deeply held convictions within a limited period of time is not the answer, as worldviews evolve slowly through life experiences. It is our respective worldviews that we bring to the personal positions which matter to us most profoundly and about which we debate most fervently. Holding this reality up to the light through Lakoff’s lens or perhaps another lens, could bring us to a deeper understanding and acceptance of one another that, at times, seems to lie just beyond our reach.
In doing so, we must never forget that while Lakoff’s models may help us define who we are today as individuals, they do not limit who we may become tomorrow. Genuine acceptance of one another, at the most profound level, always precedes lasting change. Perhaps, as a community and as a country, we need to revisit this aspect of our life together, as we struggle with what it means to work for a better tomorrow with those who may or may not share our particular worldview.

Elizabeth Geitz is an Episcopal priest and the author of six books, including the upcoming “I Am That Child: Changing Hearts and Changing the World” about her journey to a Cameroonian orphanage. Visit her at

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