Do conservatives and liberals need each other?

My eclectic reading this week has me thinking about profound human differences–political, religious, and personal. In particular, what you might call the liberal/conservative divide that cuts through all of these realms.

I am convinced that political differences, for instance, largely mirror differences in personality. This is both comforting and scary. It is comforting to know that, underneath it all, our political opponents and even those we might consider our enemies are acting from human nature, which we might be able to understand, as fellow humans. But it is scary that, although we might understand each other, we can’t change each other. That is, if these differences are innately human we won’t be able to bring each other around to our point of view. And compromise won’t work.

Indeed, the political divide between liberal and conservative is widening and deepening. Differences are becoming entrenched. This article in today’s New York Times describes how that plays out in the twin cities of Duluth, MN and Superior, WI–two cities with similar populations and economies but now set on very different paths because of profound differences at the level of state government. Some immediate results are evident but others will only be seen in the long term. An interesting and poignant experiment.

I don’t know how I missed reading or even hearing about the 1999 novel, The Fifth Sacred Thing, until now. Set in 2048, it plays out an extreme version of the results of two such paths in two cities, in a California that has been devastated by both natural and human-made disasters. San Francisco has gone all earth-based spirituality, free love, and consensus. Hardly anybody owns anything but in the verdant city there is enough for all, and healers, artists, and musicians are particularly treasured. It is a self-contained, self-sustaining society but it is also isolated. And it is under attack from the police state that Los Angeles has become. Starhawk’s novel is a great read.

If I had to say where I stand of course I would put myself on the liberal side. I share the vision of a society where all are fed and no one is turned away from the table. Where all have meaningful work according to their skills and talents. Where healing of all kinds is available to all. I believe that the earth is sacred. That is, it should be honored as a primal source of our being, as parenthood is sacred, as love is sacred, though I do not believe in group sex and promiscuity. And oh, please, I am not attracted to the consensus process (I hate meetings), though I suppose something like that is necessary in an egalitarian society.

On the other hand, I do not believe that corporations and fundamentalist religion are irredeemable as systems, that is, that they are evil per se and lead inevitably to the horrors described in the novel.

That is, I don’t believe, with the author, that one approach leads to ultimate good and the other to ultimate evil. Because I believe these two paths represent basic, inborn (as well as cultivated) human differences. And since, well, all of us are created in the image of God. . . .

Perhaps the key is in how we exercise our innate natures. When we are healthy and secure we have strengths, in our different personalities, that are essential to living together in this world. When we are under stress or in conflict, these differences become extreme and contribute to the conflict and division between us.

My friend John Fairfield is working on a book that outlines a Christian theology putting our very differences at the center of the call of the Christian church’s work in the world as well as within the Christian community. This seems relevant to what I’m thinking about.

John describes the “healthy and secure” person of what I would call the conservative type as having a strong identity and being concerned with being faithful to tradition and discerning what is fair, what is good and bad behavior. This is good. Under stress of conflict, however, such a person is “tempted to reject those who are offensive, to preserve the purity of their community of identity. Under even more stress some become increasingly rigid, using their belief in the correctness of their beliefs to justify their control of the situation, by force if necessary. Some people will dominate, oppress, even kill, in the name of their beliefs.”

The healthy and secure liberal-type person, on the other hand, is hospitable, quick to learn and understand another point of view and synthesize that into something new, and reaches out to build bridges between opposing sides. Bravo! But in conflict, such a person may become wishy-washy, catering to opponents, hiding, fleeing, or exercising some form of deception. Passive-aggressive behavior is typical of this personality type. Touché.

John’s point is that we need each other, but we must relate to each other at the “healthy and secure” end of the spectrum and keep working to restore relationships to that level. Is this possible? Well, it is the work of a lifetime. Maybe several. Otherwise, we don’t have to look too far to see a vision of our dystopic, dysfunctional, divided future.

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