Creating Conservatism – A Conversation with Michael J. Lee

LeeMichael J. Lee is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at the College of Charleston. His book, Creating Conservatism: Postwar Words that Made an American Movement, was published this summer by Michigan State University Press. In it, he traces the evolution of American conservatism across the middle of the 20th century, analyzing the notable books and authors that ushered the movement to national prominence and political power.

ECM: Your book tells the story of movement conservatism as an internal struggle between two opposed factions—traditionalists and libertarians. The first faction values religious belief and social order, while the second is primarily concerned with individual freedom. Over a few decades of antagonism, the two became fused. How do you evaluate the state of the movement currently? Is the struggle ongoing?

MJL: In my judgment, the history of the American conservative movement suggests its adaptability and flexibility. It is certainly possible that one faction or the other could take hold of conservatism and drive out the rest, but, in the main, conservatives, both historically and in our present political circumstances, have accepted a fusion of Christian morality and free market economics as their bedrock beliefs.

There is a great deal of room to maneuver between these poles, which allows conservative campaigners to emphasize a more socially conservative platform or a more libertarian conservative platform depending on the circumstances. I don’t mean to suggest that conservatives’ adaptability sets them up to win in 2014 or even 2016, but I do take issue with those pundits, and there are many, who have argued that conservatism is a “dead” ideology.

ECM: You identify “fusionism” as a concerted strategy to unite the factions into a viable coalition. It seems to me that, lately, conservative arguments themselves have become fused. The prevalence of “religious liberty” complaints, for instance, seems to cast traditionalist commitment in libertarian language. Do you buy that interpretation?

MJL: That’s an astute point. “Religious liberty” is a perfect example of fusionist rhetoric and fusionist ideology. After Reagan succeeded so dramatically with a fusionist “God and markets” message, there have only been a few non-fusionist conservatives to gain much national traction. Pat Buchanan’s 90s-era culture warriors are one example; although, by my reading, it remains to be seen whether Rand Paul’s ideological adjustments will bring him closer to standard fusionism. His father’s more stridently libertarian message, which rankled the feathers of social conservatives, is another. There are certainly more, but these are exceptions to the fusionist rule.

“Religious liberty” is an illustrative phrase for another reason as well: the threat of fracture. Hardline libertarians of Ludwig von Mises’ or Ayn Rand’s ilk found phrases like religious liberty revolting because they urged the freedom to practice a religion that itself denies individual freedom. In fact, I’ve been consistently amazed at how well fusionists have done in managing what I see is the inherent tension between a morality chiefly based on individual freedom and market processes, and one grounded in Judeo-Christian values.

Fusionists like Frank Meyer insisted that people who saw these as contradictory were wrong, that market-based values and religion-based values actually required one another for legitimacy. That is, freedom required religion’s ethical guidance, and religion required a defense of freedom to avoid theocracy.

Fusionism’s success was, however, more due to its ability to fashion resonant appeals to lots of constituencies than to its uncomplicated synthesis of mutually dependent ideologies. After all, I have never seen an effective answer to the question hardline traditionalist Brent Bozell posed to early fusionists in the 1960s: freedom or virtue? Is it more important to exercise freedom of choice regardless of the moral outcome, or is it more important that an individual’s choices align with traditional moral dictates?

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.

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Defining the Marital Union – A Conversation with Leslie J. Harris

HarrisLeslie J. Harris is Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Her book, State of the Marital Union: Rhetoric, Identity, and Nineteenth-Century Marriage Controversies, analyzes the rhetoric surrounding five marital issues from the 1800s: domestic violence, divorce, polygamy, free love, and miscegenation.

ECM: Your book is concerned with nineteenth century marriage controversies, so same-sex marriage is seldom mentioned. But it was on my mind the whole time I was reading. Did it inspire or influence your writing in any way?

LJH: Yes, the same-sex marriage controversy was an important factor in inspiring the book. I’ve been very interested in the issue for years, but I was particularly intrigued by the rash of state constitutional amendments in the early 2000s. I couldn’t help but wonder why marriage mattered so deeply to so many people.

For those advocating the amendments, marriage seemed to function as a status and idea that was much larger than any particular relationship. War metaphors were common as advocates declared that marriage was “under attack” and needed to be “defended,” and marriage was commonly represented as a sacred and unchangeable institution. While the other side of the debate emphasized the huge number of laws and policies tied to marriage, simply changing laws and policies quickly became an inadequate response. Marriage seemed to function as a status that enabled full citizenship, and advocates often made the analogy to nineteenth and early twentieth-century bans on interracial marriage.

By examining the history of these controversies we can better understand what is at stake today. In the nineteenth century the topic of marriage arose in almost every major controversy of the time including women’s rights, westward expansion, slavery, immigration, religious diversity, temperance, and state’s rights. Marriage functioned as a lens through which complex issues of belonging, identity, and status were debated.

I’ve become convinced that today’s debate about same-sex marriage is not simply about preserving a seemingly sacred and unchanging institution, or securing particular rights and privileges. Rather, it is about negotiating the boundaries of American-ness. I reference the recent Supreme Court decisions about marriage in the book’s conclusion because they illustrate this point well.

The court said that marriage enables “pride” and “dignity,” especially in reference to raising children (who were said to be humiliated by DOMA). Even as the Supreme Court seemed to open space for same-sex marriage, it (perhaps inadvertently) limited the acceptable gay family to one that models the traditional nuclear family.

ECM: Contra those who claim that marriage has always been stable and static, you show that it has been controversial for a long time. Did you observe any particular consistency or development in the arguments from controversy to controversy?

LJH: One reoccurring theme across controversies is marriage as a religious institution and the role of religion in public life. Arguments against expanding grounds for divorce, for example, consistently invoked arguments about marriage as ordained by God. If God created marriage as a permanent union between a man and woman, humans could not legitimately change the institution of marriage. Much like many current advocates for same-sex marriage, some proponents for expanding divorce laws argued that religion should be separate from politics and that marriage was essentially a civil institution.

Religious tropes were also used in attempts to change understandings of marriage. Polygamy (nineteenth century Mormons) and free love (some groups of Perfectionists) were two dramatic attempts to change marriage that were based in religious and often explicitly biblical justifications. Religion can be a malleable tool in negotiating the meaning and significance of marriage in public life.

The perceived connection between marriage and the future of the nation also has a long history. Commentators warned, for example, that increasing rates of divorce would lead to the fall of the United States, much like the fall of the Roman Republic. Similarly, polygamy was seen as causing social decline into barbarism. This technique of linking changes in marriage to a slippery slope to the nation’s destruction instilled fear of change. More importantly, however, these claims revealed underlying ideological norms about what constituted a “good” nation.

Within this reasoning, the family represents a microcosm of the nation as a whole; so it was problematic if the American family replicated seemingly barbarous families of the East, which were assumed to be polygamous. If the family looked like the racial other, the nation would begin to look like the racial other—so there were racist assumptions hidden within the image of a “good” nation.

There are, however, some temporal differences in marriage controversies. During the first half of the nineteenth century Americans were experimenting with public identity, and marriage became one site of experimentation. During this time, for example, Oneida Perfectionists practiced free love (or communal marriage) and Mormons began practicing polygamy. They were certainly controversial during their time (both groups were run out of various communities), but there seemed to be cultural space for experiments in marriage, religion, and public identity.

On the other hand, today’s marriage controversies are not only able to incorporate the powerful rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement, but they’re further enabled by new technologies. In the nineteenth century, for example, newspapers would print vivid descriptions of individuals such as the innocent and worthy “girl” who was deceived by a violent and unscrupulous husband, which helped promote identification with audiences. Today, however, such profiles are supplemented by actual visuals. Images of hard-working and non-threatening gay couples with their children enhance that audience identification even further.

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.

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Beyond Right and Left – A Conversation with Karin Fry

FryKarin Fry is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point. Her new book, Beyond Religious Right and Secular Left Rhetoric: The Road to Compromise, explores the positions commonly advocated by culture war adversaries, searching for opportunities for reconciliation.

ECM: Much of your work has focused on philosophers like Arendt, Lyotard, and Kant, but recently you’ve been studying contemporary culture war debates. What inspired that interest?

KF: In some ways, I just fell into it. I was asked to do something about religion for an on-campus event and the reaction was so positive, it inspired me to continue. However, I have increasingly become interested in political discourse, since students are overwhelmed by it. In my teaching, I found that students would mimic whatever pundits were currently saying about a topic, without really thinking about it.

Hannah Arendt in particular is a thinker who recognized the danger of this, and even though she does not discuss religious topics at any length, my book fits nicely with some of her views. She believed in legitimate differences of opinion in politics and the importance of maintaining venues for discussion and disagreement. In my classes, I think it is very important to give students resources for negotiating the flow of information to help them think for themselves.

ECM: It does seem that much of our political discourse has been reduced to an exchange of overheard talking points. I wonder if you could speak to the danger this poses, and how Arendt has influenced your approach. Are there any particular issues or debates that you find especially troubling?

KF: I think what is most troubling is the massive amount of false information that is distributed by political operatives and marketers that is accepted as true.

Sometimes it takes a great deal of effort to research an issue and find out the complexities about it. With a sound bite culture, the facts become obscured and people make decisions based upon falsehoods and superficial understandings of an issue.

Often, people think that if they find out the facts a clear-cut answer will emerge, but more often than not, further examination shows the legitimacy of more than one position on the issue. Arendt worried about people talking in stock phrases and clichés rather than trying to think through an issue. The road to totalitarianism relies on lack of discussion and operatives who will accept the party line, rather than question it.

EM: Walter Lippmann once argued that the public could not be expected to follow political debates because people don’t have time to study them in all their complexities. These days, categories like “religious right” and “secular left” serve as shortcuts. It’s easy to align yourself with people like yourself – and against their declared adversaries. What could go wrong?

KF: It’s totally understandable why people would want shortcuts and why they are necessary to a degree. What goes wrong is that politics becomes a set of monologues filled with negative perceptions of the opposition, rather than actually engaging in dialogue to find solutions and compromises. My book shows that those aligned with “religious right” and “secular left” don’t correctly understand each other’s agendas and can sling mud, but cannot move beyond that. I fear that this is the case with many other politically charged debates in America. Therefore, we get stuck in rumor, innuendo, and playground insults rather than seeking out areas of commonality.

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.

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On Religious Freedom and Same-Sex Marriage

From the Journal of Communication and Religion.

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Chaos and Concern – A Conversation with Leslie D. Smith

LDSLeslie Dorrough Smith is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Avila University in Kansas City, Missouri. Her book, Righteous Rhetoric: Sex, Speech, and the Politics of Concerned Women for America, provides the first full-length analysis of CWA rhetoric. Smith situates CWA within a long tradition of American political discourse concerning sex and gender, explaining how the group’s public arguments are calibrated to best persuade their audiences.

ECM: What prompted your interest in the rhetoric of American conservative Protestants (ACP), and what drew you to Concerned Women for America (CWA) in particular?

LDS: As with many scholars, I suspect, my interest was at least partly autobiographical. I grew up in an environment steeped in conservative Protestant thought, although much of my exposure to these ideas wasn’t overtly tied to politics. When I began to study religion formally and saw those strong political ties at work, I wanted to better understand the dynamics causing large numbers of people to adopt the interests of CWA and other Christian Right groups even when those ideas don’t necessarily have clear factual backing.

I felt that a thoroughgoing treatment of how public persuasion and belief formation happens had been mostly ignored in scholarship, as most scholars simply see finite groups with finite beliefs, rather than asking critical questions about how people develop sympathies for certain concepts in the first place. That was where my interest in rhetoric really began.

I thought that the best way to dissect the persuasive power of the Christian Right was to choose a particularly influential group that was not only representative of the larger movement, but one that held formidable influence over the sex and gender issues that are so central to almost every other platform that the movement supports. CWA was a natural choice: it has a noteworthy presence on conservative and other media outlets; it maintains a strong grassroots base; and, having been in existence for several decades, it has longevity on its side.

In addition, its identity as a women’s group has been a very critical part of how it promotes its authority to speak on sex and gender issues. Historically, women have been both the most vocal proponents and opponents of the liberalization of sex, gender, and reproduction laws. If we take seriously that gender – as just one of many forms of social control – is an important litmus test to gauge the power relationships in a culture, then it makes sense to focus on a group that amplifies its gendered identity as a major aspect of its authority.

ECM: Much of the book is focused on what you call “chaos rhetoric,” using CWA as a case study. What is chaos rhetoric, and how does it work?

LDS: Chaos rhetoric is my term for a type of speech that invokes widespread public appeal through its deployment of specific symbols designed to create a heightened sense of social chaos and threat (rather than the order and security that scholars often tout when describing the Christian Right).

By carefully manufacturing these negative emotions, the group is in a prime position to offer its own political platforms as the resolution to the threats that they construct. One could simply call chaos rhetoric a fear tactic, but I thought this was too simplistic, since I was more interested in looking at how, when, and under what circumstances CWA chose to portray certain things as chaotic or fearful rather than presuming that those emotions were self-evident or natural. In other words, what is deemed frightening or threatening at one moment is often a non-event several years, or even months, later – it all depends on how the political and cultural winds are blowing.

Yet chaos rhetoric is a technique not only of persuasion, but also of masquerade. In the book I detail how chaos rhetoric serves four critical functions, two of which – creating urgency and inciting activism – are fairly predictable persuasive techniques. But CWA’s chaos rhetoric also performs the dual functions of defensive argumentation and rationale-deflection, which are processes by which attention is shifted away from CWA and its perhaps less popular rationales for advocacy and onto more emotion-evoking platforms.

These are both really effective ways for the group to change more imperceptibly simply by convincing the audience to concentrate elsewhere.

For example, CWA has frequently attempted to portray homosexuality as a public health threat, which it has done through studies that show things like an elevated risk for domestic violence among gay couples, or that pinpoint elevated suicide rates among gay teens. Rather than describe the more subjective discomfort that characterize its members’ homophobia, or talk about theologies of homophobia (neither of which is a particularly persuasive tactic if the point is to attract a diverse audience), CWA persuades best by portraying homosexuality as a threat to something that virtually everyone values—their health.

Deflecting the rationale from religious particulars or gut feelings onto a more “legitimate” concern helps to make the message sound relevant; in all honesty, if CWA were really concerned with public health issues, then they’d be discussing more than just the health risks associated with homosexuality. Moreover, focusing attention on its opponents (but less on itself) allows CWA to shift its own agendas more imperceptibly.

As the message about gay rights as a health threat grows stale, loses public appeal, or is otherwise debunked, it is abandoned for a new one that accomplishes a similar effect. But once the similar effect is no longer possible to maintain, the group will be pushed to rework its stance on homosexuality, even if incrementally, so as to preserve its public relevancy. In this case, that might mean the shift from seeing homosexual identity as a sin to regarding the practice of homosexuality as a sin – that nuance, however slight, provides some wiggle room that gives the group material to work with in crafting new rhetoric.

What this shows, then, is that the real persuasive force of chaos rhetoric lies in knowing how to repeatedly rework an opponent’s identity so that they remain perpetually threatening, and crafting one’s own rationale so that it always seems relevant.

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.

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