Chapter 08: Morality and the Liberal-Conservative Conflict

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Chapter Summaries

Not all fights between Liberals and Conservatives are about how best to achieve an agreed upon end. There may be a deeper source of conflict. This chapter introduces some cutting edge research that suggests that Conservative and Liberals may have differently textured styles of moral reasoning. At first glance this might seem like bad news for moderates hoping to find ways of bridging the Liberal-Conservative gap, but the chapter goes on to argue that understanding the real differences between the “thick morality” of Conservatives and the “thin morality” of Liberals is the key to finding ways of forging congregations that tolerate diverse styles of morality. With understanding and empathy we might find ways to prevent genuine differences from becoming outright conflicts.


Chapter 8 introduces a new model for understanding moral disagreements: the intuition framework. This framework was developed by Jonathan Haidt to help make sense of our intuitive moral responses – our instinctual emotional responses when we encounter particular situations. This is a powerful theory because it offers an explanation for human behaviors and attitudes that are not easily accounted for in many other ethical theories.

Some theories that promise to explain human morality lean exclusively on the notion of self-interest, asserting that traditional morality is merely a codified form of enlightened self-interest. Certainly self-interest is a powerful motivator, but it cannot explain why most of us would be more willing to stick a pin into our own hand than into the hand of a stranger. Nor does it explain the repulsion many westerners feel at the notion of eating a dog or cat when we are hungry. Clearly there are motivations and emotional responses at work beyond mere self-interest.

Other theories emphasize rational processes of moral reasoning. But these theories do not account for the compelling intuitive moral and emotional responses to a situation that precede rational moral deliberation. Indeed, rational moral reasoning appears to serve these primal intuitive moral reactions by supplying intellectual rationalizations for them. For instance, when a young child plays near the edge of a well or beside a busy street, most of us have an immediate visceral response of concern. Only secondarily and in response to this immediate emotional reaction do we consider possible courses of action and question our moral responsibilities in this particular situation.

Chapter 8 argues that Haidt’s theory of moral intuitions offers a more nuanced and helpful interpretation of human moral responses. It suggests that moral intuitions often play a much larger role than moral arguments and rationalizations in our actual behaviors. It also suggests a better way of understanding the conflict between conservatives and liberals.

Haidt’s research suggests that there are at least five domains of moral intuition:

  • the harm domain,
  • the fairness domain,
  • the in-group domain,
  • the authority domain,
  • and the purity domain.

The following exercises will help us become familiar with these domains.

Get Busy


Each item in the following list of behavioral tendencies reflects at least one domain of moral intuition. If you are working in a group, each member should take a few moments to think about the list and jot down the most relevant domain.

  • When watching the Olympics we tend to root for our compatriots.
  • We tend to react angrily when we see young people sitting on a bus, forcing the elderly to stand.
  • We tend to support prohibitions against plural marriage.
  • We tend to dislike athletes charged with using performance enhancing drugs.
  • Most of us speak more softly when we enter religious spaces or buildings.
  • We tend to cringe at news stories of animal cruelty.
  • Many of us would find it relatively more difficult to slap a parent than a friend, even if it were in the context of playing a part in a theatre production.
  • When baseball teams from two different cities compete, most observers who are not regular supporters of either team root for the underdog or the team with the lower payroll.
  • We tend not to respect traitors, even if they come over to our side.
  • If a stranger stumbles on the stairs, many of us instinctually move to catch or support them.

The point of this exercise is not to suggest that our reactions to these situations are correct or incorrect. Nor should we expect intellectual consensus on all of these matters. In fact, it is quite possible that many sensible arguments might be offered both for and against our initial reactions to the above situations. Some people might offer convincing arguments in favor of allowing plural marriage, in support of bullfighting, or against the tradition of rooting for athletes from your own country in the Olympics. Rather, the point we mean to emphasize is that there are pervasive domains of moral intuitions. They are expressed in culturally specific ways (some cultures think of the pig as impure while others are repulsed by the notion of eating insects), but are pervasive enough to be considered universal.

This is a powerful idea: we all share certain basic intuitions about fairness, about not harming others, about respecting authority and tradition, about belonging to and defending our communities, and about keeping ourselves and our communities pure. These shared intuitions, however, are often expressed and realized in ways that bring us into conflict. These conflicts sometimes erupt into open war, but they also exist even inside our churches and civic institutions where we are usually able to refrain from physical violence.

Chapter 8 argues that one way of making sense of the divisions between liberals and conservatives, even within the church, is to note the ways in which liberals and conservatives differently balance the five domains of moral intuitions. Liberals tend toward a balancing strategy that yields a “thin morality”: they emphasize the domains of harm and fairness while being suspicious of the in-group, hierarchy, and purity domains because they consider them to have unjust and painful side-effects. Conservatives, on the other hand, embrace a balancing strategy that results in a “thick morality”: they emphasize all five domains with about the same strength.

“Thin” and “thick” do not necessarily correspond to good and bad, or right and wrong. Rather, these terms refer to the relative importance that liberals and conservatives place on the different domains. Haidt argues that the “thick” conservative way of handling moral intuitions and reasoning is basic in the human species; it is the default position bequeathed to us through the evolutionary process. He claims that the “thin” morality is a corrective to that default moral stance that liberals embrace in order to relate smoothly to strangers with unfamiliar customs and to overcome the unwanted aspects of human social hierarchies. He points out that the liberal “thin morality” develops and thrives in cosmopolitan settings close to oceans and trade routes where cultures mingle and in-group habits, deference hierarchies, and purity rules just get in the way of smooth business and social relationships. Meanwhile, the “thick morality” thrives in settings where strangers are rare and the intricacy of in-group habits, deference hierarchies, and purity rules can be sustained without interruption from encounters with alien ways of life.


On your own, rank the 5 domains according to their relative importance in your moral reactions and reasoning.

  • Harm
  • Purity
  • In-group
  • Authority
  • Fairness

Now, ask yourself the following questions.

  • How ought they to be ranked?
  • In practice, which are dominant and which subordinate?

In general, conservatives likely had a more difficult time ranking the domains than did liberals. This is because, according to the theory advanced in Chapter 8, conservatives tend to value the moral intuitions of each domain roughly equally. When the domains seem to conflict, conservatives develop detailed ways of navigating and mitigating these conflicts. If you found it relatively easy to rank these domains, then you are likely a liberal. It is also fairly likely that the domains of fairness and harm ranked as dominant, while the other three were subordinate and have to be kept in check. This does not mean that liberals lack intuitive and emotional responses regarding in-group, authority, and purity issues. Rather, when these domains conflict with the fairness or harm domains, liberals have developed strategies for suspending the later three domains and allowing the domains of harm and fairness to govern their actions.

Conservatives practice a “thick morality” in the sense that all five domains contribute not only to initial intuitive response, but also to subsequent moral decision making and action. Liberals practice a “thin morality” insofar as they subordinate their purity, authority, and in-group concerns to considerations of fairness achieved and harm caused in their moral reasoning and actions. In other words, though they share the same suite of intuitive and emotional responses, liberals and conservatives adopt different strategies for converting those intuitions into moral reasons and moral actions.

Describing liberals and conservatives in this way does little to mitigate their differences. However, this description does provide moderates with tools for understanding themselves and for mediating between the two extremes. Despite what fights over hot-button moral issues suggest, we are morally foreign to one another because we possess the same suite of moral intuitions. Knowing this makes us more empathetic and empowers us to understand the liberal-conservative conflict as a fight about how best to balance different intuitions that we all share. Lost puts it this way.

[R]egarding action, the practical and positive step is to use what you have learned to help those around you increase empathy for their political opponents. The move from frustrated confusion to knowledgeable empathy is empowering. Knowing what they stand for and how to express it to others can help moderate Christians become an articulate and compelling voice for understanding and empathy within society. (116)

One of the most important roles that we as moderates can play in our congregations and in the church at large is to act as agents of empathy. Too often the far right and far left are so busy scoring points and rallying supporters that they lose sight of the commandment not to bear false witness against one another. They deliberately oversimplify the other’s positions for the sake of easy refutation. They caricature opposed viewpoints instead of engaging with opponents in good faith. As moderates we can and must do otherwise. We should strive to understand our moral opponents, empathize with them, and faithfully communicate their moral intuitions in addition to our own. These are not easy skills to develop. But they can make all the difference in peace making.

Get Caught Up

Homework (to be completed prior to group meeting)

This week’s homework is closely linked to the study group’s scripture reading from Acts (see below). While you don’t need to read the Acts passage now, it is important that you do the homework in preparation for discussing the scripture reading.

Take some time this week to skim through several chapters of the book of Leviticus. As you skim pay special attention to verses that mention purity or impurity, cleanliness or uncleanliness. You may even want to consider working backward through the text, skimming only the even or odd numbered chapters, or picking several chapters at random to read more closely. Take notes of what you find and bring them with you to your discussion group.

Homework Discussion (during group meeting)

This week’s homework assignment asked you to skim the book of Leviticus and gather references to purity, impurity, cleanliness, and uncleanliness. Take some time now in the group to share your results with one another.

  • Did any common themes emerge as to what constitutes impure or unclean things and behaviors?
  • What possible remedies were offered?
  • Do you share the assessment of Leviticus about all of these things and behaviors or do you find some of the characterizations puzzling? Which ones?

After sharing your findings with one another and discussing them, read together Acts 10.

Get Scriptural

Bible Reading: Acts 10

Cornelius’s Vision

1 Now there was a man at Caesarea named Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian cohort,

2 a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, and gave many alms to the Jewish people and prayed to God continually.

3 About the ninth hour of the day he clearly saw in a vision an angel of God who had just come in and said to him, “Cornelius!”

4 And fixing his gaze on him and being much alarmed, he said, “What is it, Lord?” And he said to him, “Your prayers and alms have ascended as a memorial before God.

5 “Now dispatch some men to Joppa and send for a man named Simon, who is also called Peter;

6 he is staying with a tanner named Simon, whose house is by the sea.”

7 When the angel who was speaking to him had left, he summoned two of his servants and a devout soldier of those who were his personal attendants,

8 and after he had explained everything to them, he sent them to Joppa.

9 On the next day, as they were on their way and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray.

10 But he became hungry and was desiring to eat; but while they were making preparations, he fell into a trance;

11 and he saw the sky opened up, and an object like a great sheet coming down, lowered by four corners to the ground,

12 and there were in it all kinds of four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air.

13 A voice came to him, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat!”

14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean.”

15 Again a voice came to him a second time, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.”

16 This happened three times, and immediately the object was taken up into the sky.

17 Now while Peter was greatly perplexed in mind as to what the vision which he had seen might be, behold, the men who had been sent by Cornelius, having asked directions for Simon’s house, appeared at the gate;

18 and calling out, they were asking whether Simon, who was also called Peter, was staying there.

19 While Peter was reflecting on the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you.

20 “But get up, go downstairs and accompany them without misgivings, for I have sent them Myself.”

21 Peter went down to the men and said, “Behold, I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for which you have come?”

22 They said, “Cornelius, a centurion, a righteous and God-fearing man well spoken of by the entire nation of the Jews, was divinely directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and hear a message from you.”

23 So he invited them in and gave them lodging.

Peter at Caesarea

And on the next day he got up and went away with them, and some of the brethren from Joppa accompanied him.

24 On the following day he entered Caesarea. Now Cornelius was waiting for them and had called together his relatives and close friends.

25 When Peter entered, Cornelius met him, and fell at his feet and worshiped him.

26 But Peter raised him up, saying, “Stand up; I too am just a man.”

27 As he talked with him, he entered and found many people assembled.

28 And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean.

29 “That is why I came without even raising any objection when I was sent for. So I ask for what reason you have sent for me.”

30 Cornelius said, “Four days ago to this hour, I was praying in my house during the ninth hour; and behold, a man stood before me in shining garments,

31 and he said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God.

32 ‘Therefore send to Joppa and invite Simon, who is also called Peter, to come to you; he is staying at the house of Simon the tanner by the sea.’

33 “So I sent for you immediately, and you have been kind enough to come. Now then, we are all here present before God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord.”

Gentiles Hear Good News

34 Opening his mouth, Peter said: “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality,

35 but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him.

36 “The word which He sent to the sons of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ (He is Lord of all)–

37 you yourselves know the thing which took place throughout all Judea, starting from Galilee, after the baptism which John proclaimed.

38 “You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him.

39 “We are witnesses of all the things He did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem They also put Him to death by hanging Him on a cross.

40 “God raised Him up on the third day and granted that He become visible,

41 not to all the people, but to witnesses who were chosen beforehand by God, that is, to us who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead.

42 “And He ordered us to preach to the people, and solemnly to testify that this is the One who has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead.

43 “Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.”

44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message.

45 All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also.

46 For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God. Then Peter answered,

47 “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?”

48 And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay on for a few days.


Christian theologians have sometimes turned to this passage to explain why it is that Christians no longer follow many of the prohibitions of the Hebrew Bible. God does not show favoritism – at least not any longer – and thanks to the ministry of Jesus, God’s grace is now available to all people who honor God and do what is right. Thus Peter, a Jew, is permitted to eat previously unclean animals and to associate with Gentiles and to dine with them. In several places the Apostle Paul seems to suggest that Jews should keep the laws of the Torah if they desire, but that Gentiles are not subject to them. The net effect of this tendency in Christian history is for Christian doctrine and history generally to ignore biblical food prohibitions. Doctrinally then, all foods are clean.

One way of understanding this aspect of Christianity is to see it as a move toward liberalism, as the earliest Christians, who were all Jews, learned to deactivate their intuitive moral repulsion to eating certain foods, and allowed their intuition toward fairness to overcome their intuition towards purity and group loyalty. Think for a moment how you might feel if you were asked to dine with a family that was eating dog or guinea pig, two popular sources of protein in many parts of the world. Peter and other early Christians would likely have felt the same way as they dined with early Gentile Christians on shell fish or pork.

This culturally courageous and unlikely act of generosity may have been the most important development in Christian history. Had Paul, Peter and many other unnamed Jewish Christians of the time, not found ways of making the quintessential liberal decision to fight their initial reactions of revulsion and to allow their intuitive love of fairness and Gospel inclusiveness to win out, it is likely that Christianity would have lived and died as a provincial Jewish sect.

Get Practical

Case Study

Here we describe a scenario in a church that is working toward becoming a liberal and evangelical congregation. Traditionally the church has had a largely white membership, but lately greater numbers of African-Americans have begun to attend and join. Most in the congregation are happy that the church is growing but there are tensions. As the demographics of the church change, the dynamics of worship slowly evolve too, and not everyone is comfortable with these changes. Liberals and conservatives in the church are becoming increasingly combative.

Some of the more conservative members of the church fear that the congregation is losing its denominational identity. They sense that the congregation feels less cohesive and less like a family, and they are especially troubled by the loss of a place in the service for quite reflection and silent worship. Such changes are too much for them and they fear that they are becoming “a black church.”

Meanwhile, liberals in the congregation are eager to include the African-American members and to adapt the church’s worship style and social concerns to reflect the traditions and expectations of the new African-American members. They are impatient with the conservatives and are quick to suggest that there may be some latent racism at work in their concerns to preserve the ways of past.


Using Haidt’s theory of the five domains of moral intuition, try to empathize with both the conservatives and the liberals without caricaturing either position.

  • What might the conservative members value and fear losing that may be genuinely valuable?
  • What kinds of moral intuitions regarding the purity and simplicity of worship might they be trying to preserve?
  • What authorities might conservatives perceive to be threatened by the direction in which the church is moving?
  • Might liberals in the congregation fear the same things?
  • How do liberals overcome these fears and emphasize other priorities?

You may also want to reverse this scenario and imagine a historically African-American church that is beginning to attract large numbers of white Christians. How might African-American conservatives, anxious to preserve their own church identity and worship style, react to the perceived threat from new members? How might their fears be most effectively communicated to the liberals in the congregation?

Get Going

For Further Thought

Part III of Lost argues that three of the most important differences between liberals and conservatives involve (1) their different expectations of institutions, (2) their different understanding of the ideal relationship between religious and governmental institutions, and (3) their differing strategies for balancing moral intuitions. These differences are real, and a frank expression of them may cause some moderates to despair of ever finding a compelling middle way. The far right and far left each have charismatic spokespeople and can articulate visions of how to shape a better world, while moderates may feel that we are left trying to cobble together a coherent position from the scraps that fall from the liberal and conservative tables.

Part III argues that this conclusion is a mistake. We should not see ourselves as occupying unstable territory between socially viable but warring powers. On the contrary, moderates are capable of recognizing what is good, true, and valuable in the extremes without having to deny the other end of the spectrum. We are well placed to take advantage of the embarrassment of riches that God’s good creation provides for us.

On the issue of institutional expectations the far left trumpets liberty while the right calls for respect for traditional values. The moderate need not decide between incompatible options but can recognize the value of both and the need for balance. Taking up the moderate stance, how would you articulate the value of institutions and the value of liberty? How would you suggest that we maintain a living balance between these two goods?

On the issue of the relationship between government and religion the right works to unify the two spheres while the left works to keep them sealed off from one another. Moderates, by contrast, can recognize that the boundary between these two is frequently permeable while affirming the importance of some degree of separation. Taking up the moderate stance, how would you articulate the proper relationship between religion and society?

On the issue of moral reasoning the right works to bring all of our moral intuitions to bear on every situation, while the left works to deactivate the concern for purity, in-group attachment, and hierarchical authority. Moderates are free to recognize (with liberals) the need to apply our moral intuitions with care, and (with conservatives) still find a place for in-group loyalty, ritual purity, and respect for traditional authorities. Taking up the moderate stance, how would you work to balance our moral intuitions in a way that does not simply discard some of our intuitive and emotional responses as necessarily outdated or evil?

For moderates, the worst case scenario is moral, organizational, and ideological paralysis. We cannot allow the cultural divide in American Christianity to define us as non-players or non-entities simply because we not fit the mold of far left crusaders or far right demagogues. Intentional moderation is a principled stance with a long and honorable tradition. As we work to extricate ourselves from the cultural dominance of the liberal-conservative conflict we can discover our heritage as moderate Christians and liberal-evangelicals.

Closing Prayer

Lord God, we thank you for your Holy Spirit who guides us through the maze of our powerful moral intuitions.

You have made us in your image, made us to know good from bad and right from wrong, but you have also given us reason, tradition, and the Holy Spirit as sources of guidance so that we might best exercise our gifts and not allow them to rule over us and corrupt us.

Help us to be good. Help us to recognize goodness when we see it.

Give us wisdom to know when our moral reactions should be turned into action for the Kingdom of God and when they should be curtailed for the sake of your creation and the love of your children, our sisters and brothers.

Help us, as moderates, to act with compassion for everyone, and to empathize with those on both sides who oppose one another.

Give us vision and wisdom to share.

In Jesus’ name we pray.


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