Utahns know what our culture looks like when we match our values to our public policies, especially on highly contentious issues. We saw this “alignment effect” when the state debated immigration policy a few years ago. Once we aligned our commensurate values with our legal and legislative behaviors toward undocumented immigrants, contention dissipated and marginalized communities were more welcomed. Many social barriers were overcome. People began to work together constructively and productively, united behind the desire to share opportunity, peace and prosperity.
Whether the contentious issue is immigration or homelessness or LGBT-related matters, the alignment effect will ensure that our governments reflect our better selves. A politicized “culture war” need not incite divisive posturing about whose values. The real culture war is always the struggle to match our commensurate values to legal and legislative behaviors.
What values do Utahns widely share? One value seems obvious: The Golden Rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The Golden Rule requires us to see people as people, not as objects or in any objectifying way. It means wanting for others what we want for ourselves. Do you want the best education for your child? What are your feelings about wanting the best education for your neighbor’s child? In a social contract, your desires for your child would be selfish if not wrapped in empathy for other children.
Flip the script. What would you want from a public safety net if you found yourself on the needy end of the welfare equation? Would you desire processes that felt empathic and dignified? Would you desire those services and assistance that you really need at that moment? Would you want to feel needed, not just needy? If you would feel all of those things for yourself, why wouldn’t you desire the same for your neighbors?
Unfortunately, too many conservatives use their “sacred principles” to trample their neighbors instead of using needed principles to lift the human spirit and promote human happiness. In fact, those so-called conservatives betray the title. They believe conservatism is defined by principle when, in truth, conservatism, in its most basic form, is defined by human nature. Defining conservatism through principle allows its adherents to objectify humanity. But defining conservatism through human nature requires its adherents to not only recognize but focus its policies on the actual nature and experiences of humanity. The former is abstract; the latter is real.
The differences between these conservative worldviews are stunning. Conservatives in principle struggle with humane concepts such as dignity, compassion, empathy and the common good. In their minds, those characteristics are subjective “feelings” foreign to their limited sensibilities and irrelevant to their austere public policies. Hence, regarding the poor and needy, they rightly emphasize the value of work but wrongly attribute work’s deeper values to materialism. So the poor and needy are subjected to lectures about “bootstraps” and the evils of poor choices and laziness. The often pejorative term “compassionate conservative” only makes sense because conservatives in principle refuse to see a human being.
Conservatism derived from human nature represents the fullness of the conservative gospel. We see freedom’s ecology in “Nature and Nature’s God,” not compartmentalized principles but through a connected web of ideas, responsibilities and expectations relied upon for human flourishing and happiness. In relation to the poor and needy, we see the whole person, the struggle as well as the opportunity. Principles such as justice are invisible to someone who cannot identify injustice when he sees it.
These fundamental differences are on full display in our approaches to helping the poor and needy. Conservatives in principle reluctantly support even an austere safety net. But, sadly, too often their personal values are hostage to their principles. This is why they struggle in legislative debates over deepening and lengthening the public safety net. Their values tell them it’s OK but their principles will not permit it. They are out of alignment.
Unfortunately, conservatives in principle are necessarily ideologues and alignment between values and behavior are nearly impossible for them to achieve. The alignment effect only works as conservatives base principles and policy on actual human nature. Yes, regardless of type, conservatives across the political spectrum often agree. The alignment effect explains when conservatives do not, and when those moments surface, as it did with the immigration debate, they become a struggle to define the Utah way.
Paul Mero is president and CEO of Next Generation Freedom Fund.