Transformation and Moral Foundations

The real power in America is held by a fast-emerging new Oligarchy of pimps and preachers who see no need for Democracy or fairness or even trees, except maybe the ones in their own yards, and they don’t mind admitting it. They worship money and power and death. Their ideal solution to all the nation’s problems would be another 100 Year War. — Hunter S. Thompson, Kingdom of Fear: Loathsome Secrets of a Star-Crossed Child in the Final Days of the American Century (2003), “Author’s Note”, p. xxi.

The Republican party, and American conservative politics in general, underwent an enormous transformation between 1964, when Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater was trounced by incumbent Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson, and 1980, when Republican presidential nominee Ronald Reagan trounced incumbent Democratic President Jimmy Carter.

There were a number of different aspects of that transformation that deserve inspection, but the death of Phyllis Schlafly on Monday, September 5, at the age of 92, prompts me to look at the two aspects for which she was arguably the key figure; pushback against women’s rights, and introducing millions of fundamentalist Christians into Republican politics.


Before 1964, the Republican party had been guided by genteel patrician elites, generally from New England and the Northeast. The last such was George H.W. Bush, who served as Reagan’s vice-president for two terms and then as President himself in 1989-93 before his defeat at the hands of Bill Clinton. While they certainly favored conservative keep-the-rich-rich economic policy, and were just as strong on “defense” and attacking threats to America (i.e. threats to the flow of their income), they also favored fairness in dealing with most Americans. In the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, black Americans generally got more support from Republicans like Michigan Governor George Romney than they did from Democrats, whose southern wing was virulently prejudiced against anyone that wasn’t white and Protestant.

1964 is also when Phyllis Schlafly burst on the scene with the publication of her first book, A Choice Not an Echo, which sold more than 3 million copies. While she’d been involved in politics since 1946, her book’s support of Goldwater and denunciation of the Northeast patricians as corrupt “secret kingmakers” was the beginning of the end of that iteration of the GOP. (Although I find Goldwater’s 1994 quote about “preachers get[ting] control of the [Republican] party” highly ironic, considering how critical Schlafly’s influence and rise was in turning southern white fundamentalist Christians into fanatic and dogmatic GOP supporters.)

Schlafly was a well-educated woman, having earned a BA and MA in political science, and later graduating from law school with a JD at the age of 53. Yet many of us today look back at her political stances and the things she said over her life, and we see them as regressive and unjustifiable. Consider these examples:

By getting married, the woman has consented to sex, and I don’t think you can call it rape. — “Schlafly cranks up agitation at Bates”, Sun Journal, 2007.

Sex education classes are like in-home sales parties for abortions. — Schlafly, Feb. 1997.

The atomic bomb is a marvelous gift that was given to our country by a wise God. — Schlafly, “Women are the Best Warmakers”, The Day, 1982.

I find it Very Difficult to read quotes like this and to think anything other than “How stone-ignorant can she possibly be?!” It’s as if the reality she inhabited is fundamentally different than the reality I think I inhabit. (And this apparent disconnection to reality is strengthened when one looks at Phyllis’ son Andrew, and the “Conservapedia” website he created as a “counter” to the “liberal bias” of Wikipedia, and the bald-faced lies and untruths that pepper that site.)

And then I remember Moral Foundations Theory, developed by psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Craig Joseph, and popularized in Haidt’s 2012 book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt asserts that as much as we think we make decisions with our “rational” minds, we actually tend to make fundamental decisions (including what kinds of politics and faith we accept or reject) based on how strongly we hold any of six “Moral Foundations”, namely Care, Fairness, Liberty, Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity.

It turns out that while pretty much everyone holds strongly with Care, Fairness, and Liberty (allowing for some differences in meaning and connotation), only self-described conservatives hold Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity as strongly as the first three. Self-described liberals have those latter three way lower on the scale.

And Schlafly very obviously held strongly to Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity. Consider her three quotes I listed above.

  • The quote about marital rape comes from a strong belief in respecting Authority; in this case, with the husband as the “authority” in the marriage, who deserves respect from everyone else in the family, especially his wife. Schlafly was unwavering in her projected belief that the “patriarchal order” was necessary to preserve strong families. Who knows how much of this belief was a reaction to her childhood in the depression, when her father was chronically unemployed and her mother was the breadwinner of the family for many years?
  • The quote about sex education and abortion comes from holding Sanctity as a high priority. Conservatives in general, and Schlafly in particular, regularly spoke of anything to do with sex — teaching more comprehensive sex education to children, allowing anyone to use contraception, abortions, homosexuality, and even sex in a “conventional heterosexual” marriage (see the marital rape quote) — with an obvious undertone of disgust for anything outside of a paradigm of “don’t teach your kids anything about sex” and “it’s OK within a heterosexual marriage as long as you’re making babies and not having too much fun.” Whenever you see a conservative speaking against equal rights for LGBTQI people, or even just discussing the topic, you can usually see, quite clearly, disgust on the speaker’s face. (Former Senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum gave the best “disgust faces” when speaking.)
  • Finally, her quote about the atomic bomb points towards her Loyalty. This moral foundation comes out specifically as a loyalty to one’s own “ingroup”. This “ingroup” can be a nation (hence patriotism or nationalism), a smaller community (region, state, city, neighborhood), an ethnic community (white, black, Latino/a, south Asian, east Asian), or some combination, such as the community of white, conservative, religious, straight Americans who killed the Equal Rights Amendment and gleefully elected Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980.

As a Canadian left-winger who lives in the US now, who previously lived in the US in 2008-14, who attends church with a lot of politically conservative people, and who Just Doesn’t Get American conservative politics, I have worked hard to understand American conservatives better. I try not to judge these people as stupid, as tempting as it may be. I try to believe that their intentions are honorable, and that they truly mean well for their nation and for the world. I try to believe that they are informed, aware, and educated when it comes to the world around them.

And then I run up against this sort of thing:

It is long overdue for parents to realize they have the right and duty to protect our children against the intolerant evolutionists. — Schlafly, “Time to End the Censorship,” Dec. 2004.

I’m sorry, but no matter how hard I try, I can not respect people who not only have difficulty accepting and believing reality, but who actively push back against it and have the nerve to accuse those who promote science and new truths of being “intolerant”.

Well, guess what? I’m intolerant of ignorance. I’m intolerant of stupidity. And yes, I have often been ignorant and stupid, and have often done ignorant and stupid things in my life. But I try to find the truth and change my thoughts and behaviors accordingly. One of the most critical problems we have in the world today are people who refuse to accept truth and reality, who actively push back against any advances in science and knowledge, and who enable conspiring people to profit from that ignorance (e.g. tobacco pushers, or “Big Oil” and climate change denial) at the cost of human lives and human dignity.

I have friends who have been able to be kind, or at least charitable, in their responses to Phyllis Schlafly’s passing. They are better people than I. Schlafly spent half a century fighting for patriarchy, war, and ignorance, and against science, truth, women, LGBTQI people, and anyone who didn’t fit her mold. The world is better off without her, and would have been more well off if she’d only stayed quiet or shuffled off this mortal coil decades ago. I’m sorry, but I cannot have any sympathy for someone who didn’t just acquiesce to evil, but who actively fomented and promoted it. Good riddance.


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