What Motivates Cultural Progressives – Part 2

               Two weeks ago I started this series based on my latest book entitled What Motivates Cultural Progressives. The research is based on open-ended questions from an online survey to members of organizations that have as part of their purpose opposition to the Christian or religious right. My basic argument is that cultural progressive activists have shaped a movement that meets the needs of the people who inhabit the movement, who tend to be white, male, wealthy and highly educated. Thus the social movement led by cultural progressives, like other social movements, develops in ways to serve the individuals in the movement. In my last entry I pointed out that a key value in this movement was the desire to keep religion from mixing with politics. While that was an important theme I found in the data, it was by no means the only theme.
                In this entry I will look at the theme of rationality. The value of rationality is one that many of the respondents enunciated. The respondents generally argued that the Christian right is irrational.

The Christian Right appears to be composed mainly of lower-middle class, blue-collar Caucasian workers with limited formal education who use their limited mental abilities to come up with illogical arguments, and then angrily enforce their positions with fear and intimidation (Male, age 56-65, master’s degree).

I fear their influence in our government, our military and society as a whole. They are … unable to think rationally (Male, age 66-75, some graduate training).

For these respondents, the Christian right’s irrationality leads to poor decisions for our society and our government. They argue that we need a rational way of making decisions instead of relying on superstition and religious beliefs. Many respondents are irritated that religion is a political factor because they see religion as irrational.
                Values do not happen in isolation from each other. The desire to avoid mixing politics and religion I discussed in the last entry fits well with the concern of the respondents for rationality. They fear that religion is irrational and mixing it with politics will lead to our government becoming irrational. These values are not mutually exclusive, but rather they reinforce and support each other.

                The respondents do not just perceive those on the Christian right as irrational. The respondents also perceive themselves as rational. One respondent illustrates this by stating that “more education and a greater variety of experiences change how you perceive the world.  It also showed me how a science education allows you to make more sound decisions based on empirical data and helps you recognize irrational decisions based purely on emotion (or faith)” (Male, age 46-55, doctorate).  This respondent understandably links education to having a rational perception of reality. Given that we have a well-educated sample, the idea of education generating rationality would reinforce the values of their higher educational level. Thus our respondents can perceive themselves as the rational, educated team fighting against the Christian right who make up the uneducated, irrational team.
                Rationality is a major way the respondents justify their political and social stances, allowing them to dismiss the concerns of the Christian right as irrational. This also helps fulfill the need for cultural progressive activists to gain an identity from their social movement. They can see themselves as the most rational members of society. This is reinforced by the fact that they are in an advantaged position in society with their wealth, education and racial/gender status. It is easy to see how cultural progressive activists would see themselves as having knowledge and training others do not have which convinces them that they are more rational than their political opponents.
                Whether cultural progressives are more rational than others in society is a question beyond the intentions of this study. Rationality is a socially constructed concept and how we understand what is rational is shaped by the social situation we find ourselves in. Another study I am working on suggests that atheists, a staple of this sample, are no more likely to engage in critical thinking than Christians. Perhaps in a future blog, I will discuss that study. But for now it is not really that important whether cultural progressive activists are more rational than those in the Christian right. My argument as a result of this study is that the value of rationality characterizes cultural progressive activists, not actual rationality. Whether the solutions advocated by cultural progressive activists are truly the most logical steps for society is a debate worth having but not one I can add to at this time. They honestly believe themselves to be more rational than their counterparts and because of that belief can assert that they have the best plans for our society. Cultural progressives conceive their plans as being well thought out instead of based on the emotional fears of the Christian right. This image of rationality is a key to why cultural progressive activists are certain that they are correct and the Christian right is incorrect.
                The ideal of rationality does not only provide an identity for cultural progressive activists but it also meets some of the social needs of the type of individuals attracted to this social movement. The education and income level of individuals involved in this movement provides for them the ability to paint themselves as rational. One can easily envision how educational credentials buttress claims of rationality. One can also imagine that wealth used in media and through political organizations can also link the ideal of rationality to certain social and political positions. If rationality, instead of faith or tradition, is the source of our decision making then such individuals are in a better position to leverage their superior education and income for more societal influence.
                We now have a good sense of some of what motivates cultural progressive activists. In my next entry I will complete the picture with my description of the values that drive the members of this social movement. After that, in my final entry in this series, we will be in a position to understand how these values frame the type of solutions cultural progressives see for our society.

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  • Christopher Lake

    A short, off-topic comment– for a while now, this blog has been showing up on the front page of the “Catholic Channel” on Patheos, as if the author were Catholic. Is this a mistake at Patheos? As a Catholic, I do read evangelical Protestant blogs at times, but I don’t expect to find them on the “Catholic Channel” here! 🙂

    • Black, White and Gray is a collaborative blog. There are 4 regular bloggers, two of whom are Catholic and two of whom are Evangelical. We also have guest bloggers, and they represent different religious traditions as well. Given the make up of this collaborative blog, it makes sense to have a link to us on both the Catholic and the Evangelical channels of Patheos. For example, my post from today is about Pope Benedict’s trip to Lebanon. See:


      I think that piece, and many others I have written about Pope Benedict or Pope John Paul II will be of interest to readers from multiple channels at Patheos.

  • Ted Seeber

    I’m to the point that I think progressiveness is irrational- at least until the point where we begin colonizing the other 99.99% of the solar system.

    It’s a matter of fact that we simply cannot sustain ever increasing levels of economic activity on this planet- and already, if everybody was living like we do in the United States, we’d need a couple of spare planets just to ranch the cattle.

  • Christopher Lake

    Ah, I see, Margarita! That makes sense. Thanks for the information!

    • Sure. Do keep following us, as I think some of my posts will continue to draw on Catholic social teaching You can also follow me on twitter @margaritamooney

  • c matt

    Rationality is a socially constructed concept and how we understand what is rational is shaped by the social situation we find ourselves in.

    I think I understand what you are getting at, but I have a quibble with “Rationality” is a social construct. Rationality itself is an objective thing – the use (or ability to use) reason. But certainly, how a given society understands what is rational is shaped by the situation of the individuals that comprise that society.

    • George Yancey

      I do not think we disagree Matt. I agree that there is rational objectivity that can be applied to different social situations. But our ability to be objective is deeply shaped by our culture and values. No culture, or person for that matter, completely escape those forces. Cutlural progressive activists place rationality as a social value. In doing so they become convinced that they are objective when in reality they are not. In this sense rationality is a social construction in that we develop ideas and norms that serve our group and then appeal to the value of rationality to legitmate those ideas and norms. That is why I argue that rationality is both an objective reality and a social construction.