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UIC Study Busts Stereotype That Liberals Don’t Hold Anything Sacred

People on both sides of the political spectrum take stances that defend the sacred—depending on the topic.

A couple exits their wedding ceremony on the day the U.S. Supreme Court struck down bans on same-sex marriages in 2015.   Photo: Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune

The 2016 election was a nasty one, not just because of high-profile scandals, but because of the high level of animosity between the two parties—the highest since Pew Research Center began studying these attitudes in 1992.

Take the moral high ground, for example. Forty-seven percent of Republicans told Pew that Democrats were more immoral than other Americans, while 35 percent of Democrats said the same thing about Republicans.

Republicans and conservatives are more likely to identify as religious, so sometimes it’s assumed that the right is more likely to cite moral sanctity to justify its beliefs. But researchers have been chipping away at that assumption, and a recent study by Matt Motyl of University of Illinois at Chicago, along with two researchers at the University of Winnipeg, adds to that push.

In a series of studies that examine people’s stances on same-sex marriage and the Keystone XL pipeline, researchers found that conservatives indeed often cited protecting the sacred, especially when explaining their opposition to same-sex marriage. But in deeper analysis, especially in the case of an environmental issue like Keystone XL, liberals were more likely than conservatives to cite sacredness as a reason for their beliefs.

“This study suggests that liberals and conservatives are more alike in their moral functioning than previously thought,” says Matt Motyl, UIC assistant professor of psychology and corresponding author on the study, which was published Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy.

Moral justification can be divided into five different categories, according to previous research: care, fairness, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. Liberals tend to rely more on fairness arguments, while conservatives tend to rely more on sanctity.

In these studies, researchers found that liberals supported same-sex marriage due to concerns about fairness, while conservatives opposed it due to concerns about violating the sanctity of marriage. But when it came to the oil pipeline, liberals felt it violated the sacredness of nature, while conservatives considered it a matter of fairness in business. (Neither side used explicitly sacred language in describing the pipeline issue, but a data analysis of responses showed that liberals were most concerned about the pipeline desecrating nature.)

“The [findings] are the first, to our knowledge, to show that liberals can base their moral opinions on sanctity more than conservatives do when voicing opinions about culture-war issues,” according to the study’s authors.

What could these results mean as our country grapples with seemingly intractable partisanship?

“Each side considers some matters to be sacrosanct, and other matters as suitable for revision in the name of fairness,” the authors write. “The side that sacralizes sees compromise and trade-offs as unacceptable. Perhaps reframing these issues in nonsacralized terms could open opportunities for open-minded discussion.”

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