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After years as a religious and political conservative in the Mormon Church, working as a Sunday School teacher, congregational membership clerk, elders quorum councilor, stake single adult chair, and full-time missionary, I eventually came out as gay, and my entire worldview changed rapidly. Since then, I’ve been working to persuade fellow religious conservatives to adopt more liberal, humane, progressive policies on a variety of issues.

Mormon Church

Refusing to provide healthcare to all seems immoral to me now. Denying a college education or vocational training to everyone who needs it is immoral. Locking people up for years over drug possession is immoral. I thought that because I was trying to persuade religious folks whose primary goal is to live a moral life, an appeal to morality would be the surest way to reach them.

We have plenty of evidence to suggest an appeal to morality in an ineffective strategy. Religious conservatives do have morals, and plenty of them, but they’re not always the same ones liberals have.

But we have plenty of evidence to suggest an appeal to morality in an ineffective strategy. Religious conservatives do have morals, and plenty of them, but they’re not always the same ones liberals have. Furthermore, by constantly telling religious conservatives that they aren’t behaving morally, we provoke a knee-jerk emotional defense. For obvious reasons, faithful people don’t want to see themselves as immoral—can’t see themselves in that light—and to prevent that dangerous possibility from entering their minds, they block us out.

We can’t convince anyone of anything if they can’t even hear us.

Perhaps we need to take a different approach by focusing on a moral value both conservatives and liberals share.

So often when I hear conservatives insist climate change is a hoax, I wonder why science has become a partisan issue. Why couldn’t conservatives support developing new businesses and infrastructure that provide energy sources that are healthier for the environment? There are plenty of fiscally conservative reasons to do so.

The answer isn’t just “Oil companies are corrupt.” Equally as significant is the fact that liberals got behind reducing carbon emissions first, and conservatives disagree with liberals on so many issues that they assume liberals must be wrong on this one, too. If “our” side likes it, “their” side doesn’t.

Similarly, conservatives have co-opted the flag and patriotism and freedom. If I see someone wearing an American flag T-shirt, I grow tense, wondering if they can tell I’m gay and are about to attack me. When I get emails from groups such as Americans for the American Way or Freedom Caucus, I’m immediately wary. The term “family values” makes me cringe. But I like family values. They’ve just been co-opted. There’s no reason liberals can’t like ideas that are perfectly good, even if conservatives like them, too. They don’t have a copyright on families. They can’t trademark freedom.

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Conservatives have been highly skilled over the past few decades at shaping political discourse by subtly and not-so-subtly deciding which words each side can use to argue their position. But it’s time we take back some of those words—and the ideals they represent—if we want to successfully persuade any of our religious conservative friends and family.

It’s not morally wrong to deny healthcare to every American. No. Providing universal healthcare gives everyone in the country more freedom. We are all, both conservative and liberal, then free from medical bankruptcy. We’re free from the harmful effects of untreated diabetes or untreated tooth decay or untreated psychiatric problems.

It’s not morally wrong to give tax breaks to fossil fuel corporations. Investing in solar, wind, wave, thermal, and other safer forms of energy and the infrastructure to support them gives us freedom. Freedom from the financial burden of relocating the residents of Miami and New Orleans and New York City and Paradise, California. We’re free from the mass of immigrants who are fleeing problems in their native countries caused by climate change. We’re free from increasingly severe wildfires and floods and hurricanes.

As a missionary, I was often asked why Mormons had so many rules. “Doesn’t it suffocate you? Don’t you want to be free?”

We were taught to respond with, “God gave us commandments because obeying them does give us freedom. Not drinking alcohol isn’t an infringement. We’re free from alcoholism. Not smoking frees us from lung cancer. Abstaining from sex outside of marriage isn’t an imposition. We’re free from sexually transmitted diseases and jealousy. All the commandments that look restrictive actually give us lots of freedom.”

Why can’t we use the same argument in regard to Wall Street reforms?

As a Mormon missionary in Italy, I learned Italian so that I could connect to people in their own language. As liberals, we must use the language of conservatives if we are to have any success in reaching them. Is our goal to get in a good zinger—or is it to create an ally?

Changing our discourse won’t persuade every religious conservative, and even those open to change won’t be persuaded overnight. Discourse is a skill, and it will take liberals a while to get used to new ways of framing our arguments in terms other than morality. While polls show an increasing number of Americans are on “our” side on gun regulation, same-sex marriage, and other liberal issues, there are key voters who will never accept them until we change the way we frame our arguments.

Johnny Townsend

If we want to be free from deadlock with conservatives, we must focus on our shared value of freedom.

Johnny Townsend