The Deficiency of Empathy in Conservatives

lack of empathy

Many liberals and gay rights advocates are celebrating Senator Rob Portman’s reversal on same-sex marriages.  Many are also pointing out how this reversal was motivated by an empathy that appears to only extend no further than immediate family members.  It was the revelation that his son was gay that encouraged the Republican congressman from Ohio to reevaluate his view of gay rights and decide not to support any federal law that prohibits gay couples from receiving the same federal benefits that heterosexual married couples enjoy.  Here are but two of those reactions:

While I would like to say that it makes me happy to have the first Republican senator come out in support of marriage equality, I am having a difficult time getting past the whole “I need this EXACT situation to affect me PERSONALLY before I can do anything” mentality that seems to persist in the halls of Congress.”   Kenneth Walsh from the HuffPo blog

I’m glad that Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio has reconsidered his view on gay marriage upon realization that his son is gay, but I also find this particular window into moderation—memorably dubbed Miss America conservatism by Mark Schmitt—to be the most annoying form.”   Matthew Yglesias at 

Though Portman’s turn around on this issue is quite dramatic since he was one of the original backers of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in the 1990s, it is still noteworthy that this change in attitude would likely have never been forthcoming had his son remained in the closet.  Kudos to the son who understood that his coming out could be a national embarrassment to his father and yes, some applause should be extended to the dad for not trying to conceal it to benefit his political career.

But I’m on the side with the critics here.   Empathy is something that conservative Republicans appear to have very little of until it impacts some of their own.  There are those of course who appear to lack any at all.  There was Newt Gingrich’s hypocrisy towards Clinton sexual misconduct while the former speaker himself was boning another woman before serving divorce papers to his second  wife – while she was hospitalized.   Most recently there was Mitt Romney’s 47% soul-less comment about those who had fallen on hard economic times as a result of financial malfeasance in the investment banking sector, declaring them as moochers and takers because they supported someone who provided relief for them when they lost their jobs and homes.

Many top officials in the Bush administration, including the president himself, VP Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld – none of who saw active combat duty – supported the shock and awe campaign that killed tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children in the government’s assault on Iraq back in 2003 and ultimately the death of 4488 American military personnel.   Rumsfeld’s cavalier attitude toward most of the civilian deaths was typical of the neo-conservative mentality that wrote off such tragic loss of human life as mere “collateral damage”.

Pentagon Holds Departure Ceremony For Rumsfeld Compassionate Conservatives?


All of this has taken me back to a time when I myself was anti-gay, even as I professed liberal ideas.  I also considered myself to be a somewhat devout Christian at the time but I didn’t want scripture alone to be the basis of my opposition to same-sex unions.  I was intent on pressing the compassion of Christ however if I was going to pass judgment on others who appeared to violate “the word of God’.

I came to reason then that homosexuality was indeed a distortion of that natural state men and women developed from.  Rather than cite scripture I attempted to appeal to the intellect by insisting that homosexuality violated the laws of nature.  How could we be designed for anything else other than being drawn to opposite sex partners out of the life-serving need to procreate and sustain the species?  Did not the male and females anatomies alone validate this?

It was important to me too that homosexuals were not to be demonized but merely were the unfortunate recipients of a gene mutation that led to same-sex propensities.  But as I expounded on this notion it drew into question the perfection of God’s creation that we have been led to believe is there.  If homosexuality was more than mere choice; a choice that eschews God, then why would people who were raised with this belief suffer the torment they developed overtime that drove them toward gender like partners rather than opposites?

I could have easily rejected such a rational response and declared, as many fundamentalist do, that Satan was trying to deceive me.  But my journey to understanding my faith had already convinced me that a God of love and mercy could not also create his or her evil opposite.

The deeper I dug into my faith origins the more I discovered that much of the dogma we’re taught as children and the fear of hell we’re raised with should we “stray”, had little basis outside the conventional wisdom of a time when people still thought the earth was flat and was the center of the universe.  Once I concluded that many fundamentals of my religious teachings were wrong or metaphorical at best, it was not such a great leap to conclude my adversity towards homosexuals had no raison d’etre except for the fear-based attitudes of many of my elders and peers.


Inherent in my decision to change, as mentioned above, was the need to express compassion or empathy for those who suffer from want or hatred of others.  Raised in the Catholic church I had fully incorporated the core principles behind our faith being love and mercy.   How could we be so cruel to blacks back then and still call ourselves Christians?  How could we treat women as second class citizens and still not share the mindset of Jesus who saved the whore from stoning and rebuked the Pharisees who admonished the woman who washed his feet in Luke 7:38?

If God was, is and always will be, how could it be that such things were seen as they were but no longer are now?   Were we wrong then or are we wrong now?  In view of the evidence we now possess about our universe and human equality, the logical conclusion one would have to draw is that we had it wrong then.

To admit that our previous and preconceived ideas about many things we held so tightly to are now wrong and should thus be revised to fit the reality, to me, takes real courage.  The fact that Senator Portman has made this change about gay marriages in light of the evidence he has been willing to accept with his own son is exemplary … but courageous?

I have not always been courageous when I should have been.  I have been guilty of trying to reconcile my lack of courage with some feeble rationale that excuses such weakness.  I have been able to forgive myself to some degree however because of those times when I have shown some courage in the face of adversity.  One of those times came when I finally admitted openly to many gay people I had looked down on that my views about them were wrong.


It didn’t take the revelation about 4 years later that my own daughter was gay for me to develop empathy for homosexuals.  It simply required that seed of compassion planted, oddly enough, by the same church people who taught me to condemn those different from me.

Why the one stuck with me more than the other can only be attributed, in my opinion, to the legitimacy of what is morally right.  Love and mercy that hones our empathy for others carries the moral high ground and for people who wait until something personal happens to them or theirs means needless suffering continues for millions of others who share similar deprivations.

Many conservatives will raise the objection about their lack of compassion by pointing out their charitable giving through their churches or private giving.   That’s a whole other issue we could debate but let this response suffice to answer that objection.  So what?

Liberals give equally in these areas and yet still all of this charity combined is insufficient to meet the human deprivations that exist not only in our country but around the world.  Where some might ask as Cain did “Am I my brother’s keeper”?,  a liberal is more likely than a conservative to answer yes to that question.  That’s part of what distinguishes the two. Besides, treating people as equals costs nothing in monetary terms.

It’s time that the moral high ground showed itself more naturally within the ranks of conservatives instead of those arguments they diligently make to avoid it.  A good place to start is to change the right-wing narrative within the GOP that persecutes anyone who raises the issue of income disparity.  It’s real and it’s not a choice people make.  It’s unnatural and needs to be confronted courageously.



15 responses to “The Deficiency of Empathy in Conservatives

  1. Awesome post. I agree with you on Portman, too. He didn’t arrive at this change of heart because of some internal rationale, some thought-through revelation, rather because it was forced upon him. It’s actually an astonishingly brilliant example of the workings of the Conservative mind.

    • I think when we decide what we need to do that is morally right, conservatives look outwards toward established conventions – what their peers think – rather than look inwardly, much more so than liberals do.

      • I think that’s pretty much spot on. As you detail its not easy, but the change does come.

        Another telling case was Cheney’s gay daughter. Conservatives LOVE Dick, but conveniently ignore acknowledging his daughter. Even Cheney is/was guilty of this.

      • “Another telling case was Cheney’s gay daughter. Conservatives LOVE Dick, but conveniently ignore acknowledging his daughter.”

        I thought about mentioning that John but let it lapse, so I’m glad you raised it here.

    • Sadly most of us resist change unless it’s forced upon us by outside circumstances.
      Larry..I shared a lot of the same views you did, but thank God, like you, I outgrew them.

  2. Larry you state my thoughts so well here. Oddly I got a certain amount of push back on Facebook for being skeptical in the same way that you are about Portman. Convenient to be compassionate when it strikes close to home. Your honesty is refreshing, but then you always are. Thanks for stating this so well.

    • Thanks Sherry. I have often found that people who push back on such things do so for fear of moving forward. They like being stuck in a past that’s familiar to them because it taxes their critical thinking skills less.

  3. Pingback: Republicans Unable to Empathize on Issues Until It Happens to Them | The Alliance for an "Idiot-Free" America·

  4. I read some of the replies to Sherry’s post on Facebook – people defending the decision as though it couldn’t or needn’t be seen in the context of Portman’s sudden realization. There are those who don’t care why Portman got to where he did – I have trouble with them – empathy allows one to feel for ALL the people affected by the issue, not just the closest incidence to oneself. That second thing is just self-serving convenience.

  5. Little Story. After my Dad retired a single gay guy moved into the rental next door to him. I knew him in HS and he was a good guy, never hid the fact that he was gay. No big deal. But Dad made snide little jokes. We told him to knock it off. He didn’t. Then he found out that Peter raised canaries, a passion for my father, and Peter showed him his birds and gosh, the jokes stopped. And Peter raised orchids….another hobby of Dad’s. He started making comments about what an interesting guy Peter was. Then Dad fell and broke a leg. Peter shoveled his walk, went to the store.for him. Peter became a hero. Later, when I visited I commented to Dad that the ;gay-jokes’ were gone. Now my Dad is a stubborn guy. buy and will never admit his is wrong. He glared at me and said, ” Somethings you don’t joke about.” Often it is not what precipitates a change, it is merely that a change has been made.My Dad was a good and kindly man…..but of his generation and very staunch Catholic. For all his faults, I miss him very mcuh.

    • Yes, there’s that generation of people who are the product of their culture and change comes slowly. Once it gets wheels on it though it really starts coasting and it looks as if gay rights may have finally gained some wheels. We can only hope the Roberts Court doesn’t put up a road block when they decide on DOMA next week

  6. It is good to show empathy, but it has to be recognized that the Bible is clear on some very key issues and that those who practice sexually immorality will not inherit the kingdom of heaven so it is critical that Christians remain to God’s Word even if it is not popular. Christ was hated and we should expect no less of this world.

    • “but it has to be recognized that the Bible is clear on some very key issues”

      Actually it is not all that clear but you are right about one thing Kent. Those who accept certain views expressed in the Bible as literal are obligated to adhere to it. There is nothing though that allows them to go outside their circle of faith and impose their beliefs on others who find the Bible falling short of being the inerrant word of an unseen god. Faith is personal and if you live your life according to it precepts as you see it then people may or may not be influenced by your behavior alone. Dictating behavior to them however only suppresses it and never effects any real, long term change.

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