11/07/2012 01:07 pm ET Updated Jan 07, 2013

Things Liberals Might Learn From Conservatives

Those of us feeling relieved or triumphant about the 2012 election results might be tempted to gloat about it. That's natural. Especially with regard to, say, people who dismiss 47 percent of the nation, or men who pretend to know God's will about rape and pregnancy, a little schadenfreude may seem to be just the thing. But in the spirit of humility and introspection, and with respect for those among my fellow humans who are convinced that something terrible has just happened, I am taking this opportunity to reflect instead on what lessons liberals might learn from religious, social and fiscal conservatives. Here's a short list:

Abortion is not "just" a medical procedure like any other.

There is a tendency in pro-choice rhetoric to trivialize a fertilized egg, or even a six-month fetus, as if it were akin to a mole or a kidney. The religious right certainly fails by refusing to recognize any moral difference between a fertilized egg and a fully grown woman, or between a "morning after" pill and a "partial birth" abortion. But we on the pro-choice side are foolish to think that we can easily dismiss the meaning of potential human life without also discounting pregnancy and human life in general. It is not necessary to view an embryo as "sacred" to realize the wisdom of being more cautious about giving it no moral value at all. Pregnancy is not like anything else, and it has no ready-made parallels.

Entitlements without responsibility are toxic.

Republicans often remind me of the obedient brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son, who complains loudly when his father graciously welcomes his unworthy brother home. "Democrats just want stuff for free," I hear them saying, "they don't deserve it!" Such whining is annoying because it unfairly caricatures every single American who gets social security or food stamps as a lazy bum, as if Republicans have forgotten that there is a horrific job shortage out there. But there is indeed something ennobling about work, and something degrading about feeling like a victim or choosing to let other people take care of you if you can do it yourself (as every parent knows). This is not a matter of "teaching someone to fish," but rather about nuancing our sense of the interplay between systemic problems and individual agency. It's never one or the other, but always both.

Not all sex is good sex.

While I find supposedly "biblical," one-man-one-woman arguments beyond ridiculous, I nevertheless appreciate the reminder from conservatives that sex is not a purely private matter. Our individual sexual behaviors have consequences not just for us and our families, but also for our communities and even our world. We are shaping culture all the time, even as culture shapes us; our sexual choices, no less than our consumer choices, have a ripple effect. It is therefore not a waste of time to have public conversations about what constitutes good sex, and to put some restrictions on what we as a society consider bad sex. Most of us probably take for granted that, for example, rape and pedophilia are evils, but since such laws aren't written in the sky for all to see, it will always be up to us as a society to define them as crimes. To do so, we must be able to account for why. Which brings me, finally, to...

Religion is not a purely private matter.

Folks on the left love to complain about folks on the right who "politicize" religion. But what is religion if it not political? It intersects, both philosophically and practically, with every aspect of human life -- money, food, family, bodies, war, the earth. It is one thing to claim that religion is not partisan (i.e., there are Christians, Muslims, etc. on every side of any divisive political issue), but another to insist that politicians and voters should leave their religion at home. That's like saying politicians and voters should leave their worldviews at home -- something which would defeat the purpose of having elections for policymakers to represent us in the first place. The non-establishment of religion is not the same as insisting that everyone be a blank slate when it comes to public life.

Though the political climate is too full of venom to allow for much meaningful dialogue, I think we should keep trying. It's in our best interests not just as Americans, but as beings who share a common humanity -- created in the image of God, some say, or at the very least, equal in our final vulnerability and submission to death. Demonizing one another obscures the fact that we're all stuck in this together, whatever we think "this" is. I can't tell conservatives how to feel after the elections, but I would urge my proud liberal comrades (after a wee bit of celebrating) to consider the moral hazards of absolutizing privacy and individual choice at the expense of community and the common good. Every pro is a con; every win is a loss. It's never a waste of time to think about what is lost when "we" win elections.